Why Why We Tell The Story with Grasan Kingsberry
When you’re telling these classic stories, do you notice a difference in your approach there in comparison to a contemporary show?
I don’t think that the approach is different per se, but I feel like I always try to do a bit of a history lesson to understand the world in which we’re living in. When I’m playing someone real, like a Smokey Robinson or a four top, my character research is a bit different than doing something like Finian’s Rainbow. Research is really important as actors. We need to understand where we’ve come from to understand where we’re going. How do you know which direction is north or south, unless you know where you’re standing?
The better I can understand the piece or intentions of the script, the better I can be of service with my actions and choices. That’s your role as an actor to make these situations truthful in these imaginary circumstances so I want to understand all of the circumstances.
What is your biggest advice to young performers about being a working actor?
Be moldable! Stay Open! There’s quote that says, “Everyday I try to walk towards the thing that scares me the most. ” In the same way, I work towards the things that frighten me. If it scares you, get into an acting class or a dance intensive. You gotta get into the things that make you uncomfortable because when it counts, and you have to do that two-page monologue in an audition, you want to make sure you’re comfortable with that. And continue to say yes, that way you understand the things that you don’t like, as well as the things that you do like is by doing them. It’s also important to appreciate your individuality!
The biggest thing we do that dampens our individuality is comparison. Because you’re trying to fit in the space that everybody else is occupying. Saying I’m gonna be comfortable right where I am, as I am, is so powerful.
Where have you found your purpose in creation and performing?
This goes back to the feeling that I felt after 9/11 or even now, when you know folks out of work and i’m wondering where I fit in as a performer, and if telling stories is a necessity in the moment. But in being an artist, I can tell a story to help people out of dark times or distract from their day to day. My responsibility is to tell stories that reflect society. To put up a mirror without judgement and say this is where we are and this is who we are. That’s one of my purposes as an artist.
There’s no other profession, other than artists that are able to beautifully express and articulate pain, sorrow, triumph, or joy, in the detailed way artists do. I mean look at Adele’s career! We turn devastation and despair into something beautiful. So there is beauty in the pain for artists. And I think we’re needed more essentially now to reflect the times, to build people up and bring people together. There’s truly nothing else like art that really transcends pain and suffering.
What’s been your favorite audition experience with a show?
haha! I vividly remember the first color purple dance audition because everybody was there! Every black, half black, and quarter black performer in the city was at that audition and it was a cookout! That’s what I really appreciate most about that audition process, it wasn’t competitive at all. Because it was hard, the audition was hard. I’m not gonna put it in any other terms, more than what they made us do in that dance call was absurd! So we were all on the struggle bus together but we’re having fun with it. Even Donald Byrd, our choreographer was like, I know everyone can’t do these moves because some of them are actual gymnastics moves.I remember it was something like Do a pike into a toe touch and land on your belly but he said “Do what you can, if you can’t do a certain move let me see what you would do instead of that.”
So, we were all just supporting one another and clapping after one group went. We could barely see in the mirrors because it was so sweaty and foggy in there. So that was one dance call I remember that was really just memorable and amazing.
What has your experience been like taking on super stylized material like a Motown or Catch Me if You Can?
I feel like musical theater is all about style. Especially nowadays, it’s not just the Golden Age theater stuff or Jazz squares and the Charleston. But now I mean from working with Sergio Trujillo, Jerry Mitchell and Warren Adams, those are all different styles of dance, you have to be versed in style. That’s also a part of doing the research when you go to an audition. You’ve got to find out what the show is, what period it is, who the choreographer is. Things like finding out if you need knee pads or jazz shoes. All those encompass and inform what the style will be. So I love doing different styles from contemporary to colloquial, grounded pieces like what Camille does.
In certain stories, I get to embody being a Haitian or an FBI agent. I feel like a character locks into my brain when I figure out how they move through space. I want to know how Harpo sits. which will inform my breathing, which will influence how I respond to things. My posture affects how and if i respond something so it’s important when it comes to character building.
Those kinds of details will help influence how I tell the story and I absolutely love doing that work. I mean even in my career, I haven’t stuck to one specific style. It’s been a gamut of styles which keeps you versatile and honestly from being bored haha! I’m constantly trying to switch it up. That’s always been my path in life, I’m a seeker so I’m looking for what’s going to challenge me next.
What was your experience like with the Once on this Island revival?
Ha! You know I kid with Camille Brown about it. I told her, you got me out of dance retirement, cause I swore up and down that after the color purple that I wasn’t just dancing anymore and I’m just going to do leading/feature vocalist roles. But when it came down to the chance to work with Camille, I just had to!
What brought that decision about for you?
I hadn’t gotten tired of dancing but there was more that I wanted to do, you know? Yes, I’m a classically trained dancer, but I also love to sing and act. I’m interested in telling stories that way so I had to be intentional in how i moved through the business. I realized, the more the industry saw me as just a dancer, they kept pigeonholing me into the ensemble. So to get out of that I told the industry and my agents that I’m not going to take on roles that are dance roles. I’ll take on an ensemble role if it’s featured singing track or featured acting track but I’d just done it enough. Aida, the first Color Purple and Leap of Faith were all big dance shows, so I was like let me do what I haven’t done.
Being a concert dancer, I knew who Camille was before I started working on Once on This Island. I was already a huge supporter of her work, not only as a choreographer, but also as an educator. So I just said, “whatever she says, I’m going to do”. She’s the type of choreographer, that can get anybody to dance. She’s versed in human nature and connecting them with these stories. Most importantly, in using movement as the language to communicate and tell stories. She’s incredible.
Where is your joy today?
My joy is in knowing that I’m right where I’m supposed to be. My joy is in knowing that this too shall pass and in knowing that my steps are ordered. Times are bleak but that question is really a good one. where is your joy? Cause I don’t want to attach my joy necessarily solely in my work or telling stories, because right now, none of us are working and that’s affecting a lot of people’s joy. This time begs us to ask who we are without work. Who we are without a title. Who we are without a position, and then where does your joy lie.
Grasan receiving the ‘Legacy Robe’ before opening night of The Color Purple
The sun is shining, and I can breathe. Joy is knowing that I get another day to do it all again, to try it all again. I still have my love of music, my passion for understanding the character, understanding our human realities and how we communicate so that’s where my joy lies.