Something I only learned about Laurie Pessano because I read it in her bio: she holds the title of Creative Director of Good Company Players (GCP) in Fresno. It is not in the nature of GCP to shout their bona fides from the rooftops. They don’t list staff very prominently on their website and I can think of no one on staff who comes across with a “Don’t you know who I am?” attitude. Most folks don’t really know who is who at GCP until they sit in on a company meeting. They’re all about “getting on with it” because they’ve got a show to do.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t have opinions. Sitting in on Steel Magnolias as Pessano’s understudy was an eye-opener for me. The Creative Director of the company sat in the farthest corner of the actor seating area, mostly out of the way, focused on her lines, and learned her blocking. Until the topic of Cameron Mackintosh’s musical Mary Poppins comes up. Then stand, back: Laurie Pessano will tell you exactly what she thinks!
It stands to reason, of course, that she’d have strong points of view about all kinds of topics theatrical. Spending a life performing in and directing some of the stages’ most iconic musicals and plays in Fresno’s most iconic theater company will do that.
So I’m pleased to present Laurie Pessano’s Drive-Thru Interview, touching on just a few of her theatrical thoughts as she simultaneously performs in Steel Magnolias at the 2nd Space Theater and co-directs Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater.
In one word, describe your present condition.
In one sentence, what’s going on in your world?
My life is overflowing with projects, people, and props — and I kind of love that!
With no restrictions on content or form, describe the present condition of Steel Magnolias at GCP’s 2nd Space (now playing through October 14th).
Steel Magnolias is an ode to the best of humanity, both onstage and backstage. It is a reflection of what I see daily in the people I love; life’s triumphs, trivialities, and tragedies greeted with equal humor, unity, strength, sacrifice, and love. I am honored to be in it, honored to share it with audiences and wonderful cast-mates.
With no restrictions on content or form, describe the present condition of this iteration of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (opening September 20th).
The stage production of Seven Brides For Seven Brothers has much of the same material as the 1954 movie but also has a lot of original material. The movie has that fantastic barn-raising dance sequence which alone is worth the price of admission. Michael Kidd’s choreography was and is brilliant. In the stage version, the fabulous dance number remains but it’s at a social so the set doesn’t have to come crashing down every night. Creating our own version of that stand-out number requires much of our performers. They are rising to the challenge and I can’t wait to see the audience response. The stage version also expands the characters a bit more, creating a lovable community of quirky personalities and relationships. Fun is really what it’s all about, with a little bit of gentle social commentary sprinkled into the battle-of-the-sexes storyline. It is true that there are 64-year-old gender stereotypes in the movie and subsequent stage version, but many of traditional hierarchies and expectations are overthrown in the end. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a good start for it’d day. It’s all done with kindness and tolerance, pointing out humanity’s flaws with humor and hope for a happy ending.
Why these two plays?
There is so much that draws me to Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. There is the nostalgia: my parents loved theatre and cinema and music. If a classic musical was on TV, everything stopped and the family gathered to marvel at the music, the vocals, the choreography, the writing, the cinematography. It’s set in a time and place we all like to imagine as simple and idyllic. My admiration for extraordinary skill also draws me to this piece: the dancing in the movie is awe-inspiring. The relationships draw me, the comedy draws me, the subtly subversive, ahead-of-her-time quality of the main female character draws me.
That brings me to Steel Magnolias. I am drawn to its nostalgia, as well. Set in the 80’s, we get to smile at the clothes, the hairstyles, the radios, the magazines, the struggles that have mellowed with age. I am drawn to the strength and flaws of these women, as well as to the male characters who are never seen but are so clearly drawn in conversation they seem a physical presence. I’m drawn to the skilled writing and the skill it requires of actors to deftly execute comedy and tragedy within a heartbeat of each other. Finally, I am extremely drawn to its impact on the audience, myself, and my fellow performers. It is an actor’s dream.
What do you find exciting about working at the 2nd Space versus Roger Rocka’s? And vice versa?
The 2nd Space is so personal — if the actors and audience are all doing their job, no one leaves untouched. I like that. I like introspection and solving what makes us all tick. I love what Laurence Olivier said: “I don’t know what is better than the work that is given to the actor — to teach the human heart the knowledge of itself.”
Working on GCP’s stage at Roger Rocka’s is also very close and accessible to the audience, but it’s bigger size allows for a bit broader, flamboyant brushstrokes. However, it’s still small enough for the audience to spot untruthfulness pretty easily. It requires a bit more vocal muscle. Since we mostly produce musicals, performers and directors need music and dance skills. There are definitely more elements to worry about, but also more elements to triumph over (if all goes well).
What makes a great audience for you?
A great audience arrives willing to listen, willing to discover something new, to see things through another’s eyes.
As a theater artist, what are you better at now than ten years ago?
I am better at admitting what I don’t know — but not perfect at it. I’d like to improve. I’d like to embrace my own ignorance. You can’t learn anything if you think you already know everything.
What are your top three theatre reads?
There are so many plays to choose from and, frankly, I don’t consider myself all that well-read, but I have a very strong connection to Our Town by Thornton Wilder. A beautiful piece, so well written, so simple and profound, a perfect example of “teaching the human heart the knowledge of itself.”
There are also a couple of books about acting and directing that I find extremely helpful and like to recommend to aspiring actors and directors:
- “Audition” by Michael Shurtleff is a marvelous guide for acting in general, not just for auditions. Although a few things are a bit outdated, it remains pertinent, practical, and on point.
- I found “Notes on Directing: 130 Lessons in Leadership from the Director’s Chair” by Frank Hauser and Russell Reich to be extremely useful. It is a quick and easy read and I believe I am a better director and actor for having delved into it.
As its Creative Director, what do you hope is on the horizon for Good Company Players?
There are so many wonderful possibilities for theatre in Fresno and for GCP specifically. We are working to expand training opportunities for our acting pool and the community. I would love for us to add more classes. I would also like us to find some way to provide opportunities for original pieces, readings, and showcases. We are so proud of our association with FUSD and Francine and Murray Farber developing an educational play about early America, called “Founding Fathers & Mothers” for all of Fresno Unified’s 5th graders. It would be so satisfying to connect even more young people to history through theatre. All those dreams are a tall order, though. There don’t seem to be enough hours in a day!
What have you found to be the most common misconception surrounding theater in Fresno?
There is so much power in theatre: it unlocks curiosity, compassion, introspection, and understanding. It demands discipline, teamwork, critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills. It creates community. It makes us smarter. Fresno theatre has sent numerous performers on to national and international success. It’s perplexing that local media would not be proud of Fresno’s vibrant arts scene and find every opportunity to tout our city’s cultural wealth.
Anything else you’d love for us to know?
I really think I’ve droned on long enough! Thank you for your kind interest.
Steel Magnolias runs through October 14th at Good Company Players’ 2nd Space Theatre in Fresno.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers opens September 20th and runs through November 11th at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theatre in Fresno.
Read Donald Munro’s review of Steel Magnolias here.
Read Heather’s reflections on on understudying in Steel Magnolias here.
The Drive-Thru interview is my easy and satisfying Q&A for your busy theatrical life. I choose a handful of questions off of a menu of over 100, and I get pithy answers in return. Perhaps not the most nuanced or clever interview technique in the world, but in the drive-thru getting in and out is key!