Reigning Supreme in the Ensemble

BY CARY GINELL

We’ve spent a lot of time interviewing stars, dancers, and directors in this blog, but this is our first opportunity to showcase that bedrock of musical theater – the ensemble. If you’ve attended musical theater shows in Ventura County, you’ve no doubt seen Reign Lewis, although you probably haven’t noticed her. For the past few years, Reign has been one of the most active performers on the theater scene, both on and off the stage. She has proven to have a remarkable talent for chasing her passions, of which there are many. We actually got her to stop and talk with us in between rushing around town, and had a frank discussion about the life of a person who likes to remain behind-the-scenes.

VCOS: Your name is unusual. Where does it come from?

REIGN: My real name is Sarene, which translates to “princess.” My nickname was Rennie but in high school I changed it to “Reign” and changed the spelling because it was closer to my real name. If I had shortened it to “Rene”, which is closer to my legal name, everyone would call me Renee and that’s not me.

VCOS: What’s your acting background?

REIGN: I’ve been involved in theater since I was about four or five. I started out dancing – glad I stepped away from that – and focused more on singing. I sang with the church for a while, in choirs -I was in Moorpark College’s choir for a while. I was at the High Street Arts Center before Ken Rayzor and Kathee Boyer were there, when it was still being rented out to traveling groups. I started out doing straight plays before I found out I could sing well. Then musical theater became my love and that’s what I’ve done ever since. 

VCOS: Have you had any formal training?

REIGN: Only through Dr. Vail Keck, a teacher at Moorpark College. She moved away a while ago and I kind of fell away from choral singing for a while. That’s when I fell back into musical theater. I was told by someone in the community who I had respected that I should do something I’m good at, which is not performing. He was an idol of mine so that kind of crushed me. 

VCOS: Obviously you didn’t listen to him.

REIGN: No. Actually I went in the exact opposite direction. Just to show him, I got cast in Les Miserables, one out of some 280 people who auditioned.

VCOS: Where was that?

REIGN: At High Street. 

VCOS: Were you in the ensemble for that show?

REIGN: Yes. I tend to do a lot of ensemble work mostly because I’m 5′ 11″ and at that point I was well over 200 pounds, closer to 300. So there weren’t that many parts for a heavy, tall female. That was fine, because I experienced everything without the stress of being a lead. 

VCOS: Wow. You look terrific.

REIGN: Thanks! I lost 160 pounds over the past year so I appreciate you saying that I look good (laughs). I got tired of some negative people in my life saying that I was fat and looked like a sausage. So I joined a gym, I got a trainer, I started boxing and eating better, and got a lot more jobs. I’m actually doing six jobs right now, so stress really helped too. Mostly working out three or four times a week. 

VCOS: Do you feel that even though you’ve lost all that weight there are still not many roles for you?

REIGN: The challenge is the height, realistically, and I know that. Nobody wants to see a romantic male lead shorter than the female. It’s not visually appealing. And I’m fine with that. In Nine, I’m playing a supporting role – I’ve been labeled as “the harbinger of doom,” which is AWESOME! Playing a bad guy is really cool! But I’ve made my peace with it. What can I do about my height? I’m not going to cut off my legs.

VCOS: Don’t sell yourself short, if I may use a pun. You could probably play Queen Guenevere in Camelot.

REIGN: Lady of the Lake would be awesome, too. I was in Spamalot at Conejo Players. I was the stage manager for that, and when I heard the music, I fell in love with that show, and it’s hysterical to boot, so that was good. There are more roles out there, but a lot of the directors in this area, and I hate to say this, are much more oriented in the past. They want to replicate what they’ve seen, maybe subconsciously. 

VCOS: Directors do pay attention to the physical descriptions of characters included with the licensing company, don’t they?

REIGN: Yes. I know Thoroughly Modern Millie was like that. 

VCOS: You could have played Millie in that show. The character’s height isn’t that important. 

REIGN: Yes and no. Blythe Renay played Millie and she knocked everyone’s socks off. She was phenomenal. 

VCOS: I could also see you in How to Succeed in Business as Rosemary. She doesn’t have to be shorter than Finch. Look at Robert Morse and Michele Lee.

REIGN: You’re right. I didn’t think about that. 

VCOS: In comedies, it could work. 

REIGN: Right. With farces, it’s a lot easier. That’s actually what got me cast in Sorry, Wrong Chimney. During the audition, I played opposite Nick Pemrose, and I shoved his face in my chest and we got cast together. (laughs) So my height does come in handy sometimes.

VCOS: You know, maybe you’ve talked yourself into this anyway, but just go for whatever you want and your talent will out. If you can do the job, they’ll find a way to make it work. 

REIGN: That’s all I can really hope for, so yes, you’re right.

VCOS: Also, if you go out for a lead role, if you’re good, a smart director will find a place for you, maybe in a character role.

REIGN: When I tried out for Singing in the Rain, I was told I was stronger vocally than a couple other people who auditioned, so although I wasn’t a lead, I became kind of a base, where other singers could get a starting note from me or could rely on me for stability, which is awesome to hear.

VCOS: So how do you feel about ensemble roles in general? Are you comfortable with that?

REIGN: I like it a lot. Unfortunately, I feel like a lot of people say, “Oh, you’re only ensemble.” I’m sure that if I played leads, a lot more of my friends would come to see me. But I feel like ensemble is just as important than the lead.We talked about how the show relies so heavily on a strong ensemble for certain shows. You can get passable leads but you need strong people behind them. It’s like saying, “Oh, it’s just community theater.” It’s not. It’s a show you’re putting on.

VCOS: Theater is a team effort. Whether it’s the guy painting the set, the second violin, the lighting director, they’re all important. One screw-up by any of these people can ruin a show. And that’s why I wanted to interview you as an ensemble person – to give people like you who might not be selected as a lead – a chance to shine as well. So you’re my first feature on an ensemble person.

REIGN: Whoo-hoo! I set a record! (laughs)

VCOS: And there are also people out there who are just uncomfortable standing out front and playing the lead. They don’t want that kind of pressure. But to be in the background, supporting the leads, playing on your own team of ensemble players, is a reward in itself, isn’t it? It’s like being a member of a bullpen in baseball, or a pinch-hitter. I think of Jennifer Bliman, who always plays ensemble roles and loves it.

REIGN: I love Jennifer Bliman. Her nickname is “Flippy-Doo,” because she always finds a way to do flips in shows. I met her back when we were doing Peter Pan. She thinks playing lead is too much pressure. 

VCOS: So where are you now in your career? What is your actual profession now?

REIGN: Well, as I said, I have six jobs. I work at Michaels, the craft store, which is usually midnight to 8 a.m., so I’m the night stalker. Then I work as a graphic design artist at a company that makes patches. I’m a freelance bartender, so I get booked for parties all over the place. Do you know James Laguna?

VCOS: Sure

REIGN: I’m his only employee. I work at his store, and then I work for a high-end fabric store in the same shopping center across the way from his place. I work roughly 20-22 hours a day, anywhere from five to seven days a week. 

VCOS: You’re kidding.

REIGN: I get that reaction a lot. So in order for me to do what I love, which is performing, I make sacrifices elsewhere. Sleep is a necessity every once in a while (laughs). I get maybe two hours of sleep every once in a while.

VCOS: I nod off that much during the day. At traffic lights.

REIGN: (laughs) It gets a little rough. I worked at a couple of shows out in Ojai and was doing way too much, workwise as well as working on those shows. I was doing six different things – singing, costumer, set painting, stage manager, prop master, assistant director. So there were way too many plates spinning at that point. And to be honest, I was not safe driving home. I’d pull over, jog around the car, get back in and drive on. That was really bad.

VCOS: Did you have an idol?

REIGNL Ideally – as lofty as this sounds -my dream is to become like Danny Kaye. Danny Kaye is my inspiration. When I became an actor, I learned to swordfight, I learned to ride horses, I did everything that I did because I wanted to be like the classically trained actors who had to know how to do everything themselves. Between him and Lucille Ball, oh my God. I went out for every slapstick role I could find. And in almost every show, I find some quirky thing that I can throw in to make it work. I thrive on making people laugh. I mean, if it comes down to me losing my legs and my sight, that’s fine. Just don’t take away my voice. 

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Reign Lewis can be seen in the ensemble in Nine, which plays at the Camarillo Skyway Playhouse. For dates and showtimes, visit the VC On Stage Calendar. 

 

 

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