BY CARY GINELL
For many, the road to a career in theater has twists and turns that one doesn’t always anticipate. Twenty-three-year-old Ella Bowen is currently on that road. As a featured performer at Newbury Park High School, Ella delivered powerful performances in shows like Bye, Bye Birdie and The Sound of Music before moving on to Moorpark College, where she continued her stellar acting and singing in shows like Chicago. Recently, the petite Bowen has tried her hand at directing. Camarillo Young Actors Company’s upcoming production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid Jr. is her third effort as a director and Bowen is experiencing changes in her outlook on the theater. She is candid, bright, and analytical at this stage in her life. We caught up with her before a final rehearsal and talked about her life in the theater.
VCOS: Has directing always been a goal for you?
ELLA: Not really. Mostly, growing up doing theater, I always just wanted to be on stage, but when I directed Seussical Jr., I realized that I’d been in the show before so I knew it well enough and was pretty sure I could direct it. So I did it and it was an interesting experience.
VCOS: That was in Camarillo?
ELLA: Yes. That was in 2011, when it was still the Camarillo Community Theatre.
VCOS: What was your first experience as a director like? Was it as you expected?
ELLA: It’s been so long ago that I don’t really remember much about it. I did it by myself that time. Usually the way it works is that they have two directors, one who is more the choreographer and one who is more the music director, but I had to do both, which was difficult because I’m more of a choreographer than a music director. So it was definitely very challenging to do it all by myself. Having my mother as the producer was really, really nice and my dad did lights, just like we’re doing this time, so it was pretty much a family affair.
VCOS: How about your second show?
ELLA: Well, for that, I was an assistant director and it wasn’t a musical, so for that one, I didn’t do as much. If I learned anything, it was how to get everyone’s attention, how to keep their spirits up, and how to warm them up to be ready to do a show – I’m not really around kids very often so I learned what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate and how to talk to kids so that they understand you, because a lot of the time, just saying something isn’t enough; you have to literally show them what you want. Most of the time, directors don’t usually do that.
VCOS: Does it help being young enough so that they might be able to relate to you and you to them?
ELLA: It helps me to connect with them, but not enough so that I can just say what I want. I still have to show them. I can give examples that they’ll understand but if I’m still not getting what I’m looking for, then I have to show them.
VCOS: Did you have a mentor; someone who you learned the most from?
ELLA: John Loprieno at Moorpark College. I wouldn’t consider him a mentor because he didn’t mentor me as a director, it was just him directing me, but anything he did as a director just makes sense to me. He is also one of those directors who doesn’t have to show us things, he’s able to tell us well enough. Of course, he works with college kids, so we understood things better than younger kids would. I love working with him. I haven’t worked with him in a few years and I miss that.
VCOS: Are you still performing?
ELLA: Not lately, no. For a while I had to stop and focus on school. I’m at a point where performing isn’t as much of my passion as it used to be, because I had an experience where I just wasn’t having fun anymore; I wasn’t looking forward to doing the show and I was almost dreading it. It was just one bad experience but I haven’t gone back to it since, but I’m looking forward to auditioning for Nine for Camarillo’s last production of the season.
VCOS: For you, which is more stressful – performing or directing?
ELLA: Directing. There are so many responsibilities that I have. One thing about this experience that has been interesting is that the first time I did it, it wasn’t that confusing. I felt like, OK, this is what I want and that is what I want. This time, there’s a lot of communication that isn’t happening between me, my co-director, and my producer, partly I guess because we just don’t realize that we need to ask each other for things.
VCOS: Have you learned to delegate so that you don’t feel like you have to do everything yourself?
ELLA: I’m learning to do that, yes. For some reason, I feel like I need to be that way because I was in control of most everything when I directed Seussical Jr. This time I feel like I have to do that but realize “Oh wait, my co-director can do this” or “This is something the producer has to do.” I’ve been stressing, stressing, stressing, but then I realize that I don’t have to stress about everything. We have a team and it’s an amazing team.
VCOS: How has all this affected your career goals?
ELLA: Honestly, I do love working with kids and people and understanding why they do what they do, so I’m actually getting more into psychology lately. Once I’m done with my theater AA at Moorpark College, I might take a break for a while and possibly go back to school to get a degree in psychology.
VCOS: What was your major in college?
ELLA: Theater. For my whole life, growing up, I wanted to be on Broadway. But as I’ve gotten older, it has slowly become less and less of a passion and more of a hobby. And I don’t know why. Part of it is that there is so much work that goes into it, like constantly training, and part of it is that I just don’t have the money, because I’m doing shows or going to school so I don’t have time to get a job. And because I’ve gone so long without having a job, no one will hire me because I’m older than what they’re looking for or I don’t have enough experience, so it’s been a difficult process.
VCOS: How about realizing the odds against making it on Broadway. Did that affect this change in your attitude towards performing?
ELLA: Yes, that’s one of the reasons why I don’t want to go to Broadway. For one thing, I don’t want to live in New York. I need space and there’s not enough space in New York for me. Another problem I have is that I’m so used to being in one spot. I’ve only recently moved out of my parents’ place. For the past couple of years I’ve been living in North Hollywood with my boyfriend, but I’m constantly coming back to be with my parents because I’m so scared to be in a new place.
VCOS: You like being comfortable.
ELLA: I LOVE being comfortable! That’s one thing that I definitely have appreciated about doing this. I can dress comfortably and don’t have to dress a certain way. I still look professional or whatever a director looks like, but I can still have fun and wear comfortable pants and a nice shirt. I got really into The Little Mermaid and bought a lot of stuff that has to do with the show so I wear it because it’s so much fun.
VCOS: What are the challenges you are facing with this show?
ELLA: The blocking! The script we’re using is adapted from the Broadway show and it’s made for kids to perform. Some of the stage directions are so overly complicated that they just don’t make sense! We joke about whoever adapted this script having had too many glasses of wine before writing it because they either don’t make sense or are too complicated to do on a simple stage. It’s made for people who aren’t directors or haven’t directed before, so they show you everything on how to do things, but still, there’s only so much you can do on a stage. We don’t have wires and our stage is small; plus, so much of this show is driven by the music tracks. It’s supposed to be barely an hour long, but there’s so much music that there’s barely any time when no music is playing. There’s underscore in everything and that’s what drives the show. Scene changes have to happen so quickly that there is literally no time for a blackout. It’s been challenging.
VCOS: Aren’t there loops in the tracks to give you more time to change scenes?
ELLA: There are only a few places where we are permitted to do that. There are scenes that literally go directly into the next scene, without any space. It’s been very interesting. We have sets that have something on both sides so that makes it difficult when we have to flip them around. Oh, it’s been fun! Then there are the water effects. We have two people who pretend to be the water and we have to choreograph that. It’s been amazing.
VCOS: So what happens next for you?
ELLA: I’ll audition for Nine. And then next year, I think I’ll be done for a while because I want to find a job and be making my own money. And just take care of myself. I was for a while, but now I have to take care of myself for a really long time. I only need one more class to graduate but I’m sure I’ll get where I want to be eventually.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid Jr. closes this weekend at the Camarillo Skyway Playhouse. For dates and showtimes, please consult the VC On Stage Calendar.