Check out this exclusive interview we conducted with the lovely Tess Ferrell, who is currently a universal swing and understudy for Nessarose in the American productions of WICKED. For those unfamiliar with the term, a universal swing covers the ensemble tracks in all three production of WICKED in America and performs wherever they are needed. Check out the insight Ms. Ferrell gives us into that below!
– Tell us a little about yourself outside of performing – what kind of hobbies do you have; where did you grow up, etc.
I grew up in the suburbs just north of Los Angeles, with two parents who insisted performing was a hobby and not a job. They had seen too many child performers turn into troubled adults to allow their daughter to do the same. So in addition to performing I grew up doing a million things. I was an equestrian horseback rider and a varsity swimmer. I participated in YMCA Youth and Government, was a cheerleader, and I pole vaulted. In fact, these are all things that I continue to do today when I have the time (except the pole vaulting), whether as a coach, volunteer advisor, or spectator. Oh, and I organize. A lot. Everything from my swing notes book, to my computer, to my storage unit. Always organized. It’s a problem really.
– What made you decide you wanted to pursue being a performer as a career?
While my parents drilled into me how difficult the performing life can be, I still never felt like I inherently had a choice. I looked into my future and there was nothing else that I could possibly see myself doing. There was nothing else that made me as happy as performing. From the moment I rolled around under a choir piano in diapers, I was hooked. There is this feeling of catharsis that I just can’t get away from.
– What was your first professional performing job, and what did you learn from the experience?
First professional job was a production of The Scarlet Pimpernel at a regional theater in Thousand Oaks, CA. I was 17 years old, and the youngest in the company by a good five or ten years. It was such an incredible, eye-opening experience. Walking into rehearsal and having everyone there so dedicated to the art and there to work, not mess around. It was such a relief. I learned how to audition in a professional setting, to be prepared for absolutely anything they might ask for. I learned what I would have to do to play with the big boys. I saw how our leads could create characters with so much depth that you would never know we had only had a couple weeks of rehearsal. I learned what it was like to get an actual paycheck for doing what I loved. And it was awesome.
– How did you come to audition for Wicked? What was your process like?
When Wicked comes to LA for auditions, everyone and their mother is killing to get an appointment, because it happens so rarely. I couldn’t go to the open call because I had dress rehearsal for a show I was doing at the time. My boyfriend phoned his friend who had been in the show for years, and the friend turned around and called casting. Suddenly I got a phone call from Telsey+Co. with an audition appointment. I will forever be indebted to my boyfriend and his friend. I went to my initial singing audition on Wednesday. Then I was asked to come back and dance on Friday. I went through the first singers dance call, and then was asked to stay to do lifts with the dancers callback – always terrifying to be a singer in a dancer callback. But I was so lucky to be paired with this amazing guy that just lifted me straight in the air, and the dance supervisor said, “Well, Tess can do it!” Again, another person I’m indebted to. Craig Burns pulled me aside and asked if they offered me something in New York, would I have a place to live. And then began the longest weekend of my life – doing the best I could to not read too much into Craig’s question. Telling myself that I was just happy to have had a great showing for the team. And after what seemed like an eternity, I received a call early Monday morning from Craig Burns letting me know I’d be getting an offer!
– When you got word that you would be joining as a universal swing of WICKED, what was your initial reaction? Who was the first person you told, and how did they react?
Oh, I definitely cried. I had just finished an early show of a Disney gig, and I came back to my dressing room to a voicemail from Craig Burns. So my heart was already pounding by the time I called him back. The first person to know was actually my counterpart in the show I was doing, because he heard me on the phone through my dressing room door. Then I called my parents, boyfriend, and brother. Other than that, I didn’t tell a soul for a week until I got my contract. On that night I came home and found my boyfriend had posted a picture of the Wizard of Oz on my front door, and had my favorite Indian food waiting for me.
– What was your rehearsal process like?
I don’t feel like it has ended! And honestly, as a Universal Swing, I can’t imagine that it ever will. But I started with about a month of rehearsals with Tour 2 in Canada. Our dance captain, Sterling, turned to me and said, “Ok, we’re frozen, and then we move on the 1-a-2-a-3-a-4-a-5…” I learned all five female singer ensemble tracks in about three weeks, then had a put-in with two other new guys, and I opened the next week. Then after performing all five tracks over the next month, I moved to Tour 1, where I learned all five tracks in a week and a half, and debuted the second weekend. Then essentially the same timeline happened when I joined the Broadway company. But the fact of the matter is, I’m constantly in rehearsal. Each company is a living, breathing machine, and if I’m away from a company for any period of time, things will have changed by the time I return. So I’m always rehearsing. My job is just as much studying as it is performing. It takes roughly an hour of studying my notes before I can go on for a track, even if I’ve gone on for it before. I basically function off of short-term memory.
– Tell us a little bit about your first performance in the show. Which track were you in and in which production? What about as Nessa?
Almost all I can remember from my first performance was hovering over the center of the stage in the group at the top of the show, and thinking, “Well, there’s no turning back now.” By that point, I had so much information floating around in my head, it was hard to keep one track straight from another. But the cast was so wonderful. I got lots of “happy raised eyebrows” from people I was supposed to walk to, and “shoving with love” when I was slightly off my mark.
My first performance as Nessa was wonderful and stressful. I had a technical snafu right out of the gate and that made me have to quickly strategize and problem solve. Luckily I got a second chance that evening, and not only that but had a number of opportunities over the following weeks to work out all the kinks and really enjoy and feel present in the scenes. It’s always nice to be able to quickly fix all the problems you had before, rather than having to wait weeks or months to correct things.
– How did you come to understudy Nessarose?
At my initial audition, I had been called in for a Universal Swing/Nessa understudy. About five months into my time with Wicked, I randomly got a phone call from Craig Burns letting me know that the creative team wanted to see me for a Nessa understudy again. It’s very strange going up to the room I had spent hours rehearsing in already, and auditioning for people I’d already been working with for months. I auditioned Christmas Eve, and they didn’t get back to me until the New Year. That was a very, very long few weeks.
– What was your favorite part of the show to perform in the ensemble? As Nessa?
There is such a vast spectrum of characters to play within the ensemble, and I love that. I get a chance to belt my face off with some characters and sing insanely high for others. I get to play goofy students and stuck-up teachers. I get to dance and do lifts, and play hoity-toity Citizens of Oz and down-and-dirty mob members.
Playing Nessa gives me the exact opposite opportunity. It allows me to have a full character arc. I get to live through Nessa’s highest and lowest moments in life. She has such a huge journey in this show, and I love being able to explore the inherent traits that determine her outcome.
– What is your favorite ensemble track to perform?
Each track contains something wonderful. I love the Midwife track because she is so unique and I get to make some very strong choices for her character. I love performing student tracks because they get to dance and interact with one another, which leads to every show being different.
– What has been your favorite city to visit on tour?
Home is my favorite. Unfortunately we haven’t had a chance to play Los Angeles since I’ve been with the show. After home, New York has been my favorite, because once I performed with the New York company, I had performed on Broadway! On tour, I really enjoyed Vegas. I have a few friends that live there, and my family got to come up. It was just a really good time.
– Do you have any memorable or humorous onstage bloopers from any show you’ve done you’d like to share?
I feel like I have bloopers everyday. I have a fear of dropping the green baby, which I nearly did as the Midwife a couple weeks ago. Luckily I didn’t. I also have a fear of splashing Elphaba at the wrong time when I play Dorothy, which actually did happen my very first show! I’ve done things like get my dress caught on the set during an entrance and literally had to back out the wing because I couldn’t get it unhooked. Every single day as a swing, I deal with things I’ve never dealt with before. Bloopers are inevitable.
– What would you like to be doing with your career short-term? Long-term? Any dream roles?
I am really loving my job with Wicked and intend to stay for as long as it makes me happy, and as long as I make Wicked happy! I’d love to grow within the company certainly. For now, I’m still learning and finding better ways to do what I do.
Long term, I’d like to originate a role in a Broadway show. Something with a lot of substance that I can sink my teeth into. I mean, what performer doesn’t want that? I’d also like to get into the directing/producing side of the business. To create a story and help other performers discover new nuances that they wouldn’t have before – I’d really enjoy that.
Dream roles would probably be Fantine in Les Mis, Dot in Sunday in the Park with George, Clara in light in the Piazza, and pretty much anything in Into The Woods and Sweeney Todd. The fact of the matter is, I love to sing beautiful music. And honestly, whether it’s a lead or in the ensemble, I love to be a part of a show that makes the audience feel the music and not just hear it.
– What advice would you give to aspiring performers?
You put yourself out on a limb every single day, and more often than not, the limb breaks. But if you absolutely cannot see yourself doing anything else, get yourself into every dance, acting, voice, and piano class you can find. And know that it is so much about being in the right place at the right time with the skill set they require. So make sure you have every skill. You’ll never understand the choices other people make. Just make sure you understand the choices you make, and learn from the ones that bite.