Recently, broadway artists Anthony Rapp, Eleasha Gamble and Heidi Blickenstaff sang, spoke about their careers, and answered questions from students at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School as part of ArtSpeak!, a program that brings artists to schools to raise interest in and awareness of the arts.
The evening began with Rapp singing “Seasons of Love” from the musical RENT. Rapp is best known for originating the role of Mark in RENT on Broadway. Several audience members expressed their excitement at getting to see him live. When asked why she liked ArtSpeak!, Ella Sheppard-Saidel, a freshman at Walter Johnson High School, said, “Anthony Rapp…that’s why I came”. Following Rapp, Blickenstaff sang “A Way Back to Then”, from [title of show], and Gamble sang “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man”, from Showboat.
With questions and prompting from Mark Shugoll, sponsor of the ArtSpeak! program, the artists discussed their performing experience, as well as the DC theatre community, which Gamble described as “thriving”. Blickenstaff, who has performed in five touring productions, spoke about the difficulty of balancing her career and home life. “I am an artist, but also a human being”, she said. She also spoke about [title of show], which she co-wrote and starred in, along with Jeff Bowen, Hunter Bell, and Susan Blackwell. “[Jeff and Hunter said] ‘Could you help us, we have something but we don’t know what it is, could you sing it’―I was like, you’re weird…it was the weirdest thing I’d ever heard, and I was like, yes”.
Gamble spoke about her performance as Laurey in Oklahoma! at Arena Stage. She had replaced Valisia LeKae in the starring role when LeKae was forced to leave the show less than two weeks before it opened. Gamble learned the entire show in three days, receiving music training on a Saturday, the script on Monday, introduction to the cast on Tuesday, and performing before an audience on Wednesday, to great renown. “Laurey was a gift”, she said.
After the discussions, the artists sang again, with Blickenstaff opening with “Poor, Unfortunate Souls” from The Little Mermaid, in which she starred as Ursula on Broadway. Rapp followed with “Losing My Religion” by REM, which he said was important to him, as he had sung it for his RENT audition. “So I can say, without any sense of irony, that this song changed my life”, he said. Gamble finished with “Home” from The Wiz.
A student was then selected from the audience to ask the artists three questions about theatre. Rapp spoke about the ability of theatre to give people hope. “What theatre can and should do…is make a difference…[it’s an] opportunity for human beings to come together and be witness to what it means to be human…a shared experience that can change people’s lives”, he said. Gamble spoke about what perseverance meant to her, and the power of theatre. “It’s a hard and difficult business―we’re not doing rocket science, or saving the world, but there’s something about reaching people, touching hearts―you can make people see the world in a different way. You learn so much about being a human being in theatre”, she said.
The artists spoke about challenges they have faced in their careers. Rapp spoke about his memoir, “Without You”, which he has turned into a one-man show, and about losing his mother to cancer. Blickenstaff spoke about her frequent work as an understudy and replacement, and expressed frustration with the process of replacing another performer. “You know what, I really want to do something new, and someone can replace me”, she said. Gamble spoke of her Broadway dreams, and interest in moving to New York to pursue them. “I feel like I’m in a place in my life and in my career when I’m ready for that”, she said.
For his last song, Rapp sang “Without You”, also from RENT, which he dedicated to the memory of his mother. Gamble sang “The Money Tree” from The Act, followed by Blickenstaff with “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret, which turned into a duet when Blickenstaff and Gamble sang their separate pieces at the same time.
Following the program, Rapp, Gamble, and Blickenstaff signed autographs and posed for pictures outside of the auditorium. Three students from Montgomery Blair High School expressed their delight and satisfaction with ArtSpeak! and the performers. “It was amazing”, sophomore Meriel Caprioglio said. “So good”, junior Michelle McGhee said. “Really, really good”, junior Lily Durkee said.
ArtSpeak! is sponsored by Mark Shugoll and Shugoll Research. Its goal is to educate students about theatre. “ArtSpeak! is all about exciting young people about theatre and the arts”, Shugoll said.
This year’s ArtSpeak! was rescheduled from October 2nd due to work conflicts from the performers. The program also initially featured Jonathan Groff, who had to drop out entirely due to filming.
Article by Zoe Johnson, SAC press correspondent, sophomore at Blair High School