Billy Elliot Production photo

Philipp Mergener (Billy Elliot) and Faye B Summers (Grandma). Billy Elliot Production photo by Mark Kitaoka.

In my early years as a Seattle theatre writer the late, lamented Cabaret de Paris presented a clever, twisted mini-book musical called Evil Reba. A hybrid spoof of The Bad Seed and The Omen, it starred one Faye B. Summers, a Seattle actress recently returned to town. Flash forward some 23 odd years later, I am still covering theatre and Faye B (as she is known to all) is back on the boards as Grandma in Village Theatre’s Billy Elliot. She’s a little older, a little wiser, and twice as saucy now,  and we caught up the other day.

Tell our readers the story of your roots, career trajectory, and the journey that led up to your role in Billy Elliot.

I was born at a very early age – sorry, old family joke. I was born and raised in Chicago. I started singing quite young, studying “dramatic art and song styling” (really, not joking, but we are talking the 50’s) and performing at many Jewish retirement homes on Chicago’s north side. Then my mother came up with a voice teacher who ran the Chicago All Children’s Grand Opera. Yep, Grand Opera. Yep, children. Original languages, original keys, although liberally cut. I sang Aida (the second half) when I was 14, so I guess I had a little Billy Elliot experience of my own, although decidedly not Broadway – and no dancing. Well, I was lucky enough to go to a high school with a fabulous theatre program that I will always be grateful for.  Went to college, retired from theatre.  Eventually some friends dragged me back into the local community theatre and I was hooked again. Kept doing community theatre in Colorado and Kansas (don’t ask) until I moved to Seattle in 1979. In town, I was busy with what would now be called Fringe Theatre and teaching youth acting on Bainbridge Island (along with J. K. Simmons, as a matter of fact), when I was invited to become a core member of the original Bathhouse Theatre Company. A Repertory style company, we continually produced year round. With the Bathhouse, I played Hermia in the Rock and Roll A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Daisy in The Adding Machine, Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, Polly Peachum in Three Penny Opera, Mrs. Antrobus in The Skin of Our Teeth, numerous productions of The Big Broadcast and many more. During the early 80’s, I also did work at The Empty Space, Pioneer Square Theatre, Skid Road Theatre, The Seattle Rep, The Group Theatre, and Seattle Children’s Theatre. Left Seattle, moved to NYC and Chicago, where I did mostly readings, song cycles, and development projects.

When I returned to Seattle in 1992, I resumed working with the Bathhouse and other small professional theatres, did editing, directing, and writing, completing my one-woman show Kicking the Hat, which was subsequently produced by ArtsWest theatre. I worked for many years teaching Shakespeare and Classical Theatre Acting at the Seattle Actors’ Studio. I’m now beginning to tour my new Edith Piaf musical play, Sparrow’s Diary.

How does it feel to be back doing a big old honking musical that is a new-generation show?

Big Honking is definitely an appropriate moniker for this show and I am absolutely delighted to be part of it. Having been out of the business for a good number of years in order to pay the mortgage and buy chocolate, this very modern and innovative show is proving to be an eye-opening and joyful experience. I mean, how many shows are focused and dependent upon a 13 year old lead? I think there’s only one scene that Billy isn’t in, and he is absolutely pivotal in all the rest. I can’t remember a time when the professional theatre would have trusted a whole show to such a young performer, expecting them to sing, dance (both tap and ballet), and act. In reality, all the rest of the cast are supporting roles. That is so cool! It’s so great to be back. And a dance show to boot. Not that I’m a dancer, especially at my age. Fortunately, I’m playing an old lady and I am having the time of my life!

Are you bonding with the Billy Elliot(s)?

I don’t know if bonding is the appropriate term. Their are 4 young men and they are literally running from blocking to singing, to dancing, to flying, to gymnastics. Not a lot of time for gabbing.  But I can tell you this: They are all sincere, open kids, wildly talented and willing to work.  I’m sure warm and lasting relationships will ensue over the next months that we will be working together.

Did you think you’d be singing an Elton John score at this time in your career?

Elton John score? Wow! I’m still having a hard time getting my somewhat elderly head around that. Perhaps this was what Tiny Dancer was about all along.

In all the years you have been part of this Seattle’s theatre scene name the three most influential artists you have worked with?

Olga Sanchez is an actor, director and friend who has always been a supportive and enthusiastic collaborator. After appearing together in the last Voices of Christmas directed by Ruben Sierra at the Group Theatre, she subsequently directed my one-person show, directed me in an innovative production of Bandido, at the Public Theatre, and coordinated a KUOW solo performance. She remains one of my creative icons.

Arne Zaslove provided me with a creative environment, trust and careful direction. He continues to be supportive to this day. He was a potent mentor, reviving for me a vision of acting and theatre that is both progressive and classically inspired.

Tony Curry has been one of my most valued friends, mentors and collaborators. We’ve acted together, sung together, and taught together. Tony trusted me to edit and direct his one-man show, Unidentified Flying Objects. His unflagging enthusiasm and open-mindedness have been and remain a major artistic inspiration in my life.

As with almost all actors you have held day jobs. The best? The worst?

Literally, the best? I guess it was the years as an Off-Broadway treasurer (that’s what they call box office in NYC).  Not acting, but in the theatre and working with loads of terrific, fun folks. Worst? I have had my share of crappy jobs, but I think motel maid in Boulder, Colorado tops the list.

Who do wish would come back to do theatre whom we have lost to other cities and who have passed that you have missed the most?

Obviously, I would love Olga Sanchez to return to Seattle. I long for further collaborations and the enduring inspiration I get from her.

After decades, I continue to miss Todd Moeller, who we lost far too early. A truly brilliant musician, arranger, and composer, he was a good friend that I met very soon after I moved to Seattle. I miss him and his many gifts.

Finally here are the Inside the Actor’s Studio questions! What is your favorite word?

Yes

What is your least favorite word?

Should

What turns you on creatively, spiritually, or emotionally?

Creative Collaboration

What turns you off?

Dogma

What is your favorite curse word? 

Oh, come on. What’s everyone’s favorite curse word? Fuck, of course.

What sound or noise do you love?

Water–river or surf.

What sound or noise do you hate?

Bass car speakers and car revving and pealing out (combo of cars and testosterone I guess.)

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

At my age? Actually, i am in a sommelier program in the Northwest Wine Academy at South Seattle College. Who knows where that will lead?

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

“Glad you made it! Oh,here’s a good one. Two guys walk into a bar….”

Billy Elliot is onstage at Village Theatre in Issaquah May 12–July 3 before moving to Village Theatre’s Everett location from July 8–31, 2016. For tickets and more information go to villagetheatre.org.