Broadway Talks Back grabs local attention with Tony award winner Jessie Mueller

CIO connects theater professionals and students

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Broadway Talks Back hosted award-winning actress Jessie Mueller on September 22. 

Courtesy UVA Drama

Two years ago, fourth-year Commerce student Kristen Kelly went to see the award-winning Broadway musical “Waitress” on a trip to New York. Staying behind at the stage door, Kelly had the opportunity to meet actor Henry Gottfried — an encounter which served as the beginning of an ongoing conversation with him about the world of large-scale theatre, everything from acting itself to navigating the industry. 

For Kelly, this meeting sparked a realization — that her peers back in Charlottesville, particularly those studying theater, could learn a lot from having the same opportunity to speak with a current actor working in the industry. This led to the establishment of the CIO Broadway Talks Back, a student-run program which brings working professionals in the theater industry to Grounds to speak with students about their work, both on-stage and off. 

Now, Broadway Talks Back has come full circle, kicking off this semester by hosting the star of the musical which started it all — award-winning actress Jessie Mueller, who originated the lead role of Jenna Hunterson in the Broadway run of “Waitress.” On Sunday, in the intimate space of the Ruth Caplin Theater, Mueller hosted both a master class and a Q&A with students, speaking about her experience in the musical theatre industry and giving practical advice to those interested in pursuing the same career path. 

For Kelly, hosting Mueller was a dream come true, as both a personal fan of her work and as the president of the organization. As the first visiting actor of such a high caliber — Mueller has been nominated for four Tony Awards, including a 2014 win in the category Best Actress in a Musical for her performance in “Beautiful” — Jessie Mueller represents more than just an exciting one-time opportunity. Her visit also helps the organization to establish themselves as a group with the capacity to continue to invite more influential and well-known professionals. The relatively young CIO has already caught the attention of the Charlottesville community, as local arts organizations, including the U.Va. Drama Department, Arts Council and the Institute for Global Humanities have partnered with the Broadway Talks Back team to assist in grant funding for these events. 

Though their impact is growing, the group’s members say they continue to stay true to their goals by focusing on fostering a personal connection between visiting actors and University students. Instead of massive audiences and distant speeches, Mueller’s visit consisted of a small master class and an informal Q&A with members of the community. Kelly’s goals for the program’s events center around bringing actors to Grounds who already have a commitment to education and outreach — professionals who actively engage with students in their free time and are willing to work in a smaller, more casual setting. The relaxed vibe of the room that Mueller created — both through her eloquent, easy Midwestern accent and warm enthusiasm during the Q&A — reflects this.

Kelly took on the role of avid theater enthusiast in her questions, which ranged anywhere from practical advice to personal stories, prompting Mueller to speak with candor about her life and work. It was this honesty which was most striking, as Mueller had no qualms about speaking to the very real anxieties and darker sides of the theater industry. In regards to questions about her several Tony nominations, she said she remembers being “absolutely terrified,” and the feeling that “they had made a mistake.” With easygoing charm, Mueller spent much of the hour-long talk reminiscing on the highs and lows of her substantial career, occasionally inserting valuable pieces of advice alongside the quirky anecdotes. 

One of the most notable moments of the talk came from Mueller’s memory of the 2016 Tony Awards — which she lovingly dubbed the “Hamilton year.”  Jumping off from a question about working with Sara Bareilles on her performance, Mueller sidetracked into a thoughtful reflection on the attitude of everyone backstage that night, just hours after the news broke of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla. 

“It very quickly was not about awards,” Mueller said. Everyone was “heartsick” in hearing of “an act of violence against a community that the theater has embraced for so long.” 

Her thoughts on this night, spoken of with delicate care and empathy, were a testament to the compassion and determination of the theater community — ideas which Mueller brought into all of her advice throughout the talk. Speaking often and with great enthusiasm about the brilliance of the people she works with, Mueller advocated for open-mindedness and trust in yourself and in others. She focused less on her own accomplishments than her love for the creative process, emphasizing the importance of working hard, even in the face of doubt — sentiments reflected by Kelly when considering her own advice to anyone with an idea similar to her vision for Broadway Talks Back. 

“You have to have an idea, and believe in it, and balance the love with the business plan,” Kelly said, putting into words the broader theme of the event that enthusiasm is a force for growth in any sphere — whether that be theater, business or, on a smaller scale, founding a CIO at the University.

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