Circle Players’ The Full Monty (on stage at Z. Alexander Looby Theatre, 2301 Rosa L Parks Blvd, Nashville, TN 37228) wraps its three-week run with performances this weekend. With only a few performances left, I recently had the opportunity to chat with the shows director, Clay Hillwig, choreographer, Jodie Mowrey and stars Jason Lewis, Laura Amond, Abby West, and Elliott Robinson for the latest edition of my recurring interview feature, Rapid Fire 20 Q.
RAPID FIRE 20 Q WITH CAST AND CREW OF CIRCLE PLAYERS’ THE FULL MONTY
RAPID FIRE WITH THE FULL MONTY DIRECTOR, CLAY HILLWIG
CLAY HILLWIG: I was contacted by Circle Players during their season selection process with a couple of options, and The Full Monty was one of them. It was an easy choice. I was a huge fan of the movie before it was ever made into a musical and it has been on my bucket list as a director ever since I saw the Street Theater production years ago. Also, the idea of doing a fun show like this was a nice departure from the darker/edgier shows that I generally choose to do.
JP: I understand The Full Monty is a joint production between Circle and KB Productions. To that end you’ve got LT Kirk as Music Director and Donald Powell as the show’s producer. What’s it like having them on-board for Circle’s first show of 2018?
CLAY HILLWIG: Once I said yes to taking on this project, my second move was to bring these two theater companies together. This show follows the mission statements for both and was a perfect opportunity to create a collaboration between my two favorite theater companies. My relationship with L.T Kirk, Donald Powell and the rest of the KB board is one of trust and confidence. We have had a very successful working relationship in the past and it has been exciting to be able to bring this team into the Circle Players family.
JP: Something else that’s a little different for a Circle Players’ production, taking full advantage of the subject matter, you guys are offering a special edition calendar featuring the men of Circle Players’ The Full Monty, as well as hosting a special Ladies Night performance during the show’s final Saturday night. What more can you tell me about those two things?
CLAY HILLWiG: Credit for the calendar goes to Ashley Morrison and the rest of the publicity committee for Circle Players. I thought it was a brilliant idea and timely as we are turning the corner into 2018. But, the real story here is the photo shoot. The guys were immediately sold on the idea and had so much fun the day of the shoot. The photographer, Paul Griffin with Griffin Image Works, took Ashley and Donald’s vision and made it so much more than any of us expected.
The Ladies Night just seemed like a no brainer with a show like this. We are really hoping for strong audience participation during the club scenes and a night dedicated to ladies seemed like way too much fun to pass up.
JP: While you’ve directed shows elsewhere, this is your seventh time to direct at Circle. What keeps you coming back?
CLAY HILLWIG: Circle Players will always have a special place in my heart. Directing for this group is like coming home each time. They have always been very supportive of not only my directing and acting projects on their stage, but my work with other theater companies as well. I am very proud of history that we have together. If I am lucky, they will invite me back again!!!
RAPID FIRE WITH THE FULL MONTY CHOREOGRAPHER, JODIE MOWREY
JODIE MOWREY: I was new to town and looking for a new theatre family. So, I researched several theatre companies and chose to approach Circle based on their season line-up and quality of their productions. I sent a note in about wanting to get involved in any way. I mentioned my choreography experience, but was happy to help out with anything. A board member responded with a couple of needs: running the spot light for the Hunchback of Notre Dame and the potential need for a choreographer for The Full Monty. And in time for birthday, I was out with the Hunchback cast after a show. Then, The Full Monty Director, Clay Hillwig, saw my choreography samples and welcomed me to the team!
JP: OK, I just have to ask…what sort of research goes into choreographing a musical that features a few male striptease routines?
JODIE MOWREY: Well… that’s a good question. There’s the usual: watching videos on this particular genre of dance. But, with male striptease — I’ve learned — there’s more to it than the dance moves. More important is the fantasy and understanding what’s key in turning women on. I won’t name names, but we were fortunate to have a former male stripper in our midst who could explain everything behind the dance moves and coach us on how to approach each move. It took awhile to get used to telling the actors what to take off and when. That’s a new experience for me. But, as we raced towards our show deadline, we got over it and just got the job done.
Beyond the stripteases, it was a fun show to choreograph because of the variety of dances: I got to choreograph sassy drunk women, ballroom dances, basketball moves and stripping.
JP: What’s been the most fun aspect of working on choreography with these guys?
JODIE MOWREY: It was fun in so many ways. The most fun choreographing has been the collaborations. Because each dance is so key to telling and illustrating the story, I got to work closely with the director during the process. Also, the guys were fun because they are so darn funny and were up for anything. For the Michael Jordan’s Ball dance, the guys provided the basketball drills and I shaped them into floor patterns and dance moves. And finally, I chose a more open approach to choreography that left room for the actors to make big choices for their characters and had fun watching the final product evolve.
RAPID FIRE THE FULL MONTY’S JASON LEWIS
JASON LEWIS: Jerry is a complicated struggle. He has found himself…probably about 10 years too late…at the crossroads of clinging to a carefree, younger self and the responsibilities of a father who must provide for his child without the safety net of a romantic partner or stable employment. He’s a man-child who has run out of time to get his life together and is forced to come face-to-face with what his refusal to grow up has caused and now that he risks losing access to the only good thing in his life, he becomes desperate. I feel very fortunate to get to play him at a time when similar life events have made him most relatable.
JP: Like your director, Clay, you’ve done quite a few shows with Circle. I believe this is your ninth Circle production, right? In addition to appearing on stage in previous Circle shows, you’ve also stepped behind the spotlight, having directed 2016’s Jesus Christ Superstar and last year’s Bring it On the Musical. Do you think having directed helps your performance as an actor?
JASON LEWIS: I don’t feel like it’s done anything to my performance approach. I always try to just get lost in whatever role I’m doing so that my acting is at its most natural and organic. I will say that it has made me a better actor offstage. I respect the creative process more now and the technical people whose contributions are just as vital.
JP: Because I follow you on social media, I know that you’ve gone beyond simply learning your lines and choreography, you’ve also been hitting the gym in preparation for this role. What are some of the specifics you’ve done to physically ready yourself for the role and do you plan to keep the routine going after The Full Monty is over?
JASON LEWIS: In addition to lines & choreo, Full Monty is also the most vocally demanding role I’ve ever taken on. As far as my body transformation goes, let’s just say if anybody is ever looking for a reason to get to the gym, find a reason to be naked onstage and that will be all the motivation you need! I lift weights about four to five times a week and do cardio about three times. Once a week I meet with a trainer and I’ve had to completely change my eating habits (less bread, no desserts, less alcohol, no sodas, no fast food), but it has been worth it to see such drastic and positive change. Actually I’m to the point now where my body craves exercise, so I will definitely keep this up!
JP: I’m about to chat with a handful of your co-stars, including Laura Amond, who plays your character’s estranged wife, and Abby West, who plays your son. (Yes, readers, you read that right). What’s it been like sharing the stage with these two?
JASON LEWIS: Laura and I have been offstage friends for years and have always said “I wish we could do a show together.” (Much like I have with other cast members Lynda Bayer, Elliot Robinson and David & Cat Arnold) and Voila!…It all comes to fruition in this one production. Laura and I have an undeniable connection onstage that I wouldn’t have gotten with anyone else. So much so that we are probably estranged exes in an alternate timeline somewhere. I wasn’t surprised at that level of chemistry. I was, however, taken aback at the gender-flexible talent level of Abby. Our moments onstage together are among my most treasured.
RAPID FIRE WITH THE FULL MONTY’S ABBY WEST
ABBY WEST: Nathan is Jerry’s twelve year old son, who often ends up having to play the adult. He loves his dad, and really just wants to continue to be able to see him.
JP: The role of Nathan is traditionally played by a young male actor. Did you set out to ignore gender norms and go for this role or did you initially audition for another role and land this one after the fact?
ABBY WEST: I went to the audition to audition for Nathan specifically. I have been doing theatre for years, and quite a few of those roles have been boys before. I feel pretty fortunate in the fact that I can play both male and female roles.
JP: While you’ve appeared in quite a few theatrical productions elsewhere, is this your first Circle show? Also, what’s the experience been like thus far?
ABBY WEST: This is my first show with Circle, and it’s been a fantastic experience for me. I have loved the show and the character that I get to play, and everyone in the cast has been super friendly and inviting, even though I’m a new person in the group. I love doing this show, and I will thoroughly miss it once it’s over.
RAPID FIRE WITH THE FULL MONTY’S LAURA AMOND
LAURA AMOND: Thanks so much for your continued support of Circle and for your kind comments regarding my portrayal of Madam in Hunchback! That role was probably more in line with the kinds of roles that I have played in the last 10 years since returning to the stage in Nashville, relying more heavily upon singing and dancing with limited dialogue. Pam is a departure from that in that this is far more of an acting role and a chance for me to hone my scene work skills.
Pam is a complex character as the ex-wife of Jerry, trying to navigate the messiness of custody and divorce with the goal of achieving what is best for her son. Jerry is a fun-loving free spirit who Pam loved fiercely at one time, but who couldn’t change his ways when their son came along. Consequently, Pam is now with a new partner in Teddy who is quite the opposite of Jerry: stable, secure and responsible. I think deep down, Pam still loves Jerry but has chosen stability over passion.
Pam is deeply personal for me, as I have navigated the same messy waters of divorce and custody and the emotions that go hand-in-hand with stepping away from a relationship where there is still love on some level.
JP: From what I know, The Full Monty is a reunion of sorts for you and director Clay Hillwig, as he directed your Nashville debut some years back. How has it been working under his watchful eye again?
LAURA AMOND: Amazing! When I first saw the current season released last year, I had this show on my radar because of Clay. I had no idea how lucky I was ten years ago when I auditioned for Oliver that I was cast by truly one of the best directors in Nashville. Since then, we have shared the stage together but this is the first time to be back on stage under his leadership.
Clay is known as an “actor’s director” because of his commitment to scene work and honest portrayals of characters as paramount to telling the story. He doesn’t just direct, he helps you dive into the psyche of your character and has an innate ability to pull the absolute best out of his actors. As an accomplished actor himself, he walks the walk in a sincere and loving way.
Getting to do my first bigger acting role in the Nashville theater community under the direction of someone with Clay’s talent is truly a double-bonus. I trust him innately both as a friend and theater professional, and only hope to bring the depth to Pam for which Clay is known and revered.
JP: With Pam being Jerry’s estranged wife who’s also engaged to Teddy, you have the unique opportunity of playing scenes opposite to very different leading men in Jason Lewis and Bryan Rider. Spill it…what’s the best part of sharing the stage with these two?
LAURA AMOND: Ha! No theater ‘dish’ here..The best part is having two great actors to play against, who are committed to the nuances of their respective characters.
Jason and I have known of each other for a long time, and I have watched his genius in every level of production over the years, from acting to directing to set design and everything in-between. Friends have told me along the way that I needed to get to know him better because they thought we would be instant friends, which absolutely happened. To be cast alongside someone with his talent, nuance and professionalism is an honor. To now call him “friend” is a blessing.
Bryan is newer to the Nashville scene, having done most of his previous theater in Buffalo and Carolina, and I didn’t know him until this show started production. Like his character, he was quiet and reserved at first, but has really become a grounding force on stage as he transforms from multiple other characters into the stable and reliable Teddy. Offstage, he is as big a team-player as you get, and a whole lot more fun to be around than Teddy might be!
RAPID FIRE WITH THE FULL MONTY’S ELLIOTT WINSTON
ELLIOTT WINSTON ROBINSON: Noah Simmons is out of work just like everybody else, a struggling widower who lives with his aunt. He’s a pretty modest fellow, so you know times must be really rough for him to try to join this crew. Noah is also trying to move beyond his nickname, obviously bestowed upon him long ago. It was apparently fine until the nickname was thrust into this particular context. Now he wants to shake it loose.
JP: Circle’s current production marks your second time to play the role of Horse. When and where was the first production and how has Horse…dare I say it…grown since you last played him?
ELLIOTT WINSTON ROBINSON: The first time I played Horse was Spring of 2008. It was a Street Theatre Company production, and we did it at the Gordon JCC in Bellevue. This is definitely one of the few roles I’ve done that was so much fun I was willing to audition for it again! I guess the biggest difference between now and then would be experience. That was my fourth or fifth production, when I was just starting out on stage. I’ve been in over 50 productions between that first Monty and now; I just feel so much more comfortable as an actor, and I have a lot more confidence in my abilities.
JP: In what may be the most timely question I’ve ever had the opportunity to ask. During this year’s Golden Globes, This is Us actor Sterling K. Brown commented on the irony that while his career has benefitted from colorblind casting, that show’s creator wrote a role specifically for a black man. Similarly, the role of Horse, by nature of some of The Full Monty’s storylines, and dialogue is written specifically for a black man. What does that mean to you as a black actor?
ELLIOTT WINSTON ROBINSON: Like Mr. Brown, I have definitely also benefited from colorblind casting; without it, I never could have played the roles of Willy Wonka, or Ebenezer Scrooge, for a couple of examples. It is a great thing to open up certain roles to new people and new possibilities, but I understand that there are times when it cannot work, too. As far as Full Monty is concerned, I think there is definite value in having a black character in this sextet, for the sake of inclusion; but on the other hand, my character is not developed as well as some others. All we really get to know about Horse is that he’s a widower, he all of a sudden hates his nickname, and that he likes BIIIG boo-tays! So yes, it is good to be included, but remember, even though the character is black, this story is still being told by white men. They are the ones who have to walk the fine line, being careful not to point that black character toward any kind of “token” feeling, or anything stereotypical. And that is a very fine line, indeed.
With that, my revealing chat with the cast and crew of Circle Players’ The Full Monty came to an end, but those willing to brave the always changing winter weather in Middle Tennessee will surely get an eye full during the show’s final performances. Click Here for tickets. Remaining shows are Saturday, January 27 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, January 28 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20. (there are no children’s tickets for this show due to its adult themes). Special Ladies Night Tickets for Saturday, January 27 are $45 and include pre-show cocktails and snacks from 5 p.m. until 6:30 p.m. at The Old School Farm Bar (5022 Old Hydes Ferry Pike, Nashville, TN 37218) a ‘revealing visit’ by some of the Full Monty cast, admission to Saturday’s performance at Looby Theatre and a fistful of “Monty Money” to make it rain upon the dancers during the play.
Up next at Circle Players is the beloved southern dramedy, Steel Magnolias. Interested in being in the show? Auditions are February 3 & 4. Click Here for information. Directed by Melissa Williams, Circle Players’ Steel Magnolias takes the stage at the Looby Theatre with performances March 23-April 8. Tickets will be available via Circle Players site soon. In the meantime, follow Circle Players on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
If you’ve enjoyed this latest installment of my recurring interview feature, Rapid Fire, be sure and check out previous conversations with with members of Nashville and Broadway’s most creative artists. Be sure subscribe to Nashville Arts Critic by entering your email address in the “Subscribe” section to the right of this article. You can also follow us on Facebook,Twitter, Pinterest and Tumbler.