"For the first 20 pages, I was rolling my eyes," Donna Lynne Champlin admitted about the first time she read the script to Valueville, Rowen Casey's new musical about to make its New York premiere at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). "I thought, God, you might as well have written 'The Musical!' after 'Valueville' in the title." By the time she reached the last page, however, she was hooked.
Set in a Costco-esque "big box" store, Valueville is a disorienting look at the realities of low-wage employment through a highly unrealistic lens. Are those sliding glass doors at Walmart actually a portal to the Twilight Zone? This metaphysical musical questions class privilege, gender relations, and the nature of reality itself.
Champlin is an actress best known for memorable performances including her turn as Pirelli in the 2006 revival of Sweeney Todd. She was highly acclaimed in the recent off-Broadway revival of Almost, Maine. An Obie and Drama Desk Award winner, Champlin is something of a NYMF veteran, having won six festival awards over the past decade. She discovered Valueville while judging entries for the 2014 festival.
Champlin spoke with TheaterMania about why this has been an eye-opening experience and how it convinced her to hop into the director's seat.
How did you get involved with Valueville?
I was a judge for the 2014 NYMF season. I've done it for a few years. They send you a certain amount of scripts and scores and you rank them. Valueville was my number one choice. I sent the script back to NYMF and attached dramaturgical notes. After getting all my notes, Rowen Casey, the writer/lyricist/composer, said, "Whoever that director is, I want them to direct my show." NYMF told him that I'm not a director and that they've asked me to direct numerous times and I've always said no.
But you said yes this time. Why?
When they called me and said that the writer of Valueville wanted me to direct, I thought, Let me talk to this guy and see how we get along over the phone. So we had a call and I told him, "I want you to call five legitimate directors. I'm not going to say no yet, but I feel strongly you need to call five legitimate directors." He has so much riding on the piece and I believed in the show. I wanted to make sure he was going to go with someone with minimal directing experience. So he did that and called me back a week later to tell me I was still his director of choice. So I said, "Hell, let's do it."
What attracted you to the show?
I like to describe it as No Exit meets A Chorus Line. As a judge, I do tend to see the same scripts over and over again. I always feel like, for a lot of scripts, there's a commercial angle. You can see the bizarre hook for this or that demographic. It's very rare for me to come across a script for NYMF that is truly its own animal. That's really what appealed to me about Valueville. I still have my notes from when I first read it. I wrote, "I'm on page twelve. Let me tell you how this musical is going to end." I got to page thirty-five and my brain exploded. I had no clue where it was going. It was fantastic! I do like the fact that he lays a bit of a trap, making you think it's going to be one thing and then it isn't. And then you think, Oh, OK, I see now and then you're wrong again. It's not false ending for false endings' sake. Every moment is very organic and interesting. I so applaud and appreciate that.
This is your first time directing. Do you base your process on directors with whom you've worked?
Absolutely. From the first day of rehearsal, I'm in my element. I'm an actor and I know how that goes. So I am sort of cherry-picking from the styles and tactics of directors I've worked with. The pre-production work, however, I've had no experience with. None. That was the first lesson I learned: Directing is two parts. There's pre-production and the second part is when you start rehearsal. Pre-production was a very large learning curve for me. I'm lucky with NYMF, because I've worked with them a lot and I knew that if I ran into trouble or had basic questions that I'd be too embarrassed to ask at a regional house, these guys would give me the answer. They would help me and not treat me like an idiot. It's been a really good safety net for me in my first official time out, because I do believe so much in the piece. The last thing I would do is take the job if I didn't think I could do it well.
Has it been enlightening to you to see how much work goes into a show before the actors ever step into the room?
It is mind-boggling. I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I didn't really realize it. The ship is built before the actors step on. The actors are the passengers and the crew. I never realized how much goes into building the ship to make sure it just floats before the actors get there.