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INTERVIEW: Chilina Kennedy on The Band’s Visit and Rocking the Road

What would you do if a whole busload full of strangers was stranded in your town overnight? What if they were from a country that has historically not gotten along well with your own? A scene from the national tour of The Band’s Visit, which plays at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis from Dec. 10-15.

The Phantom of the Opera closes today. Besides perhaps springing for a post-Thanksgiving ticket indulgence or trying the day-of show rush line (available to students and educators only), what’s a musical fan to do?

The Twin Cities are never short of locally produced theatre and home-grown musicals, but if you have a particularly Broadway-inclined appetite, don’t worry – you scarcely have to wait to unwrap your next big touring musical present. SIX – technically still en route to Broadway – is playing at the Ordway in St. Paul through December 22, and the next bonafide Broadway tour arrives December 10: The Band’s Visit.

The Band’s Visit, you say – isn’t that the dramedy film from 2007, about an Egyptian police band that ends up stranded in a backwater Israeli town? Yes, indeed – and also a Tony Award-winning musical that completely sold out its Off Broadway pilot before opening on the Great White Way. The poignant chamber musical features a cast of intriguing characters who slowly let down their guards to a soundtrack that mixes the sounds of Arabic traditional and popular music. The notoriously prickly Ben Brantley of the New York Times summarized his thoughts on the show, writing “It’s time to fall in love again.”

One of the characters to fall in love with is Dina, a local resident who invites some of the stranded musicians into her home. The Arts Reader’s Basil Considine spoke with Chilina Kennedy, who plays Dina in the national tour of The Band’s Visit.

  • Read Basil Considine’s review of the original Broadway production of The Band’s Visit.

Chilina Kennedy plays Dina in the North American tour of The Band’s Visit.

Geographically speaking, where am I catching you now?

I’m in Cleveland, Ohio. It’s been very cold here, so I’ve been reading and catching up on work.

I should warn you that your tour is heading in a northerly direction…

I think I’ve gotten weak about the cold over the years – I used to live in Canada. I’m from a military family, so I’ve been raised all over the world: I lived in Australia, England, and am now in New York City.

How long will you be with the tour?

My contract finishes in mid-December, and then I go back to NYC to spend time with my son. I took a six-month contract because I made a choice that I wanted to be with my son and let him be in school most of the year while spill spending the summer with me in Toronto. A lot of the people on tour have kids, too, and that was wonderful.

Out of all the stops on tour, I’ve enjoyed Boston, New York, Chicago, and Washington – and, of course, everything in California – the most. With my son, visiting the museums in Washington was really great. I think it’s good for everyone to travel as much as possible, and being able to go to school in New York City and then visit a city with the family…it’s been great!

All that movement as a child seems to match up with your professional career – you’re not exactly an idle actor, having played roles around the U.S. and Canada over the last several years.

It is very similar to a military lifestyle – getting up and moving every 6 months to 2 years.

Do you remember when and how you first heard of The Band’s Visit?

I’d heard about the buzz around the show, about how interesting it was, and that it was the show to see. Then it won all those Tony Awards. So I was late to the game, since I was playing Carole King in Beautiful on Broadway. It took me a very long time to see The Band’s Visit – it wasn’t until I knew they were looking at me to replace Katrina Lenk in the show on Broadway that I got to see it.

I found the message of the show beautiful and haunting – I thought about it for a few days after. Then the Broadway show closed and they started the national tour, and here we are.

You were in the national tour of Mamma Mia! – is this your second national tour?

It is, but the Mamma Mia tour was many years ago. I was part of the first replacement tour cast, taking over as most of the original cast went to Broadway. That was when we were spending 2.5 months in a place – a whole summer, in one case – and renting whole houses to live in.

A scene from The Band’s Visit. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Has anything notable changed in your road kit for this second tour?

A lot has changed – we have shorter stays overall, although some of them are 4-5 week runs. I was very much a free spirit back in the day and had my car with me for Mamma Mia! This time, I’ve had my 5-year-old son with me for part of the tour, so we were doing the flights with his trunk, my trunk, and his toys.

Taking care of another person changes things a lot, but he’s back in New York City in school now. I always sign up for half-a-year contracts, so that I can spend more time with my son. This meant that I only had to pull him out of school for 5 weeks to come with me for the summer part of this tour.

One of the beautiful thing about this industry: we’re always being asked to pull in different directions and think about things differently. My son’s been learning a lot from the industry, being backstage, and spending time with musicians – even learning to play the darbouka. It’s really interesting.

In aesthetic terms, the score for this musical is the complete opposite of the flashy, pop vibe of some of the roles for which you are famous, such as playing Carole King in Beautiful. After seeing the show’s final preview on Broadway, I remember the audience members talking about it as cool and entirely novel to them. Had you sung any music like this before?

It’s so unique. I always describe it as a combination of Middle Eastern sounds – the oud and the darbouka, and scales that are different than our ears are used to – and some jazz and musical theatre. I’d never heard anything like this. The closest was the world premiere of the musical The Lord of the Rings in Toronto, which combined Indian, Finnish, and traditional music theatre sounds. That was a similar coming-together, in that we were playing around with how vibrato is used in the voice, exploring the differences in the Indian sound, and finding vocal colors.

The Band’s Visit is very different from The Lord of the Rings musical in its sound, but it feels like we’re also accessing those darker, richer vocal colors that we don’t normally use in the American musical theatre sound, which is bright. I’ve also been listening to a lot of Oum Kalthoum

Chilina Kennedy as Dina and Sasson Gabay as Egyptian bandleader Tewfiq Zakaria in <em>The Band's Visit</em>. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

What is a favorite song in this musical and why?

It changes. I love singing “Omar Sharif” because I think that’s one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard and had the pleasure of singing. However, I think one of my favorites is “Answer Me”. It’s beautiful, subtle, layered – a question about humanity, relationships, and longing. I’ve sung it at a benefit with the cast, and it’s probably my favorite. But all the music in the show is beautiful.

One of the notable things about this show is that it’s relatively short – unfolding in one act, with no intermission. The audience ends the show feeling like they wouldn’t mind spending some more time with the characters, but it’s a full story arc. What’s it like as an actor doing this shorter show?

It’s amazing – I’ve never experienced anything like this! I know people in shows like Come From Away (100 minutes, no intermission) who would get home so much earlier than we would from Beautiful. While both parts have their depths and emotional struggles, it still feels lighter because you’re only dipping in and out for 100 minutes, rather than doing two whole acts. It’s hard to imagine going back, now!

A show is like a moving train, and the hardest ones are when you come in and are out for a big chunk, with big, long breaks in a 2.5 hour show. But when you’re playing Dina or Carole or Maria in West Side Story, you’re jumping on this train and you’re on for the whole ride. It doesn’t stop moving and you don’t stop until it’s over.

Are you able to put in more energy or give more because it’s a shorter show?

The Band’s Visit is not one of those high-energy, demanding shows, so you don’t want to give it the musical theatre razzle-dazzle. We have to go against all our instincts to have a coffee and then go and give it all – it needs a specific, different energy.

Starbucks isn’t a tour sponsor is it? If so, I can cut that last bit–

No, no. Doing this show is like an exercise in meditation. The characters all move slowly and are having trouble understanding each other, struggling to communicate. It’s like nothing else that I’ve done, and you have to be present and alive in that rhythm.

Have you had similar experiences of struggling to communicate in a new cultural environment?

I went to Israel when I was a child and lived several other countries. You can have trouble communicating even in a culture that speaks English -– like when I was living in a remote part of southern Australia. I had a great trouble understanding the accent for the first sixth months. There was a lot that was different, too – the candies they ate were different, the light switches were different. Imagine, then, a culture that also barely speaks your language – it’s tough!

The beautiful thing about communication is that there are so many ways to communicate that are nonverbal. I’ve taken trips to other places when I was a teenager and young adult – Thailand, Germany, Italy – and got to understand that barrier. I love that challenge of trying to understand that language barrier and communicate.

We get to know a little about your character (Dina) during the show, but there’s a sense that there’s a lot more about what she’s lived and done that we’d learn if this was a traditional, two-act show. How have you as an actor filled in her backstory?

This is one of my favorite things about an actor, and which has taken me many years to discover…despite all the studies about being an actor and doing this very thing. I’ve had a lot of conversations with castmates as well over the years, about agreeing on the backstory, and whether or not to keep it to ourselves.

My conclusion over the years is that it [the details of how you fill in the backstory] doesn’t matter, because the most important thing is connecting to the story that you are bringing to the deck. It could literally change every night, but that backstory has to be brought to life, so that the audience can witness it in an exciting way.

All that being said, I do have a couple specific things that I keep in mind and can relate to.

So you could, theoretically, take one version of the character’s backstory with you to the matinee and a different one to the evening performance…

Yes. And when you conjure an image, sometimes you’re not in control of what you’re remembering – it just comes to you. Sometimes I’ll finish the show and go, “Wow! I didn’t know that was coming.”

Family planning – or, indeed, wondering whether or not you can manage having a child and a career in the arts – is a topic that I hear many early- and mid-career actors debate. You’ve obviously found a way to make it work. What has your experience been like being a working actor and mother? Have you had to adjust things in a major way?

I was actually in Canada when I learned I was pregnant, and had a season booked at the Stratford Festival that I could no longer do. I quickly found a wonderful job in another festival as Nelly Forbush in South Pacific, even though I was 6 months pregnant when I did that show. We tried to hide it as much as possible, but people chose to ignore that fact in their vision of the character.

I also did a lot of concerts while I was pregnant, right up until the very last week, and then I went back to work in Mary Poppins six weeks after. I was a little worried, because I couldn’t walk to the block and back a week before rehearsals, but my doctor said I’d be okay…and I was.

Part of it was just being very communicative with the theatres – that I’d need to have my baby with me to breastfeed him during the breaks, and they were very supportive. And I did my audition for Carole King when I was 8 months pregnant, and it was [just] a matter of suspending disbelief. My son was 5 months old when I started playing Carole, so it was life imitating art: the character had a 5-month-old, and so did I. I was the longest-running Carole on Broadway, and it was really great to have that stability while having my child. It also let me take short breaks to do projects and readings for new works.

I really encourage actors who want to have kids to make it work. It’s challenging, but all of us together make it work: nannies, his supportive father, etc. I think the more we do it, the more we show women, couples, and men that it’s possible. Then we start to put in the support organizations necessary to better support working actors who are parents.

What’s coming up next after you wrap up your run with this tour?

I have some projects that I’m very excited to be a part of, but I’m not allowed to talk about them yet!

The Band’s Visit plays at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, MN from Dec. 10-15, 2019.

Basil Considine