An Interview with Lindsay Mendez

Written by Victoria Myers

August 25th, 2014

Lindsay Mendez is known for her dynamic voice and powerful performances. Those attributes carry over to her thoughts on theatre. We chatted with her in Washington Square Park and—not to sound too magazine profile-y—her dialogue with us fit the day and location: bright, direct, and fun. You can catch her September 5th-7th in The Public Theater’s The Winter’s Tale as part of Public Works (Lindsay’s description of the show will have you lining up for tickets now and… it’s directed by a woman). Prior to this, you may have seen her belting up a storm in Wicked, her moving performance in Dogfight, or going up the ladder to the roof in Everyday Rapture. And that dynamic voice we mentioned can be heard singing with Marco Paguia—their album of diverse jazz covers, This Time, is perfect music for strolling through New York City. Lindsay is a very exciting performer and we know we’ll be following her career.

(i.) Present

You’re working on a musical adaptation of The Winter’s Tale. Would you mind telling us a little about the show?
It’s through The Public and Shakespeare in the Park. It coincides with their Public Works program, which is a program The Public does all year long where they work with a few different community outreach groups throughout New York and give people classes in the arts and unique opportunities to perform and work with other artists. The production is the culmination of that work throughout the year. Public Works is run by Lear deBessonet and she’s directing the production. It’s an adaptation of The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare and it has music in it by Todd Almond. It’s just this really neat thing. There are five Equity actors in it, and everyone else is from the community. It’s really one of the most amazing things I’ve ever been a part of. It’s kind of life-changing.

You’ve worked on a lot of new musicals. Do you think that background helped prepare you for The Winter’s Tale, which is so large in scope and is a blend of old and new material?
Yes, definitely. I’m used to starting things from scratch, and this is definitely another one of those. I feel like whenever you’re working on a new show, the energy is always, “Let’s all roll up our sleeves and put on a play.” That’s always the energy I like to bring into a new project, and this feels like that times ten and with people, some of whom have never been in a show in their life. Yes, it’s completely helped me get ready for something like this.

Do you find that you have to adjust your process a little when doing a show like this?
Yes and no. I’m still getting a lot of working time with the other Equity actors. We get more time than the community ensemble does to work. So I feel like I get the time to work on my process during that time when it’s just us. But once there are two hundred people in the room, my own problems kind of cease and fall away, and it’s more about keeping the ship afloat and giving these people a really great experience in our world. And they hold their own one hundred percent. In that respect, you kind of forget about your own problems and you’re just focusing on the work. It’s really special.

(ii.) Community

As you mentioned, Public Works has a large social and community engagement component to it. We believe it’s important to make theatre accessible, so we love this. Why is it important to you to bring theatre to people who might not be exposed to it?
Earlier this year, I got to be a part of The Public’s gala where they celebrated Marvin Hamlisch and the Public Works members performed. It was so moving to see them all. They performed “One” from A Chorus Line, and it was so cool to see them all doing that—to see that many people doing the same thing who were all from different walks of life. So, when I found out they were going to have this production, I just thought, “Oh wow, this is why we do theatre: to touch people, to influence people.” I think it’s so important to give everyone the opportunity to be a part of something as great as Shakespeare in the Park, and to inspire youth and inspire people who might not get the opportunity to spend $150 to see a Broadway show. So it was super, super important for me to say yes and be a part of this. It’s definitely a life-changing experience in so many ways. I’m inspired every day by all the people I get to meet and work with. I’m really excited for the show.

We’re always interested to see if people have new ideas of how theatre could reach a more diverse audience.
I think things like this are the perfect example. We do The Actors Fund performances, and I wish we could do more things like that, where money could be donated for students to come and see Broadway shows. I know there are sometimes those possibilities for some of the colleges, but I wish we could do more for younger kids. I feel like I got bitten by the bug when I was really little, and if we can get kids on board earlier, we create more lifelong theatergoers and people who want to keep the arts alive. My family was a theatergoing family and now we all are as adults.

(iii.) New Work

We’re interested in keeping theatre alive and new. What do you like about working on new work?
I think everybody likes new work. You get the opportunity to create something that’s never been done before. I’ve been really lucky to have been part of a lot of cool things. I love the process. I think the art of creating a show and the art of doing a show eight times a week are two very different things. I think they’re very different skills. I enjoy both, but I think I enjoy the process of creating a show the most. There’s just something about getting to work with writers and directors, and collaborating on making something make sense and touch people, and creating a story and character that people understand from beginning to ending. I just think there’s nothing like it. I love doing it.

What’s something you think would help to get more new work developed and on stage?
For people to go see it. We are of the time where, in order for a show to be commercial, it has to be written by a pop star or something. So I think the more we can all, as audience members, go and support new work, the better. If you find a writer you really like, go and follow them and see everything they do. Support them in that way so they can keep going and keep doing it. They’re always looking for an audience.

(iv.) Wicked

You were recently in Wicked, which is a show credited with getting lots of pre-teen and teen girls into theatre.
Yes, they’re great.

What’s it like doing a show that targets girls in that age group?
I think the show has a lot of really good themes and messages. I love that young girls are being shaped by seeing something like that because I also think it’s an epic piece of theatre that these kids are being influenced by. And I think it’s really sweet. I’d much rather they want to go see Wicked than go do drugs with their friends. Honestly, if that’s the worst thing? Great. Let’s do it. I’m all for it. I think it’s fantastic that the show has that kind of base. I also love that it’s not just that fan-base—families love it, and even dads and teenage boys love it too. So I think, yes, it does kind of skew a little bit towards young girls, but everybody loves that show. That’s what’s so cool about being a part of it. You can invite anyone to it, and everyone is excited to come see it. I’m always so shocked at the people at the stage door and how diverse it is. A lot of adults are there too and just as affected. It’s changed a lot of people’s lives, which is such a credit to [composer] Stephen Schwartz and [book writer] Winnie Holzman.

Wicked also seemed to be at the start of people using social media to talk about theatre. How do you think social media affects your career?
It’s affected my career a lot and, for the most part, positively. I feel like that’s a sign of our times changing. I think, ultimately, in order to reach a new generation of people, we have to get with what they’re connected with, which is Twitter and Facebook and YouTube. I was on the early bandwagon of having YouTube performances, and I got a lot of work from that, especially when I first started. So I have found that to be really useful. It can also be really invasive. Sometimes there are things posted of me that I wish wouldn’t be. But that’s also just part of what it is now, you know? People take videos now while they’re watching the show, and sometimes I wish they’d just watch the show. But I got to do this series on being backstage at Wicked and what that was like, and people watched it all the time. It’s been viewed hundreds of thousands of times by people who just want to see what that’s like. And I’m like, “You know what? It is really cool backstage.” It’s an awesome look into what that life is like, for so many people who will never get to experience it in real life. I’m so glad I got to do it. It was really fun and people loved it. I didn’t know that many people would watch it when I made it. It’s amazing how much reach social media has.

(v.) Women’s Voices

You worked on one of the more female-driven shows to be on Broadway recently: Everyday Rapture.
For sure!

How did that experience affect your artistic development?
Well, getting to work with someone like Sherie [Rene Scott, the creator and star] was incredible. She’s such a unique individual and she was so incredible to watch work on that show every day because a lot of it was based on her life, and she was really brave in what she put out there. She didn’t know if people would like it or not, but she just was true to what she wanted to say and that was so amazing. And then to see it received so well, it was just like such a victory for, I think, all women in theatre, you know? Because she didn’t want to be what certain people put on her. There were a lot of projects she didn’t want to do, but this she really believed in and she went for it. It was so cool to be a part of that whole journey and to back her up. I would back her up anywhere the rest of my life. She’s an incredible human being and an incredible artist.

One of the things we’re doing with this website is promoting the need for more women’s voices. Female musical theatre writers don’t fare as well as their male counterparts. As someone who has worked with a lot of emerging composers, do you have any thoughts on how to get more female voices heard in new musical theatre?
I don’t know why it’s such a man-driven field. I really don’t. I think we all, as women, can try and support each other. This year I’ve worked twice with female directors [Sheryl Kaller and Lear deBessonet] and it’s been awesome. I think we have to be confident that we have something important to say—just as important. And also that women have an audience. Let’s do it for each other.

(vi.) Growing Up

What is the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?
Annie the movie. I loved that movie so much. I loved the whole thing. I loved the whole way it was told as a movie. It was my favorite thing as a kid. I watched it all the time. I loved it.

Who were your heroes growing up?
Lucille Ball. Judy Garland.

We have a question we preface by quoting from Lucille Ball’s autobiography.
Oh my God.

She wrote that the advice that she gave young actresses is that they need to develop as a person first and then a performer. You moved to New York at eighteen. That’s a very formative age. What was it like living in New York City, as an adult, when you were that young?
I think the answer is that I wasn’t an adult when I moved here. It took me a long time to figure that out. When I first moved here, I did a lot of shows where I played a high schooler, and I think I kind of needed that time to cook fully as an adult. And I really didn’t consider myself an adult until maybe a year or two ago. Because I didn’t go to college, I kind of had to sow those wild oats and have that time away from my family and be free in so many ways. And I’m still growing and learning who I am and what I have to say as an artist. But I think—just because you might not feel like you’ll be a fully formed artist until you’re a certain age—the whole thing is a journey. I continue to try and be the best at whatever age I am, and I was like, “Okay, I’ll be the best nineteen I can be right now.” I learned a lot. It was really awesome to grow up here. I loved it.

Along those same lines, was it ever difficult working professionally during those formative years? You have a lot of people telling you who you are when you’re auditioning and so on. What’s it like navigating that when you’re still trying to figure who you are?
Definitely. Yes, it was. And I feel like I kind of had to stop listening to that as much and, between my representation and I, we decided to be like, let’s push the envelope, let’s not worry about what they think, and let’s try stuff on that we feel fits right. And once I was given that opportunity, I got to break down a lot of walls, which has been awesome.

Do you feel like your ethnic identity played a part in that?
Yes and no. I think it’s more that I’m like a size six or eight, but I’ve been seeking out playing an ingénue a lot. And as a Mexican-Jewish girl who’s not tiny, I think there are challenges with that. But I’ve been lucky enough to get a lot of different, unique opportunities because of how I look and also who I am as a performer. It’s been really cool.

When did you first feel like a grown up?
I had to fly to Europe by myself for a job when I was nineteen, and when I landed and I was all alone in Germany, I felt like a grown up. And like a child at the same time. But I had to force myself to feel like a grown up so I could, you know, continue living.

Do you like to travel?
I do. I think we’re lucky that with what we do we get to go visit places. I like to work in different places because you kind of have a safe zone of knowing you have to be somewhere sometimes, but then you get time off to explore the cities. I like that.

(vii.) Music

You sing in two different musical collaborations. You have a jazz band with Marco Paguia where you recorded an album, This Time, and a cabaret act with Derek Klena. What do you feel that each of those allows you to express?
I think my band allows me to explore the music dork side of me. It’s me as a musician, purely, and an interpreter of songs. But that’s definitely a lot more mainstream. I think my act with Derek is something fun that we made together that’s like a mini-musical about our friendship.

Some people like to take on different personas when they perform. Is that something you do?
Not with my band. I feel like I’m pretty much myself; I think I’m always like this. I think there’s a certain wall you have to put up just to be able to do it, but I feel pretty open being myself in front of other people. I’m lucky in that way. If I’m playing a character, then that’s very different. But when I’m just me, I like to kind of see how in the moment and down with everyone I can be. It’s kind of a cool challenge.

What is your relationship with music? What type of life does it take on for you?
I hear a tune and first I embody the melody and the music of it. And, once I’ve kind of got that in my bones, I separately study the lyrics and figure out why they’re in one song together, and I go from there.

What would be your dream cultural collaboration?
I would really like to do—and I’m kind of already doing this because I have a jazz band—I have a deep desire to cover an entire Ella Fitzgerald album with a big band. And do a whole night of her stuff. She was so influential to me as an artist and I just think it would be really fun. I love that sound. That’s something that’s always in the back of my mind like, “Oh, could I swing this and make it happen?”

(viii.) Culture

What other areas of culture influence your artistic life?
I’m super into music. I love to go hear live music. I like film. I’ll take anything in if it’s put in front of me. I’m kind of a glutton for art. Whenever I have free time, I’ll take whatever I can get.

If you could be friends with one fictional character who would it be?
Gosh. I think… I’ve always loved Mrs. Lovett from Sweeney Todd. I would like to be her friend. She’s so fascinating to me. I want to know her.

What do you think you would talk about?
I just want to be like, “Where do you come from? What was your life like before you got to this place? And how exactly do you make those pies?” I know we see some of it on stage, but I really want to know—without her putting me into one.

You could go to a bakery and then go shopping.
For sure. And also just the way she does her hair. Definitely. Her whole thing I’d be super curious about.

Who are your top five favorite fashion designers?

  1. Tracy Reese
  2. Cynthia Steele
  3. Club Monaco
  4. Alexander McQueen (I’ll copy Celia—thanks, Celia)
  5. Anne Klein

(ix.) Teaching

You also do some teaching. Could you tell us a little more about that?
I teach Actor Therapy with Ryan Scott Oliver. We work on people’s audition books. It’s a five-week course and students get the opportunity to work in a classroom setting. We also touch on the business of living in New York and surviving as a working (and non-working) actor. We create a good forum for that. It’s cool. I love it. I love working with Ryan. He’s such a genius, and it’s been really rewarding, and a lot of our students are booking work. I learn so much from it too. We’ve been doing it for almost two years now.

How’d you get into that?
I had known I had Wicked coming but I had kind of a long time [before that started], and I was like, “What am I going to do until then?” So Ryan was over one night, and we were like why don’t we put something together? And so we just threw it out there. We advertised it on Facebook and we got a group of twelve students and now we have two classes at once. This is our thirteenth session. It’s been really cool.

(x.) Future

What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?
I think we just have to be more aware. I think we can support each other better as artists. I’m definitely, in the future, going to seek after female playwrights and composers [Editor’s Note: Very few musicals by women make it to Broadway or off-Broadway]. I think some really cool stuff could be written by women, and things that explore topics we haven’t yet graced. It was so interesting that Dogfight was written completely by men and directed by a man. The whole team was men and they were so eager to talk to me about my feelings on it, because it’s completely a female story. I think there are a lot of stories to be told for women and by women. It’s exciting.

You can follow Lindsay on Twitter: @lindsaymendez and Instagram: @lindsaymendez.