The Wandering Road to Nunsense
by Karen Sheridan
Assembling the perfect ensemble of actors for a production is a delicate thing. I have directed lots of plays, but the audition process for “Nunsense,” which opens tonight, Sept. 9, at Peninsula Players was as interesting a process as I can remember. The result was a team of thoroughbred comediennes who can sing the pants off any number. But, the path to this quintet of excellent performers was circuitous.
But, let’s start with my audition. This is my 10th season at Peninsula Players since 1993 as an actor/director. Greg Vinkler, Peninsula Players’ artistic director, does a magnificent job pairing people with the right project. So, some years your phone rings and some it doesn’t.
This year, Greg called me to check my availability for a directing slot this summer. This first call let me know he was thinking of me, but no titles or dates got bandied about. It was a fishing trip. A call that is both delightful and cryptic. A second call came—“Karen, would you be available to direct ‘Nunsense’ in the fall slot?” Yay! Now, let’s jump to my show’s “Sisters.”
Christine Mild (Sister Robert Anne) was hand-picked by Greg. For an actor, this means you are in the covetous position of not having to audition this time around. This only happens if you have done an amazing job on a previous role at that theater. Christine had just played the title role last year in “Always…Patsy Cline” and done a bang-up job. So, my first sister was in place.
More typically, actors attend general auditions, this year starting March 30 and held over three days in Chicago. Actors make appointments and have five minutes to make an impression which they hope results in an offer to be part of the company. Those interested in singing had to come the first day when Valerie Maze (“Nunsense” music director) and I would be present along with Greg. Who knew that March 30th ended up being the day of Greg’s root canal, so Val and I did the auditions that day without him!
Ashley Lanyon (Sister Mary Leo) was the 14th person to audition that morning. A Boston grad who does not live in Chicago, she told me later she woke up that morning so filled with “this’ll never happen,” she decided not to come. Coaxed by her boyfriend who was also auditioning, she made the trip and did the required two pieces for consideration—a song and a monologue. After Ashley finished, Val asked her to sing something else. Though that invitation is always a good sign, it can unpin an actor. Ashley sang a lovely “How are Things in Glocca Morra?” and I wrote “Leo?” immediately on her resume. She recently told me she had such fun at her audition that she told her boyfriend they were moving to Chicago!
Cassie Slater (Sister Mary Hubert) was the fifth person in the door after our lunch break. I had seen Cassie play Petra in “A Little Night Music” during the Players’ 75th season. She knocked the socks off her big number. And Cassie predictably filled the room with such a dynamic, exuberant energy; I felt like she was inviting us out to play. She had to be one of the nuns!
Val and I sat down at the table after we’d seen all the auditions that day and concurred we hadn’t seen anyone who could play Reverend Mother. Despite the fact that Val and I have never worked together before, we stewed silently for only a moment, then turned to each other and said “Liz Pazik.” Neither one of us knew the other knew the great Liz Pazik. Now we had ideas for three more of our sisters and it was time to check in with Greg.
Greg needs to put together a company…really a family of actors who support each other throughout the season. He liked our choices and put them in the mix. First, he called Liz Pazik to see if she was available. Turned out, Liz was supposed to be on a cruise during the run of “Nunsense,” but was willing to rearrange her trip. She had been at Players in 1987 as Sister Amnesia in “Nunsense,” and was dying to come back. (It was only later I found out—it was a European cruise!)
In many professions, “who you know” is the safety net. And between Greg and Val’s experience and the amount of grey hair I am currently sporting, I never doubted we could find our last spirited nun. To open up our possibilities, I asked Greg if we might consider actresses from the Detroit area.
Meadow Brook Theatre (Michigan’s largest producing professional theater) had given me permission to comb through their headshot file. While I was doing so, Danny Goggin, creator of “Nunsense,” walked by. He was at MBT directing his “Meshsuggah-Nuns.” I called out and introduced myself to him saying I was directing “Nunsense” in Wisconsin this summer. “Not the one with Christine Mild in it?” he responded. I said yes and he replied, “Then I am doubly glad to meet you!”
Back at the files, I selected six women who I felt were contenders. Among them was Stephanie Wahl. I had met Stephanie when we were in “Boeing, Boeing” together at Meadow Brook. (She was the stewardess from Lufthansa and I was the ornery maid.) Despite the fact that MBT likes to hire from closer to home, they bring in Stephanie from New York whenever she fits the bill.
Greg invited the last group to send video auditions to him which he shared with Val and me. After he saw Stephanie’s video he called me in Detroit and said, “I want to hire her right now.” I reminded him he didn’t have all the videos yet—he should wait in order to be fair. He repeated like a petulant child, “I want to hire her right now.” Ultimately he did wait, saw all the submissions, then made his call to Stephanie.
Now that I’ve spent two weeks with these terrific actresses, I can’t wait for you to meet them. See you at the theater! For tickets or more information on “Nunsense” visit www.peninsulaplayers.com or phone the Box Office at 920-868-3287.
Karen Sheridan, director of “Nunsense,” celebrates her 10th season at Peninsula Players where she directed “Heroes,” “Rumors” and “Is He Dead?” as well as acted in many Players productions.