Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham
Interview with Lauren Kennedy Brady
Also see Garrett's review of Don't Dress for Dinner
Mrs. Kennedy Brady also played the role of Nellie Forbush in the London production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific as well as performing the role of Better Schaefer in the show that started it all for her, Sunset Boulevard. Ms. Kennedy Brady originated the role of Cathy in Jason Robert Brown's popular The Last Five Years in its Chicago premiere and starred alongside Val Kilmer in The Ten Commandments: The Musical as Nefertari. She is currently the Producing Artistic Director of Theatre Raleigh. Mrs. Kennedy Brady sat down to talk about her inspirations, career and what drew her to back home to Theatre Raleigh; "one of the best kept secrets" in the triangle.
Garrett Southerland: Theatre Raleigh has a special place in your heart as it is located right in your hometown. Can you tell me about your North Carolina roots?
Lauren Kennedy Brady: I grew up doing theatre at the NC Theatre. When I was a kid, De Ann Jones, the founder of the NCT, started a summer camp. She had been working with David Ira Wood and decided to split off and do her own thing. She realized that the Memorial Auditorium was not being utilized well downtown. She got the city to allow her to go in there and put on a camp. For the next two years, she began producing her first full-fledged productions, starring Terrence Mann and Sharon Lawrence.
I was a part of it from the beginning. I was doing those camps. My parents were involved. We loved it. We would go to New York and see shows every year. And so it was a part of the fabric of my childhood being in that building and doing shows. I continued through high school when Terrence Mann was the Artistic Director of NCT. It kind of made sense to come back and give back to the community that helped shape me as an artist. And so my roots are here. My whole family is still here. I was the only one that went away for 23 years.
GS: Who were your inspirations?
LKB: It was people like Terrence Mann or Beth Leavel, who is also from North Carolina. She went to Broughton High School. She is about sixteen years older than me and she would come back and do shows when I was in high school and I thought that she was the local girl who made good. She was understudying in the show Crazy for You around that time. To me, that was "It." That was all I wanted; to be on Broadway, to be someone's understudy and just work as a theatre actress. And so, more than movie stars, I really would set her as the pinnacle of what I wanted to do and now she has gone on to do even more amazing things.
GS: What is your educational background?
LKB: I went to the University of Cincinnati CollegeConservatory of Music, lovingly known in our community as CCM. It is one of the top ten musical theatre departments in the country but I didn't finish ...sorry. But I got cast in Sunset Boulevard, the American premiere, while I was in school and left after my sophomore year and never looked back.
GS: How did that happen?
LKB: Well interestingly enough, my agent, who I still have to this day, came to do a master class at our school and, kind of serendipitously, we got to put our names in a hat and he drew out two names from the underclassmen to sing for him and I was one of them. I guess it went well because he called me to come in that summer to do two auditions and one of them was Sunset Boulevard. The next thing I knew, I was in L.A. for ten months to do the American premiere and then on Broadway the next fall.
GS: And did you stay in New York for a while?
LKB: I was there for 23 years but I still go back and forth.
GS: What brought you back to North Carolina and the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill Triangle?
LKB: This! Theatre Raleigh. My brother and my dad started doing a series at the Kennedy Theatre called "Hot Summer Nights." They were using me as a creative consultant from New York. I would help them cast and help them read plays and even directed a couple of shows. And they only did it for three seasons. But I was working on a show with a friend in New York and my brother said, "Why don't you come down and do it in Raleigh?" By the time he said that and we were doing auditions, they decided to just forget it and say we are out. They didn't want to do it anymore. It was a lot of trouble, they both had different careers and they were sort of doing it for fun. And so I said, "Well, I will do it! I will take it over."
I really don't know why I said that, but I knew I wanted to direct and have more of a hands-on experience with creating beyond being an actress. And I wanted to create more opportunities for other people. We called it "Hot Summer Nights" for a while, but we officially moved to being a nonprofit about three years ago and changed the name to the umbrella company title, Theatre Raleigh. We have a Summer Series and a Family Series and then a New Work Series. So we are trying to rebrand ourselves from the earlier seasons.
GS: Now that you have had a taste behind the scenes as well as being on the stage, do you have a preference?
LKB: It's just such a difference experience. I think I like producing most of all because I love giving opportunities to people and I love engaging with patrons. It is so much more rewarding than I ever anticipated. Even though I have great credits and a wonderful, successful career in New York, I wanted to focus on something more fruitful and positive. There is no looking back for me.
GS: But you are still acting, yes?
LKB: Yes, but I do turn down a lot of auditions. I don't go in for much. Because my daughter is 14 and going into high school next year, I really want to be here. I want to really build this company. We went from summer to now full year and it takes me here to be hands on. Not to say that I may not someday go back. But right now, I am just so satisfied and it's so much fun to see something grow and build it. I am super proud of what we are doing. And Raleigh is booming. I love it!
GS: Speaking of your daughter, has she been bitten by the theatre bug?
LKB: Yes. She is so good. But she has also been bitten by the bug of just being a great student and wanting to enjoy being a kid. So she is discerning when it comes to theatre opportunities; she doesn't jump at everything. She is not crazy about it like I was. She is a little more like "I want to play softball and to go camp this summer and I really don't want to do this show because I will miss three birthday parties." She is such a great kid and head and shoulders more talented that I was at her age.
GS: Would you share what goals you have set for Theatre Raleigh?
LKB: I have set tiny benchmarks to work toward. Going year round was a big one for me. Now it is upping our production values. We do a lot of "beg, borrow, and stealing" and a goal is to fortify my staff and pay people what they are worth. I would love more full-time staff members. Right now I just have two and then I have four part-time employees. I want to do bigger productions, more site specific/off site productions. We did Rock of Ages last year at Cary's Koka Booth Amphitheatre and are going to go back there and do The Rocky Horror Show in October which will be fun.
I would love to continue to work into some of the bigger theaters at the Duke Progress Energy Center like we did last year with The Secret Garden. I don't want Theatre Raleigh to be the best kept secret anymore. Right now, we only have a small theater that seats 133 people per night. You can do the math. We can't serve that many people so, ultimately, if we stay in that small space, I would like to add length to our shows; for instance, instead of doing two weeks of performances, do four weeks and get people coming to see shows.
GS: You made reference to the intimate "black box" theatre which is the Kennedy at the Duke Progress Energy Center. Do you like the challenges that it brings? Do you find it a significant hindrance?
LKB: I love it, but it's limiting. When you are doing a Broadway show or tour, it is so easy to throw money on the stage and go for it. We have so many restrictions in that room in terms of fly space, no wings for sets to be moved in and out. So we always have to be creative and imaginative in the shows that we do. But it is also limiting in what types of shows we can do. I always have to consider what shows would best fit in that space.
On my list of always wanting to do was Rock of Ages, but it would never work in that space. It would be too offensive for the audience for one, and with the type of music that it requires, it would have blown people out. People's ears would have been bleeding. And so we had the opportunity to go to the Cary Koka Booth Amphitheatre and it felt perfect.
GS: Your new season started off with the intimate musical Daddy Long Legs. What drew you to this material?
LKB: My friend Megan McGinnis, who directed it, did it in New York. And so I had been hearing about the show for a long time. And I love Paul Gordon's music. He classically does folksy versions, like Jane Eyre and Emma. He is very "Jane Austeny." His music has this contemporary sensibility that helps you connect a contemporary audience and I really thought that was interesting. And a two person show is great for our space, easily producible and I thought it was a really a beautiful story to tell to kick off our season.
GS: What is in store for the rest of the season?
LKB: We have Significant Other, a play by Joshua Harmon that was on Broadway in 2017. It's an unromantic/romantic comedy about four friends in their twenties, a gay guy and his three female best friends. They, one by one (the girls), get married and have babies and he is left still searching for his person. It is really enduring. Jesse Gephart, a local actor, is just outstanding and does a tour de force performance. He is so funny, so lovable, I am so excited for people to see him.
After that, we are doing Big Fish, which is based on the movie which is based on the book by Daniel Wallace. Daniel Wallace, who is a UNC professor and North Carolina native, is going to come and do a couple of talk backs for the show, which is so cool. That story feels so right to be in this area. We have devised an interesting version of the musical. It is not going to be like the Broadway musical where they had elephants on stagea big circus with showgirls. They have licensed a version that utilizes only twelve people and we are doing that one. It is going to be more like a story-time theater where things are pulled out of trunks and off racks. It will be a much more exciting and in some ways much more magical production with it being scaled back. I am also going to be in it as well, playing the character of Sandra. And Eric Woodall, who also has North Carolina roots, and I grew up together doing shows in the triangle. He is from Benson, North Carolina and a successful casting director in New York. He loves to direct and so he is coming back to direct this production. It's going to be top notch talent.
After that, we have Master Class starring Judy McLane, who was the final Donna in Broadway's Mamma Mia! She has worked with us a bunch and is going to be playing Maria Callas, who was quite a spicy character. We also found some amazing opera singers from this area which we were not expecting to be able to do. But it goes to show how rich the talent pool is here. That production is up in August.
And then we finish up the season with the Broadway hit Once, the 2012 Tony Award Best Musical. Again, casting is tricky, trying to find people to play the right instruments, and so we have people coming in from California, Tennessee, New York, some locally. We are going to do it in the round which we have never done in our space before. I think it's going to be really exciting for our patrons and cool for us to keep us on our toes.
GS: How can one get involved with Theatre Raleigh?
LKB: Well, one can always audition. We are always looking for new and great talents. We always have our auditions in February. That is when we do general auditions for those we have never seen before who are new to us. People can volunteer. We have a slew of volunteers who do the front of the house and the lobby experience. We are always doing special events to get people involved, not just in giving of their money but also time, energy and effort. This year we are doing a benefit with the ALS Association. We are doing Curse of the Starving Class which is a Sam Shepard play. We will be celebrating his life on the anniversary of his death. He died last year, July 27th, of ALS. We love partnering with other nonprofits.
GS: And isn't Theatre Raleigh also sponsoring a summer camp?
LKB: We are, that's another way to get involved. Thank you for asking about that. We are doing Peter Pan Jr. with 7-15 year olds. We have about 23 kids. Morgan Parpan, our Education Director, has created an educational program which we will just continue to build on, hopefully also doing classes and master classes. That will start July 16th and go through July 27th. They will have two full performances. It's going to be super cute and on the set of Big Fish, utilizing all the professional lighting and sound. It will going to be great!
2018 Summer Series:
Theatre Raleigh is located at the Kennedy Theatre, Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, 2 East South St., Raleigh NC. Tickets can be purchased online at www.theatreraleigh.com or by phone at 919-832-9997.