Turtle Lane Playhouse’s West Side Story featured a standout Anita in the form of Ianthe Marini, who brought intelligence, empathy and palpable passion to one of musical theatre’s greatest roles.
The Best Supporting Actress in a Regional Production nominee is the last Boston actor to be featured in this series. Read on to see what she had to say.
When did you start performing? Have you always known that you wanted to perform?
I started performing when I was five with the Joan O’Brien School of Dance in Belmont, MA. Mrs. O’Brien’s recitals were held in the old John Hancock Hall downtown. I remember so vividly that first time I walked up those stairs to get up to dance on that stage. All around me were girls and women just as excited as me: I was sharing in their excitement but I was also immensely private in feeding off the energy of dancers, the sounds and patters of tap and jazz shoes on the hardwood floors, the beats and soaring melodies of the jazz band in the pit, and the sights of hundreds of girls entering and exiting the stage: a kaleidoscopic blend of colors. And I remember those three seconds before the jazz band started playing my song: filled with so much energy and excitement I could burst, and then being propelled onto the stage by that energy. And then dancing under those lights: completely seduced by them and by the ability to just be expressive and passionate and to try and make my dance teacher proud. That feeling repeats itself in those first three seconds before I go out on stage even now.
Do you do both musical theatre and plays?
Unfortunately, my professional life keeps me too busy from doing the amount of theater I would love to do. I have not been in a straight play in a long time, though I am itching to do one again. I really love seeing straight plays performed, maybe even more so than musicals. I recently saw Karen MacDonald in O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey into Night. I can say with complete certainty that I have never been so moved while watching live theater. She devoured that role. She became Mary and in so doing, inspired me to think more deeply about the story and about the realness of that character.
What is the most challenging part of musical theatre for you?
I think a lot of times musicals are perceived as “fluff” with only one or two dimensional characters. I think the most beautiful and wonderful challenge is to make sure that the story is told: that it can not be perceived as fluff: that the characters become real humans with whom the audience can empathize and relate, and from whom they may even be able to learn something.
In West Side Story, you were truly a triple threat. How did you develop the skills to be an actor, singer, and dancer?
Thank you so much for saying that. I’m honored! I have to thank all the great teachers I have had in my life for their patience and for their dedication in helping me challenge and push myself. I did take dance with Mrs. O’Brien, though never took singing or acting. Any training in those fields came from singing in choirs throughout my childhood, youth, and adulthood, and through acting in plays and musicals from a young age. I believe you can learn a lot about a craft through practical participation, and through observation and collaborative creation with your peers and directors.
Do you consider yourself more of an actor or singer or dancer?
I consider myself more of an actor of those three. I think that acting must be at the forefront of all we do on a stage. A dancer may have technical precision, grace, and beauty, but if she does not understand her character or tell us a story through her movements, then what is the point? A singer might have the clearest voice with the most resonant timbre and the most perfect intonation, but if it is just a series of well-sung notes, the pretty voice is self-serving and does not move us to become involved in the story it should be portraying. I think with a character like Anita, she doesn’t have to sing perfectly, nor does she have to be the best dance technician. But she has to tell us the story of this raw and passionate and fiercely loving and loyal teenager who sees the best in people and who loves to live. Without the acting behind the song and dance, we might as well not have the song and dance.
What was the best part about playing Anita? What was the most challenging?
I really fell in love with this girl the deeper I got into the process. Anita is not just the sassy Puerto Rican with the spitfire attitude and the love of fun. She is passionate about life in the most deep and pure way. Her love for Bernardo and Maria are strong, as is her love for life. She comes to America with idealistic eyes, with hopeful heart, and with open and vulnerable soul. She wants desperately to think the best of this new country, and tries to convince Bernardo of its merits and opportunities. But then, in Act II, we see that vibrant and hopeful and passionate girl become open, unfortunately, to the ugliness of racism and violence. But even in the face of grave sadness and anger, she is able to allow her love for Maria to surpass her loss for Bernardo. She tries to help Maria through helping Tony, though he killed her love, and is then compromised in violence, as well. We see her love killed and we see her goodness brutalized in Doc’s Drugstore. A girl filled with hope for the future now jaded from the brutalities of bigotry and hate. I think the best part of playing Anita was having the opportunity to explore these many facets of who she is. Of getting to use body, mind, spirit, and voice in the story-telling. And in hopes that this does not seem like a cop-out, I think that was also the most challenging part. Allowing myself the complete vulnerability to show the journey of her huge and passionate spirit between acts I and II.
Tell us about the production and its concept. How did your character and your performance contribute?
Our production was meant to be gritty. The people were supposed to be real, with real passion, real love, real hate. I think the direction Anita took played a large part in that concept in her final scene in Doc’s. The scene in the script is merely called “taunting” whereas in this production, she was raped. It was the ultimate stark picture of black and white: that she came to this country passionate and open-minded and filled with the positivity of hope, and even through the killing of her true love she was able to forgive in her love for her true love’s sister: and in spite of that spirit of love, warmth, and forgiveness, she was still brutalized. Though, I like to think, that even though Anita walks off that stage raped and demoralized and does not enter again, I believe she goes on to regain her spirit and live even more fully and boldly than before.
What makes West Side Story applicable to audiences today?
West Side Story will always be applicable. The sad and hard reality is that there is still bigotry: whether it is against differences in race, sexual orientation, gender, age, religion: there is still persecution and there are still terminal consequences resulting from that persecution. The message at the end is hope: that one day we can end the war on differences and come together, instead, to celebrate love and deep understanding.
Were you scared to play such an iconic role?
I was immensely honored to play this role. I realized Anita was an icon but I don’t think I would say I was “scared” to play her. I think that she is much too dynamic and brave to be portrayed by somebody who approaches her with fear. I thought she deserved more than that. I think maybe I would use the word “worried”, maybe: worried that I would not be able to bring her justice, and bring her story the attention it deserves. I am also not really a belter. I was worried that, because Anita is usually belted, I wouldn’t be able to bring her voice justice, or make her be heard in the ways she needs to be heard. But I think once I told myself that all I could do was bring Anita alive in the way I best knew how, I realized that her voice would be heard in other ways: through the story, through the movements, through the different vocal timbre than is typically used.
What do you think you brought to the role?
I am honored to think that I brought anything at all!! This has always been a character that I have loved and one that I have wanted desperately to play. Hopefully my passion for this woman and for her story added to the story as a whole.
Do you have a favorite role that you’ve played?
Anita is definitely up there tied as number one. I also loved playing the role of Mamma Rose. My high school produced Gypsy when I was a senior and I was fortunate enough to get to play her. I would really love to be able to play Rose again when I am not 17 years old, and when I can use real experience in trying to understand and portray her better. I remember trying to make Rose a sympathetic character when I was 17. But I think now (or better, in ten years), I would have much more to bring to the table. I was just a 17 year old with frizzy hair and acne trying to make it look like I knew what I was doing!
What has been your favorite production?
West Side was really a special production for me. I made a really wonderful friend in the process: not the kind of theater friend that sort of just comes and goes whenever you’re in the same show: but one in whom I am able to place tremendous trust. He helped me through the Doc’s Drugstore scene each night and taught me a valuable lesson: to leave whatever it is we do on stage on the stage. To tell the story for the sake of the characters and for the comprehension of the audience, but to then be able to get off the stage and move forward without being bogged down by the travails of those we are portraying. So, for friendship, for lessons learned, and for the opportunity to tell an important story, I say that West Side has been my favorite.
Do you have any embarrassing stories from theatre or acting?
In my sophomore of my undergraduate degree, I was a Kit Kat Klub dancer in Cabaret. We were wearing sort of cheaply made flimsy costumes (imagine!) for the kickline opening of Act II. Mid kick, my strap snapped and my boob came waltzing out. In the spirit of staying in character, I just kept dancing without a care in the world. At the end of the show, I went out to greet my family, and before I could say anything heard “Ianthe! I saw your boobie!” from my grandfather. Thanks for pointing it out…I had no idea.
Do you have any hopes and dreams for theatre? (Dream cast, dream role, dream company)
I would really love to be able to keep having my voice heard in this powerfully important way. I would really love to repeat the role of Anita (but only if I get to have the same “Action”), and I also really want to play Mamma Rose again (see above). Other dream roles are Nancy in Oliver, Louise in Gypsy (is it gluttonous to want both??), Fantine in Les Mis, and, if anyone would be patient enough to work with my 2 left feet, Cassie in A Chorus Line. Dream company? I mean…probably in London ’cause I wish I were English.
Would you (or have you) ever stepped behind the scenes in any way (as a director, choreographer, stage manager or producer)?
Yes. Before I began my Masters degree, I taught high school choir for four years. In those four years, I directed/produced/co-choreographed/vocal-directed/music-directed two musicals for the school. (The Sound of Music and Cinderella). It was absolutely balls nuts to have to produce entire musicals on my own while also teaching during the school day, but it was so worth it to see the students energized by the process.
Do you have any actors or performers who inspire you?
Just kidding. Of course!! I am inspired by the raw honesty of Audra McDonald every time she steps foot on a stage, or opens her mouth to speak or sing. I am inspired by the dedication and the study that goes into each Meryl Streep performance. I am inspired by the fire and passion that bursts from Patti LuPone’s skin each time she tells a story. I was so inspired by the way Karen MacDonald became her character this past spring and hope to see more of her when I go back to Boston.
Do you have any celebrity crushes?
MATT DAMON. It’s been that way since 1997 and I don’t see it ever changing. Curious, Creative, Clever, Communicative, Collaborative. Ugh! I just love that man.
How does theatre fit into your daily life? Do you see your participation in theatre growing in the future?
I am currently getting my Master of Music degree in Choral Conducting, so I, very sadly, do not have time for actual participation in theatrical production right now. However, I have found that Conducting and Acting really do not have to be two separate entities. They can inform one another in deeply profound ways. I have been trying more and more to put the story of the music into my facial expressions to the ensemble I am conducting. The hope is that if I portray the story to the ensemble, they will then be able to better tell that story, and even a bit of their own, to the audience. I hope to build my skill in bringing acting into my choirs and ensembles. I think too many times we see dull concerts because the singers and players have not connected personally with the material as an actor would. I hope that I might be able to bring something to the table in this regard as I continue to study.
Is there anything you want to share or tell our readers?
If you are still reading, thank you for complying with my verbose Mediterranean tendencies. I consider playing Anita this past spring to have been an absolute PRIVILEGE in my life. I decided in the process that I was going to allow myself complete vulnerability. That I was going to tap into dark moments of my past in order to better portray dark moments of hers. And likewise, I was going to tap into feelings of pure elation in order to portray the passion and love in her heart. I think the most freeing thing is allowing yourself to lose all control in order to gain it again.