“What is the Story we’re Telling?”

Talking Director’s Concept with Grease Director Kendra Norton Dando.

Grease is well loved for it’s larger-than-life teen romance and impossibly catchy tunes. Kendra Norton Dando, the Director of GREAT’s upcoming production of Grease and GREAT’s Education Director, sees the show as a coming of age tale, an exploration of identity, and a showcase of unique characters with unique motivations. We talked with Kendra about what audiences can expect, what a director’s concept is, what this musical means to her, and more. GREAT’s production of Grease will take place at the Ledge Amphitheater in Waite Park, July 21, 22, and 23!

Episode Transcript:

Breana: I’m Breana

Keenan: I’m Keenan. And this is HOW GREAT: The GREAT Theatre podcast. Have you ever watched a show and wondered, “How did they do that?” There’s a story behind it all. And that’s what theater is all about. Exploring and reflecting on humanity through shared stories and bringing people together- from the talent onstage to creative collaboration backstage, and community building on all levels, we’re here to share with you how each story becomes part of our greater story. How theater brings our community together and makes it GREATer. Welcome to HOW GREAT: A GREAT Theater podcast. Welcome to our very first episode. Me and Breana are really excited to be working on the GREAT podcast together. Before we start our conversation with Kendra Norton Dando, the director of “Grease” let’s take a moment to introduce ourselves.

Breana: Keenan.

Keenan: Hey, that’s me!

Breana: That is him, is our Engagement Manager here at GREAT which means he does a lot with our community outreach from crafting social media posts, to sending emails and putting together our show programs. He also is the primary caretaker of our various office plants and is the first face you’ll see, when you walk into our headquarters. He’s coming in at six feet tall and 250 pounds of muscles: facts that he’s told me to say about him, so you know, it’s true. He’s an all around great person who will answer the phone when I am too scared to.

Keenan: That is so kind of you, Breana. Breana is the Administrative Assistant who deals in GREAT’s databases and finances. So she does a number of things, including payroll, balancing the books and cracking wise. But actually if there’s a joke to be made in any situation, Breana will be the first to make it. Breana has been in a bunch of plays. She loves plays, the stranger and the darker, the better. She reads plays for fun in her off time, and she’s the kind of person I turn to when I’m looking for something theater related to do. Today, we’re talking about “Grease” with Kendra Norton Dando, the Director. “Grease” was written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey in 1970. So in fact, the musical does predate the movie, which came out in 1978. Fun fact about “Grease” that makes it relate to us here at GREAT: the two creators, Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey actually met through community theater and wrote the show together because they were sick of a lot of the shows that were being put on in their Chicago area, which were shows like “Oklahoma” ,”Sound of Music” things like that. “Grease” premiered in Chicago’s Kingston Mines Theater, and was an instant hit in Chicago. About a year later, it opened on Broadway. Kendra is the Director of “Grease” and is also from Chicago, which is super interesting. Thanks for talking with us today, Kendra. How are you?

Kendra: I’m doing well, happy to be here.

Keenan: Will you tell us a little bit about “Grease?”

Kendra: Yes, I would love to! “Grease” is a story about high school kids coming of age, trying to figure out who they are in this world. It’s set in the late 1950s, in 1959 to be exact. And we have the characters that we have come to know from the movie, Danny, Sandy, the Pink Ladies, the Burger Palace Boys. They’re not the T Birds in the play.

Keenan: Oh really?

Kendra: No, that was a change for the movie. So they’re known as the Burger Palace Boys.

Keenan: Are there any other big changes from the movie to the musical or musical to movie?

Kendra: Yeah. One thing that’s different about the stage version is it actually starts in a reunion setting. So we are 20 years in the future. And so we start with this class reunion and then Eugene, uh, says something about, you know, we remember these people and then the Greasers rush on and take us back to 1959. And we’re back in the Rydell High School that we know and love from “Grease.” So the opening of the show is different than the movie. So that’s a fun thing to watch for.

Keenan: Because in the movie we start with that summer montage.

Kendra: Right. You know, Sandy and Danny’s goodbye on the beach kind of thing. So that’s not even, that’s not in the stage play.

Keenan: That’s a huge difference that really sets the story up. Whereas in the movie then it’s just really starting off by saying, this is Danny and Sandy’s story, then in the show, it’s more, this is the story of Rydell High School.

Breana: Right. That’s what I was gonna say.

Kendra: We’ve got this look back in time and that’s how that’s the frame story sets up the whole play.

Breana: That makes it much more like ensemble show than it is of this singular love story.

Kendra: And I think that’s a real fun thing about the musical is that we really, we see more of the relationships between the Pink Ladies and between the Burger Palace Boys. We get more of their character than we do in the movie. So it is less Sandy and Danny and more this whole group of high school kids and their friendship and how they develop in this year.

Keenan: Can you tell us more about the characters?

Kendra: Yeah, I think the characters are a lot of fun because we have a variety of kind of different, uh, perspectives being showcased through the different women’s roles in particular. You know, sometimes I have heard the version like “Grease” being, oh, Sandy’s a good girl who turns bad. And I think that is vastly underselling the character of Sandy, because, well, first of all, I don’t think anyone is all good or all bad. So to say that you go from one to the other is to ignore the complexity of what it means to be a human being. So I, I think it’s fun to look at the depth within each character and see how they evolve because they are, they’re trying on these different personalities and trying out who, who am I? Trying to figure out who I am in this world, which I think is a pretty universal story, particular to high school. I mean that, that time of life, we are testing boundaries and trying to figure out who am I? How do I fit? Where am I going? And that’s what we see these characters doing. So we’ve got females who are trying to make their place in the world and it’s 1959. And the options for women are fairly limiting at this time. So that’s why we love Rizzo. Cause she’s saying, Hey, this is what you’ve decided for me? I’m making my own path. She’s got this edge to her from the start. And she’s actually the furthest along in figuring out who she is as a person. And I think that’s why I’m drawn to her.

Keenan: Um, who is Rizzo?

Kendra: Rizzo is one of the Pink Ladies. She’s the, she’s the one that sings “There Are Worse things I Could Do.” She’s um, she’s a strong, strong, independent woman, and I think there’s a lot of fun in that character. And then there’s Frenchy, she’s a working girl, you know, she’s trying to… Like high school was not a good path for her. She wasn’t successful. And so she goes to beauty school, “Beauty School Drop Out” that whole thing. So she’s trying to figure out, okay, what are my options here? What, what can I do? Um, again, 1959, there’s not a lot of choices for women. Um, so she contrasts Rizzo in that way. They have different futures ahead of them. And then Marty is kind of the pretty one. Um, and she’s figuring out how to use that to her advantage. So it’s all these women figuring out within the realm, within the confines of society, how do I make my way? How do I have my power? What is my power? Um, and then of course we see that majorly through Sandy as she’s negotiating the norms of society and figuring out who is her truest self and which rules is she going to follow and which is she going to break? And who does she want to be?

Keenan: I really like how you put it saying that Rizzo is the farthest along in finding herself, because I think that the show has a lot of, kind of, um, scales of progress that different characters have. So like they’re obviously set in high school. So there’s how far along are you academically? Um, and then the setting of 1959, like how far along are you societally I guess? Um, how good are you in that way? I put air quotes around good. Um, and then for, I think the male characters, how far along are you is really like how many people have you been with? Do you think that’s fair?

Kendra: Yeah, but I don’t know how real that is either. I mean, I think there’s a layer of, um, masculinity that says this is a measure of, of, you know, your accomplishments, but I don’t know that the guys really… I mean, they’re, they’re constantly talking about sex, but I don’t know if they’re actually running around sleeping with a bunch of people, but it’s like, there’s this image of what it means to be strong and be masculine. And so they’re playing that role or they’re trying to figure out is this what makes me adult? But again, I think there’s more, more to them and we see them trying to navigate… How do they have power in this world? What does that look like for these kids too? So I don’t think we can write any of them off as just being horny teenagers.

Breana: Or a trope of something.

Kendra: Yeah. I think there’s, there’s more, there’s more to play with with these characters. And I think that’s one of the reasons too, that “Grease” continues to live, because while this is a story specific to 1959, every generation has its coming of age story and has its pushing against the previous boundaries that have been set. I think that is something that we continue to… Identity. It’s a story about identity. And how does that develop?

Keenan: One thing I notice now, as I’m thinking of it is you really do in this show, especially see different sides of characters around different characters. Um, whereas a lot of shows, the character will remain static no matter who they’re interacting with in this one, you know, Danny talking to Sandy is a totally different Danny than talking to the Burger Palace Boys.

Kendra: Right. Which I don’t think necessarily means being fake. It’s different elements of the same person. And we all do this. We shift our behaviors depending on who’s in the room. And it’s trying to figure out then, which is, which is the most real or can I be these multiple things depending on who I’m with? And I think that’s one of the things that we get to talk about in the rehearsal room. Is this fake or is this real? And I, I think it’s real. I think we shift and I think we see that in these guys and girls.

Breana: Am I real or am I adapting my communication style?

Kendra: Ooh. Which is a skill we all need. Life lessons in “Grease.”

Breana: La da da… I don’t know. I feel like everything needs like, a themesong. So we need one. If you’re interested in seeing “Grease” this summer, we have three nights for you to see it. The 21st, 22nd and 23rd of July, the 23rd will be our American Sign Language date. Shows start at 8:00 PM. We want it to get dark by the second act so we can use our full. light effects and our theatre magic. To get your tickets, you will go through Ticketmaster and the easiest way to do that is to go to our website at GREATtheatre.org, where there is a direct link, which will bring you exactly where you need to be. And if Ticketmaster is not your thing, they do have dates in which they are staffing the box office for credit card sales. So right now it’s at the Waite Park Public Works office on Fridays from 10:00 AM to 2:00 PM, but that will change to the Ledge after May 13th. Our production of “Grease” will be taking place at the Ledge Amphitheater in Waite Park. And Kendra, what are some of the things that you think makes “Grease” a good option to perform at this type of venue?

Kendra: Well, I think it’s a big, fun, flashy show, and that is great on the giant stage out of the Ledge. I mean, it’s, it’s a good venue to perform a show like “Grease” in, cause you’ve got tons of big dance numbers, you know, all the songs that we, we know and love. Um, so it lends itself nicely, to summer as well. Um, we have to think about that with costuming, uh, and how we have actors out there, how many layers they’re wearing, what allows them to dance in heat, which is a thing about July. And specific to Minnesota being this far north, it doesn’t get dark until very late. So that is something that we have to think about with theater, because of course, lighting is a big storytelling element that we use on stage. And you don’t really have lighting out at the Ledge until act two rolls around. So there’s things to think about in terms of what do we do with the fact that we can’t utilize lighting to its fullest potential until later on in the show.

Breana: Is it hard to transition from doing indoor rehearsals to outdoor rehearsals and like, is that environment change a bigger switch than it is going from like an indoor rehearsal space to something like the Paramount or is it not different?

Kendra: It’s quite a bit different because suddenly things like sunscreen and how many layers you’re wearing have a big impact. Uh, you know, doing a big dance number in air conditioned space is lovely and it definitely changes when you’re suddenly outdoors. Um, it’s also a, a giant stage, so we’ll be doing some rehearsing in the parking lot just to kind of adjust to both the temperature changes and the space changes. So there’s some fun, fun challenges here.

Keenan: If you don’t mind explaining to us, what’s a director’s concept?

Kendra: Yeah, I would say a director’s concept is their vision for the show. What is the world that we’re in? What is the story we’re telling? Because we can all take the same text and hone in on different aspects of it. So we have to figure out what is the “Grease” we are telling this year in 2022 out at the ledge. Like, what is our production of “Grease?” And, um, part of my job as the director is to, uh, name that and to, uh, help our team establish the world and this productions version of “Grease.” So we have the same script that we’re working from. Based on how we read it and what we emphasize and what our set design looks like and what our costumes share. Um, you know, all the, all the scenic and all the design elements, that’s the word for it, design elements, create our world and tell our story. And that’s based on the director’s concept. The director’s vision.

Breana: So, are there certain elements that you found from “Grease” that you want to emphasize as part of your vision? Or are we still in that, that processing…?

Kendra: We are still in that conversation of what is like, what is the physical world of “Grease?” We’re figuring that out. We’ve talked about it kind of from the director concept standpoint. I mean, I really think it is what we’ve been talking about. It’s this, this pushing um, against boundaries to find agency. I think this is what the story is. This is what these kids are after they’re trying to find their place in the world. So they’re pushing up against the norms that have been established. So we’re talking about what does that create for the physical world in terms of different lines and shapes and color palette and all of those things. And then also that piece, um, of starting at a reunion and then looking back, and then the memory piece is interesting to me. Not that this is a memory play that saying that.

Breana: But it’s still a framing device

Kendra: Yea it’s a framing device and it’s looking back. And I think we are, we are looking back into this 1979, sorry, 1959 experience. And what does that do? Because we only remember certain things. And I think those memories we have when we’re looking back and remembering things, they’re, they’re bigger and bolder. So again, we’re talking about how does that translate then onstage, because that’s an interesting thing to look at is, okay. So what is the bigger, bolder? Who’s telling a story? Whose perspective is this? Um, and then it is about the whole group rather than just Sandy and Danny, which I think I have seen productions that are really focused on their story and they certainly are important characters in this, but there’s a whole world around them. And we’re interested in looking at that, that whole world.

Keenan: Awesome.

Breana: That’s interesting that the musical itself has a memory piece and we’ve talked about like, those 20 years gaps between them, which it was, has been revived, performed, stuff like that. So it’s interesting that that’s an element that’s tied into it as well.

Kendra: Yeah. So we’ve been having those conversations as a design team as well. What does that mean for us and where, what, what year are we starting this reunion? You know, all of those pieces, even though it’s just a small, small bit it is the opening of the show.

Breana: So what are some of the things that you’re most excited for in crafting this production?

Kendra: Well, I love characters and I love having those conversations in rehearsal. Um, that’s a fun, that’s a fun thing for me. I also think the music and the dance is really great in the show. I mean, “Summer Nights,” like I have, um, the first show I did many, many years ago, um, at a community colleges, it was “Oliver,” but our getting into hair and makeup lasting the soundtrack of “Grease.” So this is what we all got into our costume soundtrack. It was a pump up music.

Breana: It’s what theater kids exercise to at the gym.

Kendra: Musical theatre kids! Um, so, you know, I have fun connections to these songs, and I think a lot of us do. I mean, the dances are just, they’re big. They’re flashy. They’re, it’s fun. It’s a fun summer show and it’s going to be great to do this.

Keenan: Yeah. “Grease” is a show where a lot of people arrive with certain expectations and certain memories of the show. It’s sort of like, like you mentioned earlier, like looking back every 20 years, but every time you look back at a memory, you’re really remembering the last time you remembered it. Um, and so I think that’s happened a lot with the story of “Grease.” When people think of “Grease” they think of a very specific thing and you are almost entering into conversation with those ideas. What’s that like, and what do you have to be aware of?

Kendra: Yeah. We’ve had a lot of conversation about that very thing in terms of audience expectation. Um, because I think we do so many folx remember the movie, um, and that’s, that’s not what the stage musical is. I mean, there’s, there’s elements of it. The movie was based on this musical. So it’s certainly, you know, the, the story that we, we know, but there’s, there are different things. So the musical has a couple musical numbers that do not appear in the movie and they will be performed on stage, but we also got the rights to do some of the movie classics. So “Hopelessly Devoted to You.” And “You’re The One that I Want” have been added. Uh, there are now an option that you can pay extra to add those to your stage production. So there are these different iterations of “Grease.” We have the 1972 version, which is the one that’s available to license, but it is different from the movie that came out in 78′ and then the Broadway revival and then “Grease Live.” So there’s all these kinds of different versions. But again, the only one you can perform is the 1972, but you can add some of those movie songs. So we’ve done that to bring the best of the different versions of “Grease” to us right here in Central Minnesota.

Keenan: I didn’t realize that we could tailor it that way.

Kendra: Just that aspect. Can’t change anything else, but there are a couple songs that you can add. So that’s a special licensing thing. That’s specific to this title.

Breana: Important thing to note because when we are dealing with stories that are adapted to different mediums, like a movie to a musical or a musical to a movie, we may go to the version that we are less familiar with and wonder, Why did they change this part? Or why did they move this song to this place? Or have the scene played out this way?

Kendra: I think it’s that, that balance of making sure that we really hit those iconic moments from the movie that we love, um, and also working with the texts that we have. Um, and there’s, there’s different things to love about the musical and the stage version. So yeah, it’s just bringing this version of the story to life.

Breana: Well, it sounds like we have a lot to look forward to. Thank you so much, Kendra, for joining us and to our audience members out there. We will be at the ledge this summer, July 21st, 22nd, 23rd with GREAT’s production of “Grease.”

Keenan: Thank you so much, Kendra. This has been excellent. What, uh, what an enlightening conversation. Well, we’re gonna have fun and I’ll see you the Ledge! For twenty-five years, GREAT theatre has been transforming lives through the power of the arts as a 5 0 1 C3 non-profit organization. GREAT Theatre is known for its Broadway musical performances at the Paramount Center for the Arts, as a leader in youth arts experiences throughout Central Minnesota, and for its commitment to community partnerships. It’s the generosity of our community of volunteers, donors, participants, artists, and audiences that make GREAT possible to learn more about GREAT theatre visit GREATtheatre.org.