People’s Light presents “Songs for Nobodies”- Meet the Creative Team

photo by Michael Brosilow

The one woman show featuring Bethany Thomas, Songs for Nobodies, comes to People Light following critically acclaimed productions at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre in 2018 and Chicago’s Northlight Theatre in 2021. With Thomas reprising her roles, Songs for Nobodies features the stories and songs of Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, Édith Piaf, and Maria Callas and their encounters with five “nobodies”.

Below, members of the Songs for Nobodies creative team- director Rob Lindley, sound designer Lindsay Jones, Scenic Designer Jeffery D. Kmiec, Costume Designer Mieka van der Ploeg, and orchestrator Andra Velis Simon- talk about their time with the show and coming together again, after the Northlight run in 2021, to present the show at People’s Light. Joining them for this performance is music director Daniel Espie.

Songs for Nobodies, by Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, premieres today and runs through May 21st. Tickets and info can be found here.

Q: How does the People’s Light production differ from Northlight’s? Were any changes made after wrapping the Chicago run?

Lindsay Jones [LJ]: For me, it’s a matter of the theatres being significantly different from one another in architecture. We had to design an entirely different sound system to accommodate the differences.

Rob Lindley [RL]: For the most part, we are trying to build on the success of the Northlight run. There have been no changes to the script or musical arrangements for the People’s Light production, the beautiful sound cues and the costume and wig remain the same, but the two physical theatre spaces are very different. We have made some adjustments to the set design and are continually finding the best versions of the staging to give our new audiences the very best experience. 

Mieka van der Ploeg [MV]: The shape and ambiance of the theaters are different – the colors of the deck and the lights have changed a bit to help highlight Bethany in the space, to help create the illusion that she’s floating alone in the stars at night.

Jeffrey Kmiec [JK]: The biggest change scenically was the venue itself. If the last production of the theatre was a 3/4 thrust at People’s Light, we are in an End Stage configuration. The relationship of performer to audience was very different in the two types of venues. What is interesting to see in our current space is the types of moments you get of Bethany against the void of space around her. Because the audience is all seeing the show from a relatively similar vantage point, you experience these moments collectively.

Q: How did it feel when you found out the team would be reuniting to present Songs for Nobodies at People’s Light?

 [LJ]: So exciting! I loved working on this show, and the people are fantastic

Andra Velis Simon [AVS]: Thrilling! The original plan for this production was that it would move from Northlight Theatre in Chicago to People’s Light in the summer of 2020.  Of course, we all know what happened then. The Northlight production was rescheduled for the fall of 2021, and I think that for many of us, it was our first show back after the shutdown. While we were so grateful to be able to perform, it was mixed with sadness that we could not bring the show to Malvern. So when we got this news, it was absolutely wonderful and feels like a completion of what was always meant to be.   

[RL]: I always compare directing a show to hosting a dinner party. It’s about learning to cook in someone else’s kitchen with your own recipes, and should sit next to each other and bring out the best in each other. We had such a fun time coming up with our original concepts for this show pre-Pandemic. Then all things shut down. Then we got to revisit and refine those ideas and designs before we did the show in Chicago. Now, it’s like we are assembling the team all over again. We have all made the recipes before (to keep using my dinner party metaphor), and now we have a chance to perfect those dishes. It’s also just a wonderful group of humans. It feels like we are getting the band back together. 

[MV]: I was excited. I love this show, and the team is so talented; it’s great to get to work with everybody again.

[JK]: I was very excited when Rob reached out to let me know the show would be remounted. Because of pandemic complications, I didn’t get to see the show come together in Chicago. This is the first time I have gotten to see Bethany’s performance live, and I’m extremely lucky that I got the opportunity. 

Q: Why was People’s Light chosen for the latest production? 

[RL]: People’s Light was always in the picture for our production. Originally this would have been a co-production opening at Northlight in the Spring of 2020 and come directly to Malvern. For good reasons, I’m sure, when it was time for things to reopen, People’s Light wasn’t quite ready to pull the trigger. So we opened the show in the Fall of 2021 in Chicago with no plans on the horizon to do it ever again. It was such a delight and relief to get the call later that People’s Light was ready for us to come here Spring of 2023. Songs for Nobodies deals a lot with the subject of chance encounters, destiny, and timing. Needless to say, I believe we are here at People’s Light at exactly the right time.

Daniel Espie [DE]: As this is my first time working with the SFN team, I’m delighted to be joining the creative team as the Music Director for this production of Songs for Nobodies.

Q: What’s your favorite number and/or character in Songs for Nobodies?

[AVS]: I’m terrible at picking favorites!  I always say my favorite number is whichever one I’m playing at the moment.  Piaf’s “L’Accordeoniste” was probably the most fun to arrange, both because I have a deep love of the accordion and because there are some really fun scale runs and dissonant accents in that piece.

[LJ]: They’re all incredible, but the Maria Callas number at the end never ceases to blow my mind.

[RL]: Wow. Tough to say, honestly. It’s a piece that I get something different from each time I watch it. Favorite number – maybe Judy’s “Come Rain or Come Shine”. Andra Velis Simon did a magnificent job of capturing the iconic bongo-driven arrangement Judy performed, most notably on her Live at Carnegie Hall album. It’s just wild and chaotic and fun. But the show is full of goosebumps musical moments. I love when I hear audiences whispering that she MUST be lip-syncing. 

[DE]: I’ve always been a huge fan of Edith Piaf’s recordings. There is immense power and romanticism in her voice that grabs and shakes you when you least expect it. In Songs for Nobodies, we hear the story of how our narrator’s father was saved from inevitable death in a German labor camp thanks to the Little Sparrow. It’s a wonderful piece of storytelling that weaves between flashes of Piaf’s music, leading to a thrilling escape scene punctuated by Bethany’s rendition of what is perhaps Piaf’s most famous song, “Non, je ne regrette rien”.    

Q: What would you say is the greatest challenge in developing a show centered around one actress taking on ten different characters?

[LJ]: It’s about giving each one a different look and sound so that each one feels distinct. For sound, it’s about each character having a signature microphone that helps to define that particular sound.

[AVS]: When working with the brilliant Bethany Thomas, it’s hard to say there are challenges because she makes the impossible seem effortless. She is able to truly embody each character’s tone, sound, and style.

[RL]: Well, typically, the greatest challenge is casting. With a show like this, you are wise not to even consider it unless you have a multi-faceted dynamic actor and singer like Bethany Thomas already locked in. Once you have your actor in place, it becomes about helping them to define each of the characters, making distinctions in each character’s dialect, vocal qualities, and physicality.  From the design world, we didn’t want tons of costume changes, so we went with one gorgeous dress, but each character has their own area of the stage they start on, each with specific microphones (except Maria Callas, as she is from the opera world and would have performed without one). We also developed what we thought would be icon lighting looks: a follow spot for Judy, harsh footlights for Piaf, moody shadows of jazz clubs for Billie, and so on.

[DE]: From the music perspective, Bethany is tackling five distinct and well-known performers. The recordings that we are emulating live are enmeshed in much of our audiences’ musical memories. That makes the task of trying to capture the sound and spirit of all five a rather tall order. Each of these singers had a unique vocal timbre, managed their melodic phrasing differently, and presented completely different physical postures in their live performances. In order to perform these songs authentically, we needed to pick through the recordings with a fine-tooth comb, listening for the unique facets of each singer as well as how the groove in each song wants to sit, where certain accents need to land, and what instruments our mighty orchestra of three are trying to replicate so that the effect of musical time travel is seamless.

[MV]: Creating a world for her to play in that’s mutable enough to do all those things, changeable enough, but still grounded in reality. Specific enough to allude to a historical period, but not so specific that it feels wrong for any character. That’s the design challenge, anyways. I think the greatest challenge in the show is what Bethany has to do – embodying all those characters and singing as the great divas. 

[JK]: Scenically, the biggest challenge is to give context to each moment without getting in the way. It sounds trite, but it is VERY easy to start stepping on her performance. It is my job, with the director to contextualize and elevate, but not outshine. 

Q: This is the third time that Bethany Thomas is performing in Songs for Nobodies. Why do you feel she’s a great fit for the show?

[LJ]: Because she’s a genius! Truly, the vocal demands on this show are incredible, and she makes it look so easy. She’s incredible.

[AVS]: Honestly, it is difficult to imagine anyone else in this role.  Bethany brings so much heart and truth to each of these women, divas and “nobodies” alike, while also honoring each singer’s unique gifts.

[RL]: There just aren’t that many folks who possess the vocal dexterity to “do” all of these iconic singers. There are loads of singers out there who do Judy or Patsy or Billie or Piaf. There just aren’t very many who do all of them and THEN have the nerve to pull off a Puccini aria as Callas. It’s incredible to watch.  Each of the “Nobodies” speaks to the audience in direct address, so you also have to have an artist who is comfortable with the conversational/story-telling parts of the show. Bethany has all of the vocal chops to be an untouchable diva, but at the heart of her is one of the most grounded, kind, and approachable humans I know. I can’t imagine being on this journey with anyone else. 

[DE]: You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who draws from as diverse a set of musical influences as Bethany. I can’t overstate how different each of the singers is and what a thrill it is to hear one person navigate between them all.

[MV]: She’s incredibly transformative and captivating to watch. She can also sing her face off, and this show is a great showcase for her talents. 

[JK]: Bethany is a singular talent, full stop. It is hard to describe, but you have to see her performance for yourself to understand.

Q: What do you hope audiences take away from Songs for Nobodies?

[LJ]: I think it is that we’re all not so different from one another in the end. All of us are somebodies, and all of us are nobodies.

[AVS]: I hope audiences will see the beauty in random, everyday interactions and that this piece will inspire them to show kindness to the next person they happen to meet.  

[RL]: Nobody is a Nobody. We all have something to give. We all have something to learn. Sometimes taking a second to speak up, or to stop and listen, to be brave, and actually SEE someone can change everything. And it’s also just a beautiful, touching night at the theatre that will make you a bigger fan of Judy, Patsy, Edith, Billie, Maria, and most of all, Bethany. 

[DE]: As we encounter each of the characters, we are called to empathize as they deal with relationship struggles, existential despair, and the epiphanies that accompany growing into and through adulthood, learning the ways of the world. These are charming, beautiful, and flawed people who, somehow, have off-chance encounters with absolutely legendary celebrities who have been steeped in the public imagination. When our nobodies peek under the hood, they discover the humanity, struggles, and tragedies borne by their idols. These stories inform the way we listen to great music, allowing us to open our hearts in new ways to touching lyrics and brilliant performances. And isn’t that the point?

[MV]: I just hope they have a great evening in the theater and feel transported from their lives for a moment. 

[JK]: There is beauty in the stories of those just next to greatness, and there is great power in the songs that change their lives, as well as the lives of the women who sang them. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.