Lyrissa Leininger and Michael Kennedy (with swivelboard) (photo by Cary Ginell)
BY CARY GINELL
One important and valuable aspect of Cabrillo Music Theatre’s long tenure in Ventura County is its devotion to casting talented young local performers in as many of its productions as it can. Cabrillo’s casts are usually laden with a mix of professional Equity lead performers, local and regional talent from Southern California (and sometimes elsewhere), but especially home-grown youngsters. We spoke with two of the latter during a rehearsal session recently, Lyrissa Leininger, 16, and Michael Kennedy, 19, who have already gotten their feet wet (an appropriate pre-requisite for The Little Mermaid!) in a number of Cabrillo productions.
VCOS: First of all, tell me about your characters.
LYRISSA: I’m playing Adela, the Myrrh sister, but basically I’m “featured ensemble.”
MICHAEL: And I’m playing Flounder.
VCOS: What are you hauling around, Michael?
MICHAEL: This is my swivelboard that Flounder gets around on. It helps me be more fishlike and it’s a lot of fun.
VCOS: Have you worked with one of these before?
MICHAEL: No, not before, so I had to learn it for the show.
VCOS: It looks like it works on the same principle as the hoverboard in Back to the Future II. Is that about right?
MICHAEL: Yes, it is. We actually do have things called hoverboards in the show, but this is really closer to the concept of what they were like in Back to the Future II.
VCOS: How many Cabrillo shows have you guys done so far?
LYRISSA: I’ve done two.
MICHAEL: And I’ve done three.
VCOS: OK, so both of you have had enough experience with Cabrillo to tell me this. As a newbie, what was the first thing one notices about Cabrillo?
LYRISSA: That they are REALLY on top of things! (laughs) I had done other shows before but I wasn’t very good at being punctual. When I did my first show with Cabrillo, I was late to my first rehearsal and they were on top of me because you can’t EVER be late.
MICHAEL: I remember one of the first cast meetings back when I did The King and I, which was in 2008, Lewis [artistic director Lewis Wilkenfeld] told us three things that set professional theater apart from amateur theater, and the one that stuck with me was that everything is synchronized. Everyone is constantly collaborating and is going toward this one destination that will be the final show. That’s something that I see in them all the time.
LYRISSA: But everyone here is super-kind. In the first cast meeting, Lewis will always say “leave your egos at the door – we’re here to work and we’re here to support each other.”
VCOS: Have either of you done fantasies before?
LYRISSA: Yes. I was in The Wizard of Oz and I also did Cinderella with Cabrillo.
MICHAEL: I have never done a fantasy before. The closest I’ve come was when I was an ensemble member in The Wiz in a regional theater on the East coast, but I’ve mainly done contemporary realism and Golden Age musicals.
VCOS: OK, so how do you handle this kind of a role? If you’re a method actor, you want to try to get inside of your character, who has depth, goals, and motivations, but when you’re portraying a cartoon character, there isn’t as much depth, is there? So what do you do?
LYRISSA: Well, they’re still people, they’re just bigger, more colorful, and more simplistic, but they’re still characters.
VCOS: So do you exaggerate certain aspects that you might not if it were a flesh-and-blood human being?
MICHAEL: Absolutely. Definitely, approaching a character because it is so fantastical, you really have to focus not only on everything that is established by the script, because there might not be much depth to the character, but for me, I focus on what I am to do on stage to further my character’s goals and focus on the present instead of the character’s questionable past.
VCOS: Tell me how you do that with Flounder.
MICHAEL: I absolutely love playing Flounder because he has so many aspects that I feel that I can relate to. It’s very funny, maintaining a balance between wanting to be with Ariel for myself but also supporting her for being with who makes her happy, which is Prince Eric. I don’t want to use the word “martyr,” but I do really think that Flounder is in a conundrum and it’s hysterical.
VCOS: He’s giving up of himself for her.
MICHAEL: Right. And that’s what I believe true love is. So in a way, you could say Flounder is in love with Ariel. It’s not just a crush.
VCOS: When you go into a professional show with experienced people in the cast and crew, do you feel any pressure that you have to measure up? Are you more conscious of aspects of your abilities that you might think are weaker?
LYRISSA: Ooh, that’s a hard one. I know for me, whenever I go into a show, I always feel a little bit inadequate, like I’m not professional enough or good enough at this or good enough at that, or I might think, “What am I doing here? I’m just a sixteen-year-old kid.” But I learned that you just go in there, be confident, and be “teachable.”
VCOS: Do you feel better when you are working on what you consider your “best” tool, like your singing, for example?
LYRISSA: Yes. My singing is my best feature. I really can’t do anything else (laughs). But you just kind of go in there and get the help you need and allow for constructive criticism.
VCOS: Do you take things as criticism?
LYRISSA: Oh, no! Criticism is the best. I love criticism! (laughs) That’s how you learn.
MICHAEL: I always feel like the acting has to come first for me because I get self-conscious about singing and dancing. When you apply the acting and know who your character is and who you’re interacting with, you get involved in the acting. I am “so Flounder” at that moment, that it doesn’t matter if the song is pristine or not, because the acting is there to support it. This is musical theater. If it were a concert, I would definitely be more focused solely on technique, but here, it’s the whole package.
VCOS: Where are you in school now?
LYRISSA: I’m a junior at Agoura High School. I perform with the choir and am also with the dance team.
MICHAEL I’m going to be a junior at Shenandoah Conservatory in Virginia.
VCOS: Cabrillo is going forward, but without Lewis Wilkenfeld at the helm. How do you two feel about change? Change is an inevitable part of musical theater. You’re always going to be involved in change. Shows change, casts change, and even if you make a particular theater your home, there’s still constant change within that venue. How do you deal with that?
LYRISSA: It’s scary, but once you get over it, it’s fine, and I have a good time. Change is good.
VCOS: What is Lewis Wilkenfeld’s most recognizable feature as a producer or as a director?
MICHAEL: Wow. You know, Lewis was the one who gave me the opportunity to grow up wanting to pursue theater. I feel that something that’s unique to him in everything that he puts on a stage is that he always dots the i’s and crosses the t’s. Everything is synchronized and detail-oriented, and it’s never about general strokes, it’s always about the tiny details. He never misses anything. And I so appreciate that. And I take that from my experiences with him and bring it to the table at the next theater or with the next director or wherever change might take me.
The Little Mermaid opens this Friday night, July 15, at the Fred Kavli Theatre. For dates and showtimes, visit the VC On Stage Calendar and click on the Cabrillo ad on our webpage.