PCS Blog

Merideth Kaye Clark: Renaissance Woman

Posted by Alice Hodge | 21 April 2014



Photo by Christina Tracey

 

Google The Last Five Years star Merideth Kaye Clark and two things become immediately clear: one, she played Elphaba in Wicked on the First National Tour and two, she is incredibly creative and talented. An accomplished musical theater professional and singer-songwriter, her work jumps from bootlegged performances in 2,500 seat theaters to relaxed house shows with just her guitar and no end of songs from her two studio albums. Her voice ranges from boisterously brassy in "Suddenly Seymour" to her quietly haunting mash up "If I Only Had a (Blackbird)".

She also has a Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience and Behavorial Biology from Emory Univeristy and plays every single melodic string instrument. All of them.

I sat down with Merideth before the designer run last week to chat with her about her craft, her music,  The Last Five Years and, of course, love.

 


I’d like to start with your path in the arts. In a nutshell, how did you arrive here?

Merideth: Well, when I was two…just kidding. I had a really great arts education in my public school in Missouri, where I am from, and when I was in college, I didn’t pursue the arts because I majored in Neuroscience [at Emory University].

Yeah, we’re going to talk about that later…

So I got my degree in neuroscience, but I also played in the orchestra, I sang in the choir, I had a voice teacher and I was a part of a student theater group called “Ad Hoc” productions where we picked a musical every single semester and produced it. Those people became my circle and my people. By my senior year it was really obvious where I fit – in the theater, but I had only taken a couple of classes and didn’t really know much about it other than being directed by other students. Then I went to New York for the summer and did the Cap21 program at NYU. That was the first time I learned about regional theater, the actor’s union and that there was a whole collection of performers that weren’t famous, but were working professionals. I never knew that before I was 21. So, then I decided “that’s what I want to do”. I didn’t want to do community theatre and I didn’t want to be a super star, I want to be a working actor, but I had no training. So, I went to grad school and got my masters in musical theater in California [at San Diego State University].  After I finished grad school in California, I was really focused on becoming a performer, so then I moved to New York.

How many instruments do you play?

All melodic string instruments: guitar, banjo, viola, harp, piano, xylophone – well, that’s not a stringed instrument, but I can still play it.

How do you identify as an artist? Are you a musician first, actor second?

That’s a really good question. And one that I don’t really know how to answer which is probably why I feel like a jack-of-all-trades. I identify as an acting musician, how about that? I think that acting is connecting to a story and connecting to an experience. And one of the best ways I know how to do it is through music. I talk sometimes, too. [laughs] But I’m more successful when I do it with music.

 



   Merideth performs her mashup "If I Only Had a (Blackbird)".

 

So, you started your M.F.A. program in musical theater with no real formal acting education?

Yeah and the crazy part was as part of my master’s degree, as part of my scholarship, was that I had to teach “Acting For Non-Majors.” So, I was 23, had never taken a formal acting class, and I was put in front of students, mostly 18 year old, non-majors and they were looking to me about how to act.

The first semester was really rough. It was a lot of reading books and then teaching what I had just read. When I realized that I already knew a lot because I had produced and seen a lot of theater, I just needed to learn the how and the why of all these things that I already naturally knew.

In an interview, you mentioned that you had auditioned 93 times in your first year in New York and didn’t book a single show? How did you stick with it?

I thought that’s just what you had to do. I thought that was the rite of passage. When I first moved to New York, I had three jobs and lived in a brownstone with five other girls. It was so beautiful, but it hadn’t ever been renovated. There were five of us and three bedrooms. One of my 3 jobs was a temp 9-5 job. I would wake up in the morning, get in line at Actor’s Equity Union building, sign up for an audition, go to my job, come back and do my audition during the lunch break – I always signed up for the lunch slot – go back and finish my job, and then go to whatever my night job was. I did that for a year and no wonder I didn’t book anything – I was exhausted. How can you have a successful audition when you are that tired? And I didn’t have an agent and I didn’t have connections. I didn’t go to a conservatory and that was the only way I knew to get people to see me. That first year was rough.

And then the first job I finally booked was from a recommendation from somebody who had worked with me before when they lost an actor and I was available. They gave me the job and from that moment on until where we are now, I’ve always had something on the horizon and that was twelve years ago.  

That reminds me of the Audition sequence in The Last Five Years, “Climbing Up Hill” – did you think “oh, I’ve got this”?

Oh, yeah. There are so many ways that Cathy is different than I am, but there are some key elements of her that I really connect with and one of them is the audition experience

 

"Suddenly Seymour" from Little Shop of Horrors with Bradley Beahen.

 

Let’s go back and talk about that neuroscience degree! How did you end up studying that, of all things, and how does that inform you as an artist?

I went to college thinking I wanted to be a doctor. I was on a pre-med track, and the options where I could fit in my med school pre-requisites and my major were the traditional tracks: biology, anthropology, chemistry, etc and it would encapsulate the pre-med track. And then there was this neuroscience degree that they were just starting at Emory and that combined anthropology, psychology and biology. I’ve always really loved science and the art of science. Anthropology combined culture and the way we interact and gender studies. And psychology is all about what our brain does and why and the evolution of that. So, in neuroscience I got to study how the brain works, why it works the way it does, how it evolved that way and what is happening in our body to support that, which is basically acting. It’s the science of acting.

It’s amazing how much of what I learned in my neuroscience degree applies directly to what I’m doing in theater. And so, I think it was an awesome background to have. I didn’t understand the stagecraft, but I did know what it means to be human and how we got to be the way we are and how we relate to one another. As far as being a scientist goes, how I approach a show or a song, or how my voice works and how I get it to do what I want it do is all scientific method. Trial and error, reducing the variables, forming a hypothesis, testing and coming up with a solution is all scientific method. And is all part of how I do what I do.

 

Merideth performs "Defying Gravity" from Wicked.

Lets talk Wicked.

So, the first year, I was the Elphaba understudy and in the ensemble. I did 8 shows a week for 52 weeks, so I did something like 400 shows in the ensemble and played Elpheba ten times. There was the woman whose name was on the marquee and then there was the standby and then there was the understudy - me - so in the first year, I would only go on stage if the first two couldn’t do it. Then I got promoted to standby for the next two years. I would just stand backstage unless they needed me in green, so that was two years of that. The person I happened to be standing by for would call out 2-3 times a week, so I was always doing it.

How did that affect your career?

It was a huge break – life changing. Not only was touring in a big Broadway show a huge deal, the role is beloved by millions of people, the salary was different than anything I’d ever experienced before, the amount of pressure was different than anything I’ve experienced before. And what it's done for my credibility post-Wicked, when people see that on my resume, they say “oh , she’s been able to carry a big show before” was huge, so it was career changing.

What was touring like?

It was mostly awesome. I got to see the country and live a month in every city. I came through Portland and played the Keller for a month and actually worked with Claudie [PCS's PR and Publications Manager] on a video. It was awesome. The hard part was maintaining relationships with people who weren’t on the tour. I was on tour for three years, so that became my tour family, and the people that I toured with I’m still so close with and stay in touch with. So, for the most part it was awesome, but it was also really stressful and it took me a long time when I got off the road to recover from all the travel, from the post-traumatic stress of performing such an intense role at a moment’s notice. I never knew when I was going to be on. I always had to be at the theater, but I never knew if I had to get there early or if I had just an hour to get into green. Sometimes, I would walk in the door and they would tell me I was on.

What was your favorite part about performing that role?

I think the connection I made with the fans of wicked - the girls and boys who really connected with that character and saw me as a role model. They would wait at the stage door and tell you their life stories and send you fan mail. I made a connection with them as Merideth, but mostly they just loved Elphaba and whoever was playing her. I loved having the connection with kids who needed a role model of an underdog who was awesome.

 

"The Wizard and I" from Wicked.

There’s a rumor you moved to Portland for love – can you tell us about that?

I met a boy in Florida while I was doing an out-of-town try out for a show. We met at the hotel bar on the closing night of my show. He was there for a conference. We just talked and talked and talked until the bar closed and we were the last people there. It was one of those moments where everything was different after. We met for a night, but we didn’t exchange information. We just went our separate ways and then he emailed me from Portland a few days later. We exchanged emails for a while, then about four months later, we talked on the phone for the first time, then a month after that, we skyped for the first time and that was when we decided we should see each other for the first time, so that May he flew to Connecticut - I was doing a show at Goodspeed. We then flew back and forth for a year, and after that I was ready to take the chance and wanted to be with him. I knew that Portland had a really vibrant arts scene and I had friends who had worked here before and I was ready for a break from the city. So, I moved here and moved right in with him and that was a year and a half ago. The first six months was really slow because everything casts so far ahead, but since last June I’ve been working consistently in Portland and Seattle.

 



Merideth performs her original song "Halfway" from her most recent studio album,
Young Stellar Object
.

 

Let’s talk about The Last Five Years. You mentioned that you are most excited about the challenge of the construct of time in this piece. Can you talk about that challenge and if that has changed throughout rehearsal?

It’s still so hard, because I don’t get the journey that as an actor you really get to connect with from point A to B – what are experiences, how are they growing and changing and how are they becoming who they are now. I have to go backward. I have to start at the end of the journey and go backwards. It’s a mind game about the journey you take and how I can’t really rely on my natural growth and natural journey that you expect to go beat by beat. I’m constantly thinking about what chronologically happened instead of what actually happened on stage. It’s so much easier for Jamie because he gets to have his journey. [Laughs]

Do you find the change of style is a challenge? Or does it even feel to you as the performer that the songs are, in fact, written in different styles?

Yes. When I listened to it originally and when I first started looking at the music that was exactly how I thought of it. But now that I’m working through it, I’m trying to have it be a single voice. So, I’m coming at it with the same warm up, the same passaggio, the same placement so I don’t feel schizophrenic. Stylistically the sounds might be different, but I’m trying to sing it with the same voice.

So, we’ll see. We haven’t opened yet, so talk to me in a few months. [laughs]

Is there anything else you want to add?

I just think, for the record, I feel more connected to the art that I’m doing and a more whole person living and working here in Portland than I ever did in New York. It’s so great. I love living here and I love riding my bike to work and being here in this building and the resources we have here and the support. I’m just thrilled.

 

Merideth performs "Oregon, It's More Than Portland To Me" with The Last Five Years Music Director Rick Lewis at the 2013 Oregon Business Plan Summit.

 

The Last Five Years runs April 26 — June 22.

 


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