I could not believe what I was seeing and hearing when I attended One Night with Janis Joplin last week at Arena Stage. Mary Bridget Davies gives one of the most amazing performances I had ever seen on the stage, so I had to interview her. She is a force of nature!
Joel: I am truly honored that you are taking the time to answer these questions. Your performance last night was phenomenal. How did you first get involved in One Night with Janis Joplin? What was the audition like and what did you sing, and why did you want to want to perform these very vocally challenging songs?
Mary: Thank you SO much!! My friend forwarded the Playbill cast listing for the audition.I took the train in from Cleveland to New York City. The final callback audition was about 40 girls in one rehearsal room auditioning together for both the Janis and Blues Singer roles. We were paired up to see how we interact together since we would be interacting as Janis and Aretha at the end of Act 1. Randy is close friends with Liza Minnelli, so she SHOWED UP! It was incredible. I sang “Try” and really nailed it The pairs sang “Honky Tonk Woman” together as a duet and it was a LOT of fun. I have always had a strong connection to Janis Joplin. I just HAD to sing her songs.
How do you take care of your voice and rest your voice between shows?
I sleep as much as I can to rest my voice. I use Throat Coat tea and a few other secret weapons from time to time.
How is the Arena Stage production different from the production at The Cleveland Playhouse? Has anything been added or taken out for the Arena Stage production?
The Arena Stage production is slightly truncated. We shaved about 5-10 minutes off of the show, moved “Mercedes Benz” from the middle of Act 2 to an encore after bows, and added an acoustic rendition of “Rock My Way to Heaven” into the show.
How would you describe your performance and your real voice and Janis’ voice? How do you make Janis your own when you perform this show?
Every time I do the show, I do it like it’s the first time I’ve ever sung it. That’s how I believe Janis would do it. Make each night new and fresh for a different audience. That’s truly one of the luxuries of this production. There is room for personal expression; it doesn’t have to just be the exact show night after night. I believe that I have the ability to get close to Janis’s voice but I could never say that I can sing just like her. That would be crazy!! She had the ability to split her vocals, almost like a Tuvan throat singer. One-of-a-kind!
How has your performance changed since your first performed it in Cleveland?
I have lived in the role for a while now and it feels so natural. I have far more confidence in the role, plus the ladies and the band and I have all gotten tighter and have learned how to watch and follow each other onstage, which always makes for an incredible show.
The show has the blessing of Janis’ family. What was the most memorable thing Janis’ brother and/or family members said to you after seeing you perform for the first time?
Most recently, Michael Joplin said that watching me in One Night with Janis Joplin, he felt like he was at Monterey Pop. Like the footage where Mama Cass is watching Janis sing “Ball & Chain.” That blew me away! Also, Laura Joplin held her high school reunion at the Alley Theatre in Houston and all of her classmates watched my performance (of Love, Janis). Laura said Janis would be happy! All of her classmates shared stories about Janis with me and were SO complimentary of my performance.
When were you first introduced to Janis Joplin’s music and do you remember what the first song of hers you listened to and your reaction to it?
My Mother sang “Summertime” to us as a lullaby and my parents played her records all the time. I can’t remember the very first time, but I used to jump on the couch and scream along to “Piece of my Heart”… a lot!
What does the blues mean to you and what did the blues mean to Janis? When were you first introduced to the blues? And who are some of your musical influences?
I think Son House said it best, “There ain’t but one kind of blues. And that consists of the troubles between a man and a woman who are in love, and sometimes about being broken.” I KNOW that’s right! The blues makes you feel good once you let it into your soul and grow. It exorcises the pain, brings it to the surface and burns a little bit of the hurt off until you feel better again. I believe Janis felt the same way. Like she says in the show “It’s the WANT of something that gives you the blues… maybe it’s not what ISN’T, it’s what you wish for WAS that brings unhappiness.”
As I previously stated, my parents had the best records around so I have been surrounded by the blues all of my life. My influences are heartache, worry, trouble, pain, joy, lust, hunger…Nina Simone, Etta James, Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, Mavis Staples, Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan, James Brown, Mike Finnigan, I know… I could go on forever.
What is the role of the Blues Singer in One Night with Janis Joplin, and what impresses you most about Sabrina Elayne Carten who plays her in the show?
The Blues Singer embodies many of Janis’ musical influences, including Nina Simone, Odetta, Bessie Smith and Aretha Franklin. Sabrina is a classically trained opera singer. She sings Gershwin’s “Summertime” and I still get the chills when she sings it, but what’s even more incredible is how she captures the essences of each woman she is portraying to a tee. She goes through so many complete transformations not only in style but physically and vocally. She is a force and a joy to share the stage with.
You have been performing with Janis’ original band Big Brother & the Holding Company. How long have you been performing with them, and how has that helped you in molding your performance in this show?
I’ve been gigging with Big Brother on and off since the summer of 2006. I have had the honor of sharing the stage with them on several European tours as well as here in the States and Canada. I am incredibly lucky to be afforded this opportunity. They are a wealth of knowledge, a direct pipeline into the counter culture. As a matter of fact, Sam Andrew and I have collaborated and written a new side project album together along with some top Cleveland musicians. It should be out next year!
What was the best advice Director/Creator/Writer Randy Johnson gave you about performing Janis’ songs and performing your role?
He told me I have Janis in my DNA. He said to just go out there and celebrate her truth.That’s all I needed to hear to give me the confidence!
I can’t say enough about the incredible band and backup singers who perform with you. What do you like most about performing with them? How is the band similar to Big Brother & the Holding?
We ARE a band. Having that positive chemistry is vital to the success of the show. You can’t phone it in and we don’t! We are in the music together supporting each other at all times. We are all friends now outside of the production. That is a RARE occurrence in theater.
The fact that they are a tight knit group is a similarity but we have the keys and horns present in most of the arrangements and BBHC was only drums, bass, 2 guitars and Janis. So…. on the Big Brother material they play it with authenticity with a few horns and a splash of keys on top.
What do you want audiences to take with them after leaving The Kreeger after seeing One Night with Janis Joplin?
I want them to FEEL!!! Sing along, laugh, cry, connect. I want them to let loose, relax and enjoy! Supporting live arts is so important and the least we can do is put on a great show to show our gratitude!
One Night with Janis Joplin plays through November 4, 2012 in The Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage at The Mead Center for American Theater – 1101 Sixth Street, SW, in Washington, DC. To purchase tickets, call the box office at (202) 488-3300, or buy them online.
Mary Bridget Davies (Janis Joplin) starred as Janis Joplin in the national tour of Love, Janis and was nominated for the Austin Circle of Theaters’ B. Iden Payne Award as well as voted “Best Moment in Theater” by Kansas City’s The Pitch newspaper for her portrayal in Love, Janis. Other favorites include It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues on Broadway and being a member of Something Dada Improvisational Comedy Troupe. Davies has received numerous awards for her voice and band, most recently winning second place at International Blues Challenge 2011. She tours internationally with Joplin’s original band, Big Brother & the Holding Company.