SURVIVING THE ROSENTHALS, directed & choreographed by Andrea Andresakis,
introduces us to songwriter Sammy, who enters therapy to heal himself and break free of the childhood shackles, brought on by his overbearing father, that still stifle him as an adult. The musical takes a surreal twist as Sammy meets – Sammy! Adult Sam meets 10-year-old Sammy in a battle to save himself.
We spoke with Andrea Andresakis, who shared some fascinating stories of her journey in the arts.
“My Mother is a pianist. When she played Chopin or Gershwin, I would dance around the living room,” says director/choreographer, Andrea Andresakis. Living in the historic Ansonia Hotel, known for its denizens immersed in the arts, Andrea – from a young age – was equally immersed including a Rockette who taught ballet down the hall. It’s no wonder that she was on her path as early as age 5. She began at the School of American Ballet at 7; performed ballets by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins at Lincoln Center at age 9 and then on to the High School of Performing Arts “Fame” school, where it was suggested she go to Alvin Ailey. “I did … and performed with Ailey’s third company,” she said with a great smile. “All 3 companies performed Memoria together, choreographed by Mr. Ailey at City Center,” she continued. “I also danced with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, where [this is one of her favorite memories] she stopped the show (literally) during the Bacchanal in Samson and Delilah at the Met. Of course she was the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Nutcracker (after humble beginning as a soldier and an angel).”
With such an auspicious beginning we wanted to learn more about Ms. Andresakis’ rise.
Your credentials as a director/choreographer are quite impressive. How was the transition to director/choreographer from dancer?
It was an organic transition. Dance captain, choreographer, then director. Michael Haney had hired me as a performer/dance captain at the Allenberry Playhouse and we had a good rapport. The next summer they needed someone to do the musical staging for two shows that aren’t big dance shows: Secret Garden and Big River. The producer didn’t want to hire a choreographer, so they wanted someone in the cast to do it. I had choreographed solos for myself, but never anything for anyone else. Michael, I guess, saw that I could run a room from my work as dance captain and asked me to do it. He was mostly a play director, so he turned the scenes over to me the minute the music started. I had to make decisions about how the story was being told and work with the actors on their intentions, etc. It was then that I realized that I could direct. I had been a drama major at Performing Arts (I transferred from dance after Freshman year) and that background in acting, script analysis, etc. really served me. My Mom had taught me to read music, so that enabled me to communicate with music directors. My father is a trained actor and, I didn’t realize it at the time, but he had started grooming me as director from a very early age. We went to see theatre weekly and he always critiqued and, as my Mother says “re-directed” the productions. (He still does). Even when watching TV, he would point out when an actor was “indicating”. I had the privilege of working with some amazing artists. (Besides Balanchine, Robbins and Ailey, also Franco Zefferelli, Onna White, Leonard Bernstein, Jacques d’Amboise…) and those experiences have shaped my aesthetics and approach. What I wasn’t that aware of as a performer are the technical aspects of a production – what happens during production meetings, for example. So I took jobs as an Assistant Stage Manager and Assistant Director. Gary John La Rosa taught me a lot about the nuts and bolts of putting a production together – scheduling, giving notes, working with designers, running tech rehearsals, dealing with different personalities, crisis management, etc.
What obstacles have you faced in your career?
For me, theatre is a craft that I’ve learn by apprenticing. I don’t have a “terminal degree” as they call it in academia, so that prohibits me from taking on a full time position at a university. I have been invited to direct, choreograph and teach at seven universities. I received a grant from the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation to direct Arms and the Man, by George Bernard Shaw at Eastern Mennonite University and my production of Spring Awakening at Whitman College garnered a Kennedy Center award. Even with that experience as a teacher combined with a lifetime in professional theatre, I wouldn’t be considered for a tenure track position without a degree.
There’s also the gender bias. Being a 5’4”, 115 lb., former ballerina, working with men twice my size in a shop where scenery is being built, for example, can sometimes be challenging. I can’t come in authoritatively as I might be able to do if I was a man. Sometimes, in the best interest of time and in order to get things accomplished, I’ve had to play little games, tiptoeing around, when I knew all the while how to solve the problem at hand. You have to put your ego aside and put the needs of the production first.
What is your “mission” as a director/choreographer?
It’s unfashionable to say this, but I honestly don’t have an agenda as a director. When I’m choreographing an original dance piece, yes, it’s my creation, so I’m writing the narrative. But as a director, working on a piece that’s been written, I am more of a facilitator to the author. I don’t try to put my stamp on it. If people are noticing the direction, then I’ve failed. The direction should be invisible. They should be talking about the story. My “mission” is to tell the story in such a way that keeps the audience engaged on many levels intellectually and sensorily. Everyone has a different way of experiencing an event, some more with their eyes, some more with their ears, some with their brains, others with their hearts. It’s my job to hone an authentic production that speaks to the audience on all of these levels. I also try my best to make it enjoyable for all of those involved. Back in the day, when I was a dance student, the culture was abusive. There was a lot of negative feedback coming at you. One of my ballet teachers yelled at me one day, when I was nine, to “go in the back, you look like spaghetti!” I personally don’t think that people give their best while being terrified. So I do my best to create an environment that is safe, freeing and encourages creativity.
Is there one project that stands out as a “turning point” for you? Good or bad?
I’ve learned something from all of my productions, everyone is a turning point in some way. What first comes to mind is a production of The Pearl Diver, a Japanese fable, which was also part of the NY Theatre Festival. I answered an ad and was sent the script. After reading it I thought, “this is impossible to do on stage, especially with minimal resources”. There was a shipwreck, an underwater sequence, sea creatures, etc. I took the job (which I’m apt to do), not having the slightest idea of how to proceed. Fortunately, I found Mary Hamrick, a set designer who was working as an assistant on Broadway and who now has many impressive credits as a set designer. Mary said “there doesn’t need to be a boat. The actor will hold a wooden bowl – that will be the boat.” We kept suggesting effects, such as projections, to achieve the various underwater scenes and the like and Mary kept saying, “no, we don’t need it” and she was right. She created magic with some bamboo poles, fabric, a few wooden bowls, etc. The sea creatures’ gills were fans that they stuck into their headbands. The Dragons claws were chopsticks. To this day, people remember that production and rave about it. We’re streaming it as a fundraiser for Asian Americans Advancing Justice. Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles – The Pearl Diver Fundraiser (networkforgood.com)
I learned a few things: 1. Just how important designers are and, when you have the right person, how to trust them; 2. The audience’s imagination is more powerful than any high tech affects you can attempt; 3. There’s beauty in simplicity; and 4. Limitations can be your friend.
Look for Part II of our series on Andrea Andresakis in DramaQueensReviews