Theater Info for the Washington DC region

Spotlight on Rob Tessier

By • Jul 18th, 2006 • Category: Interviews

Listen to our discussion with Rob Tessier [MP3 26:41 7.6MB].

Mike: Today we’re having our spotlight on Rob Tessier.

Rob: Hello. How ya doin’? It’s good to be here.

Mike: Thank you. Glad you could come talk to us for a little bit today.

Rob: Thank you.

Mike: Rob is the producer and director of the Upper Room Theater Ministry based out of the All Saints Catholic Church in Manassas, Virginia.

Laura: Ok. So Rob, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Rob: Ok. I’m a native, which is uncommon in this area. I went to school at Miami University of Ohio. I got my degree in theater. Love acting, but I discovered I have more of a love for directing. Even though I like being on stage, I think that’s where more of my ability lies is in directing. However, when I was a senior in college, I discovered that there were auditions for this thing called Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Clown College. I thought that was kind of cool so a friend of mine and I skipped a class one day and went down to Cincinnati and auditioned.

We thought there would be no shot at all to get in because they only take thirty out of three thousand applicants a year. They also pay for your tuition which is great. So we just did it for fun. It was like a three hour audition included a lot of improv. We just had a great time. Two months later we both got a call and we both were able to do it. So we did that for awhile. Afterwards I ended up marrying the first person I met in college. My wife Carol. I now have four children and live in the Manassas area.

Mike: Tell us about clowning. Clowning is something most people only have a vague recollection of from being a kid.

Rob: I think I only went to one circus as a child. Some people ask me if I always wanted to run away with the circus. I had no aspirations to go to the circus. It was really a whim even in college to even go and audition for clown college. But I learned a lot. First of all the application for clown college was a lot more complicated than any other application I filled out for any other school. They asked questions like,”When was the last time you cried and why?” They asked who your favorite comedian was and why. They really asked all these analytical things. They wanted to probe. We also had to send in pictures of ourselves in bathing suits, which was kind of weird. I’m not sure why they did that. I guess they wanted to see our body type actually.

When I went to clown college one thing I learned was that being a clown, you don’t actually put on a different personality. What they’re looking for is to know who you are. They want to try to get you to emphasize one aspect of your personality, to a point where it’s exaggerated. The exaggeration becomes the manifestation of the clown. There was a process that we went through where we were working with the directors at clown college. The costume director would also watch how we worked. And they would read these answers to our questions. Through that they would design for us our unique and individual costumes and we would become our character through that. I really learned a lot about how much there is behind clowning. It’s not just goofing around. There’s really a lot to it with the goofing around. I think that just makes it more powerful for kids who are watching.

Mike: So the clown was you?

Rob: The clown is an exaggerated me. I discovered my clown personality is a Dick Van Dyke-esk personality. The thing that I’m strong with is physical movement. I also kind of have a shy side and I also love to trip and to fall and to get myself into situations, kind of like a Bert from Mary Poppins or a Dick Van Dyke. So the costume was an exaggeration of those physical things. My character then became one who was somewhat of a fumbler.

Mike: Did you actually perform with the circus? Did you actually go on the road?

Rob: Yes. Clown College was six days a week. Fourteen hours a day of training. Eight AM to ten PM with an hour for lunch and an hour for dinner. There were thirty of us in the clown college. There were at least thirty instructors. We had the acrobatics instructor from China. A cirus’ instructor from Russia. We had Broadway actors and performers like Bill Irwin, Kenny Raskin. People who had played Lefou in the original production of Beauty and the Beast came in to teach us all these different elements and aspects of theatrics, but also related mainly to clowning.

Then after two and a half months the producer Kenneth Feld and the vice presidents of Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey. They came to watch our graduation performance. From that they chose fourteen of us to offer contracts to and perform. I was offered a contract. I did go to train with the circus and perform. We performed about ten or twelve shows per week. We had one month of rehearsal. The rehearsals were eight to ten hours a day. Then we performed. I performed for nine months. I figured well over 300 performances in that nine months.

We did a different city almost every week. The only place we stayed for a significant amount of time was New York City. We were there for three weeks. They kept us very busy. We did as many as fifteen shows a week, including doing the Good Morning America, Rosie O’Donnell, and a bunch of other promotional type things since we were in New York City. It was a very busy schedule. I learned a lot. Definitely learned never to complain after a long rehearsal. That was probably the max. I don’t think we could have ever worked any harder than I did in the circus.

Laura: Are there routines that you do, are they new every time or do you have a set schedule of things that you have to do during the performance?

Rob: Here’s the deal. In the process of rehearsal, we develop the routines. The Boss Clown, which is an official term, helps to develop the scripts of the clown routines. For the actual show of the circus, we improv them. We play with them for awhile until we develop them into particular characters for that scene and then we develop costumes around it. So we have set scenes that we do in the actual circus show. For three months following opening night we have extra rehearsals every week in which things are still being looked at. The producer could come in and say, and he did this, come in and see that we’re doing a clown penguin act and two months into it and say, “You know, I don’t like that. I don’t think that’s very funny. I’m cutting that.” So we had to cut it and not only cut it because there was space in the show we had to write a new one and we had about a week to do it. Sometimes things do change.

Also at the beginning of the circus, if you’re familiar with how Ringling Brothers does this, they have an hour pre show which is called the Circus Adventure. Families can bring their children and they can come and walk the circus floor and interact. And those acts can change all the time. Actually we’re encouraged to change those all the time so that we keep it fresh.

I developed my own act. One thing I do is I do a human marionette. One of the acts that I did was one of the other clowns would be holding my puppet strings and I would do human marionette act together. The other thing I do is a limbo. Part of the opening in the beginning I would bring in like 30 kids and we would all go under the limbo rope together. I would end up doing the limbo under about the length of my knees. I have a fat suit on as a clown and I have not lost the limbo yet. Now I’m over thirty and I have done the limbo a few more times since. I’m getting kind of close. I get a little worried every time I invite kids to challenge me to a limbo, but so far so good.

Mike: So you stole that from Dick Van Dyke in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? the marionettes?

Rob: That’s right. Dick Van Dyke is definitely one of my idols in terms of his ability to move. Actually even his off stage personality. He’s just a good guy. I really respect him.

Laura: Is clowning a form of mime?

Rob: Mime is a technique that is well utilized by a clown. But it is not miming. The difference in miming is obviously you don’t speak and you’re wearing a white face. Everything is a very calculated pantomime. Clowning is a little more let loose. There is a lot more coloration to the costume and you can make sounds and even say words when you’re clowning. You don’t have to be silent as a clown. And, what also is different in clowning is you tend to use very large props, oversize props. Foam props when you get hit in the head by a hammer and things like that.

But the use of miming is very helpful because the use of your body. We learned mime everyday were trained. I was trained by someone who was trained by Marcel Marceau everyday in mime technique. That becomes very useful for clowning as a tool. But it’s only a tool, it’s not the end. The beauty of clowning that I appreciate is that I’m not particularly skilled at anything, in terms of juggling and all that kind of stuff and even miming, but the great thing about clowning is that you can make fun of yourself and that’s actually good. So if you mess up and make fun of yourself it’s actually funnier than if you were good at it. Try clowning. It’s definitely better.

Mike: So you left the circus.

Rob: Yes, they uncuffed me from my trunk and I was able to go off and get married and live happily in the sunset.

Mike: So what did you do after that? Did you get a real job, did you….

Rob: I’ve never had a real job. I actually went back to what I was doing before I went to Clown College and that was working for the church. Throughout regular college every summer I was running ministry programs for St. Mark’s in Vienna. I actually started their theater ministry there while still in college. The Work Camp Program for College students and Jr. High students. This is something that I really loved. I loved my involvement in my church. I love promoting the arts and service and such through the church for young people.

After I finished the circus a pastor called me from St. Marks. Actually he called me while I was in the circus. He asked me if I would leave and come back and take on the full time position to direct the youth program at St. Marks. That’s always been my calling since college to work with young people. That to me was more important than going around the country performing and signing autographs and doing these crazy things. To me that was great. I was excited about that and I wanted to do that. It seemed like it fit perfectly. My wife was coming back from Bolivia after doing a year long mission in Bolivia, at that point my girlfriend. Everything was kind of falling into place.

So I came back and I got a full time job as a youth minister. While I was at St. Mark’s I continued the theater ministry that I had already started there. We continued to do a winter cabaret, a showcase with a one act play and other scenes, and a summer musical. We continued to do that until I left St. Mark’s in 2001. Now I’m here at All Saints. I’ve been here for five years. Pretty much doing the same thing, building the youth ministry here and also an active theater ministry.

Mike: How large is the theater ministry here at All Saints?

Rob: That’s a tough one to gauge because I could do it in a couple of different ways. One is through auditions. We tend to get about seventy people to audition for our shows. In terms of audience, we get about a little over 2,000 people in to see our productions. We normally sell out our shows. We only do it for a week, not like some other theaters who go for several weeks. We pack them in. About five or six performances in a week. In terms of our involvement, we’ll have between 30 to 45 folks in the cast. The off the stage involvement is incredible. I would say over 150 people are involved with some aspect of the show. Whether it be building, ushering, publicity, painting, costuming, all those activities. Involvement can be measured in may different ways. I feel it is very active, though.

Laura: So how do you start a drama or an arts ministry in a church?

Rob: That’s a great question, one I’m trying to figure out the best answer to because I’m actually going to Las Vegas in November to talk about this with a group of youth ministers. I’ve started a drama ministry twice now. Both times I used Godspell. The quick answer is do Godspell. Godspell is great because it taps right into the Gospel. You can use it as a great teaching tool. The message is strong. People will come and see Godspell. The music’s easy to learn. You can have a cast of eight or you can have a cast of thirty.

Both places that I went, St. Mark’s and All Saints, I think we had less than 20 people audition for the first year. So doing Godspell is great as long as you can find Jesus, that’s the tough part. You do have to find a good Jesus. It really requires, and I had to do this, really going out and bringing some people in for the first time. To make sure you’re mixing in some really strong talent in with some rookie talent. And develop the rookie talent. That’s part of the ministry, too is to bring people in who have not done any theater because we want to introduce them to the art. And we want them to have an experience that is professional.

So everything we do is we really emphasize high quality. If it means spending a little more money in the budget. We emphasize high quality to make sure their end experience is really strong. If they had a great high quality experience and if the audience had a high quality experience, then every year after that is easy. They want to come back. Then they bring their friends. They want to come audition for it. They’re testing the waters.

The first time we did Godspell at St. Mark’s we started out with fourteen people in the cast. Seven of them dropped out at some point because they had no frame of reference about what we were going to end up doing. We were requiring them to come to five rehearsals a week for three hours at a time. It was very hard for them to visualize what was going to happen in the end. A bunch of them came back and they were sorry they had dropped out. They came out and saw the show. We had brought in this professional lighting. The audiences were sold out.

The next year we did Joseph and we had 60 people audition. That’s the only way to start is to know that it’s not necessarily meet your highest expectations the first year, but if you do a good job with it, it’s just going to build. People are going to want to be a part of something that’s exciting. That’s my best advice to someone starting a theater ministry.

Mike: So what is the purpose of a theater ministry? Is it just to teach people to go out and be better actors and performers? Or are there other benefits?

Rob: The purpose of a theater ministry, well ultimately is to draw kids closer to Christ. That’s my purpose in theater ministry. Also to tap into the gifts they’ve been given. We’ve all been given diferent gifts. Some kids really love it when we do sports and that’s great. Some kids don’t. Some kids love to be involved in drama. Some kids that have done the theater ministry that don’t go to church here regularly. But by doing it and meeting other kids who are active they beome more active and more involved.

It’s a great way also to also build a community, an ensemble as folks in the theater world know. A strong ensemble is the key to a good show. We can build an ensemble based on these Christian principles of working together, looking out for one another, gifting the other actors, building others up. These are all principles that are part of the theater world, but they are also very much a part of our Christian world. We pray together as a cast at the beginning and end of every rehearsal. It’s something that’s important to us. Just last week we took time out of our schedule instead of working on the show, we had mass together. We had a priest come in and do mass just for the cast and crew. It was just a way to connect our faith lives and recognize that God gives us the gifts and we do the best we can with it to produce something that’s going to be wonderful for the community.

The other is to bring forth messages that are very positive for the families that come. So whatever show we do, we always pick productions that we know we’re going to be able to emphasize a very positive message. So every show is chosen very carefully for that reason. We can use it as a teaching tool for the cast when we’re going through rehearsals. The audience, too has an opportunity to benefit from the message.

Lastly we do all of our shows for charity. Anything we make on our tickets we give to a chosen charity. At St. Mark’s that was the St. Patrick’s Foundation in Kingstown Jamaica. A very poor area where they’re doing a lot of work with the poor. Here at All Saints we do it for the medical missionaries. They go to Haiti and bring medicine to the people of Haiti. We are probably able to profit about $5,000 per year that we give to those organizations. Over the last ten years well over $50,000 has been donated because of the theater ministry program at St. Marks and All Saints.

Mike: So let’s go to Pippin the actual show you’re doing right now. It’s opening next week. The big question that’s jumping at me is Pippin has a lot of stuff in it that’s not real churchy. It’s got some good messages, but it also has violence and some adult situations.

Rob: So you’ve seen it then?

Mike: Yes, we have.

Rob: Usually when you’re producing a show you hope that people know the show because that will help them come see it. This is probably the first show I did where I was hoping the people in the church had not seen it before. I’m hoping they come see it because you know we’ve done other good shows before. Don’t come because you know the show. “If I’m never tied to anything. I’ll never be free.” That’s the line Pippin uses at the end of the show to express the fact that he’s finally figured it out. It’s not about glamour. It’s not about prestige, it’s not about simple joys in your life. It’s not about filling yourself with lots and lots of pleasure. It’s about finding that one thing that is your calling. I would relate it all they way to your Christian calling.

What is that one thing that’s going to give your life purpose? That’s what Pippin’s looking for the entire show. And he finally figures it out. He breaks away in the final scene from his temptation of suicide. He chooses this woman who is a widower, Katherine, who has a boy. He chooses this simple life of taking care of this woman and her child. That’s a beautiful thing. That’s the ending message.

Now if you look at the productions, if you’ve seen productions of it, unfortunately often times when I’ve seen productions of it, I think the directors emphasize the sensual in the show. The whole point to get to the good point is that Pippin does a lot of bad things. He does a lot of things that are temptations. Sometimes my feeling is that if you emphasize that too much then you lose the message of the show. Stephen Schwartz wrote Godspell. I really think that Stephen Schwartz’s message was a lot more positive than when I remember seeing the Ben Vereen version.

When I sat down with his production, I didn’t want to do it if I was going to have to change a lot of stuff. I don’t think that’s right either. The first thing I did before I even sat down and saw it was I read it. When I read it I was like,”Wow, this is a really great show.” And then I saw it, I was like,”Whoa, I didn’t see that.” I read the script and watched at the same time. They changed a lot of stuff in the script. So the Stephen Schwartz script that I had from Music Theatre International. I’m watching the Ben Vereen version and I’m like, “Oh, he added that. Oh, wait, that’s diferent. Oh, wait that’s going in a different direction.”

So I can say we actually changed even less of Stephen Schwartz’s script that they did probably when they did it on Broadway. The other thing is, too when I look at a play, I believe one of the roles of the director is to interpret the play. You can pendulum swing your interpretation one way or the other. One example is Jesus Christ Superstar. If you go see the movie Jesus Christ Superstar and then you go see at many other productions of it you see quite a difference. In Godspell the same thing.

There are many ways to highlight or emphasize messages within the show. So what we’ve done is we have de-emphasized a little bit some of the overly sensual stuff that you see if you’ve seen the A&E production. We have highlighted and really drawn out of it the very positive messages. One thing I wanted to point out is that there is a scene in it where it looks like in the A&E version that is just a very sensual scene in a sense sex. What we’ve done is we’ve taken that same dance music and we’ve highlighted the seven deadly sins. So Pippin is tempted not only by lust, but also by greed, by sloth, by all the seven deadly sins. So we have different dancers coming in each representing each of those. Pippin joins in the dance, but gets kind of sick by the end. But instead of overemphasizing sex, we’ve taken them all and that’s how we’ve de emphasized that one aspect and brought about what’s going on here while Pippin’s being tempted. Pippin ends up refusing the temptation by the end.

Laura: Was the casting call for Pippin difficult to do to bring people in?

Rob: It’s never difficult to get them to audition. It’s very dificult to make the decisions. At this point we’ve been doing it long enough that we have a great group of people that come in and audition. It’s one of the most painful things I do all year is making those decisions. Everyone who auditions, even the ones that I cut, are usually people who are very active in our youth ministry programs in some way. Even friends. I’ve had my wife audition before. That’s hard.

For example, in this show one of the members of our chorus just won best lead actress in a musical for the Cappies. We have folks in our chorus. We have one guy who does professional improv in Chicago. He’s doing comedy shorts right now. He’s in our chorus also. We have so much talent. I stress to the actors that I don’t cast a show based on who’s the most talented or who is the best singer, or who is the best dancer. There is this particular part and I’m going to fit the particular person for a particular part. One year you might be the lead. The next year you might be in the chorus. Our guy who is playing Pippin. He was in our chorus last year. Our woman who played Golde last year, this year is in our chorus.

It’s kind of nice, too, to know that you’re not ever going to be stereotyped into a lead or a chorus member. You are going to be cast into a part that fits you best. That’s the hardest thing is making those casting decisions. But in the end what I think it does is build a stronger group when we realize no matter how small or how large the part is it essential to the success of the show.

Mike: Is it hard working with a wide range of performers?

Rob: It’s not hard at all. I love it. They love it. They see it as an opportunity to build each other up. It’s obvious that we have a mix of professionals and also college theater music majors and a couple who have never done a show before. I really believe that our people are great about building each other up. Those who have more experience help out the younger ones. Those who have less experience work really hard to improve. They make great strides. The talent level goes towards the top. They don’t come down. They move to the top of the group which is great to see.

Laura: So how do children or young people get involved with theater? Coming to camps and things like that?

Rob: In Fairfax County in particular, the schools have a very strong theater program. I taught in the middle schools and directed some stuff in the high schools in Fairfax. The school I was at we had two drama teachers in middle school. Unfortunately in Prince William County they don’t quite have the degree of opportunity, the kids don’t. What I’m finding in this area is they are coming to me somewhat raw, especially if they are high schoolers. They haven’t done a whole lot of drama whereas in Fairfax where St. Mark’s is in Vienna, they had a lot more experience.

We just started up Summer camps. We’re running a Camp Broadway currently. We’ll be running Drama Boot Camp in a couple weeks. We’re trying to get them started a little bit younger. There’s also some good programs in the area. Center for the Arts in Manassas and some other places do offer these camps. But unfortunately the schools in the Prince William area just don’t have the type of opportunities that they do in Fairfax. So I think that this theater ministry in some ways is much more valuable here than it was even in Vienna because the kids don’t have the opportunity. We’re opening up new avenues for them to discover their giftedness and to use their giftedness. Some kids are discovering it. Some are even going on to pursue it in college because of the involvement they’ve had in the theatre ministry.

Laura: I guess just to follow up. You were talking about more opportunities up in Fairfax County schools rather than Prince William County schools. Is that just a lack because people don’t think it’s necessary or budget issues?

Rob: I don’t know. Are you going to interview the Superintendent of Prince William County Schools? I hope I don’t get in trouble for this. He’s new so it’s not his fault. Woodbridge High School does have a strong program. They do something different in Prince William. The high schools are specialized. They have a specialized performing arts school in Woodbridge. So Woodbridge is packed. They have the best in terms of instructors and such. But what happens is the other schools get kind of the short end of the stick.

So if a kid wants to go to school and be involved in drama on the side they wouldn’t have that same type of opportunity. Not everybody knows in eighth grade if they want to go to a performing arts school. I didn’t take one drama class in high school. My first drama class was in college and I was a theater major. I didn’t discover I wanted to do drama until my senior year in high school. I was involved in all the shows behind the scenes as an extracurricular activity, not as a class.

So I think that’s part of the problem. There just isn’t enough emphasis on the arts. I just really encourage the folks in Prince William to make that happen. I think we’re missing out. I think that, too, taking a drama class doesn’t mean you have to go out and use it as an actor. I have found that drama has helped me to be a better communicator. To be better at giving talks in front of groups. Better with working with people as an ensemble. Better listening skills. There are so many life skills that are taught through drama that I just think it’s a valuable program to be starting as early as the middle schools and earlier.

Mike: Tell us how people can get tickets for Pippin.

Rob: Ok. This year we have our own website: If you go on that website you can just click on tickets for Pippin. You can buy tickets online through PayPal. Or, you can call and make phone reservations at 703-393-2141 Ext. 400. There’s a ticket reservation line. Or you can stop by 9300 Stonewall Road which is All Saints Church and between nine and five there’s someone here always selling tickets. There’s a lot of ways to get tickets. I would encourage folks to call or go online to buy tickets or come in person before the actual show date. We do have a history of selling out our performances. So I would hate for anyone to get stuck. If you do come on the show date, get here an hour early and put your name on the wait list. We do release unpaid for tickets about a half hour before the show, for those who have come the day of.

Mike: Well, thank you very much for talking with us, Rob.

Rob: Thank you. It was great. I really enjoyed it.

Laura: And now, on with the show.

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