When the Helen Hayes Awards nominations were announced on February 1, choreographer Rachel Leigh Dolan was recognized for her work on both Avenue Q at Constellation Theatre Company and Oliver! at Adventure Theatre MTC. For this month’s On That Note!, Dolan chats with playwright Norman Allen about the nominations and about her work on the equally eclectic pairing of James and the Giant Peach, at Adventure Theatre MTC through April 5, and American Idiot, opening at The Keegan Theatre on March 12.
How’s it feel to be nominated for two Helen Hayes Awards?
It was such a surprise, and really exciting. And all the friends who have reached out to congratulate me—that’s even better than the nomination itself. When I think about the Helen Hayes Awards I think of them as a fantastic way to bolster any artist’s career. It’s a recognition from the greater theatre community. And it’s great just to be part of celebrating that community.
Avenue Q and Oliver! are very different shows. How did you approach them?
They are so different. For Avenue Q a lot of what went through my mind was, “Oh my gosh, I’ve never worked with a puppet before!” We worked with rehearsal puppets from day one, which was great. So much that we discovered was with the actors and how they moved and how they made the puppets move. We were able to create a repertoire of steps that the puppets could execute – mostly with their hands of course. We approached it in a workshop kind of way because it was new to all of us. We were learning it together.
Oliver! is a whole different animal! It was about learning how these kids move, and specifically kids in an orphanage. How do they communicate with each other through movement? Our director Joseph Ritsch was open to letting our ensemble dance a lot in that show – which was wonderful for me. And I was also able to cast former and current students, which is so exciting because I knew what they were capable of and I could draw a lot on what they could do.
And now you’ve got American Idiot at Keegan and James and the Giant Peach at Adventure Theatre! What’s that about?
James and the Giant Peach is up and running. Such a fun show! And the cast is wonderful. American Idiot opens March 12 so we’re full-on in rehearsals and it’s a huge adventure. After the first day none of us could turn our heads because of all the head banging we’d been doing the day before.
For me this show has been the most challenging. I’m a musical theatre kid so American Idiot is well outside my comfort zone. I’ve had to think about my own generation. How did I move when I was at concerts? How was I moved by the music? There’s a lot of creative work with the cast in the room. The movement has to feel individual but also be ensemble in nature. Our cast is very involved in the process, which is fun for them and for me.
Who are your idols in the world of choreography – past and present?
For the past it is and always will be Bob Fosse. I grew up studying him. I’ve taken class from all his dancers who are still teaching in New York. He will always will be my inspiration.
For the present it’s Andy Blankenbuehler, and I’ve been a huge fan since before the whole Hamilton craze. I’ve been a fan since he made the choice to leave performing and start choreographing – just as I did. I look to people like Andy and I think, that’s what I want my career to be like. I want to work with amazing artists. I want to reimagine musical theatre.
What’s the one show you’re dying to get your hands on?
If I could work on any show it would be Chicago. It’s my love of all things Fosse. And I’d love to get my hands on a tap show - any tap show.
Don’t miss Rachel Leigh Dolan’s work in James and the Giant Peach, at Adventure Theatre MTC through April 5, and in American Idiot, opening at The Keegan Theatre on March 12.