My Theatre

30 March 2018

Nominee Interview Series: Tess Barao

By // Theatre (Toronto)

Before we announce the winners of the 2017 MyEntWorld Critics’ Pick Awards, we’re proud to present our annual Nominee Interview Series.

Some of the most fun we had at Fringe last year came at an immersive party at the Monarch Tavern. Maddie’s Karaoke Birthday Party was just that- a karaoke birthday party for a girl named Maddie- only Maddie didn’t show up so instead we got to hang out with all her friends, a disparate group of oddballs who one by one took the mic to sing their karaoke song of choice- a perfectly calibrated original piece by Barbara Johnston and Suzy Wilde in the style of whatever genre that character would pick. The pop princess of the group was Alison, the perky college friend who sings about being “basic” and was played by Outstanding Performance in a Musical nominee Tess Barao with a healthy dose of hardcore quirk.

Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
Oh, God. I’ve been doing it for a long time. My first “first” was probably that I played Jesus in a school pageant. I think I was eight, and they didn’t have a Jesus, or their Jesus couldn’t do it. And they were like, “Can you come be Jesus?” I think it was just because I had long hair. I was like, “Okay,” and I think that was the first thing I ever did.

My first real show, I played the brick house pig in a musical called The Trial of the Big Bad Wolf. I was the youngest one in the show, and I was like, “What is happening?” I had a huge role. It was the first time ever I had to learn anything by heart. I think I was ten when I did that one.

When did you start singing?
I’ve been singing my whole life. It’s always been there. I don’t come from a musical family at all. I’m pretty much the only one who sings. My aunt sings a bit. It came out of nowhere. My family have been asking me to sing for them ever since. [laughs]

What are some of your all-time favourite musicals?
Oh, man. Jesus Christ Superstar is probably my favourite. I’m not religious at all, I just love Judas. I think he’s such a great role. Phantom was the first show I ever saw when I was like five, and the big chandelier dropped right beside me, so I always remember that one. I really like Titanic lately, actually. I think that one’s really cool. The scope of it is gigantic. There’s a cast of like a billion people, but the music is beautiful.

How’d you get involved with Maddie’s Karaoke Birthday Party?
I know most of the people that were involved in it. Brian Goldenberg, who produced it, Jeff Jones [co-producer] – they were just like, “We’re doing this show. Wanna be in it?”

I didn’t know Suzie [Wilde, lyrics], or [Barbara Johnston, music]. So that was a fun experience, getting to work with them, because I’d heard their stuff in the past. But it was just nepotism, I guess, except without family. I don’t know what that would be called. [laughs]

Were you specifically asked to play your character?
It was a weird thing, actually, because we didn’t really know who our characters were. We came on the first day for a music rehearsal, we heard our song, and we knew our name, and that’s about it. We got a very brief blurb when we got into the theatre, like, “This is who you could be,” and then we went from there. So basically, the character was just me figuring it out. Hearing my song, and being like, “Oh, this is ridiculous. Okay, I can do something with this.”

I think originally I was supposed to be very uppity and prim, and I took that and was like, “I’m instead going to make [Alison] crazy.” [laughs] I wanted her to be endearing, because it’s very easy to make a character like that be kind of annoying. “I’m basic, I have Starbucks.” I wanted to make her as endearing as possible, and the best way to make somebody endearing is by giving them crazy quirks. So I just took that to a whole other level. [laughs]

Your character’s song was all about embracing the label “basic” and rejecting its negative connotation. Is that something you relate to at all? I certainly do. 
I hate the term “basic”, because we all like these things, and somebody has seen that, and been like, “Oh, everyone does that, so that’s basic.” Sometimes people just like shit because it’s good. I think that the most basic thing you can do is not like something just because other people say it is a certain thing. Owning what you like is the best, because confidence will make anything relatable. If you own something, then everyone can be like, “Oh, I like that too.”

I find a lot of people are afraid to say certain things that they like. Things like, “I really like Justin Bieber.” Why be afraid? If you like it, you like it. Who cares what anybody else thinks, really? That was my favourite thing about Alison. She didn’t give a crap about what anybody thought about anything, even aliens. It was just like [character voice] “No, this is just who I am, and I like balloons, and I like making things pretty, and I like Starbucks lattes, and ABBA music.” I loved that about her. She just had no qualms about saying exactly what was on her mind, which is actually very much like me. [laughs]

The show was all about these various characters and their relationships with the titular Maddie. Tell us about developing that friendship history.
A lot of that was in the lyrics. We didn’t have tons of songs to work with, because it was a very short show, of course. But we got to take little clues out of that. The rest of it was just us. We created everything. We came up with our lines and everything, so working off of each other, and how we already related to that person.

Kelly [Holiff, who played Maddie] is one of my closest friends. The other thing about Kelly is that we don’t see each other super often, because she is this huge person in the industry, so she’s always off doing some show or another. It’s like a close relationship without seeing each other that often, which is exactly what I played onstage. I just took the relationship I already had with Kelly, and added it into a show in a way that Alison would react to that situation. Taking from real life is just the easiest way through it. And as an improv performer, I’m used to just coming up with crap on the spot, so that made it a lot easier.

What were some of the challenges of doing an immersive, site-specific Fringe piece?
People in our way! Ugh, my gosh. One night we were very crowded, because we sold out like every night, and there was one night where I think we oversold, or some people showed up that we didn’t expect. I don’t remember. But this was before we had marked off the floor. You do not stand here, people, please.

We were just going with the flow at that point, and there were people everywhere, and I’m supposed to be doing certain things in certain spots. It’s actually funny. People know I’m in the show. I just sang a song. They obviously know that I’m doing something. And they still looked at me like I was [in their way]. At one point, I was like, “Excuse me!” Trying to be in character, all sweet, and this one guy just looks at me and he’s like, “What?” Are you kidding me? Move! Then I could bring out my drunk Alison and be like, “Move out of my way, you gotta go!” That was a good thing about playing that character. I could be very nice, and then I could be crazy, so that was great.

Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
Yeah, when I got to be mean to everyone. That was great. [laughs] That was more my character. That moment where Alison is just piss-drunk, and hanging out with Shane [Hollon] was the most fun, because we got to be together the whole time and just drink.

Most of the time, we would just ask for real shots. We didn’t care, because it was in a bar. We had some water shots, and then we had some real shots, and depending on the night, we’d be like, “Real shot, please.” [laughs] Hanging out with him was super fun. And getting really, really “drunk”. Not actually drunk, but getting to play that, and going onstage and just letting it all out. And that speech would change every night. [laughs] I always said something different. Brian [Goldenberg, the producer] was like, “Can you stop doing that?” But, improv performer. You can’t help it. Getting to just let it all out at that moment and showing the different side of her was really, really fun in doing it.

Do you have any bucket list roles?
Oh my God, yeah. Judas, definitely, like I said, in Jesus Christ Superstar. Oh, that’d be amazing. I did play the witch in Into the Woods, but that was not a professional production, so getting to play that in a professional production would be absolutely incredible. Everyone always says Elphaba. I mean, it used to be my bucket list one, but I’m over it now. [laughs] Too much Wicked. Oh my God. Saturated. I loved Wicked. It was my obsession for like ten years, and now I’m just getting to the point where I’m like, “so much Wicked!” But then, who knows. In two years, I’m gonna be obsessed again.

The movie’s coming out; it’s gonna have a resurgence.
It comes in waves. It’s like, I hate it, I love it, I hate it, I love it. [laughs]

What are you doing now, or what’s your next project?
I actually started a business. I do a lot of cosplay. I love it. So we just had Comic-Con this weekend, actually. I got to do Frodo Baggins, which was great. I love characters like that, because I love the ones that people don’t expect to be the heroes. Those are my favourite. That’s why I love Alison, too, as a human being. Sometimes I feel like the underdog, and I felt like that a lot in this production, because some of the biggest people like Erica Peck – I’ve been following her career forever. Jeigh Madjus, and Kelly Holiff – these amazing people. I was like, “Oh my gosh. What am I doing in this show?!” I did not feel worthy, I guess. So I love characters like Frodo. Short in stature, and people don’t expect you to do great things, and then he ends up saving the world.

I’ve been doing a lot of cosplay, started a business called CosParty, where it’s marrying the two things I love, cosplay and acting. We go and do events where we immerse ourselves in the world, and people get to interact with characters. We actually act like Frodo, or Daenerys from Game of Thrones. I thought it’d be a great marriage of the things that I love to do.

Then I’m actually doing a show called Generation Why, that’s in April, and I’m doing a boy band show, so I get to be in a boy band, which is a dream of mine. [laughs] *NSYNC and O-Town were my favourites.

Hold on, you’re talking to a loyal Backstreet Boys girl. Explain yourself. 
[laughs] It’s weird, actually. I was such an *NSYNC girl as a kid, and now I only listen to Backstreet Boys. I still love O-Town. I love their music. It’s so dumb but I love it. They’re so great. Now I’m more of a Backstreet girl. If I looked at 12-year-old me, I’d be like [lowers voice] “What are you doing?”

Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Thank you. This is great. It’s cool. I’ve never been nominated for a big award thing, ever. Like I said, I felt very much the underdog in this whole thing, and it’s hard to stand out when there’s such titans of this industry. The whole time, I felt very intimidated, and then the show came out, and everybody really responded to my character, and that was so great. I was just doing my thing, and I had such a fun time playing her. I miss her. It’s weird, because it’s so- [laughs] I don’t know if you watch RuPaul’s Drag Race- there’s a contestant called BenDeLaCreme, she called herself “terminally delightful”, and that is exactly what I think of Alison. She’s terminally delightful, and then all of a sudden, she snaps on you. I just had such a great time playing the role, so this is great. Thank you.

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