A Conversation with Lauren Molina & Bri Sudia
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Written by Kelly Wallace
Photography by Liz Lauren
September 19, 2016
“What year is this?” Bri Sudia, in-character as Ruth, asks in a promotional video for Wonderful Town. In the video, Lauren Molina and Bri Sudia run all around Chicago, trying to figure out if it’s quite as wonderful of a town as New York City. And even though their characters are confused after arriving straight out of 1935, you could be forgiven for asking the same question in earnest with one look around today’s world. So you can see why The Goodman would think we all need a little more Leonard Bernstein in our lives right now. The production, helmed by MacArthur-certified genius Mary Zimmerman, opens this week and from what audiences are saying, the break spent with smartphones and cable news turned off is giving them a rare respite from a rapidly changing world, a chance to live in an exuberant, silly, joyful Wonderful Town, even if it’s just for two and a half hours.
Kelly Wallace: Let’s start with how you came to be involved with the show.
Lauren Molina: I got an audition through my agent and fortunately I had a wonderful experience doing Candide here at The Goodman years ago with Doug Peck, the music director. They brought me in for an audition and after some callbacks, I ended up with the part!
Bri Sudia: I’m based here in Chicago so I knew the show was auditioning and was sort of trying to figure out how to get seen for it, since I don’t have an agent, who usually makes that process a little smoother. But actually our musical director, Doug Peck, who is fabulous and just a great music director and also a really good human being…he threw my name out. He said, “It sounds like you’re looking for Bri Sudia.” And then they had me send a tape, because they were in New York City, probably because of Lauren, and then I came in when they were back in Chicago and it all just fell into place from there.
KW: Did you know each other before working on this show?
BS: No! We actually met for the first time on a phone interview, just like this one.
LM: Which is actually hilarious because we were on the phone for this interview for what seemed like 40 minutes and when we got off, a couple days later the interviewer sent us an email saying that interview was never recorded, so we have to do it all over again.
KW: Well, I promise you this is recording and we won’t do it over again. So you didn’t know each other, you come into the rehearsal room and you’re playing sisters. How did you create that bond with each other in a believable way?
LM: I have to say, Bri makes it super easy to be her sister. I really feel a kindred spirit towards her and I feel like we are sisters in comedy as well as we have a sense of…I don’t know. I just feel like we both get it.
BS: Yeah, we had to do a couple of different press events before we even started rehearsals. For example, we had to take the poster photograph.
LM: They flew me out to Chicago a week early, just to do that kind of thing.
BS: So she came out for the photo shoot and I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a professional photo studio but it’s very…models have it hard; I get it now. It’s not easy but we had such a fun time and we had the whole day to get to know each other outside of the confines of a rehearsal hall and any pressure to chat. We had the choice to get to know each other and then we did another day doing the promo video, which you can see on the website, of us just going around Chicago and talking to people about what makes Chicago great. We had a really good time and just enjoy each other. The other thing that’s wonderful is that there’s nothing better than being onstage with someone who you really think is funny and who you really think is a great singer. We learned to love matching our voices together. We’re different singers but when we sing together, we wanted it to sound like people who grew up together and they do sound alike. We found a way of blending our voices into the duets we sing together and that’s just been a bonding experience on its own.
KW: So you were asking people what’s so great about being here in Chicago…what do you love about being out here? Lauren, you’re based in New York and Bri, you’re based here, so I’m sure you have different experiences.
LM: I love Chicago theater because everyone is so genuinely nice. I feel this warmth here that is so special, that I feel no cattiness or competitive divaness here. I feel like it’s a community that builds each other up, in my experience. Bri, you live it more, but just whenever I’m here I feel that. And whenever I’m in Chicago, I’m doing a dream job, so that doesn’t hurt. Even just the city in general, people are very friendly and in the summertime, I think people are extra happy.
BS: That’s so true.
LM: I just find a general sunniness here. Also, people are very smart here. At least working with The Goodman, the people in our cast, the creative team – the wheels are always spinning. Mary Zimmerman is actually a certified genius: she’s a MacArthur Genius Award winner! So in general, I love Chicago.
BS: I came here because, well, I went to grad school out here, but I’m from the East Coast, and I applied to a lot of graduate programs on the East Coast and for graduate school they do these sort of interview/callback weekends where you go and you meet the other potential students and see the facilities. All the schools I saw on the East Coast…everyone at the callback was really beautiful. I remember being there and taking my shoes off and wanting to do my monologue barefoot. When I auditioned for a school in the Midwest, before I even had a chance, the school I ended up going to, he said why don’t you take your shoes off and let’s talk? There was something about that – I’ve always hated shoes my whole life, so I love working barefoot – it felt like a sign to me that the type of work being done here is just dressed down and it’s about people. It’s not about how you look as much. I feel like I can walk into a room in an audition in Chicago and they will really consider you if you’re outside the box. I’m 5’10” and I’m not super-petite and I don’t really fit into a type. I’ve made my own type.
LM: Yes, girl! I feel the same way.
KW: I definitely get that vibe. Lauren, I had seen you in Sweeney Todd, so I knew that aspect of your voice, and then I saw you sing “King of Anything” by Sara Bareilles and it was just a totally different thing. It’s so important for women who aren’t that cookie-cutter stereotype musical theater girl. I’ve seen both of your work enough to know that neither of you “fit” in a box, in a great way.
BS: And that’s what’s awesome about Chicago; Chicago says yes. Chicago says show me your idea. Show me your idea of this character. Show me who you are. And when we all say yes together, it makes it really exciting and different. It’s so filled with people breaking expectations and filled with people breaking barriers and getting out of that box. We’re also fiercely protective of our own and that’s something I just really admire. If they identify a problem, they go after it and they attempt to solve it. We don’t just bring it up and say this is a problem, someone fix it. The community is really driven, as we’ve seen lately, to make change and make things better for everybody. I just couldn’t be more proud of our community.
KW: You’re right, we’ve seen a lot of that especially in the past few months, for better or worse. There’s been this series of conversations about appropriate casting and diversity in shows. In New York, I didn’t necessarily hear those conversations happening in as big of a way, the way that you hear it here.
LM: From the New York perspective, I feel like small, experimental theater does exist, but it’s so priced out in New York. Everything has become so commercial; things that are happening Off-Broadway are basically guaranteed to not make money, so people don’t want to do that anymore and people aren’t taking the same kind of risks in New York that they can in Chicago, I think just simply based on funding.
KW: You don’t necessarily have access to the top of the food chain in New York, so to speak. New York is such a machine.
LM: It’s so money-driven. I really see that, as an outsider, coming into this community. I feel everything that Bri is talking about. People are very aware and conscious.
BS: Also, casting people here are way more accessible. They’re more accessible to young actors and old actors alike and you develop relationships with them. I first met Bob Mason at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre six or seven years ago and he has seen me and he sees a lot. He comes out to Utah Shakespeare Festival most years, so he’s had the chance to see me out there. We had a relationship where it wasn’t a matter of if you were good; it was about if you were right. You can ask questions. You can get feedback. I feel like the one-on-one relationship is really special and helps young actors get better and do better and work more. That upward mobility and support is really exciting.
KW: Lauren, you’re very active on social media. You’re very openly political; you talk a lot about your personal views. Do you feel like marrying your performance with that activism is something that’s important to your art?
LM: I mean, I believe in speaking up for equality and justice. I don’t think you often get an opportunity in a commercial way to be in a show that’s going to address some of the greater issues we have. For me, I haven’t gotten to do any political pieces or anything, but I do think that what I can do is use any…I’m like an F or G-List “celebrity,” maybe like H or I or J. But any people that respect me as a person, I can use that platform to bring up things that I believe in or sing about them with The Skivvies and talk about them. It’s very important. I wish I could do it more through big plays or musicals, but often it has to be on a smaller scale. I like to be a part of benefits and concerts that raise awareness too, that raise money for all different types of organizations.
KW: Bri, you worked on Shining Lives at Northlight, which is such a women’s story and definitely the heart of it was the bond between those women. It addresses the very real issues that existed at the time – these are real events. What was it like to build that character and engage with that kind of history?
BS: That show is incredibly special to me mostly because it was the first time I’d ever worked on a new musical and originated a character and I was with it for about a year before we actually went into rehearsal. Multiple people did multiple workshops of it. During one of those workshops, when we were up at Northwestern rehearsing, Molly Glynn and Bernie Yvon passed away. We got word of their passing during the workshop. We were all together. We had really just met and we were working on this show about what it is to be friends and lose friends and grieve friends and how to move on, figuring out if it’s even possible to move on, and what that looks like. I didn’t know them personally, but the moment that happened between all of us in the room that day was…it was an unspeakable level of grief. Once you show that deep of an emotion to a stranger, you’re linked to them. Because we don’t often really, really ugly cry in front of people we just met, let alone our professional comrades. It’s a rare thing to really let it fly. I think that day, and in the following days, all of our barriers were down and we were walking with that in our hearts. After that workshop, making the show really always kept the preciousness of life and the time we have together in the forefront of the piece. I think that was a big factor in why we actually felt such a strong bond, the women in that show particularly. We genuinely love each other. It’s the only cast I’ve ever been a part of that regularly tries to see each other. The four of us regularly try to hang out and have a glass of wine and catch up because we shared so much of our lives together.
KW: I think a lot of people are drawn to theater, as you were describing, because it can be very healing and help people through their struggles in real way. Shining Lives took that on in a very serious way, but at the same time, you’re both working now on Wonderful Town and that kind of show brings a different kind of healing, almost a form of escapism, at a time that we’re in right now.
LM: Absolutely. I want to touch on this topic as Bri is talking about the sadness. I feel as a performer, part of the way I can give back is by making people laugh and bringing people joy through theater and music. And in a different way, on a side note, I have a band called The Skivvies and we perform in our underwear and do comedic mash-ups and on October 17th, Bri is going to be doing a number with us! But I do feel like there’s something to feeling confident and empowering in being that exposed…literally in my underwear but also just being real and natural and bring people joy by connecting with them. And I think with Wonderful Town, you escape. The comedy and the deliciousness of the characters…I think we definitely need that in today’s world.
KW: And to touch on another issue that I think is important in theater now…Bri, I noticed you have a degree in interpreting sign language. What made you decide to pursue that? Have you had experience using that in your work?
BS: Yeah, I was actually involved in community theater as a kid, but I went to college for interpreting and worked as an interpreter for several years in New Jersey and Philadelphia. I started regularly interpreting for theatrical performances. I trained at the Theatre Development Fund, the Juilliard School theater interpreting program, which is a summer intensive where they train you specifically in interpreting theatrical performances. That was what I did. There came a point where I became deeply conflicted because I wanted to be onstage and it was hard for me to continue that on the sidelines, so I stopped and went back to graduate school for acting. But I love working and performing in ASL, it’s one of my favorite things. I’m so happy to see a resurgence of shows like Big River as a Deaf West Production and Spring Awakening which had such success.
LM: The deaf production of Hunchback of Notre Dame.
BS: Yeah! John McGinty, he and I worked together on Tribes at Steppenwolf. I’m always excited to incorporate ASL into my acting. The time commitment of interpreting would be impossible right now, but I would definitely go back to interpreting. My hands feel a little rusty.
KW: Lauren, you briefly touched on your group, The Skivvies. do you want to tell us a little more about that and how it came about?
LM: Absolutely. It was kind of a fluke how it got started. My best friend, Nick Cearly, we met in 2003 doing a children’s theater tour together and then became best friends. So we made music together, with our clothes on. But it wasn’t until four years ago, when we were hanging out one day, where we were putting a cover on YouTube and we wanted to strip it down in the quirky way that we usually do. We made this arrangement of Rihanna’s “We Found Love” and set up the video camera. I was trying to figure out what to wear to film the piece and I was walking around in my bra and Nick said, you should just wear that. I said, well, we are stripping it down. What if we did a whole strip-down music series? And then my boyfriend said you should call yourselves The Skivvies and we did a whole series. The videos started to go viral, and fans started asking when we’d do a live show, so we did. Everything blew up since then. We’ve had amazing Broadway friends guest perform with us and it’s so collaborative. It’s all about the music and coming up with fun new arrangements constantly. I love the freedom of being creative with my best friend and starting a small business has felt. This industry can be so miserable sometimes and so full of rejection…being able to start something and keep it up in a way that is so fulfilling and bring it around the country has been incredible. Right now, we’re just trying to balance theater and The Skivvies and try to plan concerts when one of us is out of town doing a gig, we try to do concerts in that city. We jump around all over and what’s next…who knows.
KW: And Bri, you’re doing Sweeney Todd at the Paramount next season, is that right?
BS: Yes, that’s correct!
LM: You are!?
KW: Do you have any tips for her?
LM: Wait, I didn’t know this! Who are you playing?
BS: I’m in the ensemble, I think I’m going to sing in the quintet.
LM: Oh super. We did it just slightly differently…
BS: Just a little bit! And before that I’m doing Miss Bennett at Northlight.
LM: You’ve got things all planned out. I don’t have any theater planned yet after Wonderful Town but I have a bunch of concerts. In January, I’m doing a show called Eating Raoul and we’re just doing a few performances of a reading version of that musical at 54 Below. We have a holiday show, we’re taking it to San Francisco and Cincinnati, Nantucket. All over the place. It’s going to be crazy. It’s so fun; I love traveling so much.
BS: She does really good train station dances.
LM: Ohhh yeah. When I’m miserable and waiting for delayed flights or trains, I like to dance when there’s no one else in there at 1AM and send my videos to Bri.
KW: See, and just based on this conversation, I would buy that you were sisters.
LM: Absolutely, we are.
KW: What is it that attracts you to this piece? What do you love about it? Is there a moment or a theme that made you want to do this?
LM: I think it’s the joy. The music and the characters are so classic – classic musical theater comedy.
BS: Exactly, it’s what I grew up on. It feels like…it feels familiar. We were talking a lot in rehearsal about the running time of the show because you know, musicals used to be allowed to be these big, epic experiences that were hours and hours long and our tolerance as American audiences has gone down a bit. Movies are shorter.
KW: Well, you would know specifically, just based on doing Tug of War at Chicago Shakes. I saw that, at first I have to admit I balked at the idea of 6 hours. And I swear, I went and at the end of it, I was like, wow I could sit here for three more hours. I’ve been to 75 minute shows that felt longer. So I feel like, when you have something that’s engaging, it should be allowed to be as long as it needs to be.
BS: Absolutely, that’s something that’s really exciting to throw the kitchen sink at an audience. We joke about it in rehearsal, but I don’t think there’s anything in rehearsal that the show doesn’t tap. We have singing policeman…
LM: Irish step-dancing policeman.
BS: Swing dancing, secretaries on wheels…we have pretty much everything that you can want out of a musical comedy, and we’re just hoping to bring our audiences a few hours of a great time and leave them smiling.
Lauren Molina returns to Goodman Theatre, where she previously appeared in Mary Zimmerman’s Candide (also at Huntington Theatre Company and Shakespeare Theatre, Helen Hayes Award). She appeared on Broadway as Regina in Rock of Ages and Johanna in Sweeney Todd (IRNE Award). Off-Broadway, Ms. Molina played Her in Marry Me A Little (Keen Company, Drama League Award nomination), originated Megan in Nobody Loves You (Second Stage Theatre and also at The Old Globe, San Diego Critics Circle Award nomination) and Regina in Rock of Ages. She most recently performed as Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors at the Cleveland Playhouse and the Countess in A Little Night Music at Huntington Theatre Company. Other regional credits include Murder Ballad (TUTS Houston), The Rocky Horror Show (Bucks County Playhouse) and Ten Cents a Dance (Williamstown Theatre Festival). Television credits include The Good Wife, and she has filmed pilots for A&E, WE and FOX. She is half of the comedy-pop duo The Skivvies and can be found performing in New York City and on tour across the country. LaurenMolina.com. TheSkivviesNYC.com.
Bri Sudia makes her Goodman Theatre debut. Chicago credits include Shining Lives, A Musical (Northlight Theatre); Far From Heaven (Porchlight Music Theatre); Road Show, Pericles and Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits (Chicago Shakespeare Theatre) and understudying in Tribes (Steppenwolf Theatre Company). Regional credits include three seasons at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, the Texas and Arkansas Shakespeare Festivals and the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. Ms. Sudia received her MFA in acting from The University of Illinois and holds a degree in sign language interpreting for the deaf.