I’ve discussed many things I’ve learned through theatre on this blog. After all, participating in the theatrical experience in any capacity is bound to teach anyone something new. Today’s guest embodies one of my favorite lessons: Women are strong, smart, multi-faceted people who should never be underestimated. I’ve been fortunate enough to see Heidi Blickenstaff play Heidi in [Title of Show], Bea in Something Rotten, and Katherine in Disney’s Freaky Friday in an out-of-town production, and every time I am blown away by her performance and excited by the idea that young girls especially, but women everywhere get to see this particular version of strength and power. We talked about playing all the roles mentioned above, how she got into theatre, and what it was like taking a stage production and turning it into a musical. Let’s jump in!
Stef the StageSLP: How did you become interested in theatre?
Heidi Blickenstaff: When I was six, my mom took me to our local dinner theater and we saw a production of Oklahoma! I knew nothing about it beforehand. There was a little girl in it a bit older than me, and up until then, I was only obsessed with movie musicals, especially Singin’ in the Rain. I didn’t know you could do this live, and that was it. I wanted to do that. My parents are the most supportive, wonderful parents, and had no idea what to do with me—they were mostly into sports. We found out I had to be seven to audition for the shows, and I auditioned the next year for their youth company. I sang “Maybe” from Annie, and I was absolutely terrified. The artistic director asked my mom where my voice came from, and suggested that I take voice lessons and come back in six months. I did, and the rest is history. I got a huge musical theatre education with them. I also went to a performing arts high school and was kind of insatiable. I knew I wanted to be on Broadway the second I found out there was a Broadway. I went to college and got my degree in drama from Duke University, moved to New York and started auditioning. I was very focused and relied on my instincts, because my parents had no idea how to help me other than be completely supportive. It was a lot of on-the-job training, and you never stop learning.
S: That’s awesome to come from such supportive parents without theatre as their primary interest.
H: They were given this child who loved acting and recognized early on that I was a bit of an alien, but that they needed to give me the wings to fly on my own. My mom liked musicals; we had the albums. I could not get enough of them. The way my mom tells it, I was harmonizing with Barbra Streisand when I was two. They must’ve thought, “She’s a weirdo, but we’re going to nurture this talent and interest and find her other weirdos like her to continue to grow this interest.” And I’m so grateful for that in them.
S: My students have all seen Freaky Friday, some on stage, all of them through the Disney Channel. What’s it like to adapt a stage production to a movie?
H: I had a lot of feelings of gratitude for this. When we were building the theatrical version, the creative team was incredibly collaborative. It was built on what Emma Hunton and I could do, and our input was very much a part of the process of building the show. I love collaborating and being in a room where my creative ideas are valued and heard, and we’re very proud of what we made. I’m so glad that the theatrical version is out in the world for people to do.
When I was asked to do the film, I was utterly shocked. I was the only act held over from the stage production to the film. I didn’t even have expectations of being cast. I was brought back for readings to help cast the other actors, but I never thought I would be asked to stay. I got to reprise my role on television.
Shooting the movie is an utterly different situation from a stage production. The only thing they have in common is that they require actors. I had never been on television before or made a movie before, so this was all new to me, and more learning on my feet. The script drastically changed from a full musical with an intermission to a ninety-minute film. The differences between the stage production and the film revolved a lot around demographic and attention span. The kids watching the movie may not be as invested in a two-minute ballad as a theatre audience is. Every aspect of the movie musical has to drive the plot. All of the changes made gave the final product integrity, and our book writer, Bridget Carpenter, is a total genius and was able to write for both mediums. I was so happy to be a part of both the musical and movie-musical. Every day was a gift, and an experience of a lifetime for sure.
S: What was it like originating Bea in Something Rotten?
H: It was pretty dreamy from start to finish. I got the very unlikely offer to do the role, I didn’t have to audition. I had just worked with Casey Nicholaw on Most Happy Fella, and Kevin McCollum who produced it had produced [Title of Show] and I had a working relationship with him, too. This show had been in development for two and a half years at this point, and labs and workshops had been done. They called me while I was doing Elf at The PaperMill Playhouse, and I couldn’t believe it—it was truly unbelievable. I will never forget that moment.
To be in that room with those comedic geniuses was both amazing and intimidating at the same time. I learned so much about comedy from the cast and creative team. Every day, everyone came ready to work. We all loved that show so much. Bea was written on me, they had rewritten her from previous versions. They really worked with me to figure out what would work for me, and we landed on “Right Hand Man.” From start to finish, the entire ride was totally crazy and I’m so grateful for it. It’s what you dream about. I love Bea so deeply, and of all the characters I’ve played she’s a lot like me, in a lot of ways more than Heidi in [Title of Show].
S: What was it like to create such an empowering female character?
H: Awesome. And to be on that stage in a spotlight, belting about how strong women can be and how capable we are…it doesn’t get much better than that. I am so proud that there is a character that I got to create that has such a strong message for girls and all women that says “We got this.” I remember Kevin McCollum said to me, “When you make a musical, you leave a legacy. You will always be the first Bea. You made her. This will be a part of your legacy.” And girls and boys will hear that song and its message on a cast recording is incredible.
S: Well, I can tell you it is a hit among my students, my family, and myself.
H: Thank you.
S: How on Earth do you sing the songs that you sing while protecting your voice?
H: It gets harder. Freaky Friday is my hardest sing so far. You don’t talk a lot outside of the theatre. You have to protect your voice. You have to stay hydrated and watch what you’re eating. You can’t be in a loud place where you have to shout over everyone else, or your voice will go out.
The way I sing and make sounds is instinctual. I’ve taken a handful of voice lessons, but I’ve never taken formal, individual voice lessons. I teach a lot of master classes but I can’t teach what I do or tell you how I do it. I’m much better teaching acting than singing. I know my limits, I know my voice, and I know how to adjust accordingly. All of that comes with time. We’re born with certain gifts and instincts on how to preserve those gifts. When I’m teaching, I always stress the acting and storytelling. Find the story, then make it sing.
S: What would you say to kids and teens who want to get into theatre?
H: Access really is an epidemic. It’s becoming a luxury instead of common in schools. If you do have access to any kind of class, take it. Like attracts like, so if you can find your way into a dance class or voice class, the other folks in the class will know other things going on in the arts community. Ask people questions and don’t be shy about it. There are online resources now, too. See what’s happening in your community and if you can take advantage of that. Theatre and the arts give you empathy, perspective, and joy. Kids need this, and the arts and all art are so, so important.
S: Every week I challenge my students and readers to do something outside of their comfort zone. What would you challenge them to do?
H: I would encourage them to go do something new within their own city. My family and I have been challenging ourselves to get out of our neighborhood and do something creative and new that we don’t do every week. It’s been an awesome experience to get out of our neighborhood and see more of the city we live in. Take advantage of things in your city that you wouldn’t necessarily do and have a little adventure. Put your phone down. Make a point of unplugging and really being with the people you’re with. It’s amazing what’s around us, right under our noses.
This was such a fun conversation to be a part of, and I can’t thank Heidi Blickenstaff enough for speaking with me. How exciting is this? There is a [Title of Show] reunion concert on March 11th benefitting The Actor’s Fund! If you can, please go see Heidi in this show. It is a performance you will not want to miss! My students are already reaping the benefits of this conversation, and I’ve designed a project to go along with whatever adventure they choose to take on in their pursuit of Heidi’s challenge. Needless to say, my students have been requesting “Right Hand Man” more frequently, and I’m proud of them for that. I look forward to reading about your adventures in comments.
Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP