The very talented Derek Tatum is a member of ‘the line’ in Olney Theatre Center’s production of the Tony Award-winning A Chorus Line. Derek takes us behind-the-scenes of his audition, rehearsals, and his career.
Eric and Joel: Who do you play in A Chorus Line and how do you relate to your character? Why did you want to play this role and be a part of Olney Theatre Center’s production?
Derek: I play the role of Don Kerr in A Chorus Line. He is the first person in the line and is originally from Kansas City, Kansas. Don is your average typical All-American guy. At the age of 15, he started working in strip clubs outside of Kansas city to make money. He would tap dance in between strip sets for this stripper named Lola Latores. Don was born into the business since his parents were both performers in the Kansas theatre circuit. He figured at the age of 15 he needed to get a job and came across the strip joint which combined girls, money, and show business.
In the show, Don is supposed to be 26 and lives in NYC with a wife and two kids. He has already been in several Broadway shows and is beginning to wonder if he wants to continue as a performer or venture into another part of the business – like directing or more behind the scenes. In many ways it is easy for me to relate to Don. I am pretty much your All-American guy who started dancing at an early age and always had support from my parents. While I never worked at a strip club, I can appreciate the feeling of freedom and remembering my first performing job where I actually made money doing what I love.
As much as I love this business, there have been several times where I have thought about trying another career. This career path is not an easy one and does not pay very well unless you make it big. Like Don, I can relate to him needing to build a career and future for himself and thinking what he may do if he can’t perform anymore. I am now 27 myself and am planning to give the next few years my dedication to this crazy business. However, there is always that scary feeling of what I will do in the future if my performing career is not supporting me or a future family.
Don is very easy to play because I feel almost identical to him at this stage in my life. It means so much to play this role at Olney Theatre Center. Not only do I feel very connected to this role personally, but I am also am thrilled to share with the audience what a performer goes through every day.
Have you been in any other productions of A Chorus Line?
When I was in High School I was in a production of A Chorus Line through Musical Theater Center in Rockville, MD. I played the role of Mike, the energetic Italian performer in the line who sings “I Can Do That.” It was a great role for me since I have a lot of energy and am a strong tapper. I must admit that doing this show again is now much more real for me. In high school there was no possible way for me to actually understand the true meaning of the show because I was too young and inexperienced. Now that I have been in the business for about 8 years, I fully understand the text of the script and how to channel my personal experiences into my character on stage.
Where did you get your acting, singing, and dance training? What is your earliest memory of singing and dancing on the stage and auditioning just like the characters in A Chorus Line?
I started dancing when I was three with Mary Lou Peters and continued through high school. When I was 13, I became involved with the Musical Theater Center which opened me up to the world of singing and acting. I was part of their performing ensembles Upbeat Unlimited and Singular Sensations, which performed Broadway musical numbers through out the DC community. Although I ended up getting a B.S. in Biology from University of MD College Park, I kept up my training and soon was in the business after auditioning during college. I have kept up my training with several voice teachers, dance teachers, and acting teachers in DC and NYC.
My first memory of dancing was probably when I would see my mother perform at her dance recitals and I would try to copy her move for move in our living room. She was doing a dance to the song “Everybody Dance Now” and I loved it! Very 90s I know! The first performance I remember of a musical was actually A Chorus Line at Musical Theater Center in Rockville! I remember that I was checking out MTC to see if I wanted to audition for their ensemble group, and after I saw that show there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to try musical theatre. How ironic! Right? It was at MTC where I had my first audition to be a part of their ensembles. We danced and I sang my audition song which was “I Just Can’t Wait to be King.”
What makes this production of A Chorus Line so special?
Chorus Line is special in itself because it is a show about dancers and written by dancers. It gives the audience an insight into the exciting and stressful world of show business. I love this show because it is what I live everyday as a working actor/singer/dancer. I started dancing first, so I can especially appreciate what a dancer’s life is and how hard it is when you can’t do what you love to do anymore. Aside from my love for the show, I feel that this is the perfect time for me to be doing this show because it reminds me as to why I am in this business. I have always loved performing, but as I get into my late 20s like Don, I am getting concerned about where it is taking me.
Although, I love this business, there is not necessarily advancement and stability. Even if you make it to Broadway you have to realize that it may close if the reviews are not good, and then you are back to bartending or waiting tables. This show reminds me that I need to keep performing because there is nothing else that I would rather do at this time, and A Chorus Line makes me realize that all performers go through the exact same insecurities as we progress in our careers.
Take us in to your audition. What did you sing, dance, and read at your audition? How many callbacks did you have and how long was it after your audition did you receive the call that you had been offered your role? Where were you when you got the call?
For my audition I sang “Extraordinary” from Pippin because it matched the contemporary style of the show. Pippin is one of my favorite musicals so I really connect well to the material – and that is the most important part when choosing any audition song. We also had to do the jazz combo and ballet combo from the opening number. I was called back to read for the role of Don the next day.
After my callback, the team explained to me that they would be holding their separate NYC call and should then be making some decisions afterwards. Later the following week, I was just getting out of rehearsal where I was Assistant Directing/choreographing a production of Peter Pan and I saw I had a new voicemail. The voicemail said that Olney would like to offer me the role of Don, and I was thrilled! I really feel blessed to be given the chance to work with Olney in this production – in a show that means so much to me.
How long did the rehearsal process last? What were the toughest challenges you had during rehearsals?
We had rehearsals for a little over three weeks including tech rehearsals. We were only off Mondays and the rest of the week we were scheduled for 8 hour days. I had done this show before when I was younger so I figured it would be fairly easy and very familiar Boy was I wrong! This show is a monster because there are so many specifics in each number and scene. The hardest part about the rehearsal process was simply remembering where you were supposed to be on stage at any given time. Each actor has to hit specific seams or numbers on the number grid at the front of the stage. This is important so dancers do not hit each other – especially when they need to be dancing so close to one another.
Stephen Nachamie is the director and choreographer. What impresses you most about working with him, his vision for the show, and his choreography? What has been the most difficult dance to learn for you and why? And what is the best advice he has given you about playing Don?
This is my first time working with Stephen and it has been a pleasure. Stephen really knows A Chorus Line so he understands what the actors are going through. He even developed little ‘cheat sheets’ for us so we know where we should be in each section of the show. I love the choreography and Stephen has done a great job keeping true to the original idea on Broadway. The most difficult dance to learn would have to be “One.” It is not that the choreography is that difficult, but it is very challenging to blend as a chorus and be spatially aware since you are dancing in such close proximity.
Have you performed before with any of your A Chorus Line cast members? What impresses you most about their performances?
I have performed with a few of the DC actors in the cast before and I am happy to be working with them again. I am also really happy to be working with some Broadway veterans. Everyone in this cast brings something different and as a whole I am very proud of what we have created as a company. I also want to give a shout out to our swings because they have to cover several tracks and have to be ready to go on any second if one of the performers in the line cannot go on.
How would you describe Marvin Hamlisch‘s and Edward Kleban’s score and which song is your favorite?
Brilliant! I love the 70’s sound to the show and each song is written very well. I have several favorites in this show so it is hard to pick. I obviously love the opening jazz combo music because it is one of the most iconic moments to a dancer. The song “What I did for Love” means the most to me because it explains to the audience the reason we devote our hearts and souls to this business. We sacrifice so much to be actors such as money, stability, and relationships. Not many people truly understand or get what we do – and this song should shed some light on that. The entire ‘Montage’ section in which we talk about growing up is another one of my favorites because it is groovy and is the one number we can truly let loose.
What does A Chorus Line have to say to audiences in 2013? Why do you think the show is still so successful and loved over three decades later after it opened on Broadway and won 9 Tony Awards?
Regardless of the year this musical is performed, it still has the same message: the life of a dancer is not an easy one and you have to really want to be in show business to stay in it. At the same time, it also explains to the audience why we are so committed and how many of us have kind of gotten addicted to performing so much that it is not just a job, but part of who we are. It shows real people in a real audition setting and explains how our interview is very different from other careers. We literally have to show them everything we’ve got in order to get the job because there is SO MUCH competition out there. As an actor, you realize that even though you are pouring your heart out in your dance combo, monologue, or audition song, you will probably just here “Thank You” at the end. My motto is “Do your best and forget the rest” – but of course that is easier said than done.
What do you want audiences to take with them after seeing A Chorus Line at Olney Theatre Center?
I want audience members to gain insight into how much performers give up in order to do what we love. Many people think we make the big bucks and have an easy life, but that could not be further from the truth for most of us. Even if you make it big in NYC – most of your check is probably going to your rent. I have always thought that being an actor is just like being a juggler. You need to make time for auditions, rehearsals, performances, dance lessons, voice lessons, working out at the gym to stay fit, and business matters ( keeping your headshots and resumes current and promoting your future work).
Last, but not least, most of us need to find and maintain flexible work such as waiting tables and bartending to supplement our income and fill in the gaps between shows. In addition to waiting tables and bartending, I have fortunately been able to find regular work as a substitute teacher. I have even been able to obtain long-term sub jobs in biology – which was my major. In the summer, I have also worked at summer camps.
Being an actor is not a job it is a lifestyle. We cannot have a 9-5 schedule because then we are not available for auditions and performances to further us in our careers. It is very easy for an actor to fall of the path if they are not careful. Actors are truly some of the hardest working people because we have several jobs at once and are always working to better ourselves – when we are not on stage or in front of the camera on set. Some days I wish I had a 9-5, but for now I am happy and content to ride the wave and see where my performing career will take me. I never want to have regrets and I might as well pursue this career as far as I can for now.
What’s next for you after A Chorus Line?
I plan to keep following my path as a performer and see where it takes me. Auditioning is a big part of this business and I will be traveling between NYC and DC to audition as much as I can. I have some things in the works, but nothing definite that I can announce now. You never know what may come up, but I am excited to take the journey one day at a time.
A Chorus Line plays through September 1, 2013 on the Main Stage at Olney Theatre Center— 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, in Olney, MD. For tickets, call (301) 924-3400, or purchase them online.
Amanda Gunther’s review of A Chorus Line.