Published on September 7th, 2015 | by Biz Books
The Biz Interview: Fringe Spotlight – “Hunger Games: The Musical”
With the 2015 Vancouver Fringe Festival launching on September 10th, we wanted to take the time to celebrate some of the great stage productions happening around Vancouver as part of the festival.
Hunger Games: The Musical takes the ever-popular book by Suzanne Collins and film series and spins it on its head with a very ambitious (and very musical) parody. With the opening just a few days away, we spoke with actors Morgan Churla and Riley Qualtieri and writer/co-director Mark Vandenberg to find out more about the production.
What is your involvement with Hunger Games: The Musical and how did that get started?
Morgan Churla: I am playing the role of the ever-so-wonderful Effie Trinket. I saw the audition posting and knew it was love at first sight.
“I have to be in this!” was actually what I screamed at my laptop. I went through the auditions, received two noise complaints from my landlord – the audition song was “Chandelier” by Sia – and then a miracle happened… I was cast!
Mark Vandenberg: My name is Mark Vandenberg and I am the writer and co-director of Hunger Games: The Musical. I wrote the musical two years ago for my high school and it has sort of evolved from there. It has now been ‘adult-ified’ for the Fringe Festival. The idea came from my wondering what kind of dark scenario would singing happy songs seem humorously inappropriate. Kid-on-kid violence peppered with bouncy pop tunes seemed disturbing and very funny.
Riley Qualtieri: In April of 2015, I performed the lead role of Eddie Birdlace in Dogfight The Musical with a company named Awkward Stage Productions. The show was a critical and financial success for its short run, and Frank Nickel, our director and producer, saw the show. He liked my performance, and somehow, I don’t really know how, he saw the silly, adorkable Peeta somewhere inside the loud, arrogant marine character I played in Dogfight.
What should audiences expect from Hunger Games: The Musical?
Morgan Churla: They should expect to laugh, a lot, and maybe cry. The writing is incredibly witty, the music is so catchy and fun and the cast is superb.
Mark Vandenberg: Audiences should expect have a great time at the theatre. It is very accessible and will make you laugh, smile and maybe even pee a little. It’s mostly family friendly and is filled with pop songs from the past three years. If you’ve read the book or seen the movie, this will be right up your alley. If you haven’t, you must be a hermit or something, but I’m sure you’ll still enjoy the story and songs and be able to follow along.
Riley Qualtieri: Prepared to be blasted in the face with non-stop energy for 70 minutes! Catchy pop songs and wacky performances abound. We just want to have a big party.
The Hunger Games is a very recognizable property as a book and movie series. In your capacity, what did you do to make this incarnation stand on its own?
Morgan Churla: This was tough because everyone knows these characters, especially Effie. She is already an exaggerated character and then to throw her into a parody setting…well you need a lot of coffee. I didn’t want to mimic what Elizabeth Banks did in the movie, but I also knew I had to make her recognizable for those die hard fans of the movie and books (like myself). So I really tried finding the truth in who she is and why she acts the way she does to make her a little more dimensional. I’ve also dreamed of playing Effie since I read the books so I am just in my glory.
Mark Vandenberg: This production is a parody. While it makes fun of some of the serious and silly aspects of the book and film, it also hopefully makes one think about what the book/film has to say about the nature of violence, appearances, classicism, and reality television. Also our pop song parodies definitely set it apart. Katniss not only belts out alternate lyrics to Taylor Swift, she also tackles Adele, Foster the People, Gotye and Mumford & Sons.
Riley Qualtieri: Our production goes full parody. The plot line of the first movie is still followed, but that is where the similarity ends. We want to have fun, and make people smile. Lot of inside jokes about the movies, lots of campy sight gags, and we aren’t afraid to go of script. We have put together a cast that just loves to dance and have fun. Almost too much! Our directors have trouble reining us in to learn choreo because we have a tendency to just want to party. I’ll admit, I may be an little bit of an instigator…
What are the creative challenges and rewards associated with creating a live musical?
Morgan Churla: Musicals are so much work that sometimes its hard to see the end. Choreo, singing, acting, more choreo, more singing, repeat. They take so much energy but the pay off is like nothing else I have ever experienced.
Mark Vandenberg: Live musicals are all about precision. All the singing has to be timed and tuned, choreography has to be sharp and the music has to be perfectly equalized. It’s no easy task, but when it works, it works. We can’t help but applause when we see our actors perform an amazing musical number. It’s breathtaking, especially when 14 actors are in sync with each other.
Riley Qualtieri: Music connects people unlike anything else. As a young male, I might find it hard to connect with children, or an older audience, or women, or people who don’t speak my language, because we have a lack of shared experiences. We don’t look at the world the same way. Music transcends that. It can bring a diverse room together. Adding music to a production gives you a whole new way to connect with an audience member. While logistically it presents so many new problems, and requires a demanding skill set, when it hits, it hits hard. That is why I love musicals. When a musical is done well, it hits me in a way that a traditional stage play just can’t.
What are three things that every live musical needs in order to be successful?
Morgan Churla: 1. Coffee 2. Coffee 3. Coffee
Mark Vandenberg: The three things a musical needs are: 1. Fun memorable songs that you can’t get out of your head when you leave the theatre. 2. The perfect synergy of voice, music and dance. 3. An emotional impact that might take you by surprise.
Riley Qualtieri: 1. Guts. You can’t do a musical well if you’re scared. 2. Concentration. Rhythm, choreo, pitch… so many things can go wrong. You need to be locked in when you hit the stage. 3. A great band / music director. 99% of the time, the most talented people in the room are the ones playing the instruments. In our case, its our boy Oker, who is running the DJ kit. The show doesn’t go without him.
Why does the world need musicals?
Morgan Churla: The first musical I ever saw was Annie on Broadway when I was just a wee one and I sat on the edge of my seat from the moment the curtain went up and I’ve been hooked ever since. It transported me to another world and sucked me in emotionally whether I wanted it to or not. I will never forget that day. The world needs musicals. Music affects people on a different level emotionally. It tugs at those heart strings, awakens new emotions and usually makes you laugh. We need more laughter and love in the world.
Mark Vandenberg: Music has a longer impact than mere words. Musicals give the audience a time to suspend their disbelief that all the characters happen to know the same song, and just go with it. There’s a sense of freedom in musicals. Musicals are ‘life in extreme’. Emotions are amplified and the audience gets to go along for the ride.
Riley Qualtieri: Music speaks to people. There is a reason why all the buskers on Granville Island don’t just stand there with a microphone and say their lyrics. In our case, it says “Hey! Come Be Silly! Have A Great Time!”
What are some of your favourite musicals?
Morgan Churla: I have so many. Newsies, Wicked, Les Miserables, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Oklahoma, Little Women, Title of Show… I’m going to stop there.
Mark Vandenberg: Some of my favourite musicals include Les Miserables, Wicked, The Book of Mormon, Chickens (by Lucia Frangione) and The Unfortunates (by Jon Beavers and performed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival a couple years ago.)
Riley Qualtieri: Les Mis is the one that turned me onto musicals when I was in high school. I also have a 5 tattooed on my ankle from my experience with The Last Five Years, so that musical is somewhere in the top 5 as well.
What’s the most important lesson you have learned so far in your career?
Morgan Churla: To never give up. You need to hear a hundred no’s before you get a yes. I use my rejection letters as proof that I am out there trying. My dad made it to the NHL and has been my biggest role model. Our industries have surprising similarities which has been so helpful, he has taught me the importance of hard work and determination.
Mark Vandenberg: Theatre may occupy every waking moment for a few months but it is so worth it.
Riley Qualtieri: Riley, don’t be selfish. A cast is a team. As a younger actor I always would worry about when my time to shine would come. Sometimes you’re job is to be a rock for someone else.
What books and authors have been influential to you?
Morgan Churla: I know I should say something intelligent like Shakespeare or Uta Hagen. Honestly, books like The Hunger Games or Harry Potter have helped me the most as an actor because they open my imagination and allow me to create these complex characters in my head as I read. The last show I did was called Welcome to Thebes, I played Talthybia, and I actually used Effie Trinket as a starting point to help me find who that character was. I have also enjoyed reading other actors biographies such as Mindy Kaling and Lena Dunham because they tell the truth, and I appreciate that.
Mark Vandenberg: I guess The Hunger Games, since I wrote a musical about it. I also learned some story writing techniques from the fantasy writer, David Eddings.
Our thanks to Morgan Churla, Mark Vandenberg, and Riley Qualtieri for speaking with us!
You can find out more about Hunger Games: The Musical and everything else at the 2015 Vancouver Fringe Festival at VancouverFringe.com.