In Part 2 of a series of interviews with the director and cast members of Damascus Theatre Company’s My Fair Lady, meet Director Stephanie Bonte-Lebair.
Joel: Introduce yourself and tell our readers where they may have seen you perform or direct on our local stages?
Stephanie: I’m a lifelong performer, born and raised in Illinois, earned my Masters in Vocal Performance from Illinois State University, moved to New York City for a few years where I performed in opera, musicals, and cabaret shows, and have been living in Gaithersburg, MD since 2003 with my husband Bill. Almost 3 years ago, I became a mom to a beautiful little boy who has a boundless amount of energy and quite a dramatic streak.
Locally, I’ve performed primarily with Damascus Theatre Company (DTC) and Rockville Musical Theatre (RMT) but I’ve also understudied at Signature Theatre, and I perform with a cabaret singing group I started with a friend several years ago called Metrocabaret. My favorite local roles include Cinderella in Into the Woods (DTC), Tracy Lord in High Society (RMT), Sonia in They’re Playing Our Song (DTC), and Amalia Balash in She Loves Me (DTC) (WATCH nomination for Best Actress in a Musical).
My first directing experience was with DTC’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Arts Barn a few years ago (WATCH nominated for Best Director).
Have you ever directed the show before and why did you want to direct it now?
This show is only my 2nd directing experience, but I feel like I’ve been preparing to direct it for a long time. This is a musical that I’ve always loved. Although I’ve often imagined myself playing the role of Eliza Doolittle, the opportunity never came my way at the right time. So when I was asked if I wanted to submit a show to direct for DTC, My Fair Lady was at the top of my list.
I really wanted to be involved with this show even if it wasn’t playing Eliza, and sometimes you have to create your own opportunities. I’ve seen it on stage several times and watched the movie more times than I can count. I remember watching it as a young girl with my Dad and just being captivated with the story and with the beauty of the music and costumes. Bringing this show to life has been a complete labor of love for me, and honestly, I believe it’s even more exciting and fulfilling than playing Eliza would have been. Plus, watching my amazing cast, especially my talented Eliza (Cara Bachman) and Professor Higgins (Bryan Lyons-Burke) bring these characters to life is just plain fun!
How has your design team brought your vision to life on the stage?
Wow, I could not have done this without the top-notch team we have in place. I know of theatre companies that struggle to find people to build sets and do the endless number of tasks needed to put a production like this together. But Damascus Theatre Company has an amazingly strong core of people that make community theatre feel like professional theatre. And this show is technically and visually so challenging, you have to have a strong team in place.
We aren’t renting My Fair Lady? costumes. We have an actual costume plot where color schemes have been chosen and several costumes have been made by hand (including many of Eliza’s costumes). We had several volunteers make the beautiful and creative hats for Ascot.
The set construction team has been working for months on creating an entire platform stage that sits on top of the Olney Historic Stage, complete with two 9-foot rotating drums that rotate four 12-foot columns that hold hundreds of actual books for Higgin’s Library. Three beautiful chandeliers have been hand-beaded with thousands of beads for the ballroom scene. Props have been either created by hand or authentic versions have been found and collected.
I have seen the work in progress and I am amazed, but I know that when I see it up on that stage it will be even more breathtaking.
What challenges have you had working in the historic stage space?
It’s a big challenge doing this show at Olney because we have no working front curtain and we can’t use the fly system. That means scene changes have to be fast and creative. We’ve had to build in more scene change music in places, and we’ve had to design a set that can switch as quickly as possible (hence the rotating drums). We have a great plan in place, and the cast and crew is going to be the key to pulling this off successfully. It’s been so reassuring knowing that our sound, lighting, stage manager, and producers are so experienced and have this all down to a science. It’s the only reason I can sleep at night and not be in a complete state of panic at the thought of everything that needs to be done and coordinated to pull this off well.
What does My Fair Lady have to say to this generation of theatregoers?
I really hope the audience tunes into is how this isn’t your typical musical love story – but it is nonetheless a love story. The relationship Eliza has with Professor Higgins is multi-layered, complex, and real. It would be a mistake to consider Higgins simply a jerk or anti-feminist or to think that Eliza should just walk out that door and never return. The audience never gets to see that picture-perfect ending. You just see a glimpse of what you hope might happen. And that might be different things to different people. Eliza and Higgins fight, they are flawed, and yet they are drawn to each other. I can relate to that, and I think a lot of other people can too.
Eliza’s character sends an empowering message to young girls and women. She decides she is going to do whatever is necessary to raise her station, and then she takes risks and does the hard work to get it done. She isn’t rescued by a knight on a white horse. She doesn’t just fall in love and everything works out. She sets her mind to it, and then goes on the journey even if it takes her to places she didn’t imagine, even if she is uncomfortable at times. The ending is especially powerful. When she returns to Professor Higgins, the message isn’t that she was weak or needed a man. It would be much easier for her to walk away, to find her own way in the world. But she comes back to face the potentially difficult road of discovering what it is between the two of them, knowing that she is drawn to him flaws and all. It is easy to imagine that others would applaud her walking away, but she’s stronger than to listen to anyone but herself and her own heart.
Which character is like you?
I think I’d have to say Eliza because I relate to having that vision of what I want to create and then going out and doing the work to make it happen. Eliza is strong and determined and ultimately she manifests everything she desires. I’d like to think I can be that way too. Plus, it’s too tempting not to imagine myself as Audrey Hepburn from the movie. A girl can dream.
How would you describe the score of My Fair Lady?
Beautiful, soaring, rich, memorable – and completely stuck in my head 24-7.
Which scene or scenes were the most difficult to direct, stage, and block, and why?
The final scene of the show, when Eliza returns to Higgins, by far was the biggest challenge. It’s a short scene, but it’s so full of emotion and meaning. Besides all the technical challenges with the audio recording cues and live music, if not acted and blocked well, everyone sits there saying “That’s the end? Why did she come back? I don’t get it.” If the relationship arc between the characters is laid out well leading up to that scene, and it flows the way I envision it, it will be a touching and a magical ending.
What is your favorite song in the show and why?
“I Could Have Danced All Night.” It’s been in my audition binder for the last 20 years for a reason. Yea, I can sing it, but it’s also full of beauty and joy!
What have you learned about yourself as a director while going through this experience?
I’ve learned that I work best in the moment, organically creating, instead of spending hours planning scenes out ahead of time. I’ve learned that although this level of responsibility surpasses all other theater hats I’ve worn to date, it also provides the most satisfaction and sense that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing — creating, using my intuitive gifts, and spending time with amazingly talented people.
Why should theatregoers come and see this production of My Fair Lady?
If the idea of attending a visually-stunning musical performed by professional-level cast with a live orchestra playing a memorable score that will leave you humming on the way out the door appeals to you, then you can’t miss this production!
My Fair Lady plays from November 14-23, 2014 at Damascus Theatre Company performing at The Historic Stage at Olney Theatre Center-2001 Olney-
Meet the Cast of ‘My Fair Lady’ at Damascus Theatre Company–Part 1: Brian Lyons-Burke.