Hannah Elless on Bright Star’s full circle moment & her love for her hometown

“Oh wait,” Hannah says, jumping up. “We have to take a picture with this!” she says, grabbing a Polaroid camera. “I’ve never taken a selfie with it,” she says, as we flip the camera around for a picture. She sets down the tiny Polaroid, we have to wait until it develops to see if it turns out. We are sitting in Hannah’s dressing room backstage at The Cort Theatre. I am looking around at the makeup scattered around her table, at the beads dangling from one wall, at her name on the outside of the open door, and I am so full of happiness for Kalamazoo’s hometown hero.

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We sit down and I shuffle some papers around to find my first question. “What is the first show you saw in Kalamazoo?” She smiles, taking a moment to think. Kalamazoo is our hometown. It’s a cultural hub in southwest Michigan with strong support for theatre. We are fiercely proud of all of our local actors who make it big, like Hannah. “The first show I saw was Annie at the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre and it changed my life because as a girl in middle school, watching other girls in my community who were in middle school perform was completely inspiring. And sometimes you don’t know if something is possible unless you watch someone else do it. So for me, as a young girl being taken to our community theater,  watching a show like Annie, inspired me to think, I could do that. I could be that girl telling these stories and that helped me to have the confidence to audition for Annie when it came around to the Comstock Community Theatre a couple of years later. And I had broken my foot right before the auditions and I was devastated. I thought it was all over. And my parents encouraged me to go even though I had a broken foot. So I went and auditioned. I did the dance call with a cast on my left foot, and I got Annie and that was the start of really, my music theatre career,” she says with a smile.

And what a career it has been. She started out on tour in Mamma Mia! before making her Broadway debut in the revival of Godspell, singing “Bless the Lord.” She has worked off-Broadway in The Other Josh Cohen, a new musical, and is now starring on Broadway eight times a week in Bright Star, another new, original musical. She’s always been destined to work on new musicals. In fact, the first show she ever did was a brand new musical.

“I was 11 years old and I sang with the Kalamazoo Children’s Chorus and they were looking for a girl to do a new musical,” she says, “Can you believe it?” I agree, it’s pretty wild, considering the majority of her career has been spent working on readings and workshops of new shows. “It was called Gertrude McFuzz and it had two people in it, it had a female opera soloist, who played the narrator, and it had a part for a young girl to play Gertrude McFuzz. And I got recommended from the Kalamazoo Children’s Chorus. It was totally sung through, it was an operetta, and I learned what blocking was, I didn’t know what the word was,” she laughs in disbelief, talking about the blanket term used for every move made onstage. “I did all of my own blocking, essentially. I didn’t know what I was getting into! I was 11 years old and I got paid! So my very first theatre gig, I got paid! Money!” We both laugh. “And so I thought, Wow this is cool. I want to do more theatre where I make money singing. What a funny joke, because I didn’t get paid to do theatre for, you know, another 12 years until college. So that was my very first show and it was a musical and it was a brand new musical. It was at the Nature Center. They have a little barn there that has a performance space and that’s where we did the shows. I think there were four shows. Quite the run. Yes, so my first show was actually a musical and a brand new musical. So I’ve come full circle.”

Hannah always talks about how her dream role is originating a role in a new musical. Now, she is doing that in Bright Star, where she plays the ingenue Margo. She brings down the house each night with her big solo, “Asheville.”  Her voice is beautiful, but her acting is what sets her apart. Perhaps it was her early training in classical theatre and acting that created a foundation for stellar acting. She was inspired by a director at The Kalamazoo Civic Theatre.

“Her name is Michelle Hopkins,” she says, when I ask about a teacher who had made an impact. “And she was my director at the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre when I did The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, which was a play for the Civic Youth Program and that was the first show I did with her. I went on to do many other plays and especially Shakespeare and classical works and she was the one that taught me about first folio and iambic pentameter, and Shakespeare. It should start [at a young age] because Shakespeare can be so intimidating if you don’t get involved with it at a young age, but if you’re just introduced to Shakespeare as a kid, it’s a normal thing. You’re used to the stories, you’re used to hearing it. By the time I hit college, I actually had more knowledge about classical theatre than the majority of my peers coming into college because I had had, basically a private education through Michelle Hopkins and her love of Shakespeare and classical works and I still carry that with my today into New York City. My love for Shakespeare started with her and she taught me so much about performing.”

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[Photo courtesy of The Kalamazoo Civic Theatre and Fred Western]
Then, Hannah goes on to talk about why Kalamazoo’s local theatre scene inspires her. “The great thing about Kalamazoo is we have so much community theatre, and by that I mean theatre outside of the education programs. So yes, you can do shows at your school, but you can also be in a production with people of all ages and that is what made me a really good performer because I would go into shows where I’d be performing with people like Erin Beute and she was a huge inspiration to me, and you know, because she was older than me, and really talented and it taught me a lot because I was around all kinds of people, all different ages. That in itself was an education for me. And that’s why Kalamazoo is so great. The community is so inspiring when it comes to theatre.”

In fact, it’s possible that Kalamazoo inspired her to pursue theatre as a career.  “One of the shows, actually the last show I did at the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre was Beauty and the Beast and I wasn’t going to audition for that either. I had decided it was my senior year, and I needed to focus on college applications and theatre, in my mind, wasn’t a profession at that point. It was more of a hobby that I really liked. Something that gave me a lot of joy. And I thought, I don’t have time to do a show, it’s my senior year, I have other things to focus on. And I was encouraged to audition and through a set of circumstances did end up auditioning. And they gave me Belle in Beauty and the Beast. Seventeen years old. We did so many shows. It was the holiday show. And that show changed my life because it’s where I learned how to have endurance and I learned that I could be a leading lady and carry a show on my shoulders and lead a company. It taught me a lot about being a good leader and it also showed me that maybe I wanted to do this for a living. And so because I did Beauty and the Beast at the [Kalamazoo] Civic, my very last show there, I auditioned for music theatre programs and it’s all history from there. I got into the programs I wanted to and ended up going to Western Michigan [University] and was so inspired by Marin Mazzie who had gone there. I just have a lot of female role models in my life that have gotten me to this point. And Kalamazoo really shaped me. I still look back at my time there. The Miracle Worker at the [Kalamazoo] Civic, I did that when I was 14 years old, and I joke, but it’s kind of not a joke, that that may be some of the best work I have done. I’ll constantly be trying to live up to the work that we did onstage in The Miracle Worker. Again, I had a great director, Bev Riley, Erin Beute played Annie [Sullivan] and the cast was phenomenal, our set was unbelievable. I didn’t know at the time what I had in our community theater, I just thought all community theaters ran like a professional theater. Little did I know how lucky I was to be in Kalamazoo.”

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[Photo courtesy of The Kalamazoo Civic Theatre and Fred Western]
“You’re legendary for Beauty and the Beast,” I say, “because, we’re all like, if she was seventeen and got a leading role, we can be seventeen and get a leading role.”  “Listen,” she says, “That’s how it works, is you see someone else go ahead of you and you say, ‘I can do that,’ and then you’re the person that does it and someone else sees you, and it’s a cycle of art inspiring people to make more art. That is what we’re looking to do as artists, is inspire more people to make art.” I nod, because, that’s really what Hannah Elless is, above all else, she is an artist. She’s a musician, a singer, an actress, a storyteller, and she’s an artist. I believe her genuine artistry is what helped her build a successful career.

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[Photo courtesy of The Kalamazoo Civic Theatre and Fred Western]
She leaves me with a thank you and an anecdote.  “I’m so thankful to Kalamazoo,” she says, smiling, “and the family and support that it gave me. And I’m just so proud of my hometown and so happy to sing its praises and to talk about it. I was in a coffee shop and I was wearing a hat that said ‘Kalamazoo’ on it and someone said, ‘What’s that? What’s Kalamazoo?’ And they pronounced it right, I was like, ‘Well first of all, you pronounced it right,’ I said, ‘It’s the greatest city in the world!’ We need to write a song about it. Hamilton got it all wrong, it’s Kalamazoo actually,” she says, laughing. Indeed it is.

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