MURRAY — Much talent has been introduced by the newly born Utah Repertory Theater Company, and I’m intrigued by all the great new work that is coming from the company. Two first-in-the-state musicals, one comedy that was a Utah premiere, and now another ambitious project: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel.” Even for a well-established company, these are daunting challenges. So why is it working here? I think the answer is in the people they attract. I recently had the chance to interview Elsa Hodder who is playing Louise in Utah Rep’s upcoming production of “Carousel.” Her answers to my questions showed an artist with wisdom, diligence, and commitment to her craft. If this is the stuff that all the people at Utah Rep are made up of, beginning with the 15-year-old Elsa, then I can see great things in store for the company.
Although only 14, the young Nova Scotian has had her fair share of accomplishments. She just won a national musical theater competition in Florida, and is currently being coached by Robert Fairchild and Tiler Peck as part of a Ballet West summer program. Fairchild and Peck are both dancers for the New York City Ballet and danced the Louise and Carnival Boy roles in the recent Lincoln Center Carousel PBS broadcast. With so many great experiences under her belt, I couldn’t wait to get to pick her brain a little and find out what drives her as an artist. Here’s what she had to say:
What brings you here to work with Utah Rep’s production of Carousel?
The Utah Repertory Theater Company is a new up and coming company with a great production team. When I heard they were playing Carousel as one of their 2013 shows I was very excited to fly to Utah last winter and audition for the role of Louise. When I found out that I had been given the role of Louise and was accepted to the Ballet West Acadamy, I was so excited for my summer! Louise is a role that acting-wise would be a challenge and has the amazing dream ballet scene. Dancing with Johnny Wilson in the dream ballet scene is wonderful. The story is very moving and Johnny is a strong and expressive dancer.
What has it been like to work on the show? What do you think about the musical itself?
I like to try and relate to the characters in the musical somehow. In Carousel one of the themes is abuse, but from people that you love. My grandfather was a gambler; I hear stories from my grandmother and mother about how kind, gentle and sweet he was, but because he gambled and lied, my grandmother divorced him when my Mom was about 19, and he died a few years later. The thing is everyone adored him and I hear them talk about him and I feel that I would have too, yet he had this problem that was so hurtful and destructive; I can see and hear it in my mom and grandmother’s voices when they talk about him. Playing Louise helps me understand how you can love someone so much, even when they are not perfect and even if they hurt you emotionally, physically, or mentally. You can still love them. Louise’s message is real. I think most people have someone in their lives like that if they are honest with themselves. Maybe it’s yourself. Sometimes I hurt the people I love and I hope that they will be patient with me and still love me anyways.
What are your thoughts on your character, Louise?
I love the character of Louise, she is a strong person but is also a bit naïve and vulnerable. Louise is judged by her peers because of her father’s behaviour and his choices. This really effects Louise because she is alone with just her mother as family, so in order to have friendships she gravitates towards outsiders coming in to her town who haven’t had a chance to learned about her father’s life.
You already have quite an impressive resumé, what brought you to start dancing? Has that motivation changed as you’ve gotten older?
My family says I was just born dancing. If someone asked me to turn on the light when I was a tiny little girl, I would dance my way over to the light switch and then dance my way back. My older sister was a serious competitive highland dancer, and I always wanted to be just like her, so I started highland dance lessons when I was three. When I was 6 or 7 I took my first ballet lesson, and I knew right away that it was something I couldn’t live without! Now 7 years later, I find myself still training everyday in a professional dance program at the Maritime Conservatory of Performing Arts in Halifax, Nova Scotia. During the summers I train abroad at schools like the National Ballet School of Canada, Boston Ballet School and this summer, the Ballet West Academy. I discovered musical theater when my older sister wanted a part highland dancing in a Christmas musical called Fezziwig’s Christmas Frolic and she brought me along to the audition with her.
Has there been a role that’s your favorite so far?
My favorite role so far has been Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street the Musical. I love to tap. Tap is one of my favorite dance styles to watch and perform, and this musical has got a lot of it! It was so thrilling to be in the spotlight singing “42nd Street” and then break into an insane tap duet (with Brandon Roach) and then have the whole ensemble of tap dancers joining you to finish off the grand finale of the song!
Are there any artists that you look to as inspiration?
The people that inspire me the most are my opposite leads in the shows I have done this past year. Kealan MacLaughlan, principal dancer with Ballet Jorgen, Canada, performed as the prince in the ballet Cinderella. One of the things he taught me is the importance of having a powerful presence on stage at all times. When I played Peggy in 42nd Street with Brandon Roach playing Billy Lawlor, he would work with me everyday for hours on my character development and how I presented my lines as Peggy. His coaching has influenced my acting so much. He also taught me how to make a tim tam slam! I am excited to work with and learn from Johnny Wilson from Seattle, Washington, this summer doing Carousel.
What’s your average day like?
I start most days at 7am in the pool for an early morning conditioning class, and end my days at 9pm with either a dance class or a show rehearsal. In between I have dance and vocal classes, seminary, and independent high school courses through Kings View Academy. I take Sunday off for rest, church and family time. I don’t have any spare time at all during the other 6 days of the week.
I understand you’re from Nova Scotia. Do you like how much you have traveled due to your work? Do you miss home?
I have been traveling with my family for as long as I can remember to be part of shows, religious pageants, and summer dance and theater training programs. I am always excited to be in a new place with new people to learn and discover everything they have to offer! I have been able to have many incredible experiences because my family is very supportive and willing to go with me anywhere they can find that I will be able to learn and develop my performing skills.
Tell me a little bit about your family? Do they come with you on your trips? Are there any other performers in your family?
Because I am 14 one of my parents is always with me at rehearsals and shows. It is usually my mom because she can rearrange her work schedule easier than my dad. My mom had a popular Celtic band in Halifax when I was young, and I got to come along with her a few times to watch a show and even got to come on stage as a special guest to dance, sing or play my fiddle once in a while when I got older. My sister is a folk dancer in University and is a BATD Highland dance instructor. My brother plays the guitar and has a really nice voice. My dad is a great example to me; I have never met anyone who works as hard as he does for his family and he is always there for any help and support that I need at all.
Hodder (middle) with Ballet West mentors Robert Fairchild and Tiler Peck.
What are your plans for the future?
My future plans are to continue to drive hard in the development of my triple threat skills until I go to university to study musical theater. I will definitely continue to do shows for the rest of my life!
Is there any advice you would give to young performers who want work professionally?
Find the very very best teachers that you can for dance, singing, and acting. If they live far away or are too expensive then do what ever it takes to see them for even one lesson a month. Have your parent or a friend take amazing notes and/or record each lesson to restudy after. Play a game with yourself to never have a teacher correct the same thing more than one lesson. Note a correction and make a drill for it so many times to master the correction. You beat it and never let it conquer you!
When ever you are at a rehearsal or in a class always pay attention and assume all general comments made to the cast are for you. Never think the director is “talking to every one else.”
Be a team player with your parents. Appreciate every sacrifice and/or effort your parents make for you. Always go out of your way to sincerely thank them for anything they do for you that helps you to develop your talents.
Any last thoughts for us?
The Utah Rep has a large production team with fabulous people giving so much of their time willingly to the creating and running of this new theater company. I think what many audiences and actors don’t understand is how much work goes into putting on a show behind the scenes. I am impressed by what the production team has been able to accomplish as we have been working on this show. I can’t wait for the show to open and see all of the work and talent all come together.
Talking to Hodder alone was enough to get me excited for this production, and if all involved are even half as passionate and dedicated as her, then this is going to be a production no one will want to miss.
The Utah Reperatory Theater Company production of Carousel will play every Friday, Saturday, and Monday at 7:30 PM from August 9 to 24, and at 2 PM on August 17. Tickets are $15-18. For more information, visit utahrep.org.
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