BY CARY GINELL
We conclude our visit with Janelle Phaneuf, who is making her directorial debut in Conejo Players’ current production of Godspell.
VCOS: I always saw parallels between the ensemble in Godspell and the Tribe in Hair. Have you thought at all about that?
JANELLE: Absolutely. I think with Godspell it’s a little bit more conceptual, I think, than Hair. Hair has more to do with its time and place; it’s very specific. With Godspell, I feel that you can take it anywhere. I also find that in a lot of productions, there are a lot of cool concepts for the Prologue, but then they never touch it again. So I thought, well, I’m just not going to put it in a specific time. It’s now. It’s here.
VCOS: Your production does, however, have kind of a sixties feel to it, especially with some of the dancing.
JANELLE: A little bit, yeah. The thing about the music in the revival, it’s stylistic and each number has its own feel. But I like being able to view it as being now or twenty years ago or twenty years into the future. There’s always going to be something that’s gonna draw people together and search for hope or something to believe in.
VCOS: In the opening of your production, the members of the cast aren’t holding signs with the names of philosophers on them. Why was that?
JANELLE: In the stage directions, it said that there should be something to distinguish who these people are. So I just didn’t do that part. I felt like we were taking a little trip through history with these people, who are all searching for knowledge. Then, when John the Baptist comes with the promise of the knowledge, and then Jesus shows up. At its core, in the Prologue with “Tower of Babel,” it’s just about people who aren’t able to communicate. There have been productions where everyone is on their cell phones, and the implication is that they can’t communicate because they’re always staring at these screens. I thought that was a really cool concept but then they never touch them again. It happens at the beginning but they never pull them out again, so I thought, eh? What do I need that for? It’s unnecessary.
VCOS: Are there any touches of yours that you added to the show?
JANELLE: I really like the face on the back wall that gets revealed at the end. That was one of the things that I was super, super passionate about. I was really inspired by the fact that we were doing the revival. People have done this show before and they’re going to keep doing it. We are a very small part of Godspell‘s history, and just the idea that we, as a people, have forgotten how to treat each other, and God or the universe or whatever has called these people in to learn their lessons and relearn how to treat each other…
VCOS: Representing a greater construct?
JANELLE. Yes. They are individuals and they are hear to learn. So when they learn all their lessons, there is the symbolism in Act II of them giving their ribbons back because they don’t need a physical representation of what they believe in anymore. They know it in their hearts. So then they can go out and re-teach everybody else.
VCOS: I always thought that they hardest part of this show was dealing with the pacing. There really are few letups. It’s hard enough having everyone on stage all the time, but dealing with the rhythm and the pacing must have been difficult.
JANELLE: It is difficult. In the beginning, when we were doing run-throughs, often, when a parable ends, it was like, oh wait, what happens next? That really falls heavily on Jesus, and Bennie Glasner is great at it. From the word “go” he was learning his lines and getting everything down, working on his pacing, and I told him on Day One, “You are in absolute control the entire time. Every parable, every lesson, every game is your idea, and you have to be in control.” Because what can happen with Godspell is that it turns into this big mish-mosh of everyone trying to be the funny one. So whoever is playing Jesus has to be in control and everyone else has to be a follower. That’s the only way it’s going to work.
VCOS: So how do you rein in somebody like Tim Reese who just bursts with ideas and shtick?
JANELLE: He is so explosive! What I told Tim often was – because he’s SO talented and has so much energy and enthusiasm – Sometimes he’ll try to get everybody else to be as enthusiastic as he is – but I would constantly remind him: be grounded. You’re not a character, you’re Tim. But ground yourself in reality. It’s easy, in musical theater especially, to be these over-the-top, larger-than-life characters, but as long as you ground yourself in reality, keep your feet on the ground, and just be real, than that pulls that back a little bit.
VCOS: Did anybody in the cast surprise you?
JANELLE: Bennie surprised me. He came in for auditions and then got the call back, and, I’m a huge believer in – even with myself as a performer – I want to give them no option. You have to cast me, because I’m going to give you the best product. And that’s what he did. I could tell he worked really hard. And he didn’t stop working hard; he kept going every day, just building and building on it. Jesus is such a hard role. There are so many words to learn, and it’s in a language that we don’t really speak anymore. So I would tell, take the dialog and put into words like you would say it now. Make sure the intention is there. And he worked at it. It’s wonderful to watch him.
VCOS: Is there something you wish you had for this production that you were unable to get?
JANELLE: They have this really cool thing that they do in the revival in the baptism scene, where they had water falling from the ceiling into this little square in the floor. It was really cool. Gimmicky, sure – but they also have this bit where Jesus walks on water, and I loved that. The purity of it. With the baptism scene, again, you can get really conceptual with it. But sometimes I think it’s just better just to be pure. It’s a baptism. It’s water. And I wished we could somehow have water on stage! My cast wanted trampolines, but said no, we didn’t need trampolines.
VCOS: So now that you’ve gotten your feet wet – and it’s funny, we’ve just been talking about water! – what’s next for you?
JANELLE: (laughs) I don’t KNOW! But when I picked Godspell, my second choice was The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and I didn’t get it. Recently I saw All Shook Up at Moonlight, and I fell in love with it. It’s Elvis and vintagy, which is me. I grew up listening to Elvis and my dad’s a huge Elvis fan, and I just love the message. It reminded me a lot of Hairspray: we’re going to take something serious, throw some glitter and silliness on it and get the message across that way. It’s a bigger show than Godspell and it has actual scene changes and stuff in it, so we’ll see!
Godspell continues at the Conejo Players Theatre through August 2. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.