Amber Gray on her adventures in “Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812”

Amber Gray in The Great Comet of 1812 - Photo by Chad Batka

Amber Gray in Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812

Nobody can stop talking about Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. It’s so unique that it’s practically indescribable, but that hasn’t stopped audiences from trying to put it into words as they gush about it all over social media and to other theatergoers. This innovative electro-pop opera inspired by part of “War and Peace” is unlike anything else in New York theatre. It began at Ars Nova and transferred to Kazino in New York City’s trendy Meatpacking District this summer. It is now delighting audiences uptown in the Theatre District. The show is an immersive experience that takes place in a Russian supper club. Audiences are part of the fun as they watch the show unfold right next to their tables. This show is full of energy and absolutely mind-blowing. The talented Amber Gray, who stars as the sensual and multifaceted Hélène, took some time between shows to chat with SDD about her adventures in the Kazino and the joy of bringing a timeless piece of literature to life.

SDD: When did you first get involved with Comet, and how did you hear about it?

AG: I was in the Ars Nova version, and I want to say it was June that I first auditioned for it. But the director, Rachel Chavkin, I had known from grad school and then her company the TEAM. I’d been involved with one of their productions. At that point I had been in it for almost two years – another musical called Mission Drift, so she sort of knew me as a singing performer, and Dave Malloy, I actually had worked with him earlier in 2012 on a project called All Hands where he had done the composing for that piece as well. So he knew my voice pretty well, and Rachel knew me well. It was sort of like being involved with friends.

SDD: Did that impact the vibe of rehearsals?

AG: Yeah, absolutely. I think a lot of the people in the cast had some relationship at some point with somebody in the room, so it definitely felt like an immediate tight-knit group, you know? An instant family.

SDD: Do you find that being in a show based on such a famous piece of literature makes it easier to draw on what your character is about?

AG: I think there’s some freedom with those sort of classical stories and iconic characters like that. It is such a classic that lots of people are experts on the book and have a really specific opinion that you’re never going to please everyone. So I think it offers up a lot of freedom. And the arc of our story is only 80 or so pages out of the book, so if we just look at that story for the little sliver that it is, there’s some freedom there as well. We’re not responsible for what happens before that or after in our two hours in the theatre. I did not feel inhibited by the fact that it was this massive, famous piece of literature that we’re basing it on.

SDD: What is it like to be immediately introduced as a character who is a “slut”? What do you think the commentary is behind that?

AG: That’s in the beginning when we all have a little bit of armor on. It’s a bit cheeky, you know? And I as an actor know that it’s a bit cheeky. It’s not necessarily true that Hélène’s a slut. I definitely think she wears her sexuality on her sleeve, but I like that it’s a little bit left to interpretation – “is she having an affair with Dolokhov or not?” It doesn’t really matter, what matters is that it’s clear in Pierre’s mind that they’re having an affair, so I like that it’s a little open to interpretation. But it’s a fun, comedic way to introduce myself for sure. [Laughs] I don’t feel pressured to live up to people’s expectations of what the word “slut” means.

SDD: What do you think motivates Hélène the most at her core?

AG: I think Hélène, at one point, actually did try with Pierre and did love him, or really wanted to love him. It was sort of an arranged situation. And at this point in their relationship, there’s just no more love. There’s actually some hatred between them, and I think she’s thoroughly bored. She’s looking to have a good time and be out on the town. But in this particular story, I think a lot of what motivates her is making sure that her brother is happy and pleased. She really, really loves her brother and will do anything for him.

SDD: That’s something I was wondering about. When he approaches her and asks for help attracting Natasha, she tells him that’s probably not a good idea but she helps him anyway. I think that’s so interesting.

AG: Right. I think she’ll do anything for him, even if it’s not exactly the best idea and she knows that. She’ll tell him what she thinks but she’ll do what he asks, for sure. She wants to see him happy.

SDD: Does working with an audience right in front of you in a supper club setting change how you perform?

AG: It does. And the vibe has been different between downtown Kazino and uptown Kazino. So in some respects, it’s felt like we opened a new version of the show, or we kind of went back to the drawing board being on 45th and 8th Avenue because we’re in the Theatre District. We have more people that have read the book, we have theatre nerds and happy tourists, so it does change with the audience’s energy every night. It keeps it quite alive and fresh. I’ve never done a run this long, and there’s certainly a lot of challenges there, and a lot of them are new to me. I would never be able to speak to what those challenges are to doing a long run – I’m learning as I go. But I don’t really feel like most actors in a long run, because our audiences are so wildly different every night and we have to interact with them pretty hands-on. It does keep it fresh. I never get bored of it, or tired. I never feel like I’m really searching to keep it alive in any way, because it is wildly different every night.

SDD: Have there been any significant obstacles or significant high points in putting the show together?

AG: When we were downtown, we had a lot of audiences that were more familiar with the club scene. They’d go out and tend to drink more alcohol than a theatre audience, so that was a tricky negotiation sometimes to figure out how much to guide them. Because sometimes, they would just be drunk so you’d really have to kind of reign them in. But you don’t want to push too hard because you don’t want to turn them off from you while they’re watching you. There is definitely a balance there between engaging with the audience members, and then you don’t want to have to play cop as an actor, telling them to be quiet or whatever. That can be an obstacle. Even just physically, that set is so beautiful, but it’s an obstacle course. On top of wearing heels, with trains on our dresses and corsets, it took me a couple of weeks with all of the elements to know to like swish my skirt to the left because somebody’s running by to my right. You start to dance in those costumes and you have to because if you don’t, you will fall or your scene partner’s going to fall because you’re going to trip them with your long train. Getting comfortable with all the physicality of the set and the costumes definitely took me some time and it was an obstacle for a bit. Now it’s super fun. It’s part of my character movement.

SDD: What is it like to engage in a scene when you and another character are talking with an audience member’s head in between the two of you? Does it add to the scene?

AG: It does add to it. There’s more of a charge there, because we’re all hyper aware that there’s this stranger in between us. I think that’s what keeps the energy electric every night. You’re really aware that a stranger is sitting between you and you have no idea how they’re going to react on different nights. Sometimes they really want to be a part of it, so they will try to engage you in a moment where it’s not quite time. It would be easier for me to get really comfortable – be more on autopilot, if you will, if I were doing a regular show in a proscenium house and had done 170-something performances. I might be able to zone out a bit then, but you just can’t. You’re always on guard, in a way.

SDD: What is the funniest or most striking audience reaction you and the cast have seen?

AG: People who are into this style of theatre definitely want to be a part of it. One of my favorite moments is to see how people are going to react every night to the letter passing, which starts with it in Dolokhov’s hands. To get Anatole’s letter from Dolokhov to Natasha is an interesting experiment every night. We definitely have people who really want to be part of the show and as soon as they get that letter in their hands, they get up and dance their way over to Natasha, so they get their little moment in the spotlight, which we love. It’s really fun when people get engaged in that kind of way. It’s really cool. I always look forward to that moment for that reason because some people really run with it. And it’s been interesting – there was that stuff in the press earlier in the year where a cell phone had been chucked.

SDD: I had not heard this!

AG: Oh, it’s really wild. I’m pretty sure it ended up being a reviewer, actually. This was during previews, and a lot of people thought that we had done it as some kind of publicity stunt and I was like “No no, this is normalcy right now.” Because the show is so many genres coming together, people aren’t quite sure if it’s dinner or theatre or a concert. You have to sort of train them how to watch the thing, and some people get really chatty for the whole event, whereas other people just want to watch the story and are quiet, so they get frustrated with people who are rowdy. There was a night where a guy took a cell phone from a woman who just wouldn’t stop playing with her phone. It kept lighting up the space during blackouts and things, and he kept asking her to put it away, and she said to him “get over it.” But he took her phone and he chucked it down the stairs. And they both ended up getting kicked out, but it was in the papers, and people thought that we had done it on purpose, but absolutely not. That is something that is interesting between audience members as well – sometimes they start to kind of police each other. If they don’t like the way somebody’s engaging in the show, there will be a lot of shushing or taking of phones and things. But that’s all part of interactive theatre, right? It’s a frontier so we’re not exactly sure how to participate all the time. Everyone’s figuring it out together.

SDD: Which is pretty cool!

AG: Yeah, I think it’s cool as well. I’ve heard of similar things going on in Sleep No More. It took them a long time to figure out how to get audience members not to touch dancers and things. It’s just a slightly new direction, so that’s okay.

SDD: Do you have a favorite song in the show?

AG: It’s funny, because the second act is actually my favorite act, and I do very little in the second act. Honestly, I think my favorite song to perform is “A Call to Pierre” where I’m not Hélène in that particular number, I’m an ensemble member. We’re these really scary townspeople gossiping to each other about the scandal that Natasha is planning on eloping. I just love it. The songs toward the second act and in the climax of the show just drive and I love those numbers, but (“A Call to Pierre”) is really creepy and scary. Just the lighting and all of it. I love performing that one. It’s not my own personal song (“Charming”), I’ll tell you that much! I think a lot before I go onstage. I’m making sure I’m warm enough to do it, I start worrying about certain things before I go out and do my own song. Also, there’s a lot of dress acting in that number, and making sure that my cape gets off in time and that I get Natasha’s necklace off in time, and put it on in time and get her dressed in time. I’m thinking about more technical things while performing that song. Sometimes I’ve done it for press events where I’ll get to just stand there and sing the song, and it’s a little more easygoing. So it’s not my favorite song to perform because I’m worried about all these technical things happening. Probably my favorite song to listen to is actually “Preparations.” So fun.

SDD: The style of Comet is very hard to articulate in a short, concise way – how would you describe the show in a few sentences?

AG: I normally tell people it’s a snippet of “War and Peace,” but it’s completely sung through. So technically it is an opera, but a lot of the music is not opera music per se. There are traditional arias in there but there’s Russian folk music, there’s electronica. The music is quite eclectic, I try to make sure people understand that. Then I explain to them that the event of it is immersive. You are at a supper club and the action happens all around you, so you’re more a part of it. You don’t have to participate if you don’t want to, but if you want to be involved, you can. And there are moments that we invite the audience to really participate.

SDD: Stage or screen?

AG: Stage.

SDD: If you could delete any song from existence, which song would you choose?

AG: “American Pie.” Is that horrible? It makes me crazy, I hate it!

SDD: What’s the last great show that you saw onstage?

AG: I haven’t seen many shows lately because I’ve been in a show, but in June I took a bit of a sabbatical, if you will, from this show to do another show in London. They have made into a stage version the book “The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Nighttime,” which I saw onstage and it’s fucking awesome. It’s so great, and I really hope that it comes to New York. It’s incredibly beautiful. The way it’s done is really surprising – I wouldn’t even want to say too much about it. It’s just very surprising and I would have never expected it, the way that they did it. It’s super beautiful and I hope it comes here.

SDD: Who was the last person who made you feel starstruck?

AG: Liza Minnelli, baby! She came to see our show and I about died. She watched the whole show wearing this wide-brimmed hat and she was just so fabulous.

SDD: Did you and your cast mates interact with her a lot?

AG: No we didn’t, I think she wanted to be kept alone a bit. She was sort of tucked on the third tier in a corner, so we all respected her privacy. But she did take a picture with the whole cast afterward, she was a total doll.

SDD: Which Broadway star would you most want to get a drink with?

AG: Mark Rylance.

SDD: Do you have a life motto?

AG: I don’t know if I’ve ever summed it up before, but I would say “keep learning.”

SDD: If you could trade places with any performer, who would you choose?

AG: I don’t really know that I know the answer to that. The one bummer about being in a show for years – you don’t see a lot of other shows. At the moment, I would have to say with one of my own cast mates. I want to play Grace McLean’s track. I want to be Marya D for a little bit.

SDD: Describe yourself in five words or less.

AG: I would describe myself as child-like, silly, sensitive, strong and stubborn.

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is playing at Kazino (259 West 45th St) in a limited engagement through January 5. The original cast recording is available on iTunes and a physical two-disc album will be released on December 10. For those of you in New York City, you can catch the cast at their upcoming performance and CD signing at the Upper East Side Barnes & Noble on December 10 at 5pm.

Photo credit: Chad Batka

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About Claire H.

Writer, performer, picture-taker, New Yorker. Find me on Twitter at @Claire_Hannum.

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