- By gentleguide
- On Fri 28 Sep 2018
After a summer away from home, the Des Moines Playhouse starts their centennial season with a production of the musical Billy Elliot. It’s about a boy who loves to dance, and how he deals with friends and family who don’t necessarily share his dreams. Opening October 5, it’s the first show in the newly remodeled mainstage space at the Playhouse, which is the culmination of even more dreams.
Playhouse Artistic Director John Viars is more than ready for the updates to the building. From a directing point of view, the new remodel provides for a great many improvements. While patrons will see obvious changes in seating and decor, there are many “behind-the-scenes” adjustments that the typical audience may not even be aware of.
“For my entire tenure at the Playhouse until now, turning lights on in the auditorium was a multi-step process that often involved going up the ramp stairs in the dark,” says Viars. “That has been fixed. I can’t begin to describe the fascinating state-of-the-art technology that comes with the new lighting system. It’s amazing.”
“We have removed the ceiling and added a much-needed catwalk system above, which allows for a safe, hidden, and comprehensive way to do stage lighting. Volunteers can safely hang, focus, and operate lighting without having to climb a sixteen foot ladder. Also, there are lighting and communication access points all over the place up there.”
Rachel Meyer plays Billy’s dance teacher in Billy Elliot, and she’s delighted to be in the redone performance area. “It is such an honor to be a part of not only the first show of the 100th season but also the first show in the renovated space! I am so excited for everyone to experience the new playhouse and for all the possibilities the new space will give for dynamic blocking and immersive theatre experiences. We had our first rehearsal in the new space on the 8th of September, so we will have had roughly a month in the new theatre. I did not think we would get into the space so quickly and I am so grateful that we will have so much time to grow in it.”
“One of the most fantastic changes is that the theatre is completely accessible for wheelchairs. From extra seating designed specifically to adjust for wheelchairs, to easy access around the building, the Playhouse has done everything to make the joy and magic of theatre something that everyone can experience.
The story of Billy Elliot takes place in North East Britain, set during the miner’s strike that began there in 1984. Meyer is originally from Scotland herself, and she is a perfect fit as a dance teacher in Billy’s village. “This show is very personal to me. My great-grandfather was a coal miner in the Glasgow area and I grew up hearing my Granny ranting about [former Prime Minister] Maggie Thatcher. The first time we ran through the song Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher, I was laughing my head off. After being in the States for so long, it is such a breath of fresh air to be immersed in my culture again!”
“I grew up with a lot of people that were from the Durham area and who spoke with the northern accent, so I have had an easier time of it learning the dialect and understanding the speech rhythms that they use. The cast has been working so hard to not only learn the show but learn an entirely new culture, and it’s wonderful to watch them getting a true taste of Northern Britain.”
Meyer gets to instill her character of Mrs. Wilkinson with different layers, allowing her to treat Billy with both toughness and kindness, as all good mentors do. “I would say as a teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson is the master multitasker. She is consistently aware of what is going on all over the room and seems to have eyes in the back of her head, so I have to be very on top of every single moment in the scene and somehow make it look effortless. When she is one-on-one with Billy, she becomes a lot more relaxed and playful. She seems to grasp onto an almost childlike joy when performing and it gives her a vitality that is glaringly missing in the class scenes.”
She has experienced for herself the challenges Billy faces, but for Meyer it was a love of theatre instead of dance. “I grew up in a very similar culture and household to Billy and had to deal with a lot of similar family issues, so I relate very strongly to the character and to Mrs. Wilkinson’s desire to protect him. I could never afford to take performing arts classes and so when I got to college, I was competing with people who had been training since they were kids. I was actually almost kicked out of the creative arts program.”
“After my first semester I was put in probationary status and had a year to prove myself. There were so many talented people in the program that were miles ahead of me, so I did not get to be a part of a lot of the performing opportunities that were offered in the program. When my vocal teacher, Cindy Kenny, noticed that I had a knack for theatre, I began to really flourish and grow and I will be forever grateful to her for that!”
“I definitely relate to the frustration that Mrs. Wilkinson has being so passionate about her art and being surrounded by zero appreciation for it. She has this resolve and tenacity build up that no one is able to shake, even when they are literally screaming in her face. I think there is definitely a side of Mrs. Wilkinson that loves teaching Billy simply because he brings back her own passion for dance. There has been a lot more of my personal experiences mirrored in this show than any other I have done, which has been a little jarring at times, but I have been trying to harness that energy and emotion into my character’s responses.”
That passion about art is not just a trait of Mrs. Wilkinson, but it’s something that all of the people at the DM Playhouse share. From Executive Director David Kilpatrick all the way to the volunteer who spends an occasional weekend helping paint sets for the next production, it’s all out of love for the form of theatre and the connections it brings.
“At the beginning of May, we left the Playhouse, to rehearse, teach classes, and perform in three different venues,” says an amazed Viars. “This called for a tremendous amount of effort from all involved. We are a week from opening the first production of our 100th season, back in our home and excited about what lies ahead.”
The songs in Billy Elliot are about the power of dance, and “all you have to do is shine!” The Playhouse gets to shine, brighter and better than ever, with this show in their new home.
You can see the first steps into the new era when Billy Elliot opens at the newly-remodeled Playhouse on October 5. The musical runs until October 28, and tickets are available through the DM Playhouse website or by calling 515-277-6261.
Pictures courtesy of the Des Moines Playhouse. Publicity photos by Brent Isenberger