Set models and costume sketches are beautiful, and they give the artists a way to talk about and prepare for the world they’re creating onstage. But the way an actor prepares can be a little harder to grasp. How does a person put themselves in someone else’s shoes so completely that an audience believes that the actor is actually the character? Melissa Rain Anderson will play Essie in Geva’s upcoming production of You Can’t Take It With You, which starts rehearsals next week (in her 12th role at Geva!). I asked Melissa to talk with us about her process, and in this instance, the process actually involves literally wearing someone else’s shoes…
JW: When Mark offered you this role, how did you start to think about creating the character of Essie? What’s your preparation like before you go into rehearsals?
MRA: Well, first I read the play, and then I read the play again and again. My job is to tell the story and to figure out how my character contributes to the story, so reading the text several times is always the first step. I fell in love with Essie right away! She is such a dreamer, a fantastic spirit, a product of a family who has always allowed her to be true to her own heart. For any role, it is of course about the language and Kauffman and Hart have given us great words to play with. For Essie, it is also about how she moves. She is a ballet dancer, so her movement is essential. (she’s not a very good ballet dancer, but she doesn’t know that!) we are so lucky to have YouTube to do research, I’ve gotten to watch Anna Pavlova dance her famous Swan Lake and several different versions of Scheherazade which are both specifically represented in the play as well as various other Russian Ballets for inspiration. Also, thanks to Pamela Scofield our costume designer and Amanda Doherty our costume Shop Manager I was able to get my ballet shoes early. I was fitted at home in NYC and have been “breaking them in” in my apartment so I will feel comfortable when we start staging.
JW: Can you talk about your own dance background?
MRA: I took ballet and tap as a little girl – probably ages 4-7 and then I concentrated more on musical theater and jazz all through Junior High, High School and College. When I was 4, I was VERY serious about getting it right- these pictures feel like Essie to me because she takes her dancing seriously, even though she has no natural talent for it, she considers herself a prima ballerina!
JW: When did you start talking with Pamela about the costume?
MRA: Pamela based her costume design for Essie on Shirley Temple. Essie’s everyday clothes and of course the curly hair. When she showed me this idea I connected to it immediately. I have actually played other roles with the essence of Shirley Temple so it was familiar territory for me. Baby Rose in Babes in Arms is an iconic role for me and she is loosely based on Shirley. I think my dimples have something to do with this connection!
You Can’t Take it with You was written in 1936, right at the height of Shirley’s film career so it is natural that Essie would admire her. I’m a very visual person so I like to pull images that inspire me. After my fitting, I went looking for images of Shirley as a ballet dancer and found this picture – she’s not really known for being a ballet dancer, so I was thrilled to find it. Also, the dress is very similar to Pamela’s beautiful design for Essie’s ballet costume!
JW: Is there anything you’d like to add about creating this role?
MRA: My husband in real life, Jim Poulos, is playing my husband “Ed” on stage! He accompanies my dancing on the xylophone! We love being on stage together, it frees us up as actors. We especially love playing husband and wife together, we’ve been playing Mr. and Mrs. Cratchit in Mark’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol for the past two years here at Geva. We are really looking forward to working on Essie and Ed with Mark – he has known us for many, many years and it is such a gift to work with artists with whom you have such a history.