BY CARY GINELL
In 1983, Vanessa Townsell was a 22-year-old telephone operator who had dreams of making it big on Broadway. One day, on a whim, Townsell and a few friends went down to audition for a local production of Dreamgirls, which was then a big hit on Broadway. What happened next is the stuff that movies are made from. This month, Townsell is production consultant for High Street Arts Center’s production of Dreamgirls. We asked her to reminisce about her audition, which took place all these many years ago.
VANESSA: I went to the audition with a couple of friends. One of them, Hardy Keith Edwards, is in the High Street cast, playing Marty. Hardy and I went to school together. We just loved performing and knew that was something we wanted to do. It was funny because the line was so incredibly long. At one point we said, “Let’s go get something to eat” because we’d been in line since nine o’clock in the morning and it was almost noon and we were hungry. There was a little food stand across the street from the old Shubert Theater in Century City. So we ran and got something really quickly, and when we came back, the line was gone. Our hearts sank. We thought we’d blown it. We banged on the door and someone opened it up and they were teaching everyone a dance combination on stage. I remember working so hard to play catch-up. That was a funny moment.
VCOS: You auditioned for the late Michael Bennett. What was he like?
VANESSA: Michael Bennett was a very kind person. He had a heart for performers because he was a dancer himself. He knew how to work with performers and handle their temperament. That was number one. He was so creative that if you were around him you felt free to explore anything and that’s how that cast came about because they were allowed to do what they did best. Michael was my caregiver. I could call him for anything.
Michael taught me a lot, and not just by his words, but also by his actions, through watching him and being directed by him. When I got The Call, I was at work. Pacific Bell was a very strict company and you weren’t supposed to take personal phone calls on the job. So I got this call and I talked softly, “Yes? Hi, who’s this?” And he says, “It’s Michael Bennett.” I couldn’t believe it. I was in shock. He said, “What are you doing?” And I told him I worked for Pacific Bell. And he said, “Well, you need to hang up that phone and come on over to Broadway.” And I said, “What?!” And he said, “I’m offering you a job to understudy for Jennifer Holiday.” I said, “I’ll have to put my notice in.” I remember being so nervous and worried about my job that I couldn’t think clearly. I went home and told my mother and father and they were so excited and surprised, but we were able to work everything out and I reported to New York about a week or two later. It was definitely the time of my life. I thought I was auditioning for the L.A. production. We spent two really long days reading the script and singing the songs.
VCOS: How did the rehearsal process go?
VANESSA: I joined the New York company, and since this was back before the YouTube generation, where you get a chance to see the show and scenes online, all we had was the Tony Awards performance. That was enough to pique anyone’s interest. When I got there, I gasped. I couldn’t believe how wonderful that show was. It was so magical, seeing that entire production, sitting in the audience. And then Michael Bennett took me back stage and introduced me to everyone. The next day, I went to work. It was an amazing adventure working with Michael going through every scene with me. One time Gregory Hines popped into one of the rehearsals and he just stepped right in. He was across the street doing Sophisticated Ladies and he jumped into the scene with me and we began to do a telephone scene from the show. I was just floored. Here was the famous Gregory Hines of the Hines Brothers and I’m acting with him! My life changed instantly.
VCOS: How long were you with the show?
VANESSA: I did the show for about a year-and-a-half, including the national tour. It was a great ride, but that show was hard work, because using your voice in that way, how Effie White is and the range of emotions she goes through in that show, it takes a lot out of you. But I would not change it for anything in the world. I was working with the most talented people like Sheryl Lee Ralph, who played Deena Jones, and also Loretta Devine and Cleavant Derricks. They just took me under their wing and said, “C’mon Vanessa, here is how you do it!” I remember Shirley taking me around to shop in New York. I had never been there before. Here I was, 22 years old, and I had never been away from home before by myself.
VCOS: Tell me about the character you played, Effie White.
VANESSA: I think that Effie is loosely based on Florence Ballard. I remember asking [book writer/lyricist] Tom Eyen about that. He was friends with the Supremes and knew Mary Wilson, so it was loosely based on Flo being tossed to the background and Deena Jones, much like Diana Ross, getting moved to the front.
VCOS: Did you play Effie again afterward?
VANESSA: Not since the national touring company. I had been asked to return to the role, but at the time, I was moving my career in a different direction so no. It was so much fun to revisit, however, oh my gosh.
I was teaching in Ventura County and knew Ken Rayzor from using his theater for productions and showcases and such. Some of my students were performing in shows out there and they had been asking him for awhile to do Dreamgirls but he didn’t think he could pull enough African American talent to Moorpark to even do the production, so he kind of thought about it and discussed it with others and decided to give it a go. I helped with casting, I would meet with the singers and performers vocally – not all of then – but with Hannah Davey especially, our Effie. She’s a wonderful talent herself. I’d give advice and notes to the cast members, explaining where the emotions and some of the story lines were. I knew they had it in them from the auditions, but they exceeded my expectations.
VCOS: Tell me what you are doing now.
VANESSA: I teach in the Ventura area at Henson’s Music Store, which is a wonderful family-owned business that has been there for decades. The Henson family are musicians and I’ve been there for about 11 or 12 years. I work with many students; at any one given time, I probably have about 25 students coming and going. They are just a wonderful group of people to work with. A lot of people don’t know my background, they just want to jump into musical theater or get into singing with their church choir. It’s amazing what you run into. A few of my students are in the show, trying to get into Broadway. I also taught at the Camarillo Performing Arts Academy for about eight years. That’s a very good dance academy with a music department, and I also teach out in the San Fernando Valley.
Dreamgirls plays at the High Street Arts Center through June 28. For dates and showtimes, consult the VC On Stage Calendar.