BY CHRISTANNA ROWADER
This past May, I played Rapunzel in Into the Woods for 3-D Theatricals, and Rufus Bonds Jr., who was assistant directing, was brought in to play Coalhouse Walker in Ragtime, their next show. I really enjoyed working with him because he workshopped with me as Rapunzel in the “crazy scene.” So after Into the Woods ended, I gave him this big hug and said, “I hope to work with you again, soon,” and he said, “Oh, we will!” I thought he was just being polite. But I just knew that he would be a part of Ragtime. In my head, I wanted to play Mother – really bad.
Mother is my type of character. She’s someone that I would want to be done right because she’s so complicated. Lots of layers. I knew I could do the part, but not many people would think I could, because I’m young. Normally, a role like this is given to someone with a lot of experience and credits, and more well-known than I am. I’ve done a lot of regional theater, but I don’t have national tours, Broadway, or Off-Broadway credits. So when auditions came around, I wasn’t even going to go out for Mother, I was going to go for Evelyn Nesbit. That’s how I thought they would see me. But then I saw that Evelyn was pre-cast. Well, can’t go after her. So, I decided to go after Mother after all.
Then I got an email, inviting me straight to callbacks for ensemble. I said to myself, “I don’t want ensemble. No! I want Mother!” I had to have it. Or at least TRY to have it. So I called up T.J. Dawson, the artistic director – it helped that I had previously worked with him recently – and I left him a crazy, epic-ly long voicemail that said, “Two things can happen: One, I can show up, do my thing, and you’d say, ‘Oh, Christanna, I’m surprised. That was actually quite good. Thank you for coming in. I enjoyed that performance.’ or Two, ‘Oh, Christanna, good try. Maybe try again when you’re older. Nice to see you, though!’ Either way, you’ll be entertained.” Then I went into a serious thing about showing him a different side of me and how he should really see me in this light. “Just let me do it for you, please.” Then I sent him a Facebook message saying, “Listen to your voicemail.” And he called me in. “Show me what you got,” he said. Now, after all that I had said about myself, I was nervous, and now, I’d really better not suck. Then I went on the breakdown website to read about Mother and I saw that it said, “No phone calls, please.” Whoops.
They had us all sing “Back to Before” and read some sides. So I sang and he was surprised when I hit those belting notes at the end. And we workshopped the audition. It was really nice to do an audition and feel like it was a rehearsal. So I thought that it was a very positive audition and if he didn’t call me back, at least it was a good experience and I did my best. Then they called me back with a bunch of women who were way more experienced than me, as far as I knew. This was probably all in my head, sabotaging myself. I’d hear the others through the door and they were all very good. Any one of them could’ve been Mother.
It was a long callback process. After I sang “Back to Before” again, he said, “We are so surprised about you” and was so complimentary that I thought immediately, “I’m not getting the part,” because he was being so sweet and so nice. My brain takes compliments and twists them around to mean “You didn’t get the part.”
T.J. casts on the acting side. He just wants the character to be real. For all of his characters. And I saw Mother as a real person. I get period pieces really well. A lot of it has to do with the fact that my dad brought me up on black-and-white movies – old, old movies – ha ha! And I have a huge appreciation for actresses from back then, because they were able to balance being feminine and womanly while holding in all that other stuff, the rich, meaty stuff that they’re trying to bury. Then, when that stuff does come out, it comes out genuine and powerful, and somehow feminine all at the same time. I never thought about that until we started working the show and I thought that that’s how I could understand the part and make it be realistic, instead of over the top. When I think of Mother, I think of actresses like Olivia de Havilland, Bette Davis, or Vivien Leigh (that SHARK of a woman!). I understand that type of acting, that old style, classic woman.
They called us in again for a third round of callbacks. And it was between me and a very amazingly talented actress, who was nominated for an Ovation award. So I thought, “Ohhh, boy, here we go again…” So we were talking about how sick we were all week – that’s how nervous we both were. And then I found out that I got it. When I got the part, I was in shock. I’m still in shock, actually. I still feel like I’m blown away by this. This is the biggest thing I’ve done with a big company. Ever. With a very, very big part. Mother’s pretty meaty.
I love working with this company. They are amazing, kind people. I love the people who are cast in it and I’m very excited to work with Rufus, who’s playing Coalhouse, and even the ensemble people have got incredible stuff to do. Not every show features such a strong and dominant ensemble. They truly run this show!
Normally, I don’t like musicals. I’m weird like that. I like musicals that seem like movies or read like movies, with gorgeous music and a really phenomenal script. For me, it’s ALL about the story! That’s why I liked 1776, which was so moving and so real. And the music fit. Not just throwing music into random scenes, like, “OK, let’s go sing and dance! Hooray!!” I hate that stuff. But Ragtime is like a live movie on stage with Jerry Goldsmith music. It’s so incredibly beautiful. Every single song is a standing ovation song. It’s a show full of 11:00 numbers.
I’ve always thought about doing Broadway as a career. I really prefer film, but it’s harder for me to get into that world. But I’ve lived in New York City, and I don’t want to move back there. I’m happy here. I don’t want to live in New York. As much as it was a really great experience, and I made really great friends, but the only way I’d move back is if I got a giant part on Broadway and it would be stupid not to accept it. Or if I were super-super-rich and could afford to buy sunlight and space. Because that’s what New York is. You don’t have space and you don’t get sunlight, unless you’re rich – ha ha! But I’m really happy here, and I still have those film hopes and dreams. I like this kind of life. It makes me happy.
Christanna Rowader has appeared in Ventura County shows such as The Music Man (Marian Paroo), Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Christine), 1776 (Abigail Adams), and Annie (Grace Farrell, starring alongside Sally Struthers as Miss Hannigan). 3-D Theatricals’ production of Ragtime plays at the Plummer Auditorium in Fullerton through October 26 and at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center from November 1 through 9. For ticket information, visit http://3dtshows.com/productions/ragtime/