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Erica Spyres has starred on Broadway, been a part of national tours, and graced concert stages around the world. And although she grew up in the Ozarks, Bostonians tend to claim her as their own, for this is where she made her professional stage debut and honed her craft.
Recently, in advance of her appearance in SpeakEasy’s 30th Anniversary Concert, she answered some questions for us about her new life in NYC, her start as part of Missouri’s Most Musical Family, and that time she met Stephen Sondheim. Read on for more with Erica, and don’t forget to get your tickets to see her perform an excerpt from The Light in the Piazza in SpeakEasy’s 30th Anniversary Benefit Concert, premiering Thursday, November 19th at 7:30PM and streaming through Monday, Nov. 23.
It’s been so long since we’ve seen you on local stages. Do you miss Boston and the theater community here?
I MISS IT IMMENSELY! I have been able to do some very exciting work since I moved to New York City, but it’s a totally different ballgame here. I miss the community of theatremakers; I miss how much fun it always was to go to work; and I miss sinking my teeth into a wide variety of roles. There is also a sense of trust embedded in Boston theatre; so that even though rehearsal time is limited, you get to fast-track the relationship building.
We have many wonderful memories of your time in Boston, including two outstanding — and very different — performances in SpeakEasy productions. The first was as Clara in The Light in the Piazza, for which you won an IRNE Award for Best Actress in a Musical. What do you remember most about working on that show?
The Light in the Piazza was magical! It was my first break really. From Scott Edmiston’s guidance and masterful direction, to Jose Delgado’s orchestra playing that transcendent overture, to Chip Schoonmaker’s gorgeous costumes, to the love I felt from the entire company during rehearsals and performances, I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive and perfect entry into professional theatre.
Later you won an Elliot Norton award for your work as Sylvia in the play Tribes. What do you remember about your work on that? Have you kept up your ASL skills?
Tribes was also a gift in many ways. It taught me a brand-new work ethic. I wish I could tell you I’m now fluent in ASL; but like so many other skills we pick up in theatre, we tell ourselves we will continue, and then when a new role demands a different skill, we often exchange one skill for another. However, what has stayed with me are the lessons I learned from the Deaf community about inclusivity; respect – and not just awe – for the way things are done; and the incredible accuracy with which sign language. communicates emotional context. Working on Tribes has also helped me to connect to my body so much more in all of the work I’ve done since.
You are one of those rare performers equally at home in both plays and musicals. Do the two formats require different performing muscles? Which do you prefer?
I grew up in a musical family, so naturally, I wanted to be an actor more than a musician! Honestly, I am so honored when people tell me they were affected by my acting choices more than my voice. That’s what it’s all about, after all. I will say that, in recent years, being a musician has started to become more fulfilling than it once was for me. It has become more like what I love about acting – it’s about creating something that touches people. And music is now a way I feel I truly connect with my family, since I live so far away from them.
While we like to claim you as a Bostonian, you actually grew up in the “Most Musical Family in Missouri.” Tell us about your background and how you got started in theatre.
I love when people just think I’m from Boston! I feel very lucky to be claimed by you. But yes, everyone in my family is a musician and has worked a lot on stage. My parents created the Ozark Mountain Players in my hometown back in the 1970s and it still exists today. They created a true sense of community throughout not just Mansfield, but Southwest Missouri. From a very young age, we all performed together in a pageant my mom and her friend wrote about the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder. No one was too young, too old, too good, or too tone-deaf to be included! Helping create a community where artists can play and grow and affect change is what drives my brothers and me to continue in these careers.
In addition to singing and acting, you are also a trained classical violinist. Are you also a working musician?
Since moving to New York, I’ve had to build new connections and that has meant less time on stage than in Boston, but has offered up the opportunity to dust off my musician skills. I’ve been able to record with several bands, have my own band, play in the orchestra for a few Broadway/musical theatre concerts, sing as a cantor, and even sing all those high notes for John Oliver’s musical number, “Eat Shit, Bob”!
What brought you to Boston?
Like so many people, I didn’t know what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go after college. But my then-boyfriend did. Drew was accepted at The Boston Conservatory for his Master’s in Music Composition and I followed along! I am incredibly grateful to have him as my biggest supporter and grounding force. I wouldn’t still be doing this if it wasn’t for him. A lot of people say they don’t want to marry someone in the industry, but I think it’s great to have someone who may not do exactly what you do, but understands what is involved, which can be a lot!
Since relocating to NYC with your-now-husband Drew, you have had some amazing opportunities, including a national tour of Once, a production of Passion in Paris, and your Broadway debut in Carousel. What are the first words that come to mind when you think about each.
Once: Family. Passion: Equally amazing and awful. Carousel: Life goal.
Is it true you met legendary Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim while working on Passion?
Yes! That show tested me in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I don’t usually mind knowing when someone is in the audience; but when it’s Sondheim, I would have chosen to be in the dark about it. I met Andy Einhorn, our music director, for a stroll on his first day in Paris. He off-handedly said that Steve and James would be coming. I was like, “Uh, Sondheim and Lapine are coming to Paris to see this? Why did you tell me?!” He said, “It’s no big deal. Don’t worry about it.” And somehow, because of his chillness in that moment, I kind of relaxed. After the show, Mr. Sondheim came on stage and actually asked to speak to the actress playing Clara (me). He came over, I thanked him for his work, and he said, “Well it’s a great role for you. You sang it beautifully.” A cast member slyly captured a photo of that meeting, and it has been my desktop image ever since.
What do you recall about your first performance on a Broadway stage?
I don’t remember much about my first performance because you’re so wrapped up in previews, rehearsals, and last-minute changes. But I do remember the first time I went on for Jessie Mueller as Julie. I oddly felt more ready than I had imagined I would. I was scared, but having spent so many hours on stage in Boston and touring the country, I had a great deal of experience to calm me. You can’t really expect magic on your first understudy performance because it’s very technical. My goal was to be present as much as I could in the moments I could control and then hit my marks and make my stage manager happy! One moment I felt I could truly live in was singing “If I Loved You.” I remember telling myself to be awake and savor the moment.
In addition, to your onstage work, you are also an acting and voice coach, and a coach for students auditioning for college programs. What is the most important piece of advice you offer your students?
Make the people who are watching you feel something. Tell the story honestly from your gut.
What was the most important piece of advice you received as a young performer?
That it’s not about me. My dear friend, Jeremiah Kissel, told me when I was freaking out about a press opening that, “Your fears mean nothing,” which confused me. He said, “Life is so difficult. People just need to get away for two hours and feel something. That’s so much bigger than your nerves.” Those remarks have since changed the way I think about everything I perform.
What message or advice do you have for SpeakEasy Stage as it turns 30?
On my 30th birthday, Scott Edmiston told me that your 30s are when you really start to know who you are. So enjoy your 30s, SpeakEasy. The best is yet to come!