Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Talking to Hector Coris and Nicholas Gunnell about the friendships that theatre can form and their next show together, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME at TheaterWorks

Hector Coris (bottom) and Nicholas Gunnell (top) 
in A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder - Fountain Hills Theater - 2020
photo by Patty Torrilhon

by Gil Benbrook

(This is the first of a two part series of interviews with the cast of The Hunchback of Notre Dame at TheaterWorks)

Hector Coris and Nicholas Gunnell have appeared in dozens of shows at dozens of theatres across the valley. Both are ariZoni Award winning artists and both have also been nominated for that prestigious award mutiple times. 

The two first met in 2012 when they found themselves seated next to each other in the dressing room for Bye Bye Birdie at Hale Centre Theatre. An immediate friendship was formed and they became fast friends and have gone on to appear together in many musicals in town. Their latest on stage partnership can be seen beginning this Friday when Gunnell stars as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame at TheaterWorks, and Coris plays Clopin, the king of the gypsies and the comical relief in the show.

In the 11 years they've been friends, they've both gotten married, Gunnell and wife had a son, and they've appeared in eight shows together: Bye Bye Birdie and The Man Who Came to Dinner at Hale, Urinetown and Mary Poppins at Mesa Encore Theatre,  A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, first at Fountain Hills and then at Scottsdale Community College, and they were also both in Lucky Stiff earlier this season at Hale

Coris and Gunnell sat down in their free moments between final rehearsals for this show to answer some questions about their friendship, the shows they've done together, and Hunchback at TheaterWorks, and even though they answered the questions separately you'll note that many of their responses were the same.

You first met in 2012 when you were both cast in Bye Bye Birdie at Hale. What was your first impression of the other? Did your friendship form immediately on that first show in 2012?

Hector: "Maybe surprising to both us of us, it really did start the minute we were sat next to each other in the Hale dressing room. I just mentioned last night during rehearsal that if they hadn’t had our stations next to each other, we probably would never have formed the bond we have. It could have been any one of 4 other guys sitting next to me. Talk about an odd couple. I don’t think I’ve ever clicked with another performer on this granular a level.

I could tell in rehearsals that he was a very smart and funny actor and performer, and as performances went on, we just clicked. Our sense of humor is 100% a match so we laugh a lot! He’s my ride-or-die co-star and we’re also really close off-stage as well."

Nicholas: "From what I remember way back then, Hector and I never interacted until we started sharing a dressing room. With our characters, we had a lot of time during the show to mess around and get to know each other. It’s definitely an odd pair of best friends but we related on so many levels with our views of theatre, acting choices, and life overall. That show was a blast and has gifted me with one of the closest relationships ever, not just in the theatre community but in my life."

 Nicholas Gunnell and Hector Coris
backstage at Bye Bye Birdie - Hale Centre Theatre - 2012

What has been the most challenging show you’ve done together and why? 

Hector: "From my perspective, there really hasn’t been any shows that were “challenging.” Every show has its usual challenges. We’ve been privileged to work with some excellent directors like Cambrian James, Peter Hill, Alaina Beauloye, David Chorley, and now Chris Hamby. Perhaps the most challenging was getting to do A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder for the second time together (this time at Scottsdale Community College) where we had a chance to revisit our characters and try and find new and interesting fun ways to approach our characters in an entirely new landscape than the Fountain Hills Theater production. We were still constantly surprising each other."

Nicholas: "I can’t say any show has been challenging, besides the upcoming juggernaut that is Hunchback, but A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder was a challenge in many forms, especially with dealing with Hector’s antics of changing line delivery, maybe he would spend a bit more time staring off into space before delivering his line or throw a random movement that would catch me off guard. Whatever the change was, I had to do my best not to break character. Hector IS the challenge!"

What has been your most favorite show you’ve done together and why? 

Hector: "Probably the first time we did A Gentleman’s Guide at Fountain Hills. That was a perfect storm of every element you can name. There was not one single thing I could pick apart about that experience. If I may say, it’s probably one of the best productions FHT had ever put on. Just gold standard from start to finish."

Nicholas: "A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, hands-down. Not only is the book and music witty and unique, our Monty and Dysquith Family worked so well together that it was not hard to find those moments of hilarity and bring out the best in every moment. And doing it twice was a blessing!"

If you could go back and change something in one of the shows you’ve done together what would it be? 

Hector: "I wouldn’t change a thing, except one curious phenomenon: In the 8 shows we’ve been in together, we rarely ever had any extended scenes together (sometimes none at all!). It wasn’t until A Gentleman’s Guide that we spent time together in scenes. I do look forward to more times when we can actually play together in the same space. On the plus side, I get to watch him work in rehearsals from the sidelines and it’s always entertaining. "

Nicholas: "I wouldn’t say there are any regrets or desire to change anything when it comes to the shows we’ve done. We’ve worked with some amazing directors together such as Cambrian James, Peter Hill, Alaina Beauloye, and David Chorley and each experience has just been another jewel in our crown of theatre credits. I look back on each show with fondness!"

Hector Coris and Nicholas Gunnell 
Mary Poppins - Mesa Encore Theatre - 2018

Any interesting mishaps that have happened in show you’ve done together or any preshow rituals you both make sure you do? 

Hector: "No mishaps or rituals come to mind. We come in, do our job, and make sure we have the best time possible. We both approach theater with the same mindset so we always can tell what the other one is thinking. We rely on each other for the fun of it, when sometimes it isn’t fun. We commiserate on the same things and agree pretty much 100% of the time."

Nicholas: "I think one moment that I always found hilarious was a moment in Mary Poppins at Mesa Encore Theatre, when Hector played the evil nanny, Miss Andrew. He was to be on the fly system in a cage at the end of a music number and wizz by. Well, the cage was a little late to enter so, instead of cutting it, the crew sent Hector ZOOMING across the stage and when you heard that scream come out from his mouth, that was not acting. Pure gold of a memory. We don’t have any preshow rituals other than taking a mirror selfie picture during every show we do."

Any shows you’ve done together that you’d like to do again? 

Hector: "We would absolutely do Gentleman’s Guide together (and hopefully can!) a few more times. It’s just an amazing perfect jewel of a musical with two roles that play into our core strengths."

Nicholas: "A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, for sure. I could do that show until the day I die and if I could do it with Hector, that would be the cherry on top! Hector can infuse each member with such humor and wit that it never gets old to watch him perform as these characters!"

Nicholas Gunnell in the promo poster for The Hunchback of Notre Dame at TheaterWorks

Tell us about the role you play in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. How challenging has this show been compared to the others you’ve done together? 

Hector: "I play Clopin, king of the Gypsies. Again, we have little stage time together, but we do cross paths here and there. The challenge I’ve made for myself is to approach the show more physically in how I move and speak and look. It’s something I never really tried before and this is the perfect space to do it in. It’s the most intense role I’ve seen Nick play to date and it’s a privilege to watch him work. Audiences are going to fall in love with his Quasimodo and, hopefully, get a kick out of Clopin."

Nicholas: "I play Quasimodo, the bell ringer of Notre Dame. This is the most challenging role I have ever played. This role differs from any role I have played and requires every ounce of me to bring out the best in Quasi from the top to the end of the show. I change everything about myself to embody Quasi with realism where you don’t have to look so hard to find him and know what he is about."

Has your experience been any different working on this show together than the other shows you’ve done with each other? 

Hector: "Well, we mostly have done comedic shows so getting to work on a dramatic piece is different for us -- and we love it. To get to play situations and emotions that we don't normally get to play is a nice change of pace. "

Nicholas: "TheaterWorks is a haven of creativity and positive affirmation. Chris Hamby has created a space where I feel like I can do my best and do it safely with full support from everyone. Hector and I roll with the punches when performing hits that slog, the slow moving, inch-by-inch pace, but, with Hunchback, I have never had that feeling. I feel supported, encouraged, and motivated to do my best because TheaterWorks has done their best."

This musical touches upon the issues that parents and children, siblings and close friends face. What themes in the show have resonated with you? 

Hector: "For me, the show resonates with its idea of outcasts – people who don’t fit in or are shunned for their differences. By the end of the show, Clopin and Quasimodo have a mutual understanding of each other and a bond, even though we don’t get to play that out during the show. Our final moments are a reflection of the characters’ journeys and our own as co-stars and friends."

Nicholas: "The world is not perfect, but what is are those moments of pure love. And that’s what makes life worth living. It’s a simple phrase and, I wish I could say everything ends up right with Quasimodo but what the musical captures so perfectly is, nothing is perfect. The world makes no sense sometimes but there is always something to learn at the end of tragedy. "

Hector Coris and Nicholas Gunnell 
backstage at A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder

What dream shows would you like to appear in together? 

Hector: "We’d just love any show where we can actually have extended scenes together. I would love to play Max Bialystock to his Leo Bloom in Producers or Forum (Pseudolus/Hysterium). We often see where our schedules might coincide with upcoming productions. But give us Gentleman’s Guide any day and we’ll be there! If you see both of us at auditions, watch out!"

Nicholas: "So many! One would have to be Gutenberg! The Musical! and Cabaret, as well. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder will always be our go-to show so keep your eyes out for the return! 

What do you wish audience members will take away from seeing The Hunchback of Notre Dame at TheaterWorks?

Hector: "TheaterWorks always puts on solid shows. This is my 4th show there. Chris Hamby has pulled out all the stops for this one and I’m thrilled to finally be under his direction. It is going to be an emotional rollercoaster for the audience. It’s a lot different from the Disney movie, which I don’t think anyone will be expecting. Everyone is giving a stellar performance and all of the creative elements are top-notch. Put all that together and this should be a production the Valley is talking about for a long time."

Nicholas: "I want the audience to leave Hunchback realizing that love is where you will find peace. Love unconditionally, love fully, and love purposefully."

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