BY CARY GINELL
On November 21, 1963, three Marines decide to spend their last night before their deployment to Southeast Asia for one final night of debauchery, partying and a little trouble. A “dogfight” ensues: who can find the ugliest girl in town and bring her to a party where she will be judged? Corporal Eddie Birdlace finds his winner in a young waitress named Rose, who rewrites the rules of the game and teaches him the power of compassion. The musical, titled Dogfight, was based on a 1991 film directed by Nancy Savoca. It appeared Off-Broadway in 2012 and received rave reviews for its star, Lindsay Mendez. Directing Dogfight is Aileen-Marie Scott, well-known to Ventura County audiences for her portrayals of brassy, but often vulnerable heroines. We cornered Aileen-Marie to find out more about this very special musical, which makes its debut this weekend at the Camarillo Skyway Playhouse.
VCOS: We know you as one of Ventura County’s resident “belters.” If there’s an Ethel Merman type role out there, odds are you won’t be far away. But tell me about the directing side of your talents.
AILEEN-MARIE: I began directing in college. My dad worked at a high school and he wanted to do more productions each year so he asked his daughter – me – who was a theater major, if I wanted to handle some of them, and I said, “Yes!”
VCOS: What was the first show you directed?
AILEEN-MARIE: Hello, Dolly!
VCOS: Are there certain kinds of shows that you prefer to direct?
AILEEN-MARIE: Yes, there are. I prefer shows that show the darker side of humans, the more real side of human nature. I find that they have more passion in them. I mean, there’s the simple passion of two people falling in love, but when you look at the darker side of human beings, there is so much more that you can flesh out in a character or in a show. It just gives you so much more to play with.
VCOS: As opposed to Hello, Dolly! where every character is pretty much an open book.
AILEEN-MARIE: Correct. Now that was the choice of the school for me to do that show and I just stepped in to do it. I loved directing it, but if I were to choose a project now, my schedule is so busy that for me to direct a show, it has to be something that really gets my juices flowing.
VCOS: Do you prefer familiar or unfamiliar, more obscure shows?
AILEEN-MARIE: Well, Dogfight was pretty much unfamiliar to me until I saw that Camarillo was doing it. So I decided to give the score a listen and I immediately fell in love with it.
VCOS: The score or the story?
AILEEN-MARIE: I listened to the score first. So much of the story is in the score; the show is almost all music. There’s some dialog, but most of the really relevant, important things are sung.
VCOS: How much does it help for a director to have a singing background?
AILEEN-MARIE: Well, for a musical, I would say a lot, because you need to understand that your job is to help your actors get there. If you know what they’re going through as far as preparing a song, knowing what their bodies are doing to get to that point in a song, it helps if you can talk them through so you can get what you want out of them. Does that make sense?
VCOS: Yes. Do you have a keen problem-solving talent?
AILEEN-MARIE: Oh yeah! You have to able to put out fires constantly because they come up all the time. I’ve been putting out fires all this week. You have to be fast on your feet!
VCOS: Give me an example of a fire you’ve put out this week.
AILEEN-MARIE: Well, we have a character, Marcy, who needs special teeth, and the person we found to do the teeth was very busy and not getting them to us in a timely manner so I got on the phone, schmoozed him up, and we got them in about two days. Because we have such a great theater community, we needed eight matching chairs and only had two, so I quickly called friends of mine at all the different theaters and was able to get enough chairs for the show of this type. Sometimes an actor doesn’t understand a scene and you have to quickly help them get to where they need to be.
VCOS: Do you think you’re good at that?
AILEEN-MARIE: Well, this is going to sound conceited, but yeah, I am.
VCOS: That’s not conceit, that’s confidence.
AILEEN-MARIE: I am confident about putting out fires. I usually find a way to get things ready and done and working.
VCOS: If you were conceited, you would say that you were the best at doing it.
AILEEN-MARIE: No, I wouldn’t say I was the best at it, but I’m quick on my feet.
VCOS: There you go. If you have questions that you cannot answer and you need advice, is there a go-to person who you are close to?
AILEEN-MARIE: It would depend on what the question was. If it had to do with music, I would try to figure it out myself or go to Susan Calkins, who is my music director. Vocally, I have gone to Erin Fagundes, and if it’s movement, I’d trust our choreographer, Dawn Notagiacomo completely. As far as historically, I use the Internet and we also have this great guy who shows up to teach boot camp. There is a wealth of people who I can go to.
VCOS: So it takes a village.
AILEEN-MARIE: It truly does. And the crew that I have been really blessed to be working for me is giving as much as I am to the show. It’s really quite remarkable.
VCOS: What, personally speaking, is your most important attribute that helps you pull all this together?
AILEEN-MARIE: I think I know how to talk to actors and speak their language. But I also do a lot of listening to people and getting their points of view. I listen to the actor and hear their motivations, or I listen to my costumer and hear what she has to deal with so she can be proud of her work.
VCOS: So would you say that communication is your forte?
AILEEN-MARIE: Yeah. Communication is it.
VCOS: Tell me about settling disputes.
AILEEN-MARIE: When there’s a dispute, I try to hear both sides and I realize that both sides are very passionate about how they feel. So once I recognize that, I make sure to validate the feelings each side has and try to find a happy medium. There’s always a happy medium. Neither side will be completely happy but if you word it right, you can get them to see where it works and they will accept the outcome.
VCOS: Tell me about Eddie and Rose in the story – how they change through the course of the story.
AILEEN-MARIE: I love both these characters. Eddie comes to us damaged. He’s had a past, he’s been to boot camp, and is ready for war. His emotions have been cut off and he’s not ready to invest in anyone at this point in his life, and he’s not looking for anyone. He’s just looking to deploy. Rose is a strong woman, even though she feels she has limitations as far as living up to the standards of what was beauty at that time. When Eddie meets Rose, her passion for life and living and music begins to melt him and get him to see that there’s more that he can have than what he originally thought. There’s more to life, but unfortunately, he’s deploying so his desire to learn more about what Rose is showing him is short-lived. He has to go off and fight in Vietnam. With Rose, when we meet her, she’s working with her mom at this diner, and she’s kind of shy and unsure of herself. But through meeting Eddie, and hearing her own voice actually rise out of her, standing up for what she believes, she becomes more confident and sure of herself, and begins her journey to really start growing as a woman. She later becomes an activist and learns to speak her mind. So this chance meeting really spurred them both to want to grow and become better people. Unfortunately for Eddie, he doesn’t get that chance.
VCOS: When I read the synopsis, it kind of surprised me when I found out that it was a musical. Many times, these small, intimate stories don’t work well as musicals. You usually find them as plays. And I started thinking about Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt and their “small” musicals. How did this show affect you as a musical?
AILEEN-MARIE: The feel of it reminded me of shows like Next to Normal or Spring Awakening. And what I like about shows like Dogfight is that it shows that music can be more than just a tap dance number, and it can really sing the core of our emotions better than the spoken word. I’ve learned that songs start when words can’t relay the emotions. And dance starts when the song isn’t enough to relay the emotions. Shows like Dogfight, Next to Normal, and Spring Awakening, and Dear Evan Hansen really show the remarkable ways that songs can amplify and reach great heights for what characters are going through emotionally.
VCOS: Tell me about your cast.
AILEEN-MARIE: Oh, Cary, this cast inspires me every single day that I go to rehearsal. First off, they’re incredibly talented, but when they come in, they are ready to work as soon as they walk through those doors. And if I push them hard to get them to a certain place – and remember these are all broken characters – they run with me. They go there and they go every single night. It’s really a gift that I get to work with this group of people.
VCOS: Who are playing the principle roles?
AILEEN-MARIE: Okay! We have Garrett LaSource who is playing Eddie. Garrett lives in Northridge and he’s new to us. He’s around 22 and is pretty young in the business, but he has this raw talent that is incredible. Janelle Phaneuf plays Rose and she’s going to break your heart. Her voice on these songs are just glorious.
VCOS: What else can you say about the show?
AILEEN-MARIE: Well, we are doing a couple of things. We will have a can in the lobby to collect money for a Marines charity, so anything that is given goes to our veterans. And we’re going to have a memory board in the lobby, whereby anybody in the cast or crew who has had a family member or friend in the service will post their pictures for everyone to see. Anyone who wants to bring a picture of a loved one or friend who was in the service will get tickets for half price, and then we’ll add their picture to the memory board as well.
Dogfight opens Friday, March 31 at the Camarillo Skyway Playhouse. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.