Thursday, August 22, 2019

If You Knew My Story You'd Have a Good Story to Tell: a conversation with BRIGHT STAR actress Heidi-Liz Johnson and director Tim Dietlein

Heidi-Liz Johnson and Tim Dietlein 
photo by Julia Bashaw
by Julia Bashaw

The events that happen to us throughout our life end up shaping who we become in the future. This happens to fictional character Alice Murphy who proceeds to tell audiences her story. Set in the South, written and composed by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, the musical Bright Star explores the themes of family, hardships, and hope. It is set in both 1923 and 1945. The script is written to flip back and forth between these two separate time periods to show the development of the two main characters Alice Murphy and Jimmy Ray Dobbs. Hale Centre Theatre presents the Valley premiere of the Tony nominated musical, running August 23rd-October 5th.

Bright Star is essentially the life story of one woman, Alice Murphy, back and forth between from when she is age 16 and age 38,” stated lead actress Heidi-Liz Johnson who plays Alice. “The musical flip flops between those two time periods, so when she is 16 it is in the 1920s and when she is 38 years old it is in the 1940s. It is a story of second chances, redemption, and the what if’s in life. It is the story of her reconnecting with her past to get answers about her future.”

Heidi-Liz Johnson has acted in countless Hale productions since her freshman year of college. She had been doing music since she was a little kid, her first solo being in Kindergarten, however, she didn’t actually discover musical theatre for herself until high school.

“The spring play when I was 14 was the first time I had ever touched theatre,” Johnson explained. “And I was not great but I loved it, I had found my community and passion. I had a childhood friend that did theatre and so I often went to shows that she was in. So I knew of musical theatre and I had gone to various shows and things but just had never considered it for myself until then. But I went to Hale shows throughout my childhood. I auditioned at Hale first in high school and finally broke in my freshman year of college for their production of A Christmas Carol. I believe if I am counting correctly Bright Star is my 20th Hale production.”

Heidi-Liz Johnson 
photo by Dave Dietlein / Hale Centre Theatre 
This show is being directed by Tim Dietlein, the former owner of the Los Angles Hale and brother to David Dietlein, the owner of the Hale Theatre in Gilbert. When David and his wife Corrin settled on this season’s shows, Tim took a look at Bright Star.

“I read it, then saw a production of it, and knew I wanted to do it,” expressed Tim Dietlein. “It just spoke to me. The opportunity to create a theatrical piece that was out of the ordinary, I thought this is my kind of show, this is the kind of show I love to sink my teeth into. I like a show that has a real story and depth. You are going to laugh, smile, fall in love, and you are going to cry. It’s got all these emotions and it just makes me excited.”

Bright Star really is a show out of the ordinary. Switching between two different time periods is an ambitious and daunting task to convey to audiences but nothing this cast can’t handle. Thankfully, this show is written for the transitions to be easy to follow. Basically what changes for the audience to tell the difference between going back and forth in time is the costumes. Right before their eyes, Alice will be transformed by the ensemble into new clothes; a sac flowy dress in 1923 when she is 16, and a structured mature dress in 1945 when she is 38.

“When you meet her (Alice) in her 30s, she is a very successful editor everyone knows her name,” Johnson elaborated. “But there is something missing in her life and has been since she was younger. I don’t want to spoil too much of the story but she went through traumatic situations when she was 16-year-old that then transformed her as an adult. She had to grow up really fast and there were some questions that were left unanswered throughout that 22-year gap that made her more hardened, more distant from humanity and the community that wants to include her. But she keeps everybody at arm's length.”

This role has been a wonderful challenge for Johnson to tackle. Not only does she have to frequently change her appearance between time periods, but she also had to develop a southern accent. Johnson detailed how she had fun with it, starting her foundation with a voice she had heard most of her life, the mother of a childhood friend who was from Arkansas. But even with the costume changes and accent, Johnson had one more step to take in order to become Alice Murphy.

“Getting into Alice’s emotions to me I always feel will always be a very nerve-racking task because she is unlike any role I have done before,” admitted Johnson. “Particularly with the time jump between age 16 to 38 is daunting in and of itself, but just what she goes through and the emotions attached to the show it’s very much a drama. I haven’t really done a lot of drama, so it’s an exciting task that I’ve been given and it is a huge opportunity for me and I love working on this show but every time I get on stage I kinda have to shut-off Heidi. I actually found out when we did our first full run-through that my co-star Cameron and I can’t really speak to each other between our scenes because we need to be Alice and Jimmy, not Heidi and Cameron. It’s very easy to break the spell in this show, it is a very fragile bubble, so each time I step on stage I try to enter the bubble and stay there until the show is over.”

Johnson expressed how that was the biggest challenge during the rehearsal process. For Dietlein as the director, his biggest challenge started out with scheduling. Due to his actors being involved in other productions, Dietlein didn’t have the entire cast together except for Mondays, Tuesdays and Saturday mornings for the first couple of weeks of rehearsal. What’s unique about this show is that the ensemble is on stage the entire performance, moving around props and sets, furthering along the story as sort of a Greek Chorus. Figuring out how to choreograph this process and move these sets from one place to another was very important and having little time with the entire cast was an adjustment in the beginning.

the cast of Bright Star in rehearsals
photo by Julia Bashaw
“The way that this show is presented is very cinematic. There are no blackouts, the set changes happen in the light and are choreographed almost like a dance,” Dietlein stated. “I really believe in flow, everything has to make sense and be organic. It has to grow from what’s happening at that very moment. That’s been a challenge but I think we have it locked down now. It has come together nicely.”

Bright Star is a musical and has more lyrics than dialogue in the show. The music is a southern bluegrass-style that enhances the emotions of the characters. According to Dietlein, it is not a big dancing show, rather it is more voice and lyric focused to get across the importance of the story.

“There is a lot of music in this show so first and foremost I needed to make sure that we had great voices, people that could really sing,” Dietlein explained. “We have a cast that can just knock it out of the ballpark, they can sing like nothing else. The music is very well written. They have that southern bluegrass feels to them. They really do enhance the moment and the mood that’s going on. It is a great emotional journey.”

“When I first auditioned for this show, I didn't really know the music pretty much at all,” Johnson revealed. “And Bluegrass style has never been my forte but I am always looking to expand my horizons and I love a challenge. So with this music, it was a daunting task but I wanted to rise to the occasion. When I got the role I downloaded the Broadway cast album and put it in my car. That’s usually how I learn music where I’ll just have it in my car and listen to it at all times. I believe I listened to it for a straight three months. And because the accent is so much a part of the music it helped to hear the original cast so I could get into that character.”

The preparation that has gone into this production from cast, crew, and director has been extensive. From sitting in on a rehearsal, they seem to work efficiently and perform well alongside each other.

“They are very accomplished and came prepared, they are a wonderful cast,”  Dietlein conveyed. “I’ve been very impressed with the work ethic of this group of actors. It has moved me to work harder and to take my craft even more serious, which is really hard to do because I take it as life and death. To see their willingness to try new things has inspired me. They have this great energy in rehearsal, they go into it at performance level which is great because as a director you want that. As you rehearse most of the time that’s how you end up performing, so I demand performance level all the time because what you see is what you get. They are professional actors they approach it with great seriousness but they have a fun time too.”

“Working with our director Tim Dietlein,” Johnson began, “every time that Cameron and I are called to a rehearsal and work on just our scenes together, I feel like we are in a workshop sort of situation. It feels like an acting class where I am learning how to reconnect from actor to character and I haven’t felt that in a long time. It has been a fantastic experience to be reminded that there is still so much for me to learn. Every single time I step on stage there is something I could be doing but I have to get out of my own way.”

Director Tim Dietlein and the cast of Bright Star in rehearsals
photo by Julia Bashaw
Since not too much of the plot could be given away due to spoilers, audiences’ curiosity will just have to urge them to attend a performance. This show is surrounded by hope and optimism, with the title as a friendly reminder that there is always a bright star at the end of the road to look forward to despite all the tragedies and sorrows of your past.

“I hope that audiences fall in love with it as much as we have,” Johnson smiled. “I think this cast has really fallen for this show and we’ve all connected with it in a different way because each character has such a unique arch. I feel like it is very unlike any show out there so everyone will take away a different piece of it. But the idea of second chances and exploring the what if’s in life are my two favorite themes of the story so I hope people connect with those.” 

“My greatest hope for the audience is to walk away with a big smile on their face but at the same time having had an emotional journey that has them laughing, crying, singing and making them feel all warm and fuzzy by the end of the night,” Dietlein contemplated. “For me, I’ve been doing theatre my entire life and professionally for 35 years, the thing that keeps me going is to see audience members walk into the theatre, settle into their seats, watch the show, and I get to see this shine on their face this glow about them because they’ve had this great experience. And with this show, there is such a strong message of hope. Maybe we can touch their lives in some way, in theatre, it is our job to move people and teach them. We show them a story and through that story, we can change lives. That’s what my highest hopes are.”

Bright Star will be at Hale Theatre August 23rd through October 5th. Click below to find out how to buy tickets and attend the show!

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