An Interview with Jenna Tamisiea Elser: Artistic Director of Glow Lyric Theatre

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What is the 2015 Festival Season Concept? 

If I had to choose a theme, I would call this “A Season of New Perspectives”.  Each of the shows is based on works from the traditional canon but with a fresh and inclusive twist:  The Wiz, a classic urban reimagination of Frank L. Baum’s The Wizard of OZ, and The Hot Mikado, a jazz-age reinterpretation of Gilbert & Sullivan’s operetta The Mikado.

What is this seasons message, why is it special/different? 

GLOW Lyric Theatre’s on-stage goal this season is to truly represent the true ethnic and socio-economic diversity that exists in South Carolina and engage some of the issues that affect these diverse groups. In light of the high profile incidents of racial tension this past year as well as our country’s persistent issues and history with race and equality, we feel that the American musical theatre can play a pivotal role in bringing empathy and understanding to all.


What brought you to the choice of pairing The Wiz and The Hot Mikado for this Glow Lyric Theatre’s Festival Season?

We choose the repertory for our summer seasons around November every year. This past November, our country was dealing with the issue of race and police brutality: the Michael Brown killing and the Ferguson riots, the Eric Garner case in NY, and also the subsequent emergence of the Black Lives Matter campaign.  With so much national attention, our own cases began to make the news in South Carolina, including a shooting in Columbia in September, and the tasing of a severely autistic black man right here in Greenville in December.  We thought it was time to choose a season that would speak to these issues.

Just as importantly, we want to celebrate the diversity of Greenville and South Carolina in general. Frank Baum wrote The Wizard of Oz to be a story about the American Dream, and the coming of age of a strong, imaginative young woman.  As an adaptation from the perspective of a contemporary, 12 year old black girl, The Wiz shows us that the American Dream is not something that is owned by any particular race or gender. The American Dream is for everyone! It gives us hope that in these troubling times, when racial tensions are abundant, we all have a common thread in this country. We all dream, we all grow up, we all want and deserve rights, and we are all Americans.

The Hot Mikado celebrates the artistry of 1930s African American entertainers like Cab Calloway, and the immense contributions they made to the arts during the Harlem Renaissance.  Artists that, we forget, were not accepted by white society unless they were entertaining them.  Artists, that despite these obstacles, gave us some of the greatest art of the 20th Century.  The Hot Mikado takes a work from the traditional canon, Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1800s operetta The Mikado, and puts a spin on it.  It employs the African-American medium of Jazz to re-tell a story originally conceived as British operetta.  It encourages us all to see things from a different perspective, and yet understand the common human bond of music and art that sees no ethnic or socio-economic boundaries.


How did you approach building such a diverse cast? 

Our first priority with casting is to employ professionals. We generally hire a mix of regional or national artists as well as several local professionals.  Since we are a vocal arts company, we place a high priority on strong, trained voices, and often times hire crossover singers from opera.  We attend unified auditions at SETC, hold local auditions, as well as auditions at several universities.  While we serve the community, we are not a community theatre, so our roles are open to professional singers both local and outside of the Greenville community.


How else does GLOW set itself apart from other theaters? 

Four words: Social Justice MUSICAL Theatre.  Musical Theatre and Opera have a long history of commenting on social issues.  Lyric Theatre is a great, accessible way to get people to think and feel!


When you plan a season, of course you want everyone to attend your performances, but with such a specific concept this year who, would you say, is your “core” targeted audience?

I think our core audience this season is going to hopefully reach deeper into the African-American community and anyone in the community of the Upstate who is looking for a more innovative and engaging experience of the musical theatre scene around town. The Wiz in particular is also a show for children, and speaks to how important children and future generations are in changing our world for the better.


Speaking of innovation, what exciting changes are on your mind this season?

How cool it’s going to be to have such a diverse cast.  What an amazing piece of physical theatre The Wiz will be, as well as how exciting it is to get creative with both the shows.


The festival is now in its 5th year. How has it grown over this short amount of time and how do you feel about this seasons place in the GLOW canon?  

GLOW has grown from an initial $700 budget for the 2010 production of Mozart’s The Impresario in the lobby of Greenville’s Warehouse Theater, to over $150,000 in 2015. GLOW now produces no less than four main stage productions a year between the Chamber Opera Series at the 435-seat Younts Center for Performing Arts and the Festival Season at Greenville’s Peace Center for the Performing Arts. South Carolina’s premiere performing arts venue. This year, GLOW also boasts a summer tour of The Wiz to the VanTrease Center for the Performing Arts in Tulsa, OK. Yes, GLOW now has garnered a national reputation for excellence.  GLOW has an educational program: the GLOW School of Music & Drama. The GLOW school includes year-long private instruction in voice, master classes, a summer camp for kids, as well as a the GLOW Apprentice Artist Program (GAAP), giving on stage opportunities and education to young professional singing actors. Despite this rapid growth, GLOW is at its core a grass-roots organization. This season, in the tradition of past productions such as Jesus Christ Superstar, Rent and La Bohème, we continue our mission to produce lyric theatre in response to the social and political climate of South Carolina.


Where do you see Glow Lyric Theatre a year from now? 

We want to produce all forms of lyric theatre every season: at least one opera, one operetta and one musical theatre production every year (and in some cases even more). We would also love to increase our financial support from the business community. We rely more than many non-profit performing arts organizations on ticket sales and individual support.  Community engagement is huge for us!


Engaging with the community is crucial for any local ARTS organization. What would you say to someone who asks the question “Why choose to support GLOW”? 

We present art with a heart.  GLOW does more than produce entertainment – our shows excite and enlighten. GLOW gives back! Our productions ask the hard questions about the current social issues of our state. Your support helps strengthen the voices in our community!  GLOW’s wants to play its part in making Greenville a more caring, diverse, and vibrant community. The arts are the true backbone of any great culture.


How is GLOW giving back this season? 

Christian (GLOW’s General Director, and my husband) and I have a love for the arts, but we also have very big hearts when it comes to giving back.  We believe the arts should be a medium through which everyone benefits, regardless of socio-economic background, or knowledge of theatre.  Our work is the work of the community, and it should be accessible by all – not just those who can easily afford a night out at the theatre. This is why we have reached out to several youth and minority based charitable organizations in town looking for a partner in our efforts to give back this season (and that partnership announcement will be forthcoming). We are also offering over 800 free tickets to their youth participants, as well as donating a percentage of our “Building the Yellow Brick Road” fundraising initiative to these organizations. In the past, GLOW has donated portions of our ticket sales to Generations Group Home, UU World of Children, Loaves and Fishes, and Saved by the Heart Companion Animal Services. This season we will continue this type of outreach through offerings of reduced ticket prices on Matinees and a “Pay What You Can” performance to make certain anyone who wants to, can be a part of this season.


What is the single greatest challenge that GLOW faces and how are you dealing with this challenge? 

With rapid growth, comes growing pain! Relying on ticket sales and grants to survive is very hard, and new revenue streams are needed for GLOW to grow.  It is always our intention to retain the grass-roots feel, but to expand as needed in order to create the highest quality and most engaging art possible.  To do this, GLOW requires more staff. Our hope is to continue to engage with Upstate community and seek out those people and business that believe in GLOW’s mission.


Keep an eye out for several upcoming opportunities and events:

  • The “Building the Yellow Brick Road” Fundraiser
  • The “Ticket to the Emerald City” contest with prizes being awarded all throughout the season culminating in a few BIG surprises for some lucky Emerald Ticker Holders (prize list and details to come)
  • Picture Day Downtown with Dorothy and Friends (bring the kids down to Falls River Park this summer to meet, take pictures, and enjoy some snacks with the whole cast of The Wiz)
  • And we hope you can join us for an “Evening at The Hot Mikado Lounge” where you will be able to enjoy a signature cocktail of blues and jazz standards with the cast of The Hot Mikado


Please visit https://glowlyric.wpengine.com/ for more information about our upcoming season.

Please email development@glowlyric.com for opportunities to donate, support, and volunteer!

Visit the Glow Store for all manner of Glow shirts, sweaters, mugs and jackets!!