Today’s Exclusive Interview is with Jeremy McQueen who is a featured dancer and performs in the ensemble in the 1st National Touring Company of Wicked. Mr. McQueen is in the ‘Ribbon Dancer’ track that is featured in the Emerald City and plays the other featured Monkey besides Chistery. He is a San Diego, California native, and a performer, musician, and choreographer. We would like to thank Mr. McQueen for this informative interview. For more information about him, please visit www.JeremyMcQueen.com
I studied acting and dance as a child since the age of 8 and was somewhat of what you would call a child actor, but I landed my first professional job in theater at the age of 15. Ironically, I was cast in a production of The Wizard of Oz at the Starlight Theater (a local regional summer theater company) in my hometown of San Diego, CA. Many other students from the performing arts Middle/High School I attended (the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts) auditioned and worked there during the summer as Non-Equity Performers/Equity Membership Candidates with the professional theater company. Starlight was such a great place for local talent to get a taste of what it is like to be a professional and work with and learn from seasoned ‘Actors Equity Association’ members. This opportunity gave me such a great sense of what it truly meant to be a professional while getting the opportunity to receive practical training at such a young age. The producing company instilled in us a sense of structure and professionalism. Being a professional is not a given title, its rather a mind-set and way of conducting ones self and it gave us a great opportunity to grow and learn as aspiring artists in our hometown before we moved out into the ‘real’ world and began to apply all that we learned. That experience was so rewarding and I just felt like my caliber of performance was raised because I was expected to maintain the same standard of professionalism as the other ‘Equity’ actors in the production. After performing with various regional theaters while in high school, I took a break from working professionally to focus on my education/training in college. I moved to New York City at 18 and studied dance intensively at the Ailey School/Fordham University where I received my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Dance. Right after I graduated from college I immediately begun working as a professional again and headed straight into rehearsals for a regional theater revival of Susan Stroman’s Contact which had been on Broadway a few years back and won a slew of awards.
How did you come to audition for “Wicked”, and how intense was the audition process?
I auditioned for Wicked about 9 or 10 times. Honestly, I lost count after about the 8th time. But it was over the course of a few years. I was first introduced to Wicked during my senior year of high school when it first opened on Broadway. I had just seen clips on You Tube and heard about it but it wasn’t until the end of my Sophomore year of college that I decided to audition. I will never forget my first audition. I went into the waiting room and there were about 100 other guys practicing some strange combination. In my head I was thinking to myself that there was no way that these guys already knew the combination. To my surprise, they did know it, because the combinations that you dance for the audition pretty much never change. So they had all done their homework. I walked into the room and attempted to learn the ballet/modern based choreography but just couldn’t get it. The combination was counted so weirdly with a combination of 5, 6 and 7 counts. It all had my head spinning. I quickly was cut, but I had the best time of my life. The great thing about the Wicked audition is that they have a live drummer in the room. That was my first experience with that type of audition but having a drummer just makes it feel more like a performance and you sort of let your inhibitions go a little more and just really relish in the fact that you’re getting to dance this awesome choreography to some really rocking music.
Well, I got cut and walked out of the audition a little sad but determined to do my homework and go in there and NOT get cut the next time. I went home that night and videotaped myself doing the choreography so I would be able to remember it and reference it before the next required open call for the show in 6 months and I had also seen the show for the first time and became even more hooked and obsessed with working hard to make my dream become a reality. The next audition I went in with greater knowledge about the show and it’s style and gave it my all. This time I managed to get kept around to learn the second combination. I was so ecstatic but I still didn’t have the job in the bag. I was just happy to have made it a little further!
Over the course of the next three years the casting directors got to know me better, I grew as a dancer, young adult and artist and they called me in to be seen for the ‘track’ that I play in the show on several different occasions. Although I would often make it down to the final cut, I was not offered the role, but I didn’t get discouraged. I just believed and stayed faithful that it just wasn’t my time and continued pressing forward in my pursuits of not only dancing in Wicked but other shows. Eventually, after college, I started working and only went in to audition if it happened that I was not working on another show that conflicted with the audition.
Overall, the audition was a little intense the first few times but after a while you just get the hang of it. You dance about two or three different sections of a long combination and do some partnering with either the female dance captains or sometimes the female auditioners. Then the last thing you do is sing for the artistic team. The last time I went in to be seen for the part was just before Thanksgiving and I declared that if this job was truly for me, then I would be offered the role. If not, I can’t let it get me down and just have to keep working on other projects and finding other shows/parts that I am right for. I’m a very spiritual person so I choose to believe that if I don’t get cast in a particular show it’s not a reflection on my talent or potential as a dancer, but rather, the casting directors and artistic team didn’t feel I was ready or just didn’t think I was right for their show. At the end of the day, performing in these shows is a waiting game. You just have to keep working hard, be consistent with who you are and represent that fully each time you go into the audition room and really try your best to just enjoy the experience and not take things personally, which I’ve found is really hard for such a creative and vulnerable art form. But after each of those nine auditions, I walked out of there each time with my head held high believing that I had done my best and represented myself to the fullest. At the end of the day, that’s all you can do and that is all that matters.
What was your reaction when you were offered an ensemble track in “Wicked”?
It was down to myself and three other people for this particular ‘track’ when they let us go. Having auditioned for many shows as an immediate replacement and just knowing that they needed this person to start ASAP, I just knew in my heart that they were going to make their decision that day and get the ball rolling with whomever they wanted to cast. So that was probably the most nerve wrecking experience because like I said before, it becomes a waiting game. Waiting to see if your agent will call with good news or not so good news or won’t call at all. I want to say I left the audition room at about 5:20pm. By 5:50 on the dot my agent called and welcomed me as the newest cast member of the 1st national tour of Wicked. In that very instance I screamed, practically dropping my phone. Tears and a huge sigh of relief fell from of my body. Then of course I called my Mom who also screamed. I tried to compose myself enough so she could understand me through my tears and then called the rest of my family and shared the news. The rest is history!
Being told I was joining the cast of Wicked was the biggest feeling of accomplishment I felt I had ever obtained in my life. Here was something I wanted and dreamed about for years…never really thinking of what that day would be like when you actually get it but just kept working hard…throughout all of the trials and tribulation. I was overwhelmed with a sense of pride and accomplishment. Not to mention, this all came two days before Thanksgiving! Talk about something to be thankful for! A job I had wanted for soooo long!
How long and difficult was your initial rehearsal process for the show?
The initial rehearsal process was scheduled to be two weeks long. It actually wasn’t very difficult at all. Because I have had friends that have performed my ‘track’ in the ensemble before me, I somewhat knew what to expect and having seen the show three or four times before I started rehearsals, I had a good idea of the show and what was going to be required of me. So, I had done my homework. I ended up learning the entire show in about two and a half days. For the rest of the first week we just really worked on refining what I do as well as working on character development. The second week of rehearsals we added on the element of being able to, what we call, ‘track’ backstage, where I basically followed the person that was performing my track around throughout the entire show and observed his ‘backstage traffic’, where he collects his props, makes costume changes, etc. Then I had my ‘put in ‘ rehearsal, which is basically your one opportunity to do the show in ‘real-time’ with lights and costumes with the entire ensemble before I made my debut in the show that evening.
What was your first performance like? What emotions were running through you?
My first performance was literally two days before Christmas Eve and because of the holidays coming up; the company had a crazy show and rehearsal schedule. So I was extremely nervous, anxious and tired leading up until my opening. I totally skipped Christmas this year because I just had so much on my plate that I didn’t have time to think about anything except for getting ready for my opening night. Having already been a replacement in another national tour, I knew very well from previous experience that…the first show was not going to be my best and that it was going to take me a while to find my ‘groove’, as I had been rehearsing in a studio with just myself and the dance captain for hours on end, and that one day we crammed in a work-through session with the ensemble, not in costume and then I was thrown into the fire to speak. Because I had been through the experience before with The Color Purple (1st national tour) I knew that the main goal of the night was just to get through the show and not get in anyone or any things way. I am a monkey in the very beginning of the show and we had just done our first entrance and opened the curtain to start the show and I headed offstage to make my first of what was to be many quick changes that night when all of the sudden, the bubble that Glinda rides in got stuck mid-air. They had to close the curtain and completely stop the show for about 10min to get her out of it and reset the bubble cue. So with that, I now had some extra time to breathe and just let all the nerves calm down. I of course was very tearful off and on from beginning to end just because the situation felt so surreal. I’m a very sentimental person so as soon as that curtain fell at the end of the show I was complete ‘water-works’. I don’t know how else to describe such a great feeling of accomplishment. To want something for so long and finally obtain it is just the most fulfilling experience in the world.
As a featured dancer, do you have to do anything extra to protect your body in the show? Does your body ache regularly?
I absolutely have to do a lot to keep my body strong and healthy. From my experience working in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular for two seasons both on tour and in New York, I became well acquainted with Ice bathing after every show to protect and rehab your body from aches, pains, and injuries. I can’t begin to tell you how much ice I have stocked in my fridges or taken from ice machines in hotels to make ice baths over the years. But they really do work and help repair connective tissue and reduce swelling, inflammation and pain. Also cross training is important, taking technique classes or doing something else besides just what we do in the show eight times a week is important to make sure that your body isn’t working harder in one area than the other thus causing certain muscles and tendons to work more than others and causing imbalance in the body. So I do a lot of research on local ballet schools and companies so that I can continue to train and maintain the technique that I have built up over the years. I also tell everyone I travel with my own portable physical therapy unit. I’ve got a foam roller I keep in my hotel room as well as ice always stocked in the freezer, muscle and joint creams, all types of Thera strength training bands, balls and a moist heating pad. I am very aware of my body so I always make sure I have whatever I may need on the road with me so that I can take care of myself. We are very fortunate to have a physical therapist that travels with us and helps us take very good care of our aches and pains. I also see acupuncturist and massage therapist in each city to make sure I’m constantly promoting a healthy and balanced body.
As a featured dancer, how much do you have to do vocally in the show?
All of the dancers in the show have to be able to sing. This music is so beautifully written, yet complicated at times to sing, so even the dancers MUST be able to hold their own part and have a good sense of vocal placement and technique or else the show doesn’t sound balanced. Because I’m a monkey for most of act two I only sing the first two numbers in that Act and then I take my mic off. However, I do sing a great amount in the show. I feel that this show really helps me utilize and strengthen each of the vital elements of performing: acting, singing and dance. I do about the same amount of all of them throughout the show.
Could you ever see yourself playing another role in “Wicked”?
I feel like I’ve played many of these characters in the show in my real life! Wicked has always been a story that I have felt every audience member can relate to at least one of the characters at some point in their life. For me, when I first saw the show I felt like I could relate a lot to Elphaba and her journey of self-discovery. So in a sense, I already feel like I have played many other roles in this show despite the fact that I actually have not worn Elphaba’s costumes nor was painted green. I’m so amazed that each performance I continue to learn more and more about each of the characters and can relate to them in some way shape or form. At the end of the day, will I ever get to play Elphaba or Glinda on stage? Absolutely not, but I don’t’ need to do it on a stage to feel like I have lived or experienced a piece of their journey. If at some point in my life the creative team decides to take Wicked for a whole new spin and sees Glinda or Elphaba as a man, I think I’d be awesome. Hahaha. But as or right now, there aren’t any other parts in the show I feel that I could play with the way the show is created.
I’ve been dancing since I was eight years old so I feel that all of the years of training you go through just helps you build your strength and stamina as a technician and performer. But even still, at 23 years young, I know that I will continue to strengthen my technique and training as I continue to get older which will ultimately enhance my performance abilities and the multitude of roles/characters I can play. Overall, I feel as though my strong ballet technique has helped me a lot with this show. I always tell people that most forms of any dance you do will be driven from ballet. Even-though we are not dancing a classical ballet piece, we still utilize ballet technique elements. In ‘Dancing through life’ there is a section that we call ‘The Ballet” where we do this little dance that looks funky and contemporary, but at the end of the day, when you really break down what we’re doing….they are all classical ballet steps. Our choreographer, Wayne Cilento, has just taken traditional ballet and put a major twist on it to make it look fresh, inventive and stylized. But in order for us to effectively be able to perform the stylized ballet choreography….you have to know your history. One of my teachers when I was younger told me, “You have to know what the rules are before you can break them”. We must know how to do classical ballet steps before we can take them and make them look different and unique.
Are there any dream roles you’d like to play?
Someone else recently asked me this question and off the top of my head I can’t think of any dream roles right now that I’m absolutely vying to play. I am so grateful for all of the roles that I have played in my past shows and I feel that I was ready to play what I played, when I played them. So with that being said….I’m open to embrace any new roles that the universe feels I should/need to play.
What advice can you give you aspiring performers?
Believe in yourself, follow your dreams and don’t let anything or anyone steal your inner ‘Joy’!