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Volume 26, Number 6 — June 2019

Tricia Matthews examines the nature of celebrity

Tricia Matthews (photo by Billie Wheeler)
Tricia Matthews (photo by Billie Wheeler)
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By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | August 31, 2016

When Rick Rose offered Tricia Matthews the opportunity to direct "Chicago" at Barter Theatre, the first thing she did was research.

"I had seen the original cast do it in Los Angeles on tour. I watched films, and I read some of Bob Fosse's biography. I did a lot of research and took notes on what it all meant to me. I tend to take it all in, and then go with what my gut is telling me and what I'm getting from the cast.

"Fosse was making a statement about what was happening in the world in 1975. I'm trying to go back to the original feeling of how does "Chicago' comment on where we are in 2016 and the whole idea of celebrity.

"'Chicago' was based on a real story. A newspaper writer working on the crime beat started writing about two murders. She made it fun and witty, and these women became celebrities and got off for their crimes, even though it was pretty darn obvious they were guilty. My question became "What are we doing today making celebrities of people who don't deserve to be celebrities?' Who is it that we're looking at and why do we continue to? We seem to constantly need to live our lives through other people, not satisfied with where we are. We can get on the Internet and judge them without examining our own lives. So that's where I am going.

"The play stands on its own, and my approach is not new necessarily. It is just trying to look at it to see what we can bring out that an audience can relate to today. Theater is about experimenting and hopefully the audience will appreciate it. We tried something new with "Mamma Mia,' and the audience loved it. We'll try to do the same thing with "Chicago,'" she says.

While Matthews has a clear vision of where she wants the play to go, she loves the collaborative process of working with her actors to follow the path she's begun. It's no accident that she is also Barter's resident acting coach.

"I love working with the actors. We had a fun rehearsal the other day. I was working with just the women of the company, and we were doing the monologues from the cell block tango and trying different things. We were having a really good time playing. Sometimes because of our schedules, we don't have time to play and that's the part of the rehearsal that I enjoy the most. It's the part that I miss when I don't get to experiment and then say, "Let's try something else.' I don't want to rehearse thinking about the performance. Sometimes you get so caught up in heading towards the goal of the first performance that it tends to stifle creativity," she says.

Matthews has directed a number of Barter shows. She had some directing experience before she came to Barter 11 years ago, but she spent her time primarily acting.

"My training as an actor is working off the other; the other is the most important person on stage. As a director, I try to get my actors to work that way. I had a teacher who described the process as an infinity sign," she says.

She traces the infinity sign (∞) in the air. "The infinity sign can go anywhere, but it keeps circling back. Creating that is never easy. It puts you at risk every day when you go out on stage," Matthews says.

Her first directing job at Barter was a mini-production of "The Quilt Maker." After a few more mini-productions and some Barter Player shows, she directed "Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks." "Chicago" is her first main stage musical.

She says that a musical is a very different type of project. Rather than creating a play that is word driven, she has to decide how to get the performance to flow from words to song and to dance.

"This one is more difficult in particular. It's not a regular musical. The songs do so much to carry the story along. Because I come always from an acting standpoint, I keep trying to dig deeper into things. Musicals aren't always written to have deeper stuff, but I'm always going to dig and see what we can find. It puts a big burden on your shoulders to try and see if you can figure it out.

"It's incredibly difficult with something like this because everyone has ideas and emotions. We're going to be doing something that's new to the Barter stage. It's fun and edgy and challenging. It's fun to look behind the closed doors and see what's going on back there. It's titillating and interesting and provocative," she says.

Barter's "Chicago" promises to be more entertaining than a reality show, and Matthews hopes that audiences may ask if they should live their own lives more fully and only assign celebrity status to those who earn it.

"Chicago" runs from Sept. 29 through Nov. 12. A special performance with the Symphony of the Mountains is held Nov. 13 at 3 p.m., at the Toy F. Reid Eastman Employee Center in Kingsport, Tennessee.

>> "Chicago' is dream come true for actresses

Topics: Theatre

Tricia Matthews works with Josh Levinson, Andrew Hampton Livingston and Sarah Laughland. (photo by Billie Wheeler)