Boise Weekly rarely conducts a pre-interview before sitting down for a Citizen Q&A, but it became clear that we would be remiss if you we didn't have a few words with Victoria Layne, mother of 11-year-old Giovanna, who this summer is the leading lady of Idaho Shakespeare Festival's musical production of The Secret Garden.
"I've never really been away from home before, except on a family trip," said Giovanna, the seventh-grader who will portray Mary Lennox, the centerpiece of the musical. Victoria Layne was sitting quietly in the back of the room.
"Is this going to be difficult?" we asked.
"For me or for her?" Victoria asked, with a smile on her face but tears in her eyes. She was about to return to her husband and son, back home in Cleveland, "This was a very big decision for our family, but we're all flying to Boise to see Giovanna on the Fourth of July."
What a holiday celebration that will be: Not only will it be a family reunion for the Laynes, but that same evening is Giovanna's opening night in The Secret Garden.
BW talked to the little lady with the big role, along with The Secret Garden director Victoria Bussert and choreographer Gregory Daniels.
Giovanna, the folks at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival provide us with a short biography of performers, and I must say that I'm a bit stunned to see how many shows you've been in.
Giovanna Layne: I think I've done 13 shows. I don't really keep track. When they're over, they're over. Maybe it's 14.
Do you want to keep performing in the coming years?
Giovanna Layne: Definitely. It has already taken me quite far. If that continues, I can see this as a career.
Mrs. Layne, I need to pause our conversation and turn to you again. What do you want for your daughter Giovanna and what don't you want for her?
Victoria Layne: Giovanna remembers that it's important to stay humble. She gives back to her community back home in Cleveland. She would love to be performing on Broadway right now, but her dad and I are working parents and that's not going to happen anytime soon.
Giovanna, if you could be an actress and still have another profession, what would that be?
Giovanna Layne: I have it all planned out. I want to be an actress and a lawyer.
OK then. Moving on. With that, Victoria Bussert, let me to turn to you and ask how you choose a musical each season. This is your 10th year with ISF.
Victoria Bussert: I'm actually on the outside of that process. This is a repertory company, and no single show has a cast only for that show. Nearly every single actor has to be able to do multiple shows. We're always asking if we can cross-cast these shows. It's quite an equation.
And you're directing two musical productions this season<./p>
Victoria Bussert: That's right. The Secret Garden opens in early July and runs through late August. And then we have The Fantastics opening five nights later and running through late September.
When did you get word that you would be directing The Secret Garden?
Victoria Bussert: December. Actually, I did the national tour of The Secret Garden a long time ago. But with our production, we're really trying to focus on telling the story with as much clarity as possible. It's a bit different from the original Broadway show.
I'm presuming that casting any musical is a challenge, but where do you begin in finding someone to fill the role of Mary Lennox, who is in practically every scene of this show?
Victoria Bussert: We started with an open call last winter.
Giovanna Layne: I remember that very well.
Victoria Bussert: It was brutally cold in Cleveland. We probably saw 25 girls for the role. But Giovanna was the clear favorite. It wasn't terribly difficult because Giovanna has Mary's spirit and intelligence.
Giovanna Layne: I remember that I was in a production of A Christmas Carol in Cleveland and [ISF regular] Laura Perrotta told me, "You should totally audition for The Secret Garden." I thought it sounded like a lot of fun.
Victoria Bussert: And Laura is in our production as Mrs. Medlock [the head of servants at the English home where Mary is sent to live].
Gregory, where did your connection to this production begin?
Gregory Daniels: From the beginning. Victoria [Bussert] and I have worked together for five years now. It's been 20 productions.
That's practically a marriage. It's certainly as much drama as any relationship.
Gregory Daniels: But The Secret Garden is brand new for me. I've never worked on this particular show before. So I begin with Vicki's vision. One of our biggest challenges was the presentation of the so-called "dreamers."
And by dreamers you're referring to the ghosts of The Secret Garden. They're integral to the through-line of the story.
Victoria Bussert: In the opening scene, we meet Mary in India. But we soon learn that all of the adults have died of Cholera and Mary is alone. And those adults reappear as dreamers, or ghosts, through the story. They're all invested in Mary and need to make sure she's alright. The whole conceit of the musical is that ghosts are with us until they're sure that we don't need them anymore.
I saw the original show on Broadway in the early 1990s and all of a sudden I remember being a blubbering mess at the end. It's a pretty emotional experience for adults, yet kids see this as a story of empowerment.
Victoria Bussert: And it gets more emotional for us as we get older.
In many ways, The Secret Garden is a story about loss. How do you direct something that visceral with someone so young?
Victoria Bussert: Giovanna and I will just have to find that place. Giovanna will have a different understanding of that than you or I. She is as Mary was. Giovanna is 11 and Mary was 10. Her perception of Mary's world is much more accurate than yours or mine. There's a song in the show called "Wick" that reminds us that even if there's a teeny bit of life in something, it can bloom again. That's an important theme for all of us.
How challenging is your rehearsal process?
Victoria Bussert: They're long days, but they're fun. I've never looked at this as being difficult. And I'm really excited for Giovanna. We spend three weeks in our rehearsal hall. The week before we open, we're out in the amphitheater for five days on the actual set which is beautifully imagined by Jeff Herman.
Talk to me about working with young performers.
Victoria Bussert: It's the best. The thing that separated Giovanna from everyone else was clear in her audition. You can find a lot of young actors who can speak the lines. The challenge has always been to find a young actor who truly listens to fellow performers. Giovanna already has a natural instinct for listening. A lot of directors make the mistake of telling children, "This is how you should act." But for me it's, "Show me what you want to do and let me help you with that."
Gregory Daniels: I've worked a lot with young performers. It's more about being a friend and having some fun and just letting them be them.
Gregory, I'm certain that you've worked with wonderful actors who are great from the waist up but have two left feet. How do you work through that challenge?
Gregory Daniels: Years ago, when I was a performer, I auditioned for Crazy for You on Broadway for the great choreographer/director Susan Stroman. She said, "I've got four weeks. I can teach anyone to dance."
I find that difficult to believe.
Gregory Daniels: That show had every shape-and-size actor. So do a lot of modern musicals. But Susan had a knack to work with that, and that stuck with me all these years later. Give me four weeks, and I'll get you to do it.
Giovanna, do you like to move around on stage? I'm guessing you've danced a bit in previous shows.
Giovanna Layne: If the show doesn't have any dancing, I'm prepared for the lines and music. If the show has dancing, I'm ready to move. I love to take my dance classes: ballet and tap.
Do you have a favorite song in the show?
Giovanna Layne: "I Heard Someone Crying."
>Wow, that's a pretty emotional moment.
Victoria Bussert: If you think of it, Mary ends up saving everyone else in the show. When Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote the novel in 1910, her son had died and that really motivated her story of The Secret Garden. There are wonderful lessons for all age groups, depending on your own life experience.
>My sense is that much of your audience will be familiar with the novel, but very few people have seen the Broadway show. Yet, it's one of the best-written musicals of the past 20 years.
Victoria Bussert: And it's a magnificent musical score. Giovanna's co-stars are wonderful. There's Stephen Mitchell Brown, who had the lead in last summer's production of Les Miserables, as Mary's Uncle Archibald and Stephen's wife, Leah Jennings who plays Mary's mother. Plus there's Tom Ford as Neville, Archibald's brother, and Jillian Kates who joins us after being in the touring company of Wicked. She's playing Lilly, Archibald's late wife who beckons Mary to come to the garden.
Giovanna, I hope you can appreciate what a big deal this is. Are you up for all of this?
Giovanna Layne: Absolutely yes.
Victoria Bussert: Oh my gosh, what if she had said "no" right now?