Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Creating Memories and a Sense of Family: Talking to Matthew Harris and Heidi-Liz Johnson about Hale Centre Theatre and their next production, GUYS AND DOLLS

Matthew Harris and Heidi-Liz Johnson
photo by Julia Bashaw
by Julia Bashaw

Hale Centre Theatre has been in operation since 2003, growing and evolving over the years in the area that eventually would become the booming hot spot that is Downtown Gilbert. Through the years, Hale has created a community of patrons and artists who call this unique place their home. Hale's next production, Guys and Dolls, which opens this Thursday, will put the number of shows this theater has produced to over 170. Heidi-Liz Johnson and Matthew Harris are returning Hale performers that are playing two of the lead characters Miss Adelaide and Nathan Detroit. For both Johnson and Harris it will be their 23rd time acting in a Hale show.

Guys and Dolls is set in New York City in the late 1940s. The story follows two couples. Adelaide and Nathan have been engaged for 14 years but haven’t married due to his commitment issues. Nathan sets up illegal crap games around town for gamblers. He gets a cut of the action but only if he is able to set up the games. Sky, a gambler who often plays in Nathan’s games, meets Sister Sarah Brown and begins to fall in love with her.

"It has a feeling of old Hollywood, it is very showy and glitzy,” Johnson explained. “It is a love story between two couples, Sarah and Sky’s romance as well as Nathan and Adelaide’s. It is the dichotomy between them, between new love and continuous love.”

“Sky and Sarah are more like the romantic ingenues that people are used to,” Harris added. “They have all the ballads. Adelaide and Nathan are more comic leads but you can see that they love each other. Through the course of the story, you see that Nathan has commitment issues, and how Sarah makes Sky want to be a better man. And it all comes together in the end.”

“Adelaide is a complex character even though she doesn’t seem to be on the outside,” Johnson stated. “So when I first got the role I thought I knew this girl then I got into the part and realized I didn’t. She is flirtatious, yet innocent. She is quick-witted yet a little dingy. Fiery and feisty but loving and wants to give out that love wholeheartedly. Her goal throughout the show is to get Nathan to commit because she has been engaged to this man for 14 years and she is done waiting. She loves him but he is constantly giving her excuses, so many excuses that he has made her actually ill. She has a cold throughout the show because she has this psychological reaction to his commitment issues!”

“Nathan is a tightly wound person,” Harris explained. “He is a promoter, he doesn’t really gamble himself but he sets up games for everyone else and he gets a cut out of that. He has lots of nerves and is quick to the excitement. He really does love Adeliade but he does have this commitment issue. It is a lot for him to take and he just wants to set up these crap games and he is having trouble during the show of trying to find a place to hold his next game.”

Even though Johnson and Harris are not new to acting, they have expressed that you can always learn something new with each production. Cambrian James is a director at Hale who has worked with both Johnson and Harris multiple times. They both conveyed what challenges they faced during the rehearsal process and how they overcame those obstacles.

“Trying to find balance,” Harris said with a sigh. “Cambrian is very good at watching something and giving you ideas, advice on inflections, movements, and gestures. I’ve always wanted to play this role since High School and finally to be able to do it... I feel a lot of pressure. I think I’ve psyched myself out in a couple of places but with the people around me and Cambrian’s knowledge, it has helped me to be more grounded. I feel a lot more confident now than I was. I know I need to get out of my head and trust my instincts. Working with Cambrian so much over the years, I shouldn’t be in my head because I should know that Cambrian is not going to make me look stupid. He never does that and he says if I am doing something wrong he will tell me.”

the cast of Guys and Dolls in Hale Centre Theatre's new rehearsal space
photo by Julia Bashaw
“This is a complex role even when she doesn’t seem to be,” Johnson began. “This is also the role I’ve always wanted to play when I saw this show initially. I remember saying, I think I’d like a crack at her. Ever since people have told me 'oh I love the role of Adelaide, I think you’d do really well (playing her).' So now that it is here and I have to prove myself and I have put a lot of pressure on myself. Cambrian kept pushing me to find the character he wanted. Like I said she is flirty yet innocent, she is smart yet dumb, she is feisty yet really loving! So trying to find that perfect match, along with the accent, finding the right walk, and the right balance and chemistry between Matt and I, it was a challenge. But I think we got there, found the right fit, and it works. I learned that I need to trust my instincts but I also need to trust my director’s vision when I don’t see it or get it initially. Trusting Cambrian, trusting myself, and trusting that making a choice isn’t wrong. Don’t put yourself down for making a choice, try things.”

Guys and Dolls is the first time Johnson and Harris get to play a couple in a production together. But due to working together and knowing each other for so long it wasn’t that much of a challenge.

“She is very easy to love. I adore her,” Harris declared without hesitation. “Right away when I came to this theatre we used to have picnics outside and I got to know her. There is that familiarity there and there is that love between us. We are two people doing what we love and with people that we love doing it with. She is easy to fall in love with, everything that happens on stage just comes so naturally to us.”

 “Like he said we clicked early on when we first became friends,” Johnson continued. “And when we finally got the chance to be a couple on stage there was no issue. There’s usually one layer of awkwardness you have to get past when you have a new couple, but we have been so close for so long that it was immediately like, okay! Let’s do this!”

With the show opening so soon, Johnson and Harris are getting excited to share this story with audiences. If you have seen this show before or not, Johnson and Harris pointed out that the songs from this musical are very well known. Whether you walk out humming “Luck Be A Lady” or “A Bushel and a Peck”, the show will be an experience that feels warm and familiar to you.

“It has stood the test of time. It’s one of those shows on the list when you think of classic musical theater,” Johnson expressed. “ I assume we will have some older patrons come to see the show and I would hope that they see themselves in either couple. I think there are plenty of sweet and tender moments in the show between Sky and Sarah as well as Nathan and Adelaide. I hope they leave thinking, huh I think we were like that. Recalling old times and feeling nostalgic for old times as well as their youth.”

With this show being Johnson and Harris’s 23rd performance in a Hale production, I had to ask why they continue to come back. They explained to me why they return to audition and what this theatre company has meant to them over the years.

“I think what keeps me coming back is that sense of family,” Harris disclosed. “Corrin and Dave Dietlein have built this amazing space where we can show our art. They supply us with costumes, food between shows, and comp tickets. More comp tickets then I’ve had at any other place, so those family members that can’t afford a ticket can still come and see the magic. We create great relationships and friendships here, familiar faces keep coming back but then new faces are interwoven too.”

“I think the sense of family is right on the nose,” Johnson concurred. “Doing so many shows here, it is always so fun to come in on auditions because it really is like a mini-reunion from every show. You see familiar faces, like oh here is the Newsies crew, here is the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang crew, here is the Hello Dolly crew. Everyone knows everyone and everyone supports everyone. There is very little cattiness, everyone wants everyone else to succeed.”

“Absolutely,” Harris agreed. “Even if someone didn’t get cast, they say they can’t wait to come and see it, or you’re going to be great in this role! We are just really supportive of each other’s accomplishments. We do a lot of hanging out after shows, it doesn’t stop here.”

Hale also recently just completed a renovation and expansion project. The new dance studio doubles as a rehearsal space which has allowed that closeness between the performers to grow. Before the studio existed, a separate location was used to rehearse. But now that the studio is fully operational it has added to Hale’s unique sense of community between the multiple casts.

“Now that the studio is here, it feels like the casts are all interwoven,” Johnson described. “Even though Matt and I are not in the Always… Patsy Cline cast or the Barefoot in the Park cast that is being performed at Hale right now, we see them in the parking lot every night. In that sense, it really feels like a family. We get to say hey how was your show and they get to ask us about rehearsals, we continue to all keep in touch and it feels much more interwoven rather than separated.”

the cast of Guys and Dolls in Hale Centre Theatre's new rehearsal space
photo by Julia Bashaw

“Years and years ago the only things that were out here in Gilbert were Joe’s BBQ, the water tower, and dirt fields,” Harris stated. “Corrin and I were talking about this the other day, with the renovations and what is still to come. She said how Dave is very heavily influenced by Walt Disney and his journey. When I look at the renovations that have changed Hale it is kind of like walking up Buena Vista Street in California Adventure. It doesn’t look like it is one giant building, it looks like different buildings, separate and spread out. You feel as if you stepped back in time, with the music pumping out of the front, and I just feel like I’m in Disneyland right now.”

Johnson and Harris graciously shared some of the memories that they have experienced during certain shows at Hale Theatre. Over six years and 23 shows mishaps are bound to happen. For Johnson and Harris, both incidents that came first to mind when asked involved tripping.

“The show Something’s Afoot was one of my first big roles at Hale,” Johnson began. “There was a time in my role where I had to run down the north stairs all the way and land on the floor with a pile of telephones in my arms. So in that time, I can’t see the floor or the stairs. I come tearing down the first flight of stairs, I make it, turn the corner and then the first stair after that my heel catches on it. I just tumble all the way down and the rest of the cast is on stage at this point watching this happen.”

“All of us were just *gasp*!” Harris added. “And she did the rest of the act with no heel. We were looking for it…”

“Oh yeah the heel was on stage somewhere and we couldn’t find it!” Johnson expressed through laughter. “So we just went on acting without it.”

Harris smiled as he began to tell one of his hilarious Hale memories. “You know which memory I am thinking of,” Harris gestured to Johnson. She responded guessing, Footloose?. “Yup!” Matt chuckled.

“We were doing Footloose together,” Matt continued, “Heidi and I were playing numerous roles in this show and at this point, we were back up singers at this bar with two other people Jen and Jullian. Tina was the main singer on stage and there was a mirror ball (disco ball) that would come. The stage manager had told us whenever the mirror ball goes out, that is our time to get down to the microphones and then the lights will come up. Well, we had gotten so used to the show week after week that we could tell in the music when we should be going and sometimes the mirror ball would be running behind. So this one night we were like, it’s not going we should be out there by now! We realized we only had seconds to get down the stairs so we rushed and I am the last person. Well, I have an issue with the stairs here at Hale because I have slipped many times. But this one night I slipped on the last stair and I reached out for support from what I thought was Jen’s shoulder, but turned out to be her boob. The entire scene we couldn’t sing, we were just laughing the entire time but trying to keep it together. We collapsed backstage and Tina was like what is going on?”

“Yes the main singer, Tina, was just looking back at us the whole scene like what are you guys doing!?” Johnson laughed. “Jen’s like, not that I mind the attention but at least buy me dinner first,” Harris added. They continued in fits of laughter, with huge smiles grinning away.

Everyone has a community that they can call their own, for Johnson and Harris it is Hale Centre Theatre.

CLICK HERE for more information on Guys and Dolls, which runs February 13th through March 28th.

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