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INTERVIEW: Singer-Songwriter-Actor Emily Dussault – Gone Missing, Champagne Drops, and Songwriting

The cast of Theatre Elision’s production of Gone Missing in rehearsal.

On Thursday, 1/17, Theatre Elision opens its production of the musical Gone Missing. This is the Minnesota premiere of a 2003 musical by the late composer Michael Friedman (The Abominables, Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson) and book writer Steve Cosson. An Off-Broadway sleeper hit, the musical’s original production jumped to several regional theatres before ending up back on Broadway in 2008, where the planned limited run was twice extended. Theatre Elision’s production will be the work’s Minnesota premiere.

Gone Missing is an unusual stage show in its subject and delivery. Often described as a documentary-style musical, it was created by the New York City-based theatre company The Civilians (not to be confused with the band of the same name), of which Friedman was a member. The members of The Civilians famously interviewed everyday people to create the musical’s source material, using memories of these unrecorded material as inspiration. The cast plays a shifting array of characters whose scenes, monologues, and songs explore different aspects and ideas of missing people, objects, and ideas.

Theatre Elision’s production of Gone Missing is directed by Lindsay Fitzgerald, performed by four women and a trio of instrumentalists, and unfolds in a compact 80 minutes with no intermission at Dreamland Arts in St. Paul, MN. The Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine spoke with singer-songwriter-actor Emily Dussault about performing in Gone Missing, the resonances of all-female casts and productions, and musical adventures with The Champagne Drops.

Singer-songwriter-actor Emily Dussault.

Where am I catching you geographically?

At my house in South Minneapolis. I probably have about half an hour before I get to rehearsal. (Rehearsal in Columbia Heights at a community center there, Murzyn Hall.)

IMDB claims that you’re known for a 2019 film called Emily in which you play a character named…Emily. Is this just home security camera footage of you haunting people? Is this why you’ve Gone Missing?

(laughs) No – that’s a total coincidence! I haven’t done much film, but, three years ago, I filmed a short film and it just happens to have a character named Emily who gets murdered and haunts a house.

Coincidence? Amber Bjork of The Winding Sheet Outfit called you the “picture-perfect image of history’s most prolific murderess“!

I feel like I’ve played a lot of dark characters throughout my career, but it’s something I don’t mind at all.

The world premiere of Gone Missing had a 6-person cast, but I see 4 people on Theatre Elision’s cast roster. How much downtime do you have in this show?

Not a lot, but the thing that is interesting about this piece is that even though we all play multiple characters, but there aren’t a lot of “traditional” scenes. Instead, there are a lot of documentary-style pieces. Plus, it’s shorter [overall] (which I appreciate) and it’s not like there’s 1 person doing 12 minutes by themselves.

The cast in Theatre Elision’s production has also shifted from 3 men and 3 women at the show’s professional premiere to 4 women. All-women casts have come to the forefront more in recent years; from talking with women in the cast of the Jungle’s The Wolves, it seems very popular with the actresses that are in them. I hear a lot of remarks about special energy, sisterhood, freedom of expression, etc.

In the context of Gone Missing, what has been your experience of this women-led process and cast chemistry?

I have been in a few all-women productions and I agree: there is something special about it. It’s not that I don’t enjoy working with men also, but with an all-women show there’s a sort of shared energy – almost like a safety – and I feel there is a kind of ease that enters the room quicker than I think it normally does.

I’m not entirely sure what the casting process was that led to casting this show entirely with women – I imagine it has something to do with the incredible wealth of women’s talent in the Twin Cities. I find I enjoy the opportunity to work with several other women, as opposed to the common situation of 10 men and only 2 women in many shows – so it does feel very special.

A promotional image for Theatre Elision’s forthcoming production of Gone Missing, opening this Thursday.

Since you’re playing so many characters, did you get your role assignments in advance or partway through the rehearsal process?

The roles were all set before we started the rehearsal process – I think even when we were all cast back in the mid-/late-summer, but I don’t exactly know the process. Some of it, I’m sure, was just making sure that roles are evenly distributed throughout the show, and that the songs suit our voices.

Are there any challenges with shifting between so many characters in a single show?

Yes. It’s a very interesting challenge, because we’re all playing characters that are very close to our “traditional type”, but also different characters that are a stretch. I’m playing an elderly Russian male professor who’s lived in the United States for a while, a role I probably wouldn’t otherwise get to play.

What is a favorite aspect of the show?

I think one of my favorite things is how the different characters’ stories are layered on top of each other in a way that doesn’t initially make obvious sense: talking about losing pets, talking about losing loved ones, etc. Once you settle into it, though, there’s a logic [that emerges] for placing characters next to each other.

One of my favorite moments is a little section where these three women are all talking about losing rings – different types of rings. One is laugh-out loud funny, one a little funny and a little sad, and the other one’s tortured by this and it’s not laugh-out-loud funny per se. They’re all having these different reactions that are placed next to each other in ways that are unexpected and don’t follow expectations, which is also happening all at the same time.

There’s also a scene where three characters are all telling stories at the same time. One is a cop who’s telling kind of gruesome stories about things he’s found, another’s a pet psychic talking about experiences communing with animals, and one who’s a dispose-a-phobic telling people how to get rid of their stuff. The way they’re put together, it really feels like they play well of another.

I have on my desk a photo of you singing with the rest of the cast of Gone Missing at Musical Mondays. Was this music from the show or different material?

This group would be really fun to sing different stuff with, too, but I think Christine Wade – she’s in the show and the vocal director – has been connected with Max Wojtanowicz. They often do raffles for Theatre Elision shows at Musical Mondays, and often have previews of musical shows.

Back in the beginning of the rehearsal process, Theatre Elision asked us if we were available and said we’d been offered a slot, which led to us performing the song “I Gave It Away”, which is one of my favorites.

This is a shorter show, clocking in at 80 minutes with no intermission. This format has become increasingly popular in recent years, including shows like The Band’s Visit on Broadway. Does this entail any significant differences in what you do as an actor?

Not to any large degree. I personally love shorter shows and love being a part of and watching shows that don’t have an intermission.

I understand why some shows need a longer time to tell their story, but I’ve always felt that intermission is an interruption. The magic you’ve created gets sucked out of the room.

How did your engagement with singing and acting begin?

Literally, ever since I can remember. I remember performing for my stuffed animals when I was little, and forcing my little sister to be in a play that I wrote, directed, and made our neighbors come to. It really took off when I got into high school, and I haven’t stopped since.

What are some of your most important musical moments of recent years?

My collaboration with Leslie Vincent has been really incredible and is very special to me. It showed me that I can make music outside the context of theatre – something I always wanted to do, but which I lacked the belief that I could. It’s been really great.

Another really important special one was one that I did with Umbrella Collective – then Savage Umbrella – called June and set in the 50s. The director, Hannah Holman, was looking for someone to write music in the style of the 50s so we wouldn’t have to pay song royalties for an existing recording. I offered to write them, she said yes, and another musician helped notated them and there was a piano player… We got to perform an excerpt at the Iveys. The experience was really helpful in developing.

Emily Dussault (left) and Leslie Vincent (right) in a promotional photo of the Umbrella Collective (then Savage Umbrella)’s June. Photo by Carl Atiya Swanson.

People come to songwriting in many different ways – sometimes self-taught, sometimes through formal training, sometimes through informal pathways. What was yours?

I did not ever receive any formal training in songwriting. I play a little piano, and am getting more into ukulele – but I was never wildly proficient with an instrument. I always wanted to sing, and playing an instrument seemed like it was slowing me down. This made me feel like I couldn’t be a composer, but I kept working on these plays with collaborative groups where we made everything, and then I started making music and found I really liked it.

I felt like I was “hacking the system” because songwriting wasn’t super challenging once I started actually working on it. If I knew what the purpose of the song was, it would just happen…and I realized I could do it. Eventually, Theo Langason, Leslie Vincent, and I formed a collaborative that’s been creating music together for about a year now. It is really empowering, and I feel that it’s been a real part of my identity.

What’s your warmup routine like for this show?

I sing most days – a lot of times in the car or where I’m getting ready – so it kind of happens naturally. This show feels vocally in my comfort zone: the range is in my sweet spot and the style is accessible. That’s nice…when it’s more vocally strenuous in a show, I use one of those apps – 7-Minute Vocal Warmups – but it’s normally just my singing in my car on the way to rehearsal.

What do you have mapped out for the next year?

I have a show coming up that starts rehearsing right after Gone Missing. It’s called Velvet Swing, and it’s another all-women cast. It’s about Evelyn Nesbitt, kind of the first It Girl in America. That performs in April at Bryant-Lake Bowl.

Later in spring and early summer, I’m doing another show with Theater Elision called Sea Cabinet. They had auditions for their whole season this summer, then callbacks a few weeks later, and then I got cast in both of them. That’s as much as I have mapped up, and I’m okay with it. If my summer is a little bit quiet, I’ll be okay with it.

Okay with a little quiet? All right, I’ll call Leslie and tell her that you’re taking the summer off.

The Champagne Drops aren’t taking time off, we never rest. (And we’re also really good friends, so it’s work and fun – hard to tell the difference.)

How often do you get to see a show that you’re not in?

A lot less often than I’d like to – this town and this state – are so full of amazing theatre, and I have to miss a lot of it due to working on theatre and wanting to also see the other humans in my life, like my friends and dear husband.

Many of my dear friends are performers, so when I go see something, it’s usually because someone I know is part of it.

Emily Dussault rehearses with pianist Harrison Wade.

I see the solution – we just need to get rid of your dear husband…

No! He’s very integral in keeping our house clean and our driveway shoveled. He’s also very important in my emotional well-being and listens to my rambling thoughts when I come home from rehearsal.

You do a podcast called Hypotheticast – how did it start? How often (and where?) do you work on it?

I do Hypotheticast with two dear friends – David Gutsche and Michael John – that I met back when I used to work at a bookstore. The three of us are all big talkers and like playing silly games like Would You Rather? We just decided a few years ago to do the podcast and it’s been so much fun.

We put out a full episode every other week and a shorter episode in the middle. We ahven’t missed an episode in almost two years. We record with my friend and co-host David, and the three of us sit around the living room with our microphones and headphones, and he edits them together.

Theatre Elision’s production of Gone Missing plays January 17-27 at Dreamland Arts in St. Paul, MN.

Basil Considine