Interview: Ciara Renée on What Her Role in The Lonely Few Means to Her
In The Lonely Few, now running at the Geffen Playhouse, Ciara Renée is playing a role that she is helping to shape. Known for musicals like Frozen, Waitress, The Wrong Man, and Tick, Tick…BOOM!, Renée plays Amy, a singer and songwriter who has had success, but is hoping for a big break on tour. When Amy passes through the hometown of Lila (played by fellow vocal powerhouse Lauren Patten), they have an instant connection, both musically and romantically.
The new musical is written by Rachel Bonds (book) and Zoe Sarnak (music and lyrics), but the work has been very collaborative (Trip Cullman and Ellenore Scott direct). “I think that largely this role was not being written for a woman of color, so there’s been a lot a lot of conversations around what that means,” says Renée. “We’re figuring out how to make space for that within the story, being true to the distinctions between what Lauren’s character would go through as a queer white woman in the South, and what I would go through as a queer woman of color in the south. It’s different. And that’s just the reality.”
Renée will be in The Lonely Few until April 9, after which she will be directing an off-Broadway developmental production of “Millennials Are Killing Musicals” at Theatre 71 (performances start May 9). Here, Renée discusses her journey.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What drew you to The Lonely Few?
Mainly that it’s a queer love story and also that I love Zoe [Sarnak]’s work. Zoe’s been casting me as a queer woman before I even knew that I was a queer woman. She probably knew more than I did. I recently, in the last two-ish years, came out, so it’s really awesome to be a part of telling a queer love story between two women and embracing that part of who I am.
How did you work with Lauren Patten to find that relationship between the two characters?
Lauren is a sweet human and a really talented actor and performer, so it’s been so easy to work with her from day one and there’s just a lot of trust between us. We’ve got a decent amount of intimacy going on in this show, and so thankfully we worked with Sasha [Nicolle Smith], our intimacy director, who is kind and compassionate and makes such a safe space.
It seems more shows are using intimacy directors these days, which is great. Have you worked on shows without them and how was that experience?
I’ve worked on shows exclusively without them and it’s been terrible every time, so it’s really great that we’re making these strides forward now. I honestly don’t think that I’ll be doing any other shows that don’t have them. Period.
What has been the most satisfying part of doing this show?
I think in general for me the two things that I find most satisfying about any work is, first, the collaboration with everybody, but especially the actors, and this group is really special. We all talk with each other about what we need onstage. The other thing is audience reactions, good or bad, honestly. People are in our spotlights at times because it’s so close. Just the other day, we had two women come, I believe they’re both queer, and they sat at the bar and had the best energy the whole time, so I chatted with them afterwards and they shared with me, “It was really cool to see a queer woman of color having a love story right in front of us and that wasn’t a thing in the past.” Maybe if I had seen something like that when I was younger, and it was more accepted in the way that it is today, I wouldn’t have waited so long to be myself.
Your previous two experiences on Broadway were two great roles, Elsa in Frozen and Jenna in Waitress, but the pandemic interfered with both those runs. Looking back on it now, how do you feel about those experiences? Did you have closure?
Yeah, I do now. I think with Frozen, it was really tough, because that was meant to be a yearlong contract and it was cut to three weeks. I’ve never done a show for a year, so this was my first time. I was like, “I’m going to learn what it really takes to be in something that long,” so for me there was a lot that felt like it was riding on that, and also it was a dream role. I love Disney. I love Elsa. It was really powerful every night to see all the little girls of color dressed up as Elsa and Anna and having a great time and it meant a lot to me. So, for that to have been cut short in the way that it was with all the uncertainty of it, it was really tough. But then when it came to Waitress, I knew it was only supposed to be six weeks or something like that anyway, and then when things started going south with people getting Covid, I just took the time every night to really relish it and know that it could end any night and it was probably like two or three performances of me taking it in and being grateful and being present and being in community with my fellow actors and saying, “OK, this could be, it this could be it,” and then it was.
Vocally, this seems like a very demanding show. What are you doing to protect your voice?
I’m learning each day what is necessary for my voice, the kind of warmups I need to do. I work with my vocal coach, Susan Eichhorn Young, and rest when I can because this show is asking my voice to use every piece of it as opposed to when I’m Elsa, I’m singing high notes. It’s high notes, high notes, high notes, which is fine. If you’re in one part of your voice, it’s actually way easier than if you have to be all over the place, and this is one of those shows where I’m being asked to literally use every piece of my voice, which is challenging. It’s fun, it’s interesting.
Is there anything else you want to say about the show?
I think everyone should come out and see it and we will give you earplugs if it’s a little too loud because it is pretty raucous. It’s actually a rock show in some ways. I feel like this is ushering in a new version of theater that we need. I’m really praying that this has a continued life in whatever medium it wants to be in because it’s a story worth telling and it’s a story that people need to understand is worth telling.