Happy New Year, readers! Today we are so pleased to present our first interview of 2013, an Exclusive Interview with Ashley Dawn Mortensen, who is currently in the ensemble and the understudy for Elphaba on the First National Tour of WICKED. You can follow Ashley on Twitter at @ashleydawnmort!
Check out her thoughtful and incredibly detailed responses below!
What was your first professional acting job and how did you get it? What did you learn from the experience?
In 2008, I did a summer stock in New Hampshire for peanuts a week. I went out for NETC and Strawhat principal auditions and did not get cast, so I decided to do the calling backs and just asked around to see if anyone could use another ensemble member for the season, and the first artistic director I called said yes. Sometimes it pays to be persistent.
After the summer was over I had enough money to buy myself a twin bed.
What I learned however, was worth more than a SLEEPY’S Mattress. I left that summer with friends I still have to this day, my future husband (he was the production stage manager of the season), and a newfound confidence. When you work in such a tight knit environment you can’t help but form these incredible bonds with other actors, and because there are so few people to do many jobs onstage and off, you discover talents and skills you never knew you had before.
How did you come to audition for WICKED? How long was the audition process and what did you have to do?
My first audition was in February 2010, only a few weeks after I had finished my Senior Showcase at CAP21, and my 5th and final audition was in December of 2011, only a couple months after my wedding. When I first went in I thought I bombed I was incredibly nervous, but my agents reassured me and it was just the beginning of a little longer journey. The first time I went in I was so nervous and tense and by the 6th and final work session and dance call, I was so at ease about the whole process. My husband told me, after I got the role, that by the final audition he saw something new in my eyes, something relaxed and comfortable and that’s when he knew I got the part. (That’s one of the reasons why I keep him around, he sees things I don’t even see in myself).
What was your reaction when you found out you had been cast in the show?
Shock. Excitement. Fear. Gratitude. Happiness. Excitement.
Pretty much in that order.
Agent: “So we have the next step for Wicked again”
Me: “Ok, what do they need from me”
Agent: “The next step is they want you in rehearsals”
Me: “Sure, where at? The Gershwin? Can I just sit in and observe?”
Agent: (laughter in the background) “No Ashley, you got the show. You’re the Elphaba understudy on the 1st National Tour and you start rehearsals in a little over a month.”
I was babysitting at the time and thankfully the kids were on the playground, so I was able to call my husband and grandparents:
Me: “Grandma guess what!?”
Grandma: “Well, by the sound of your voice, either you’re pregnant or you got cast in a show!”
Gotta love Grandma.
What was your initial rehearsal process for the show like? What about for Elphaba?
I was incredibly nervous coming into a show that has been running for so long with such an amazing cast and I didn’t know what to expect. I had never done a show before without the whole cast learning together and it took me a while to get used to learning a show by numbers on the stage. Our dance captain was always there to support and encourage this new process for me and it all sunk in and became more and more a part of my body. I learned the show in about 2 weeks and after the 3rd week I was officially a part of this amazing company. Now, I couldn’t imagine a time when I didn’t know my track.
The Elphaba learning process was a little more spread out. I was taught Elphie after I learned my ensemble track and I had a few rehearsals every week over the course of about 4-5 weeks. I was doing 8 shows a week and rehearsing during the day, and one of the most helpful things was watching the current Elphaba and standby from offstage whenever I could.
Everyone has their own take on the role, but I have learned so much from watching these amazing women. We also had a lot of Glinda turnover when I was learning my Elphaba track and I got to rehearse with many different Glinda’s and see all their subtle nuances which taught me so much about the role and gave me beautiful insight into that relationship.
What was your first performance in the ensemble like? First performance as Elphaba?
Ensemble: I cried.
Elphaba: I cried.
For the ensemble, right as the curtain goes up there is a cluster of “Mob People” center stage huddled around one another. There is an actor who sometimes dedicates a show to something, be it silly or meaningful, and that night he said, “This one is for Ashley.” I will always remember that. My heart was already pounding and tears were welling up in my eyes and that made me feel so safe. This really is like a family. I couldn’t believe that I was actually about to perform in the ensemble of Wicked in front of 2,000 people. It was a dream come true and so surreal.
My goals for that first show were: 1) not to hurt anyone, 2) have fun. Thankfully I accomplished both things.
We were in Denver when I went on for Elphie the first time, and my stage manager told me in passing about a week before. I looked at him in complete shock, got all teary eyed and hugged him (I’m a hugger). It was great to get to go on in a controlled environment with plenty of notice, I was incredibly fortunate. I had time to call my parents and my husband surprised me flying in from New York the night before. When Elphie runs through the clock doors into Shiz, my heart was racing and honestly all I remember after that was every time I looked offstage I saw cast members standing in the wings smiling and cheering me on. I also remember that as I came down from Defying Gravity, my adrenaline was pumping so hard and I was in such a whirlwind of emotions, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to cry or punch something. We were collecting for Broadway Cares that afternoon and Alli Mauzey, our Glinda at the time, mentioned that performance was my first and the entire audience stood and applauded. What do you think I did…cry of course.
In both instances, when the curtain goes down after the bows, the entire company gives you a rousing cheer and congratulations. It’s a really magical thing. Being in the show almost a year now I still have moments onstage when I am reminded how blessed I am to be a part of this show and company.
What is your favorite part of the show to perform in the ensemble? As Elphaba?
In the ensemble my favorite part would have to be the top of Shiz Parlor and Loathing. You create these fun Shiz characters with the cast members and all these little moments happen that really make the world come to life. Loathing is a favorite simply because it’s such a great unison piece that is so full of energy and it has a sharpness and unity that I love. I also really love Emerald City.
For Elphie, I think it’s a little more difficult to pick a favorite part of the show. I have so many different favorites for different reasons, and it changes every time I do an understudy rehearsal or a show because I discover new moments each time.
“I’m Not That Girl” let’s you see a more vulnerable side to Elphie and it shows you how human and beautiful she really is. She hurts and loves just like everyone else, and that is just as much a part of her as is her passion, zeal and dry wit. It’s so beautiful to get to open your heart like that.
There are two parts of “Defying Gravity” that do it for me. At the top of this song you see this switch taking place where she is choosing between what she loves, knows and is comfortable with and what she feels she is called to do, out of her comfort zone but what feels right. Because of everything that has happened to lead up to this moment for Elphie, it makes it so relatable and hits
home. I love that internal tug of war as an actor and the music is just beautiful. The second part is going up in the levitator, because come on! I get to fly!!!! Everything is so thrilling and passionate at that moment. It’s surreal.
Then of course, I can’t leave out many Elphie’s favorite moment, and that’s “No Good Deed”. It’s just you and the stage and everything else falls away. In that moment you feel incredibly powerful and heartbreakingly weak and you get sing your heart out.
Have you witnessed, or perhaps been involved in any onstage bloopers or mishaps that you’d like to share?
In my Ensemble track, we wear these gorgeous insanely heavy ballgowns for about 35 seconds in what we call the “Ball Cross” in the second act. We were in my hometown, Sacramento, and I tripped upstage left before meeting my partner. It was just a flurry of feathers and jewels plummeting towards the stage floor. I sprung up faster than I ever thought possible in that costume and it turns out the people I knew in the audience didn’t even see me fall, but I sure felt absolutely silly and sore.
What have been some of your favorite cities you have visited on tour so far?
San Diego: weather
Are there any dream roles that you’d like to perform one day?
Eva Peron in EVITA
Fantine in LES MISÉRABLES
Nellie Forebush in SOUTH PACIFIC
Annie Oakley in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN
Nancy in OLIVER!
I would love to originate a role and be involved in a show’s process from the beginning.
What advice would you give to aspiring performers?
Just Breathe. This is something that applies both onstage and off. It is so easy to let tension creep into your work, be it from the stress of the day or nerves, but when you take a moment, breathe and release that, something beautiful happens….YOU shine through. Otherwise you second guess yourself or say something you didn’t mean to say and your words may not be as truthful and impactful as they should. When you approach life and a role from a place of openness and breath you can dive into your past and present and utilize and share your soul with the people around you.
That being said, know who you are as a person and as a performer. Think about what is important to you and don’t let anyone or anything hold you back. When you know who you are and what you stand for, you can further the depth in the characters you portray and you become more relatable to an audience. In doing this, never be afraid to ask questions, be gracious and be ready to learn from those around you, especially your peers. We are storytellers and our story is an important one to share.