For the last of our three profiles on actors in ETC’s production of Hairspray, Miss Jaye took some time to talk with Abigail Gilbert who plays Tracy Turnblad. This is her first time in an Empire Theatre Company show, but she is no stranger to the stage – or even to the role of Tracy!
Janessa: Today I’m having a convo with Abigail Gilbert who plays Tracy, my rebellious teenage daughter in Hairspray. Welcome to the World of Champagne, Abigail.
Abigail: Thank you so much, Janessa! I am so excited to be here!
J: I’m glad you were able to find the time, what with all of your teenage rabble-rousing you’ve been doing…plus driving up from Fargo every day for rehearsal!
A: Oh, of course. I will always make time for my lovely stage mother!
J: There are 5 of you that carpool up together. How has that been for you?
A: Luckily, I get to drive to Grand Forks every day from Fargo with people that I LOVE being around. We have amazing jam sessions every day (to Hamilton, of course), and the car ride has given us a lot of time to practice our Hairspray lines and music! We’ve also become best friends with the staff of the Hillsboro Burger King – hello, 50 cent ice cream cones!
J: Many people are probably already familiar with Hairspray, whether because of the John Waters movie with Ricki Lake and Divine, the Broadway musical with Marissa Jaret Winokur, or the movie version of the musical with Nikki Blonski, John Travolta, Queen Latifa, and Amanda Bynes before she went all cray. Tell me about your interpretation of Tracy for this show. How did you approach and develop this character?
A: I used several different approaches to develop the character of Tracy. Throughout this process, I’ve done research about life in the 1960’s and the struggles that Tracy faces throughout the show regarding body image and segregation. In order to understand her character, it was important for me to understand the issues that she tackles throughout Hairspray. Also, it has been very beneficial to watch the John Waters movie and the Nikki Blonski version to see different interpretations of Tracy. In addition, I brought some aspects of my own life to the development of Tracy’s character. I am a young woman who, like Tracy, just wants to fit in and have a good time!
J: What’s your favorite moment in the show?
A: Run & Tell That! Tracy meets Seaweed J. Stubs [played by the incredibly talented Leo Lakpa] in detention, and he offers to bring her to his side of town to experience life as an African American in the 1960’s. This high energy musical number is full of amazing dancing and singing by Leo and the other residents of North Avenue, and it blows me away every time I watch them perform it!
J: And how do you feel about rocking Linda’s hair for the show? For those of you who don’t know, Linda is my “nighttime janitorial staff” at the Champagne Dreams Production office, and Abigail has snatched her bald-headed and is using her hair for the show!
A: Oh, I love Linda’s hair! If they were ever given the opportunity, Tracy Turnblad and Linda would definitely be friends.
J: Tell the readers more about yourself – where you’re from, what you do, what your life is all about. Give us some deets!
A: I am originally from Duluth, Minnesota. I moved to Fargo, North Dakota in 2014 to begin my undergrad at NDSU. I am double majoring in the BFA Musical Theatre program & Public Relations. I am currently employed with Theatre NDSU as one of two Publicity & Recruitment Student Assistants, and I also work at the Hotel Donaldson in downtown Fargo. I write for the NDSU newspaper, The Spectrum, and I teach theatre classes at Fargo Moorhead Community Theatre! I absolutely love being outside, camping, biking, Chipotle, and spending time with my mom, Lisa, and cat, Sunshine!
J: How did you first get started in theatre? What are some roles that you’ve played?
A: When I was four years old, my mom signed me up for voice lessons because I was constantly singing. I was in my first show at the Duluth Playhouse when I was in fifth grade, and I’ve loved performing ever since! I am incredibly lucky because theatre has always been important in my life, and my mom always encouraged me to continue to pursue it. Some of my previous acting credits include Jenny in The Christians (Theatre NDSU), Grizabella in CATS (Duluth Playhouse), Eponine in Les Miserables (Duluth Playhouse), and Maria in West Side Story (Duluth Playhouse). Actually, two years ago, I was Tracy Turnblad in Duluth, so this is my second time playing Tracy in Hairspray!
J: What’s the favorite role you’ve played so far?
A: My favorite role – besides Tracy Turnblad because she’s just the cutest – was Jo March in Little Women: The Musical, which I performed in about four years ago. I didn’t know this show or the music very well before I auditioned for the show, but I fell in love. Little Women is such a beautiful story, and the music is magnificent!
J: How about a dream role – what character are you just dying to sink your teeth into?
A: I have two dream roles – Natalie in Next to Normal and Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd!
J: So, I just have to say that there is a moment in Hairspray, during the number “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” where you are mean-mugging me hardcore. It absolutely cracks my shit up! Do you prefer comedic roles, or would you rather do more dramatic characters?
A: That is such a great moment! Both comedic roles and dramatic characters each bring a different set of challenges. It is always enjoyable to explore different moments of comedy within musicals that are as ridiculous and fun as Hairspray. In addition, with comedic roles comes a certain collaboration with directors and fellow actors about different elements of comedy within shows and jokes. Luckily, I have been given opportunities to explore both comedic and dramatic characters, and I enjoy the challenges and journeys in each type of role!
J: Do you have any experience working on the technical side of theatre?
A: I do! When I lived in Duluth, I did a lot of theatre at a theatre called the Duluth Playhouse. Kate Horvath, Education Director of the Duluth Playhouse, always instilled in us performers the value of being versatile performers with abilities off stage and backstage. At this theatre, I was able to assistant stage manage, sound design, and work on front of house projects. In addition, at NDSU, we emphasize the importance of being actors who can be helpful in the technical side of theatre. This past year, I ran lights for a mainstage show, and stage managed a smaller, student produced production. I am lucky to have mentors and teachers who have instilled this idea of being a well rounded actor because it has allowed me to be more hireable to theatre companies!
J: What about other hobbies and interests?
A: Being from way up north in Duluth, I have always loved the outdoors and nature! It’s so beautiful where I am from, and Lake Superior is my favorite place to explore, so I just love being up there. Biking, hiking, camping, swimming, and everything in between. I also love reading, gardening, and eating Chipotle – that counts as a hobby, right?!
J: Definitely! What’s your favorite guilty pleasure?
A: This is embarrassing, but my guilty pleasure is The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. I seriously love that franchise so much. It’s just so disgusting and wonderful. I watch every episode and follow every contestant on Instagram and Snapchat. I am ridiculous.
J: Mine is some old school Destiny’s Child. I love Queen Bey, but I miss my cheesy hits like “Survivor,” “Bug-a-Boo,” and of course “Bootylicious.” Tell me you know some Destiny’s Child…
A: Don’t worry, I love Destiny’s Child. “Say My Name” is my favorite song of all time!
J: Get it, girl! So if you were stuck on a desert island and you could only have 5 artists on your magically chargeable iPod, who would they be?
A: Macklemore, Childish Gambino, Frank Ocean, Amy Winehouse, and The Roots!
J: Ahh Amy…when they tried to make you go to rehab, you shoulda said, “Mmmmm, ok.” Her music is life! If you won the MegaMillions jackpot, what’s the first thing you would buy?
A: I would give the money to my mom, pay for college, and then take my mom on a nice vacation!
J: Ugh, just once I want someone to answer that question with “hookers and blow.” Tell us something we wouldn’t know about you just by looking at you.
A: I have been obsessed with Jimmy Fallon since I was ten years old.
J: Sephora or Ulta?
A: I’m bad at makeup. Target?
J: Shut your whore mouth! I mean…gee, those Sonia Kashuk brushes are sure something! So you probably don’t have a “side” in the Jeffree Star vs. Kat Von D fued…
A: [blank stare]
J: Mmm, and that wolf pack…woof! Smooth or crunchy?
J: American Idol or The Voice?
A: American Idol.
J: Justin Bieber or a shrieking howler monkey?
A: Is this even a question? Justin Bieber. He is my boyfriend.
J: Really? Gross. It’s definitely too late now to say sorry. Truth or Dare, or Spin the Bottle?
A: Truth or Dare.
J: Mean Girls or Clueless?
A: I love them both! Clueless is timeless, and Mean Girls is hilarious!
J: If you were a color crayon, what would your Crayola name be?
A: Baked Potato.
J: You could always stick with Baked Potato. If it works for a crayon, it might work for a queen? Anyway, enough playing around – let’s get back to business. Why do you think it’s important to have a local theatre community, or an arts scene more generally? How does the community benefit from these things?
A: Absolutely. Theatre and the arts are a magical means of communicating stories and messages to audiences of all ages and cultural backgrounds. For example, Hairspray, although set in the 1960’s, depicts racial injustices that we are still experiencing within our society today. Theatre allows us to begin important conversations about issues that must be discussed, and that is imperative for every community.
J: Is there anything you think should be “off limits” from artistic representation? Is there anything you wouldn’t be willing to show or depict on stage?
A: I believe that as an artist, you must always remember that if you are telling someone else’s story, you must be incredibly respectful of their truth. I think that theatre can be used to push envelopes and break barriers, but if it comes at the cost of telling someone’s story in an incorrect manner, I would not depict it on stage.
J: Is there anything else you’d like for the World of Champagne readers to know about you?
A: You DO NOT want to miss Janessa’s amazing performance in Hairspray!
J: Oh, you are so sweet. Thanks so much for taking the time to sit down and talk with me today!
A: Thank you so much for having me!
You still have 5 chances left to see Hairspray at the Empire Arts Center – the show continues its run August 16-20, 7:30 pm. Tickets are $22 for adults, $17 for children/military. All seating is reserved; you can get tickets at the Empire Website or by calling the box office.
Tags: Champagne Dreams Productions, Chris Berg, community theatre, drag art, drag performance, drag queen, Edna Turnblad, Empire Arts Center, Empire Theater, Empire Theatre, Empire Theatre Company, Good morning Baltimore, Hairspray, Harvey Fierstein, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Little Women, Marc Shaiman, Marissa Jaret Winokur, Miss Jaye, Next To Normal, Nikki Blonski, Ricki Lake, theatre, Tracy Turnblad, World of Champagne