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The Life of an Elphaba Standby: Wicked Comes to Fresno

IN THE March 13 ISSUE

FROM THE 2019 Articles,
andLorie Lewis Ham,
andTheatre
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by Lorie Lewis Ham

Wicked comes through Fresno next week performing at the Saroyan Theater in Fresno from March 20-31. We have a rather different interview for this show, we are interviewing the Elphaba Standby, Cecelia Ticktin. And if you don’t know what a standby is, keep reading!

KRL: Where are you from?

Cecelia: I’m from a little town in central New Jersey, about an hour from Manhattan.

KRL: When did you first become interested in acting?

Cecelia: It’s funny, I just read an interview of our current Elphaba Understudy, Sarah Anne Fernandez, and I noticed we have practically the same origin story. In both of our cases, our parents took us to see Beauty and The Beast as our first musical when we were three years old, and we were completely entranced; and we both saw The Little Mermaid as our first movie shortly thereafter. I’ve wanted to perform for as long as I can remember, excluding a brief period of time in elementary school when I toyed with the idea of becoming a vet so I could play with puppies all day (I might not have been entirely clear on what vets do).

Wicked theatre

Cecelia Ticktin

What really cemented my career path was seeing Les Miserables on Broadway on my tenth birthday. I was sitting front row center, and the actress playing Eponine, Catherine Brunell, dropped to her knees during “On My Own” and, I swear, looked right into my eyes. It felt like she was sending me a message. In that moment an absurd amount of clarity for a ten year old to have, washed over me, and I could just see it – I could vividly see exactly what I wanted for my future. I wanted to learn how to do THAT.

At intermission, I announced I was going to pursue a career on Broadway. Shortly after seeing her perform, I wrote a fan letter to Catherine and she actually responded. Her accessibility I think is what made her job seem real and attainable. It wasn’t like watching a movie where the magical Hollywood people go to some far off place and create movies that people like me could watch on a screen; Broadway actors were real people who lived where I lived who I could watch in the flesh and communicate with.

KRL: What was the first role that you ever played?

Cecelia: When I was in elementary school I was dancing nearly every day, and taking a weekly voice lesson – I spent more time in classes than I did on a stage. I’m sure I did shows before this, but the first one I can actually remember is my seventh grade school musical, Give My Regards To Broadway. I don’t remember anything about the show, including the name of the role I played, but it was the female lead. I’m pretty sure there was a stage kiss in that show, which was my first kiss – but if memory serves, when we did it in rehearsal my attempt at kissing was so awkward and unpleasant to look at that it was turned into a stage hug for the actual performance.

The only other memory I have from that experience was not ever knowing what do with my arms. When my character had to walk across the stage, I’d look like an alien from outer space who’d spent some time studying mankind and was attempting to walk like a human for the first time. I still to this day struggle with trying to just be a person on stage, and not put on a special actor voice or a special actor walk. It’s hard! But I’ve come a long way, as evidenced by the fact that my kiss with Fieyro has yet to be turned into a hug (*knocks on wood*).

KRL: What are some of the roles you have played professionally?

Cecelia: Here’s the really absurd part, this is my first professional job! My life got a little complicated when I was eighteen years old, and I took a very circuitous route to where I am now (that’s a whole other interview).

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about how I won the lottery with this job; not a moment that I’m not in awe of the fact that for my very first entrance onto a professional stage I got to run out – literally – onto a stage populated by the most ridiculously talented group of humans I’ve ever seen amassed in one place, and sing some of the most beloved musical theater songs to thousands of people. It really is just absurd how lucky I am. Absurd!

KRL: Why did you want to be in Wicked?

Cecelia: As you can imagine from my experience of seeing Les Miserables and deciding on that day that I wanted to be a musical theater actor, from age 10-20 I was obsessed that show.

I had seen Wicked for the first time at age 15, and of course I loved it, but I didn’t have an immediate ah ha moment with Elphaba like I had with Eponine. I think I needed to experience a little more life first. Around age 20, my focus switched away from Les Miserables and toward Wicked, and I spent the next decade pursuing the role of Elphaba with a fervor. Eponine was a role I loved watching Catherine Brunell play: Elphaba was a role I knew I needed to play. I think the switch happened around when my life started to truly resemble Elphaba’s life, and I saw so much of her in me. I joke (but am also kind of not joking) that I’m a terrible actor – I’m just really good at telling the truth. So for better or for worse, I’ve always been attracted to roles that have a lot of me in them; that I can lock into really easily.

I’ve also always been a person who laser-focuses on one thing at a time (if you want to prevent me from sleeping, ask me right before bed if there’s more value in being a jack of all trades or a master of one, and watch me lay in bed and stare at the ceiling for eight hours as my mind races). For the six years leading up to booking this role, Wicked was the only show I auditioned for (with maybe two exceptions – over the course of six years). It wasn’t like I was turning down dozens of Broadway auditions (I don’t want you to think I’m entitled or insane) – I just wasn’t aggressively pursuing other auditions; I wasn’t getting auditions for other shows because I wasn’t asking for them. Once a year, however, I’d ask to be seen for Wicked.

Now, only auditioning for one show (and having that one show be one of the most sought after contracts out there) was a bold move, and I don’t necessarily recommend doing that; but I knew that was my personal path. I just knew in my gut that if I were going to book a role, it was going to be Elphaba. So in my [very possibly misguided and irrational] head, it made sense to me to ignore what may have been considered more attainable opportunities (community and regional theater, children’s theater, summer stock, etc). And a lot of thought went into that tactic; it wasn’t just that I didn’t think other projects would bring me as much satisfaction. I had a fulfilling and entirely other career going for most of that decade, and financially it didn’t make sense for me to hop from low paying job to low paying job and wait tables in between, when I could be making a good steady living in this other field. So I worked (as a personal trainer) for years and years, and I bided my time.

It took me six years of actively auditioning for Wicked to earn this job. And by the way, my first three auditions (each about a year apart) were complete disasters, if that gives anyone out there who’s just had a terrible audition hope. When I think back to how supremely unqualified I was at my first Elphaba audition, I cringe. I was not a natural vocal fit for this role – and I knew that. So I worked for it. Hard. For years in my weekly voice lesson, all we worked on was “Defying Gravity”, and “The Wizard”, and I’m not exaggerating – we literally worked on those songs, at the exclusion of all other music, for years. When I first started auditioning for the show, I couldn’t even sing the last three notes of “Defying Gravity.” So my voice teacher, Andrew Byrne, and I drilled and drilled and expanded my vocal range and my abilities all in the name of making me qualified to play this role. And I can tell you, I didn’t get this job until I was ready for it. Even if I had been cast a year ago, I wasn’t ready. At the exact moment that I was ready (vocally and otherwise), I booked it.

KRL: Have you gotten a chance to go on yet as Elphaba?

Cecelia: I have! Somewhere between 10-15 times.

KRL: What is it like being a standby? Do you go on in the ensemble otherwise? How does this work?

Cecelia: This show has an Elphaba Standby and an Elphaba Understudy. The Standby, which I am, is only on stage as Elphaba. If I’m not on, I am backstage during the show. The Understudy performs every night in the ensemble, and then if both the Principal and the Standby are out, she goes on as Elphaba (and a swing takes over her ensemble track).

Being a Standby is its own kind of difficult. One of the things that makes being the Principal incredibly difficult is the fatigue that comes with doing the show eight times a week; whereas with being the Standby the difficulty lies in the very fact that we don’t do the show eight times a week, so stamina isn’t built in to the job. What I mean by that is, it takes an incredible amount of stamina to play this role – physical stamina, mental stamina, vocal stamina… Take vocal stamina: The voice is a muscle, and so with singing the show every day that muscle gets stronger. As a standby, singing the show every day isn’t built into our job – let’s say we go on one time in a month, technically we only have to sing the show that one time. But in order to build up the stamina it takes to succeed in this role, we need to, on our own time, sing through the show as much as we can.

What my day looks like changes from city to city, based on a dozen factors such as if our theater has a rehearsal room in the building, if I have a lot of rehearsal during the week or if my schedule is pretty open, etc. So I’ll give you an example: In San Diego, we had a big beautiful rehearsal room, and there wasn’t that much rehearsal going on. When a rehearsal room is in a theater, the sound from the stage is piped into the room. My goal in that city was to sing through the show, full out, a minimum of four times a week; so on those days I’d go to the rehearsal room during the show and sing/speak through the entire show in real time. About two shows a week I’d watch from the wings, so that I wasn’t forgetting blocking. And about two shows a week I’d just hang out backstage and rest. Every standby works differently, and again I even operate differently from city to city – but I try to be engaged with the show as much as I can (whether that’s singing along or watching) because it helps me feel like I’m a part of the team.

KRL: What do you like best about this show?

Cecelia: The people! The most gracious and inclusive and generous people work on this show. Everyone, cast and crew, has gone so far out of their way to make me feel welcome and deserving of being a part of this team. There are two worlds in the theater – what happens on stage, and what happens off stage. I’d been training my whole life to be good at what happens on stage, but I had zero knowledge when I came on board of how to navigate what happens off stage. There isn’t a single person here who hasn’t at one time or another either saved my butt, or given me advice that has prevented my butt from needing saving. And never, once, have I ever felt judged for needing so much guidance.

I’ve actually started putting some video diaries up on my Instagram page to highlight the people who’ve been so incredibly helpful to me out here, if you want to check that out (@ceceliaticktin). I’m definitely slow to post, but I’m working on increasing my output!

Wicked performs in Fresno March 20-31 at the Saroyan Theater. Tickets can be purchased on Ticketmaster and you can get more info on the Broadway Fresno website.

You can find more theatre articles, and other entertainment articles, in our Arts & Entertainment section.

If you love local theatre, be sure to check out our new Mysteryrat’s Maze Podcast, which features mysteries read by local actors. The first 16 episodes are now up! You can check the podcast out on iTunes and Google Play, and also on podbean.

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Lorie Lewis Ham is our Editor-in-Chief and an enthusiastic contributor to various sections, coupling her journalism experience with her connection to the literary and entertainment worlds. Explore Lorie’s mystery writing at Mysteryrat’s Closet.

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