Hannah Elless is taking her Midwestern roots and bringing them to the mid 20th Century south in Bright Star as Margo Crawford.
Margo, the eternally optimistic, bubbly bookshop owner encourages the man she loves, Billy Cane [A.J. Shively], to go to Asheville and follow his dreams while she stays at home and dreams of him coming home to her.
In some ways, Elless is not unlike her character- she too is a dreamer with a love for learning and books -but Elless isn’t one to sit at home and wait for life to come to her; when she has a dream, she chases it – even if it is all the way to New York City.
Margo’s life is her bookshop. Which book has stuck with you through the ages?
Reading was a huge part of how I grew up, my mom was a teacher and home-schooled me. I had a private, special education with such individualized attention from my mother whom I will never be able to pay back for all that. Every summer I had book lists that I had to check off and had to have over 200 books read by the time I was applying to colleges. Then, when I was in college I did the honors college as well and did an emphasis in Women’s Literature. I got to spend a few years in college reading books about female authors and stories about women and we would discuss them and write papers on them. Oh gosh- that sounds so nerdy! But it was heaven for me; I loved being able to take a break from the performing arts and talk about other people’s art. It was inspiring as an actress and now I am originating a role about a girl who works in a bookshop! On the set we got to pick books to be on the bookshelf. Miss Lonelyhearts is on there, and so is The Human Comedy, which if you see the show, it is just really funny that we have The Human Comedy up there.
What is your favorite book that you’ve recently read?
Well, I love the classics and I love to re-read. Right now I am reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is a great weekend read, it is so fun and easy to read, you can literally picked it up in a weekend and be finished with it. The most current book I’ve read is Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart. It’s really good, I like it a lot. I am on a Nora Ephron kick right now too, they are so palatable and easy to pick it up and put it down in little bites, on breaks in the show I can read a little if I want. It’s good to keep it light because Margo is really fun and hopeful and full of light, so it is good to keep in line with that. It wouldn’t be fitting to read Tolstoy or something like that!
Margo encourages Billy to follow his dreams to Asheville and he does! Who was it that encouraged you to make the move to NYC and follow your dreams?
It’s so important to have people who support you through your journey in life. There were so many people like that for me. I come from an awesome really big, warm, wonderful family. I have ten siblings and two amazing parents who are all so supportive and musical. They love theatre and as they come to New York City and see Bright Star on Broadway it is so special. My sister just visited and sat in front row and I actually choked up on stage thinking about her seeing the show. She knows how important this is; she has seen the whole journey- the hard work, tears, rejection, barely being able to make rent. It all means more when you have people around you who supported you.
If you could emulate a certain part of Margo, what would it be?
It would be the ability to see the best in people. We’ve become so desensitized as a culture and sometimes I realize that I’ve lost an entire day without looking anybody straight in the eye. Margo thinks of others and sees the best in others. It is a really admirable quality and one I’d like to pursue more, how I can give back to my community and being grateful and gracious to others. She just does that so well.
What made you fall in love with this show and want to be a part of it?
I read the script for the first time after working on new musicals and plays for a few years. I made my debut in Godspell in 2013 and liked the part where we got to create new jokes and new moments every night, and I realized that was my favorite part, that’s where my heart was, pursuing new things. The first time I read it, I finished act 1 and cried! I do a lot of reading and this really resonated with me and I thought, ‘This is a story that has to be told and I want to be a part of it.’
But I couldn’t audition for the workshop because of another job and I was so disappointed because I felt like I had missed the boat. I thought I wasn’t going to get a chance and I gave it up and let it go and thought, ‘Well, that just wasn’t mine’ and moved on. When it came back around for auditions, it felt like destiny and that sounds so cheesy, but I auditioned and booked it and the rest is history!
You’re working with some big names on the creative team, what is that like?
It was daunting at first, but as we got into the process it became so easy and the creative team works together so well. Not only are they all insanely talented but they’re all very collaborative and the room for Bright Star has always been warm and everyone is on the same team and you don’t always get that. I am so thankful for Walter Bobbie’s leadership and creating a safe place to play and explore.
And we are surrounded with the best people in the business; Josh Rhodes, our choreographer, Rob Berman, our music director, Nevin Steinberg, our sound designer, lighting design by Japhy Weidman, they’re all amazing.
So you’re from the Midwest, Margo is from the south, and now you’re in New York City. Which place would you most like to live?
So hard! Well, there are four seasons of the year so I think would want to spend fall in Michigan because fall in Michigan is unparalleled. New York City for winter and spring, and I would vacation in the summer in Appalachian Mountains. That would be my perfect mix.
People might not know this about you but you’re basically a one-woman band! And with ten siblings, it is reminiscent of The Brady Bunch!
You would not be wrong in picturing The Brady Bunch, we were teased growing up a bit, but it was really fun to have a bunch of siblings! Everyone played, sang, and wrote. We have a piano that lives in family room that anyone can sit at and start a jam session and that is really my life. I will be in my dressing room and get sent a video from family in Michigan of my little brother playing violin with dad on banjo and sister taping it because they’re working on something new. That’s really my life.
Which instruments do you play?
Piano and guitar were the first two. In high school my brothers were in a band and would occasionally need someone to fill in, so I picked up full set drums and bass guitar. And from there mandolin, harmonica, and because we play Bluegrass, a little banjo and accordion. With so many instruments lying around, once you learn a few, the others fall in line.
And if you had to choose only one to play for the rest of your life?
I would have to say guitar because I can travel with it. Plus it is great for accompaniment or just playing on its own.
Bright Star is so centered on families and parents, do you think about what it is like to be an actress in this city and to raise a family here?
Oh totally. When I run into actresses who have started families and are still pursuing careers I study them so hard! I need to know how they do it. There is a great quote by Tina Fey that says something like, ‘Your work will never come visit you in the grave.’ I hope that when I have kids that they’ll be my mini-me and will enjoy the things I enjoy and will want to be a part of the lifestyle that I have.
Finish this sentence: ‘Come see Bright Star because…’
People should come see it because it is moving and authentic. It is elegantly directed and beautifully designed, but mostly I hope people come and feel something because this show crawls into people’s hearts and makes a home there if they let it. It has a gorgeous score. I encourage people to come and hear a story you’ve never heard before.
Stage Door Dish actually had the chance to interview your co-star Paul Alexander Nolan about a month or so ago and he is so excited about your show too. You can tell there’s a lot of love at Bright Star.
Paul is amazing. He actually keeps a guitar in his dressing room and sometimes I have my mandolin and so we play together backstage. Maybe one day you’ll see a Hannah Elless/Paul Nolan mashup somewhere online!