Tina Stafford is currently performing the role of the accordion playing Baruška in the national tour of Once. The show continues through August 16th at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre. Her NY stage credits include Ionescopade at York Theatre, I Married Wyatt Earp at 59 E. 59 and Illyria at Prospect Theatre Co. Tina’s many regional credits include productions at some of the country’s finest theatres including Westport Country Playhouse, La Jolla Playhouse, Denver Center, Arena Stage, Paper Mill, Goodspeed Musicals and Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.
As you can tell from question number four, I have been following Tina’s career for a long time. I had the chance to watch her nightly in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers while working at Paper Mill Playhouse. I have also over the years seen her perform in various other productions as an audience member. With Once Tina has to play the accordion besides having to sing and act. Let’s just say she is three for three. It’s so nice to see people that you worked with ages ago that are still doing what they love years later. How many of us can say that? For an intimate evening of theatre featuring a superb cast which includes the many talents of Tina Stafford, check out Once before it leaves town. It’s love story that might have you “Falling Slowly” into your lover’s arms.
Can you please tell us how you got into show business?
I was raised in a family of boys, and every Saturday we would go to the park to watch them play baseball. One day when I was 5 or 6, I said to my mom, “I want everyone to come watch ME do something.” I was a kid who was always trying everything. I was in every after-school activity and had been playing piano for a few years. One day as my mom was picking me up from a baking class at the community center (I was all of 7 by now), she saw a flyer for auditions for the children’s theatre production of Sleeping Beauty, directed by a fellow that she knew from high school, and asked if I wanted to audition. We were not an artistic family so I don’t think I’d ever been to a play or anything, but without knowing what it was I auditioned and got into the chorus. I remember I had all the lines in the play memorized after a few weeks and I would circle the living room when no one was looking acting out Sleeping Beauty’s monologue over and over. I watched as the director challenged the older kids playing leads to keep their concentration, and I absorbed everything I saw. Of course my family came to opening night and my mother had my hair curled with ringlets (which I hated), and I did my 2 little chorus scenes, and when that show closed I cried and cried. I believe it was the connection to the people that I loved at first, but after a while it was the storytelling with commitment that I became addicted to. It’s what I love today, too. I auditioned for the next play and the next, continued with music by adding clarinet and french horn in school, beginning dance lessons at 12, picked up the guitar in my 20s and the accordion in my 30s, and it all has become part of this wonderful gypsy show-biz life.
How do you best describe your character in Once?
I play Baruška, the mother of the Czech girl, babysitter for Ivanka (the little girl in the show), and proprietress of a small apartment which is a sort of crash pad for any Czech ex-pats who happen to land in Dublin.
Once is not a big splashy musical which are the kinds of shows that usually you find touring. It is quite intimate in tone and size. When the show tours it plays all kinds of different size theatres. Do you find you have to make any adjustments in your performance when you play a 6,000 seat house as opposed to say a 1200 seater?
Once is an intimate show no matter how big the venue is. There is something about the quiet stillness of the scenes between the musical numbers that draws the audience in, even from the back of the balcony of a larger house. For us as musicians, what sometimes changes from theatre to theatre is that we can’t hear very well sometimes, and that leads to over-singing in order to hear ourselves, which then leads to much more vocal fatigue by the end of the 8-show week. Another thing that changes is that space between the front of our stage and the front of the theatre stage, in proximity to the front rows of the audience. Our set is essentially a 4-sided box with the top and the front removed. Wherever we are, whether it’s a Fox Theatre, which can be 4,000 seats, or the Eisenhower here in DC, our set is the same. But it often doesn’t fit the shape of the apron of the stage, and if there is any kind of design element like a curve or a point at the downstage center, that can add several feet of distance. Also many theaters have orchestra pits which can’t be lowered or changed, which can add more feet of distance between us and the front rows. We jokingly call it the “comedy-killing-chasm,” and although I think we all do the same show from night to night consistently, there are days where we feel that we don’t “have” the audience because they’re so far away. We shouldn’t care whether we can see the audience enjoying themselves, but it’s fun when they’re close so we feel more of a connection to them. The only adjustment that I believe should always be made is to include the top balcony by lifting our gaze more often when there is one. Since this isn’t what we call a “presentational” musical where we sing out to the audience the whole time, we don’t have much of an opportunity to include the upper balconies while singing, but I think actors should all be mindful to raise our gaze a bit higher when we know we’re playing to the back of a 4,000-seat house. I am very conscious of it, and here in DC the room is so cozy that we don’t really have to do that kind of adjustment.
You were part of Cole Porter’s Can-Can at Goodspeed Musicals with Martin Charnin as its director. What do you remember about working on that show and why do you think it’s not produced as often as some of Porter’s other musicals?
Can-Can at the Goodspeed Opera House (as it was known then in 1995) was my first union job, and my first experience working with a celebrity. Director Martin Charnin had written Annie and first produced it there, so it was a very exciting experience to get that job for the summer, 4 months in Connecticut re-creating an old classic. I was in the ensemble and understudying the lady-villain and had a few comic features, which were a blast and tailored just for me. What I was impressed with most was that Mr. Charnin had been given carte blanche by the Cole Porter estate to “improve upon” the musical, so he was adding little political lines to try to make more intellectually stimulating text (adding Emile Zola jokes, of all things, I don’t know if the script writer Abe Burrows would have approved!) and mixing up some of the musical arrangements to spice up the beautifully traditional score. One day in rehearsals during a ballad sung by the male protagonist, Martin kept telling the pianist to raise the key a half step every half verse or so to heighten the drama of the song. I had never imagined that you could do such a thing, just by saying “try this,” as if we were writing it there in the room. I was in my first year in NYC and had very little contact with new works as of yet. Little did I know that new musicals would end up being my passion for the next 20 years, and I have been in countless workshops and readings of new works since. Even with Martin tugging and prodding that quaint little musical into a more interesting production, I believe that sociologically we as the audience just don’t want to see a story about something so completely dated that we can’t relate. In this, namely, dancing on stage as a crime, the focal point of the drama, from which the love story emerges. The famous songs which you might recognize are “I Love Paris,” “It’s Alright With Me,” and “C’est Magnifique,” which have had lives outside of the theatre having been recorded by Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Maurice Chevalier, and Harry Connick, Jr., among others. It’s difficult to know what makes a show successful, that’s part of the magic of live theatre, it’s alchemical, but I think having cultural relevance could be an important part of whether something can stand the test of time on stage.
Kiss Me, Kate is a re-working of The Taming of the Shrew and always a delight, musically and dramatically, and Anything Goes boasts a non-stop hit score and a silly story that seems still to delight audiences today, but those are the only 2 of his 6 musicals for stage that continue to be produced on a regular basis. His style was so “of his time” (the 1920s-1940s), and although he continued composing for film and many of his songs are still being re-imagined and re-recorded, the script and subject matter of those musicals are not challenging enough for a modern audience to relate to, in my opinion.
Why do you think audiences instantly connect with Once?
It’s full of longing and real everyday emotion that we are all faced with. Love, existence, communication, relationship, all of the things that poetry speaks of are present, but in a rugged yet simple, pared down style. I think the musical, more so than the movie, has the wonderful effect of coloring in the pencil drawings of our supporting characters. Also, the cast sits on the stage the whole time in the musical and plays all the music while moving about acting, changing the scenes, and watching the action. It turns the beautifully simple story into a story about us all, audience included.