An interview with KAYLA DUNBAR, director of "Herringbone The Musical"

  • Damon Jang

Kayla Dunbar is a Vancouver Theatre Award Winning actor, director, and choreographer. I had the chance to her about her latest project with Patrick Street Productions: Herringbone the musical.

What is Herringbone about?

People keep asking me what this show is about, and it has been a very difficult question to answer. There are themes of autonomy, depression, possession, and identity. It explores the perils of children needing to grow up before they are actually grown and the drive for success. But I truly believe that Herringbone is best experienced as a whimsical and dark flight of fancy.

What has been your directing approach with this project?

I really didn’t want the actors to be influenced by each other’s choices, so we kept the rehearsals separate. But because we had limited time, and we couldn’t light two completely different shows, I had to create a clear road map for both of the actors to follow that still allowed them to play and make their own choices. It’s been a very tricky but fun thing to navigate.

What dynamics came about having two different gender actors share the role?

Quite honestly, I don’t think Gender played a huge part in the differences between Luisa’s show and Peter’s show. They both play 11 roles that are a variety of genders, ages and sizes. So it really came down to who they are as an individual actor/person. However, I do think that some songs and characters might land on the audience in different ways depending on who they are watching. For example, there is a song called “How To Build A Man” and even though it’s the same blocking in both shows, it feels like a totally different number.

So we all know the challenge to get a Vancouver audience to cross into the "suburbs" even though the Skytrain is literally right there. What are some of the hooks in the show that might bring in an audience?

It is a magical thing to watch someone transform into 11 different characters all while singing and tap dancing! I have truly never seen anything like it!

Why Herringbone?

Katey Wright of Patrick Street Productions saw the production that Morris Panych starred in at the Playhouse some years ago and it stuck with her. I believe it’s been on their list of shows for a while. When PSP approached me to direct the show and I first read through the script, my jaw was on the floor. I couldn’t quite believe what I was reading. An eight year old boy gets possessed by the vengeful spirit of a dead vaudevillian? And the actor telling the story plays eleven parts? Plus, there’s singing and tap dancing? It’s an incredibly ambitious and challenging piece. A challenge that I was totally up for.

Solo shows are interesting, it took a ton of work to do an 30 min solo cabaret let alone carry an entire show. What challenges did the actors find with bringing this project to life?

Besides the sheer amount of material, our biggest challenge has been differentiating the 11 characters so the audience can easily follow the story. The character shifts are so swift at times! We had to give each one a distinct voice and body.

I know you have a ton of experience yourself as an adult playing a child, so as a director what are your tips to playing children organically and authentically?

I always try to approach playing children with curiosity. It’s a difficult thing to explain, but when anyone tries to do “kid acting” it just doesn’t work. It’s all about their earnestness and their desires. I try to think about what they want in each moment and how they go about getting what they want.

What's your favorite thing about this era of the show?

I LOVE the showmanship and grit of vaudeville. I’ve had an absolute blast choreographing the dance numbers!

Being that its vaudeville, I can assume audiences are in for some classic turn of the century music hall classics. Is the music all from the era or original?

They are ALL completely original tunes. The book was written by Tom Cone, with music by Skip Kennon and lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh. But they definitely did a wonderful job of evoking the music of that era!

Patrick Street Productions presents Herringbone, a unique one-person musical by Canadian playwright Tom Cone with music by Skip Kennon and lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh, at the Anvil Centre in New Westminster. Darkly comic and highly theatrical, Herringbone is an off-Broadway hit set in 1929 in the heart of the Great Depression. It tells the tale of eight-year-old George who is taken under the wing of a vaudeville veteran, becomes possessed by the spirit of his mentor’s vengeful partner, and suddenly shows a remarkable talent for tap dancing! As the play progresses, an epic battle arises over George’s mind, body and soul. It’s a tour-de-force that has one actor singing and dancing as a dozen different characters. As an extra twist Luisa Jojic and Peter Jorgensen will alternate performances providing the rare opportunity to see if gender affects the story being told. You just might need to see it twice!