This happened eight times a week at New York City’s Music Box Theatre as Brescia prepared to take the stage in the Broadway smash “Dear Evan Hansen.”
It was the seventh Broadway production for Brescia, assistant professor in the department of theatre and dance. Before joining Missouri State in 2016, she wowed audiences as Donna in “Mamma Mia!” and Elphaba in “Wicked.”
“My job is to tell this story, which is very emotionally loaded, in a way that reaches the audience.”
Brescia took an artistic leave from Missouri State, which allowed her to accept the contract with “Dear Evan Hansen.” She played Heidi, the title character’s mom.
Brescia described Heidi as “very flawed. She’s not killing it as a mom at all, but there are reasons for that. There’s a whole history that led her to the very moment the play begins.”
Exploring and inhabiting such history is a cornerstone of Brescia’s acting technique, which she teaches to her advanced acting students.
She requires them to get very specific about the given circumstances of their characters’ lives. Brescia’s students create extensive autobiographies for their characters, thoroughly defining the world in which the characters live. Such specificity, Brescia said, leads to the truthful behavior that’s central to good acting.
“So for instance, if I have a line about a childhood pet, say a dog named ‘Fox,’ I create a whole history for that,” she said. “Then when I’m on stage and I mention Fox, I’m actually experiencing a fully-realized memory, which enlivens the work.”
“Lisa sets professional expectations for her students, and she does it in a caring way. It’s leadership by example, and they rise to her example.” — Dr. Kurt Gerard Heinlein
As Brescia prepared for “Dear Evan Hansen,” she dug deep into the world of Heidi, a single mom trying to provide for her 17-year-old son. In addition to working full time at a nursing home, Heidi is attending night school to become a paralegal. She hopes this effort will improve her career trajectory and by extension, her sense of self-worth.
“She’s trying to juggle it all, and she’s flailing,” Brescia said.
And even though Heidi is a devoted mother, Brescia saw her “sometimes needing her son more than he needs her — or at least asking more from him. In some ways, she’s dependent on him.”
Each of these circumstances, Brescia said, contributed to her understanding of Heidi as “a very shame-based person.” The character seems hounded by the sense that she’s falling short; as Brescia put it, “she’s kind of embarrassed to be her. But she’s working so hard.”
And despite — or perhaps because of — this insight, Brescia developed deep affection for her character.
“I see her as someone who’s constantly willing to show up for everything and do her best,” Brescia said. “As imperfectly as she does, she still shows up.”
“Dear Evan Hansen” tackles complicated issues, such as mental illness and suicide. It approaches these hot buttons with openness and honesty, and audiences typically respond with enthusiasm.
Brescia knew this show called for emotional accessibility, but even amid highly charged moments, she kept her focus on telling the story.
“As I’ve gotten more experienced, I’ve been able to become more vulnerable. I’m also not afraid to get it wrong.”
“When actors are swimming in feelings, it can make us think the scene must be great,” she said. “But our job is to be full of those feelings and then put our attention on our scene partner. We have to make it about fighting for something.” She often reminds her students to ask, “What am I doing?” rather than “What am I feeling?”
And for Brescia, the chance to tell high-stakes stories like “Dear Evan Hansen” is a benefit of her work.
“I believe we all walk around with complexity and pain and grief inside,” she said. “I get to let it all out and leave it on the stage.”
Performing in a Tony Award-winning show like “Dear Evan Hansen” required Brescia to deliver a consistently excellent experience — eight times each week.
This took physical stamina, particularly because she was performing on a raked stage, which means the stage platform itself was built on an angle with a downward slope toward the audience.
“It’s prettier from the audience’s point of the view,” Brescia said. “Because of the angle, they can see all the beautiful stage pictures.”
As an actor working onstage, however, she had to be cognizant of the effects.
She explained, “Cumulatively, for the skeletal structure it’s as though you’re working in really high heels all the time. The leg muscles and the IT bands tighten, and the knees can get pulled to the side. For me, this causes knee, leg and back pain.”
To combat these issues, Brescia took advantage of physical therapy sessions provided for the “Dear Evan Hansen” cast by its producers. She took additional steps to maintain her strength and alignment by scheduling regular massage and chiropractic treatments and by properly warming up for each performance.
“Our students can go see Lisa on Broadway and say, ‘I have the potential to do that if I put the work in.'” — Dr. Kurt Gerard Heinlein
And it helped that her character was costumed in “regular people clothes,” including medical scrubs.
She laughed remembering how this contrasted with a previous experience. “When I played Elphaba in ‘Wicked,’ I spent Act 2 performing in a 50-pound dress!”
When asked what people might find surprising about her experience in “Dear Evan Hansen,” Brescia described the contrast between the “pretty, glossy pictures” onstage and the constant motion occurring backstage.
“There were so many people involved in making what happened on stage look good and run smoothly: the stage managers, the company managers, the stage crew, the wardrobe crew, the hair crew, automation technicians, the spotlight operators, the house staff and box office personnel who serve patrons.”
And with such a large group collaborating to make the show happen, the backstage choreography was just as intricate as what was happening out front.
She recalled, “I knew exactly where I needed to be so I would not be in someone else’s way. At the same time, it’s really fun back there. We’re all pros, which means we’re focused, but certainly not glum.”
And the relationships, she said, grew very close. For example, “Most days, I spent more time with my dresser and hair person than I did with my husband. My dresser was with me as I changed clothes. It’s an intimate profession, and dressers must have sensitivity and intuition. When I walked off stage drenched in tears from an emotional scene, my dresser was there.”
Now, Brescia is happy to be back in the classroom with her students. She looks forward to what the future will bring — certainly more acting work and possibly some new paths as well, such as directing.
“I believe in sort of universal forces, like a warm hand on my back, pushing me through my fears and saying, ‘You are supposed to do this. Keep walking; just keep walking.’”
The message came from an 87-year-old woman in Missouri. Days earlier, Payne, a professor of music and professional opera singer, performed with the Springfield Symphony for a special Black History Month concert in February 2018.
There, Payne’s baritone delivered soaring solos and narrated the second half of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
The woman wanted to attend the performance at Juanita K. Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts. Unfortunately, she had to wait to hear the show on the radio.
“You gave me my soul back with your songs and your wonderful voice and the things you said today,” she said. “You gave me my life back.”
And she went on.
“I have to tell you that I’m losing my eyesight to degeneration,” she said, “but I once was blind, but now I see. Thank you. Bless you.”
Payne turns off the recording. He sits back in his chair as a state of contentment washes over his face.
“It made me realize that I am exactly where I am supposed to be, doing what I am supposed to be doing,” he said, tapping his index finger on his desk with each beat.
“If I never get to the Metropolitan Opera, it’s OK, because I know I was put on this Earth to touch the lives of others through the power of music.”
In April 2018, one dream came true when he sang at Alice Tully Hall, a concert hall at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in Manhattan.
Payne estimates that his career includes hundreds of performances. The list includes more than 30 recitals and major performances in the last five years. And that doesn’t include the hundreds of times he sang at church and other family events.
What I tell my students, and I instilled this in myself, is that practice prepares you for the persistent pursuit of your predestined purpose.
He also teaches voice at Missouri State, in courses that range from the 100 to 600 levels.
Payne shared that voicemail with his students to drive home a central point: He’s here to teach them so much more than singing.
“My research is going underneath the surface,” he said. “I look at music and ask, ‘What is it saying? How does it apply to me, and how can I give that back to the audience?’”
When he walks out on stage, the audience sees or hears him as Dr. Todd Payne. But Payne himself said he experiences an out-of-body sensation.
“Every time when I walk on that stage, I leave Todd Payne in the wing outside and I walk on as whoever I am beginning to personify,” he said. “All of a sudden, I feel like I’m just floating when it comes to singing.”
The key to that, he says, is practice. Oh, and legendary basketball player Michael Jordan, who Payne has admired for decades.
Payne read Jordan’s autobiography, which made him realize what drove Jordan to win a half-dozen NBA championships. The principle applies to Payne’s performance career and how he teaches his students.
“Jordan said that he played in practice as if he was already in the NBA Finals,” Payne said. “That was his mentality.
“I practice and perform as if I’m getting ready to make my debut at the Metropolitan Opera. I teach my students as if they, tomorrow, are getting ready to change the world.”
One of Payne’s former students, Chris Boemler, echoed that statement. Boemler spent parts of nine semesters under Payne’s wing, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music education in 2012.
He now teaches choir, guitar and music theory at Festus High School in Festus, Missouri. Payne inspired him to never give up on his students, and to teach them that true music lies in the intent with which notes are performed.
“He really helped me on my sense of drive with my voice and finding my true voice,” Boemler said.
Payne also helped senior music major Emily McFadden find her voice in and outside of music. McFadden took private lessons from Payne and said the professor’s wisdom assisted her quest to succeed in college.
“He’s adamant about taking care of yourself,” she said. “He helped me understand how to draw boundaries and say ‘no’ when I need to. College requires a personal drive, and he taught me how to be my own motivator.”
About two years ago, Springfield Symphony music director Kyle Wiley Pickett approached Payne with an idea.
The director wanted to do something special for Black History Month in February 2018. Payne said he’d love to put together a group of selections.
When you find the meaning of music, I believe you give an audience more than just a beautiful voice or entertainment. You’re being vulnerable to share part of who you are with them through your singing.
On several occasions, Payne had recited the second half of King’s famous speech and was familiar with gospel music and hymns. A concert was born.
“It was magical. That was the first time that, to my knowledge, the symphony had ever performed ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand’ and ‘We Shall Overcome’ with narration of Dr. King’s words,” Payne said.
“Truthfully, this show was born out of love.”
Payne said he’s a storyteller, and that he tells his students that their job is to touch the lives of those who are in the audience.
“You’re advocating for the continuous fact that music is a universal language that washes away from the soul the everyday dust of life,” he said.
“That’s what you have to be an advocate for. Music sees no color. It sees people for who we are. We’re stronger together as one.”