An Interview with Megan Sikora
Written by Victoria Myers
March 4th, 2015
Megan Sikora is the perfect blend of Broadway old and new. Want someone to dance over a couch to a Gershwin tune? She’s got it. Want someone to offer progressive and multidimensional interpretations? She’s got it. And if you like musicals, there’s a good chance that you’ve seen her do these things. Megan recently played Claudine in the Paper Mill Playhouse production of Can-Can, and prior to that starred as Bambi in Curtains (where she actually flipped from chair to chair); Judy in the national tour of White Christmas; Promises, Promises (covering both female leads); How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying; and many other shows. Oh, and if there’s a big dance number at an Encores! show that’s led by a woman, it’s probably Megan. She can next be seen in the Hartford Stage/Old Globe co-production of Kiss Me, Kate. Megan has a lot of thoughts about being a woman in theatre, which we love (of course!). We talked about everything from childcare to advertising to roles for women… and even Ginger Rogers. Which leads us to the following question: is there such thing as a “Broadway Advisory Committee,” and can we vote for Megan to be on it?
You work a lot. So what’s your average day like?
That’s a hilarious question. There is no average day. That’s the thing about what we do—nothing is the same. Ever. Even when you are doing eight shows a week and you have some kind of routine, it doesn’t work that way somehow, because you get a call at 5pm that you need to be somewhere at 10am for a commercial audition the next day. I have a three-year-old son, so that means I have to hurry up and get a babysitter and figure out what my husband’s [Barrett Martin] schedule is. So it’s chaos. A normal day is chaos.
It seems like there’s this illusion that when people are in shows they’re only working three hours a day, which isn’t true at all.
Not at all. To be successful in this business, in the world we’re in, you have to work in all mediums. You can’t just do theatre, or your time will run out. If you want to maintain a career, you have to do commercials, you have to do voiceovers, and you have to try and do film and television. So you’re constantly trying to water those plants while you’re doing this job over here. It’s kind of non-stop.
What are you doing next?
I was just cast as Lois/Bianca in Kiss Me, Kate at Harford Stage and The Old Globe.
Speaking of doing multiple things, you did a play recently.
I’ve been trying to do more plays and broaden my horizons and be seen not just as a dancer who can understudy everybody. So the off-Broadway play that I did, Under My Skin, was something I’d been involved with for a really long time, and just became really attached to the writers, and the character that I played was so ridiculous and I loved her. Nobody came to see it, but I was really grateful for the experience.
How has the transition of getting people to see you as not just a dancer been going?
It’s a long road, I’m learning. First of all, it’s impossible to get people to come and see you do anything. And even the plays that I’ve done—like I did The Nance and Under My Skin—they were both kind of comedic and musical as well. It’s just taking awhile. I’ve been told by people on the other side of the table that the buzz about me right now is, “Oh, Megan is becoming a good actor.” It’s like, “Great. Glad you’re all figuring that out.” There’s a huge part that’s just surrender, which is awful since I’m super impatient. I think you need a level of impatience to have the drive to push forward and keep at it or else you’d quit, you know? But I fight that all the time because you have to surrender and just say, “All I can do is my best,” and all of those other people are in charge of it.
It seems like it would be difficult to always have people telling you who you are, especially as you keep trying to develop artistically.
It’s easy for them to put you in a little compartment, since they’re dealing with a million people, and new people coming into the city every year. It’s just easier for casting directors, directors, and writers to put you in a box. But there’s more to all of us. We all have more to offer, so why not give people a chance? But that makes their lives harder. I’ve made a career out of dancing and understudying, and I’m not going to do that anymore, so I just have to keep saying no until I get the opportunity to stand on the front line. I’m getting there. Can-Can was a lot of fun, but we have no idea what’s happening with that.
One of the things you’ve always been really good at is dancing from character. What’s your process like for that?
Well, I’m really lucky in that I learned to dance from an actor’s point of view. Christine Haynick was my dance teacher growing up, and her studio was two rooms over a bakery. Her process was that she wanted us to feel. She was like, “Listen to the song you’re dancing to, and I want you to share your feelings with the audience.” That was the whole purpose of dancing—when you can’t speak anymore, singing isn’t even enough, you’ve got to dance. So it’s in me. That’s just how I learned to dance. After college, I was accepted into a modern dance company in Chicago and I went up there and started learning some of the rep. You know, I went to college and was like, “Modern dance. Movement.” I love that aspect of dance and technique and really knowing your body, but when it comes to performance, it’s a whole other thing. When I was learning the material and when I’d perform at modern dance concerts I was just like, “What is the purpose of this? This is just moving for the sake of moving.” I ask a lot of questions. I want to know why. I dance for Rob Ashford a lot, and with him I’ll be like, “I just need one word. Give me one word that you need me to portray and it’s done.” But in the modern dance world they were like, “Just shut up and do what you’re told,” which I can’t do, so I was like, “Bye,” and I left and came here. You’re always somebody, there’s a reason, and there’s a feeling.
What’s your process like as an actor?
I usually read the script a lot, but I’m such a tangible, porous person that I need contact. So I have no idea what I’m going to do until I’m with the people I’m going to be doing it with. I try to get as familiar as possible with my lines and understand why she’s saying it and where it’s coming from, but I like to physically let it happen. I don’t think you can decide how you want to play something until you see what’s given to you. So I’m a big fan of rehearsal.
How do you learn and conceptualize choreography? Do you start with character?
No. I don’t make a big deal out of it; I just sort of let it happen. I think you’d probably think that I didn’t know what I was doing if you watched me learn dance because I have to get real simple. I don’t like to be full out for a long time. I want to get the intricacies of what the choreographer is trying to get across, I want the style, I want the steps, and I want to give them what it is they’re asking for. I don’t like to learn with a mirror either. I need to feel it. If I’m in front of a mirror then I’m just mimicking, I’m not learning. Once I have the steps in my body and I feel what they are and what the music is, then there’s the other layer of, “Who is this character stepping into this dance?” In the show, you are that person throughout. You don’t just stop and do steps. It’s layered. It’s why you have to be grateful for a preview process.
(iv.) Being Heard
Do you find there is room for lots of different processes when a show is being rehearsed?
To be completely honest with you, it depends if you’re a principle or an ensemble member. They have no patience for ensemble. If you’re a principle they’re like, “Take all the time you need.” Since I go back and forth between the two, when I am in the ensemble I’m like, “Everyone deserves to be treated the same way.” I ask questions and I speak up for the entire group like, “We need to slow the tempo down, because we need to know this or someone is going to get hurt. It’s all going to work out in the end so let’s all calm down.” I’ll be the one talking, since no one else feels like they have the right to speak up. Some music directors are notorious for the first day you learn new choreography being like, “Show tempo! Let’s go!” and it’s like, “Did you play that score at show tempo the moment you first looked at the notes? No, you did not. You had to practice it.” Tempo sometimes becomes a big argument. I understand something sometimes sounds awesome in a band or orchestra, but when you have a body trying to fill space, sometimes it needs to be faster to accomplish what we need to accomplish and sometimes it needs to be slower. That collaboration can be tricky.
It comes up a lot in our interviews that when a woman stands up for herself or asks questions it’s perceived differently than when a man does.
Yeah, a woman is a bitch, and with a man they’re just like, “That’s a logical thing to say. Of course you’d ask that question.” But with a woman it’s like, “Ugh, really?” It’s true. I try to use my quirky personality to bridge the gap between those two things. I apologize a lot, which I don’t think I should have to, but I want to keep working. It’s definitely a stigma that exists and it sucks.
Let’s talk about the development of new musicals.
It’s crazy to me. It all comes down to money, and the people who are putting the money into things don’t always have any sense of what theatre is. It’s magical when a new musical comes through, but I guarantee, 90% of the time, that musical has someone of a name who wrote it, directed it, or is starring in it. No one would put money into something that doesn’t have star appeal, and that’s why revivals keep getting done, since people just think, “Oh, when you go to TKTS people know that name.” Gigi and Can-Can are both similar shows, and they have a star, and Can-Can does not, so Gigi is going to win. Nowadays you don’t even have to be a star of film or television; you can be a star of the internet. In LA, when you’re being cast for a pilot or a film, they look to see how many followers you have on Twitter. That plays a huge part now because people come with their own fanbase and that’s important to them. These people aren’t interested in art, they’re interested in the bottom line, and I can’t blame them; they’re putting a lot of money into something. I wish people would give new writers a chance, but it’s rare.
What do you think about that pressure to be on Twitter?
You’ve got to play the game. It’s not my thing, but I had to embrace it since it’s the world we’re in now, and to keep this going I have to get on Twitter and so I did. I got on Twitter, I opened up my Instagram account, and I have a website now. If I’m meeting NBC for a pilot, they’re going to look me up. It’s just how it is. And I’m not someone who’s like, “I want to be on social media all the time,” so I have to consciously say, “Okay, go tweet something.” My friend was like, “You’ve got to brand yourself,” and I was like “God, how do you do that?” But I am more of a personality, so what people want to see me do is more an extension of my personality. I’m just trying to maintain that in the Twitterverse. I’m trying to embrace that.
How can the theatre community make it easier to get new shows up?
Believing that everybody has a voice—that’s what needs to change. I guarantee you that when you’re in tech or previews, if you ask anyone in the ensemble, “What is going on with this show? We have problems,” that they will know. They’ve been doing this a long time, they’re in it, and they’re behind it watching it all happen. They can tell you how to fix your show. The other thing that needs to change is advertising. No one advertises a Broadway show well, in my opinion. No one knows what they’re doing at these companies. My apologies to all of you who are doing it, but you have to rethink it. Sex sells. Everything should be sexy if you want to sell a show.
We talked to Marsha Norman about the advertising of shows, since The Bridges of Madison County had some of the worst advertising we’ve ever seen.
And one of the best shows I’ve ever seen in my life. [In terms of advertising] Anything would be better. Anything other than what we’ve been doing for the last thirty years. The Broadway audience is much more sophisticated and tech savvy than ever before, so you appeal to that.
What else can change?
I also would do away with the gypsy run. It’s not fair anymore. Everyone is judgy and negative. You know what the gypsy run is, right?
It’s the night before the first preview, right?
Yeah. It used to be that you’d be honored to be there. You’d know the show is not ready, but you’re an honored guest who we trust to be in the audience to give us support for our first audience—our first time probably doing the show all the way through without stopping. Nowadays, people come in like this [arms crossed], and they’re there for free, and then they’re on their phones [posting things on social media], and it’s gross. Instead of doing The Actors’ Fund [benefit] performance, because they’re not making the money they used to make and to do a ninth show is crazy, they should make the gypsy run The Actors’ Fund [benefit]. That way you are paying to be there and it’s for charity and you are an honored guest. Let’s put those together.
We were interviewing Kathleen Marshall the other week.
She’s the best! She’s the best.
She was saying that a short development period for a musical is three years. How is that for the performers?
It’s hard, especially if you get emotionally invested in something. And you can get replaced by a star. You could have done all the work and then, in the end, they need a name to sell the show and you get bumped. It’s really hard. If you have any type of power that you can get a contract that ties you to it, that’s one way of handling it. Kate Baldwin and I were joking during Can-Can, “Is this going to happen? When do you think it might happen? Because we both might want to get pregnant again, so we want to time this right.” It sucks that you have to think like that, because you want to live your life. It just sucks. Or you can work on something for years and it never happens. I think the healthiest way to deal with it is to just do the work in front of you.
It seems like musicals have been moving away from traditional musical theatre dance and more towards movement.
Steven Hoggett, who I think is awesome [is doing that], and I love how he creates. I just think it depends on the style of the show. I’m a period sort of performer, but it’s cheaper to produce that [movement] than something with a big musical numbers.
Has that been frustrating? When we think of older musicals, it seems like there were bigger parts for dancers.
Gwen Verdon won the Tony for Claudine in Can-Can and they cut half of her stuff out [for the Paper Mill production]. We were doing it and I was like, “How did she win a Tony for this?” I had to go back and look, and there’s a whole other dance number she did. And those roles don’t exist anymore. People don’t want to do it. I’ve felt for a long time like I can’t go anywhere; it’s like where do I fit? Back in the day, they would choose someone who was a better dancer and a mediocre singer, but now, with American Idol and all of that, audiences would rather hear someone wailing their face off and be a mediocre dancer and they don’t know the difference. There are people who are considered dancers who I would not consider dancers. But I think it comes and goes in waves. Like Newsies was a new version of that, but it was all men.
Who are your top five influential actresses?
1. I was just watching videos of Betty Hutton. She’s amazing.
2. Lucille Ball
3. Ginger Rogers
4. Gwen Verdon
5. Donna McKechnie
It seems like people misinterpret Ginger Rogers and her type of role a lot.
Ginger Rogers, Lucille Ball—these women were forging the way and it’s fascinating to me. They were ballsy. And I think they’re remembered incorrectly. When you go back and watch them, they were doing things that no other women was, and behaving manly, but still looking fabulous. Those women inspire me. That’s where my soul resonates and wants to go. And yeah, with Ginger Rogers they miss it completely. I think it comes down to the directors being afraid to portray your female lead that way. She was the spunkiest motherfucker. You’re selling your audience short. It’s a sophisticated audience. Give them more than one note. I would play a Ginger Rogers role anywhere, anytime.
What is the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?
I’d say just making up my own stories. My friends and I were just left for hours with our imaginations and our dolls. I had a friend who lived on a farm, and we’d disappear for hours—just all day—jumping in the hay, running with the horses, and we’d create our own stories. I loved Disney movies. It’s funny, I grew up with all the Disney movies, but I was never that girl who fantasized about her wedding or thought every girl should be a princess. They didn’t have that same impact on me with those stigmas that I think they put on a lot of girls of wanting to be taken care of and be a princess.
Who were your heroes growing up?
I wasn’t exposed to anything. I didn’t know who Gwen Verdon was when I was a kid. I’d say my dance teacher, Christine Haynick. I just loved that she ran this business by herself. She was struggling, but she loved dance and teaching kids to dance, and she taught me to teach. And she gave us freedom to explore. When I was in high school, she was like, “I can’t teach you anything else. You have to go to downtown Pittsburgh and take class with the ballet company there, because I can’t teach you anything else,” which was amazing—to know your own limitations and not be ashamed of it in any way. So she’s my hero.
You’re very funny. What shaped your sense of humor?
Well, thanks! Oh, you know, survival. I didn’t have the happiest childhood and I dealt with it with humor. My sister and brother are both in the arts, but they don’t have the same sense of humor as I do. My mom is really crass, so I get that part of my sense of humor from her. She, as a kid, was kind of raised in a bar. Her mom was working, so she sent her to the local bar to be babysat, so she has the mouth of a trucker and I do too. Just survival, and probably some of that need to make people happy and make people like you. That type of thing.
When did you first feel like a grown up?
When I was getting divorced. This is my second marriage. So dealing with that was like, “Oh shit. This is like real stuff.”
You have a young son. Obviously, we’d be asking your husband this too since you’re both parents, but how do you balance having a child with a career in the arts?
Especially the first year, if you’re breast-feeding, it’s all you. So the first year is a lot. But the way I balance it is Barrett. I can’t do it without him. We have to be a team. We have a big whiteboard on our refrigerator since we have to know where everybody is, who is taking care of what, and since we have to plan in advance—advance as you can for whenever I do get that, “You have a voice over audition at 8am,” type thing. I like it better, because prior to having our son I was like, “I am so sick of me and caring about my craft. It’s not the end all be all. There’s more to life than this.” So even though sometimes I feel like I’m drowning a bit, I prefer it. But I balance it by having my husband be my partner.
What’s something you think would make it easier for people to do theatre and have kids?
Have babysitting. The Actors’ Fund, Equity, somebody. Every mother I know in the business has talked about this and tried to figure out a way to do it themselves, and it’s hard because it’s money. You need a space where, if I’m going to an audition and I don’t want to spend a million dollars on babysitting, I can drop him off at a daycare for a couple hours while I go do my thing and then come back and get him. And it’s maybe $10 an hours as opposed to the $15 I pay my babysitter, but I have to pay for them to get there before I leave so it’s also more money for a longer period of time.
Does Equity provide anything?
Nothing. Are you kidding? And they don’t pay you disability or anything when you’re pregnant. When you’re pregnant in a show they’re required by law to keep your job for you, but when you’re not capable of doing your job on stage, which is usually pretty early—especially for me—they give you a leave of absence but no pay, nothing. Good luck. You can’t get unemployment. And Cigna, our insurance [through AEA], costs $700 a month to have a dependent. So we don’t use that. We go through the state or my SAG insurance. Our world is not set up for families, and it never was. [It used to be] people would burn out by the time they were thirty—they’d retire, they’d go teach, they’d go do something else and start their families. People don’t do that anymore. The world has changed.
So if you’re in a show and have a young child, is there any contractual thing about them having to help with childcare?
No. America isn’t set up that way. We don’t believe in family. As much as the politicians talk that way, our country is not set up for families. It’s for the individual getting ahead.
How open are people to you bringing your son to the theatre?
Most people are awesome about it. Especially at the theatre—to have new life—everybody is like, “Yes!” Barrett was doing Nice Work If You Can Get It right when I had Elliot, and I would bring him over all the time and everyone was over the moon about it. Kathleen [Marshall] loves kids and she has her beautiful kids and loves having kids around. Rob Ashford loves having kids in the theatre. It’s usually pretty cool. Liability-wise you can’t have your kid at the theatre during the show. Some people do it and get away with it—if you’re the star of the show you can probably get it away with it. I understand that, but wish there was some sort of help. We don’t make that much money. I’ve been doing a lot more work regionally and I end up paying to do the job. I end up losing money, since all of my money ends up going to childcare. I don’t know how we’re doing it. But people do it. One day at a time.
It seems like they should come up with something to make it easier. At least the child care thing.
When more gay men start having children, it will happen. They do make up a significant and influential part of our union.
We wanted to ask you about parts for women in musical theatre. We like musicals and think there are good parts for women, but there are also a lot of parts that maybe aren’t so good.
I never approach a character like she’s dumb. You can be ignorant, you can be shy, and there can be a plethora of reasons why someone behaves the way they do, but I don’t believe women are stupid. I think those characters are needed, but I think there are probably too many of them. It’s also think it’s about how people are choosing to cast. Sometimes you have these great roles that have the potential to be really gritty and honest but still fun, and people choose not to cast them that way. They choose to cast it as stereotypical as possible, and that’s unfortunate since I think the audience is missing out. A lot of times, casting and directors are afraid to take a chance, so they’ll hire your ingénue as boring as possible with a pretty voice. It’s like, “Why? Why are we doing that? We’re much more interesting creatures.” Jill Paice, I think, is a perfect example of someone who has many layers and is a fantastic actress, and she should work more than she does. I’m so excited for her to be starring in An American in Paris, but she should have been a superstar by now. She’s a brilliant actress, but I think directors are maybe afraid of what she brings to the table since it’s more than they know how to deal with. Erin Dilly, another brilliant actress, but she asks questions that make directors and producers scared. It’s just easier to go with the milquetoast. And I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice.
Right, and, for example, no one is turning off the TV because there are complex female roles there.
I think we need more there too. But I think this harkens back to the advertising thing we were talking about. We’re living thirty years ago. We have not progressed. We aren’t living in the now. And that’s why shows run for three months. Let’s all take chances. Let’s believe in ourselves. Let’s be real and I think stuff will run. I was really lucky with Curtains because Scott Ellis let me create Bambi out of nothing. I wrote a lot of those lines myself, and I was never once playing her dumb; she was a manipulative smarty-pants. As the show gets redone, people just play her dumb, and I don’t see that anywhere. Directors need to challenge their actors to do it, since we’re almost brainwashed to only play things a certain way. Directors need to push people and change the stereotype.
One of our themes is: it’s not literature, it’s a play.
And I don’t think people realize that. It’s art. It’s fluid. Why revive something if you’re not going to reinvent it? Why bother?
What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?
I’d like to see people write more intricate roles for women, and not necessarily something dramatic that only an older actress could accomplish or a movie star could be in—just real life people. But most playwrights who are produced are men, and they write about what they know so they write about men. I’d like to encourage women to write. The young women coming up: write more for you, write what you know. And if you are doing a revival, and if you can get the rights to do it, switch things around. The second time I did 42nd Street was in Sacramento and Jen Cody played Andy Lee. Why not? Why not have the choreographer be a woman? She’s the only woman who has ever played Andy Lee. We can do that. Switch around some gender things if you are doing a revival. I think we need to be more daring. Why not?
You can follow Megan on Twitter: @Megan_Sikora and Instagram: @megansikora.