A CONVERSATION WITH PATRICIA WILCOX
by Catherine Castellani
Choreographer Patricia Wilcox spoke to playwright Catherine Castellani for Seen & Heard on her day off from rehearsing the London cast of MOTOWN The Musical, which opened on March 8th, 2016. Wilcox is the choreographer of the original Broadway production, and is now bringing the London premiere to life with director Charles Randolph-Wright.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to the League about your work, especially during tech. Is the London theater culture very different from New York’s?
Patti Wilcox: Well, I saw As You Like It at a Sunday matinee last week, and the demographic was quite young compared to New York. The ticket prices are so much cheaper, for one! And the theater is very central to British culture in a way it maybe isn’t in America.
What is it like working with British dancers on MOTOWN? Is a dancer a dancer, or are there differences?
PW: With MOTOWN, it’s a very American musical form and very American dance, so there’s that. It’s a groove, a feel. For instance, I would vary the Motown groups by making one of the groups move in a slicker way, and the approach to another group might have a funkier quality. So it’s bringing that sensibility and those nuances to the performers–no matter where they are from. It’s an education. But the process here is quite different. It took about a week before the dancers were really opening up and showing me what they could do. They focus first on honing what I give them. Americans will show you quite readily everything they can do, on day one.
Did you have the idea that you’d be a choreographer when you started out as a dancer? How did that evolve?
PW: When I started out I was mostly focused on becoming a better dancer, because I had a later start. I’d study with one teacher for a year, then move on and get all I could from another teacher. I knew that the time you have as a dancer is so limited, so for me part of the process was always keeping my eyes open for what I could do. I learned very early on not to say no, but to say yes. The first time I taught at Steps [Steps on Broadway, a top dance studio in New York] was because a teacher didn’t show up, and I said yes. They asked me to take over and I did. I still teach there!
One of the things I always wanted to do was work in different mediums. So when I was asked to do choreography for Olympic skater, Viktor Petrenko, I said yes.
Do you skate?
No! I’d walk across the ice, or we’d meet in a ballet studio, and then we’d translate it to the ice. He might say, oh my blade can’t move that way, or maybe the skater doesn’t want to slow down too much, and we’d translate that dance work, the choreography, to something that moved on the ice. Through working with Viktor, I eventually worked with Ilia Kulik and Ekaterina Gordeeva. Eventually, I had four pieces of choreography at the Olympics!
And you don’t skate at all. Wow.
PW: I’d be in the bleachers, they’d be on the ice.
What was your transition like from a dancer to a choreographer?
PW: There’s a point in auditions, when you’re standing on the line and you look left and right and see, oh that’s the age they’re really looking for! So I began assisting, and you learn a lot being in the room. Then I was hired on Blues in the Night. I gleaned from that that the most immediate thing is the exploration of how dance forwards the narrative.
What is the biggest artistic challenge in choreography?
PW: Overcoming a common perception that “choreographers do steps.” We encompass so many more things than steps. The narrative is most important, and then there is the relationship with the dancer, the relationship with the music, not to mention the style. In the building of a show, the important thing is to have a really great relationship with the director. Once you really have that spirit and vision of where the piece is going, you can work together to build.
What is the biggest business challenge you face?
PW: Oh, the business. I’d much rather be in a rehearsal room. I think it’s having the same chances that other, male choreographers have.
Has mentorship been a big part of your path?
PW: I’ve had so many mentors. Starting with movies, and seeing Agnes deMille’s Oklahoma. I lot of what I saw early on was at the movies, because I grew up in a small town in the Midwest, and we didn’t have a theater. But on the screen I saw Ruth St. Denis, Jack Cole, Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, and Michael Kidd’s work. In terms of mentorship of others, I’m part of the selection committee of the SDC [Stage Directors and Choreographers Society] observership program, which is a great program that gets budding choreographers paired up with mentors. They get to observe not only what happens on the stage, but off the stage as well. The more people can be exposed to the business side, the better.
Do you have a dream project, something you’d love to work on?
PW: I do! I have something in the works. But that’s not where I can talk about it yet. I will say, I have never worked with a creative team that was entirely comprised of women. I would find that incredibly interesting. I have been very fortunate with the people I’ve been in the room with, but an all-woman team would be very interesting.
With all your projects, teaching, traveling–how do you keep it together as a person? How do you stay on top of your game with all you’ve got going on?
PW: I have a home and a family that I love, and for me, it’s integral to my life to have that.
Home base to recharge?
Patricia Wilcox, Choreographer Broadway: MOTOWN THE MUSICAL (Fred Astaire Award for Best Choreography on Broadway), and A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN. Off-Broadway/ National Tours: LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (Encores/City Center starring Jake Gylenhaal and Ellen Greene), CHILDREN’S LETTERS TO GOD, BOWFIRE, BLUES IN THE NIGHT (NAACP Image Award nomination), SEUSSICAL, and A MARVELOUS PARTY (LA Drama Critics Circle Award). West End/London: MOTOWN THE MUSICAL. Selected Regional: The Kennedy Center, The Old Globe, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Arizona Theatre Company, Pasadena Playhouse, Paper Mill Playhouse, North Shore Music Theatre, Sacramento Music, Missouri Repertory Theatre. Europe: FALCO (Ronacher/Vienna), A FUNNY THING HAPPENED… (Moscow Arts), A MAGIC NIGHT (Berns/Stockholm). Concerts: Original works for the Houston Symphony, Minnesota Pops, Phoenix Symphony, and the 92nd Street Y. Ms. Wilcox created choreography for ice skating gold medalists Petrenko, Kulik and Gordeeva, and her work was also represented at the 2006, 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics in ice dancing. Guest Artist in Residence: Jacob’s Pillow.
Catherine Castellani is a playwright and founder of co-mentoring women playwrights group The Geese. Her work has been developed at Centenary Stage Company, Going to Tahiti Productions, One Year Lease Theater Company, Abingdon Theatre Company, and Sacred Fools (LA). Her short plays have been produced around the country (Actors Theatre of Louisville, City Theatre (Miami), The ArtsCenter (Carrboro), City Theatre of Independence (MO), The Marsh (San Francisco), and on radio (KOPN, WBAI, WBGO, and the NPR network). She writes plays for young spellers and young scientists when commissioned by the resident child. Website catherine-castellani.squarespace.com/