By KENNETH JONES
Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles
It's a wonder that actress Christina Bianco doesn't struggle with nightmares about the dozens of characters she plays in Off-Broadway's one-woman comedy Application Pending
. You imagine that keeping all of them straight haunts her fevered mind.
"This is the hardest thing I've ever done, which means it really is the most rewarding, as well," says Bianco, a Forbidden Broadway
veteran and YouTube video star
known for easily leaping from one voice to another, singing dead-on impressions of Celine Dion, Liza Minnelli, Bernadette Peters, Idina Menzel, and others.
For the record, Bianco portrays more than forty people in Greg Edwards and Andy Sandberg's brisk, non-musical look at the admissions office of Manhattan's fictional and elite Edgely Preparatory Academy. The 80-minute play, now at Westside Theatre/Downstairs, charts the fraught deadline day for pre-kindergarten applications, and phones are ringing off the hook with parents of all stripes (and stereotypes) advocating for their oh-so-worthy kids.
Fielding those calls is the polite, reserved "Christine," who has suddenly inherited the job of admissions director following the hasty exit of her shady predecessor. The onslaught of callers---all voiced by the tireless Bianco, who sits at a desk---includes a pushy Jewish stage mother; a society lady; a soft-spoken dad; flamboyant gay fathers; a New England businessman; and an assortment of kids, educators, administrators, law enforcement officials, clergy, academic rivals, and child advocates, including George Clooney.
There's even a chest-thumping cameo from Celine Dion, a diva treat for Bianco's diehard fans.
"I never had a template for how to prepare for this," Bianco says of performing her many, many roles. "Typically, I like to show up the first day of rehearsal very memorized, very off-book so I can dive in and start playing immediately. That was not an option with this show."
First of all, this was a new play---a work in progress---with edits, cuts, and rewrites happening during the rehearsal process. And then there was the task of memorizing the order of which character was calling---plus remembering what each person was calling about-
--all while trying to tune out the nonstop phone-ringing and light cues that punctuate the chaos.
"Many of these characters call more than once," Bianco says with an exasperated laugh. "At times, I found a lot of it to be physically and vocally impossible. I said, 'I'm only one
person. I can only cut myself off so many times…I might actually hyperventilate!' It does get very hard to play somebody who is really high strung and then go back to the voice of the next person, who is very calm and collected."
The solution for that particular challenge came from Sandberg (who also directs) and Edwards, who revised the order of some calls. "I'm grateful that they helped make it something playable that gets all the correct points across without me passing out by the end of the show," Bianco says.
Another strategy in the memorization and character-building process was to rehearse each recurring character's journey individually.
"I think the character of Vera Vandercooché calls five times, more than most," Bianco explains. Exploring Vera's isolated "track" got the character into her head and allowed the creators "to make sure that she's clear every time, that everyone knows who she is, and she doesn't say the same thing six times redundantly. Each call has a build and a drive of its own."
In the first step of her rehearsal process, Bianco separated the seventy-page script into seven parts, which she called "scenes." She memorized scene by scene, easily connecting the dots between related characters. For example, if society heiress Pamela Upton Drinkwater says that Christine should check with the headmaster, the trail naturally takes her to the headmaster's secretary and then to the headmaster.
But some characters make only one appearance and are unrelated to others, so Bianco relies on mnemonic trigger words to light the path toward those "one-off" entrances. She thinks of her husband's Catholic upbringing at one point in the script, for instance, and it helps her remember that a nun is about to call the Edgely office.
Although Application Pending
is now frozen and memorized for its run, Bianco confesses another secret of the solo-show trade: "I do have some strategically placed Post-It notes on my desk to help me out if I get in a bind."
Kenneth Jones is a theatre journalist and dramatist. He also writes at ByKennethJones.com and elsewhere.
Photo by Joan Marcus