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Curiocity: Q&A With The Star, Director Of ‘Aida’

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A new collaborative partnership between Hennepin Theatre Trust — and their marketing prowess — and a favorite local theater company, Theater Latté Da, takes the best of our Twin Cities talent and brings it to a larger spectrum.

To kick off this venture, which has been dubbed Broadway Re-Imagined, the artistic team chose Elton John and Tim Rice’s “Aida” to bring theater-goers into this new era.

The production, which ran on Broadway for four years, is the story of forbidden love, oppression and hope. It bring the audience from a contemporary setting to ancient Egypt and then bounces between the two worlds.

Inspired by the Giuseppi Verdi opera, the production now playing at the Pantages Theatre features a wealth of local talent, under the helm of extraordinary direction.

For more about this powerful tale and the beginning of Broadway Re-Imagined, we sat down with Director Peter Rothstein and lead actress Austene Van, who plays Aida.

This has been a partnership that’s been brewing between Hennepin Theatre Trust and Theater Latte Da for quite some time, and now it’s finally become a reality — and no doubt, an added pressure for success. What’s it like to see it come to fruition?

Rothstein: We’ve been working with Hennepin Theatre Trust now for five years, on our holiday show “All Is Calm,” we’ve just realized over these past five years, we speak a very similar language, we share passions and they have, you know, they’re experts in marketing to this community and building a really enthusiastic audience. And Theater Latte Da has slowly been building an audience for more adventurous musical theater. And now to bring the two of them together, just I think allows both our organizations to really flourish. It gives local artists an opportunity to work in these beautiful, historic theaters that we wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to, but also puts local talent in front of local audiences — and that’s pretty thrilling.

(credit: Michal Daniel)

(credit: Michal Daniel)

Being able to show off our local talent in front of those larger, local audiences, what’s that been like for both of you?

Van: For me, I am just always proud of our theater community — I think we have a strong theater community here and an amazing wealth of talent in the Twin Cities. We have about 70-something professional theaters here and this is what we do. What’s really wonderful about the Twin Cities, I think, is that it’s a wonderful, a nurturing place to develop your craft. The arts are supported by individuals and organizations but also there’s, I don’t know what to really call it, but there’s almost a family sense where there seems to be enough to go around, so everyone is in support of everyone else and encouraging. I think sometimes theaters think it’s necessary to get talent from other sources, other places, New York, Chicago, but it does your heart good to know that folks have confidence, like Peter, in the talent that’s here in the Twin Cities.

Why start with Aida? How was that chosen as the first production of this partnership?

Rothstein: Well I think we were looking for a title that spoke to audiences that have been attending theater on Hennepin Avenue, and huge hits that have been on Hennepin Avenue. I’ve been to ‘Lion King,’ with an Elton John score, ‘Billy Elliot,’ another great Elton John score, as well as Tim Rice’s ‘Technicolor Dreamcoat’ and ‘Avita,’ and his great, great cannon. So we were looking for a title that local audiences, especially that Broadway-going audience have had a good experience with. But also, there hasn’t been a major revival of ‘Aida.’ It was a big success on Broadway but it hasn’t been a major revival so it felt like a show that was right for bringing back. Also, it just provides a wealth of different skills that I think we have in town — there’s a rock band on stage, they’re not traditional musical theater players, they come from the rock band world. Putting together with actors and students from the university who are dance majors. We have circus artists in the show, we have people where music is their focus, or acting is their focus. So there’s all these skills that get to come together, which is why I love working in musical theater because it’s such a great fusion of a lot of different art forms. As well as designers, who we haven’t even mentioned — the fashion design in the show, and scenic design, lighting design and sound. So bringing those all together is really thrilling and I think ‘Aida’ is a great fusion of bringing all those things together in a pretty thrilling theatrical event.

(credit: Michal Daniel)

(credit: Michal Daniel)

What was your approach to taking something set in ancient Egypt but with a contemporary score — and contemporary movement?

Rothstein: I always think the balance of content and form is really fascinating, and what often I ask the design process is if these characters were left to their own devices, what tools would they have to tell their story? So, the tools of ancient Egypt and the tools of the Nubian characters are different — they express themselves differently, they dress themselves differently, their relationship to the Earth is different, their relationship between royalty and people is different in those cultures, so some of that is looking at historical references and a fun part of the process has been, OK, the score is very contemporary, it’s very pop, it’s very Elton John. And so to keep a foot in the contemporary world. The production begins and ends in an art museum in modern times, but we decided we would have that museum be kind of omnipresent, that we would always have one foot in the now. That while the clothes are influenced by African fashion and what we know of ancient Egyptian fashion, there’s also this constant foot in today. It’s almost like if a rock band today decided to tell a story about ancient Egypt, what would they dress like? What would they look like? So that’s been fun to make those two worlds coexist.

Austene, you play the title role of Aida. What about her character and what about the show made you want to be part of this production?

Van: Easy. Peter Rothstein. I didn’t really know, I mean, I’d heard about ‘Aida’ and I’d seen clips of it but I’d never been to Broadway to see the show and when it came into town, I never did see it. I got a call to audition and found out that Peter Rothstein was directing — and I became a fan of Peter when I saw him direct, ‘Once On This Island’ and it was absolutely gorgeous. I put it out there and I said, ‘Some day, some day (looks up) are you listening? (laughs) I would like to work with this man.’ So I wasn’t quite prepared for the audition but I came in anyway because I just wanted to see about it. But the night before I came in, I was started to gather some information about it and it was just beautiful and fascinating, and the Nubians and the Egyptians and the story about love and war and not being able to be together and slavery and oppression, I found that fascinating. And then I found out about everything — the cast, who was in the band, who was doing the costumes, who was doing the set and I said, ‘This is going to be that show that you want to be a part of, that’s going to make memories and it’s going to really move people.’ I think everything about it, Michael Ferrell’s choreography — I’ve worked with him in the past and he’s just so wonderful and soulful — so everything about it, drew me to it and made me want to do it.

(credit: Michal Daniel)

(credit: Michal Daniel)

Tell us more about your character — and how the themes of this musical relate to issues we’re still working on today.

Van: My character is called Aida and she’s a Nubian princess but she’s been captured by the Egyptians. The Egyptians are, of course, taking the Nubians into slavery, and taking the land and plundering and taking the people and oppressing them. She does not want anyone to know who she is, because she’ll be killed. She feels like she has led her people or at least her friends into slavery. She falls in love with an Egyptian captain and he falls in love with her. So there’s this forbidden love — she’s betraying her people by being in love with a captor, an oppressor. So I think that even still, today, we’re still kind of taken slave to who we think we should be with and how we think we should walk in the world. I don’t think we’re yet as free as we want to be to love people for who they are. I also think it’s very fascinating how the different cultures — the Nubians and the Egyptians — treat women. Amneris and Aida are both powerful women but they’re viewed differently — it seems like the Nubians don’t mind a woman who’s more physically powerful and more physically earthy, and able to lead in a different type of way. It seems like the way the Egyptians are portrayed in this story, a woman, her power is different in the sense that it’s more based on beauty and she’s more of a puppet — they don’t mind her leading but you’re going to lead this way … you don’t have to know this, you don’t have to know that, you just have to be beautiful. I think that as much progress as we’ve made, I think women still fight who and how to be in this world and how to wear your power and how to present your power and still be OK with your femininity.

The show opened on Saturday. What was it like performing in front of this new audience?

Van: It was energizing, it was amazing. When you’re in rehearsals, you know how you feel when performing with the other cast members and the rest of the creative team but it does something to you when you know that the story and the message, the things that we’re doing on stage and the things that we’ve created, and the vision that Peter has, when the beauty and the magic is touching people, and they’re responding audibly or you hear them sniffling or crying, or they stand up, it’s an amazing feeling. You feel so honored to be part of a vehicle that actually goes into people. It makes them think, it changes them somehow.

Rothstein: We did a couple of preview performances, which are really a huge part of the process for me. I always say I don’t hear a show until I hear it communally, until I hear it in a room full of people. And we had a lot of young people in those first two audiences and their energy was just palpable. The curtain went up and you could just feel the electricity in the room. Every performance so far, by the time Austene takes the stage, everyone is on their feet, standing ovation, every performance.

“Aida” runs through Jan. 27 at the Pantages Theatre. Tickets are $24 to $59. For more information or to buy tickets, click here.

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