Volunteer Spotlight: Susan Roche
by CARYL BUTTERLEY
Susan Roche has been onstage at ABET in Nunsense, After the Murders: The Quest of Lizzie Borden, Aussie Song, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Celebration, and most recently last year’s benefit performance of Love, Loss, and What I Wore. She’s also been our resident production photographer since 2010. As we begin our new series of interviews spotlighting our volunteers, Susan was the perfect person to speak with first.
Caryl: Not only are you one of ABET’s most prolific long-term volunteers, having shot production photos for almost every show over the last eight years, but you may also be one of the most versatile, also serving as videographer, and performing in shows as an actor, singer, and musician as well. What is it about ABET that keeps you coming back?
Susan: ABET, for me, is like coming home. Since my first show there 10 years ago, folks involved with the theatre have welcomed me with open arms… even in the beginning when they really didn’t know me yet! I also love the intimacy. Some actors want the bright lights in their eyes and distance between the stage and the front row, but I like the audience to be able to see every nuance of an actor’s performance. If the bar “Cheers” was a theatre, that would be ABET for me.
Caryl: You’ve taken some incredible photos over the years. I have my favorites but talk to me about some of your favorites and why they stand out to you.
Susan: Oh wow. Shooting theatre is a whole different type of work than shooting sports, weddings, nature, or still photography. The first time I see the show is when I have a camera in my hand, so I’m having to anticipate what might happen on stage. Add to that using no flash and actors are moving, it’s challenging.
I understand what ABET needs for publicity, so that is always the first thought in taking the photos. But I’m also shooting for the actors and director to try to capture the show for them. I love trying to capture the emotions of an actor with a close-up, or a piece of the set decoration that pulled out of context still makes a compelling photo. So much goes into putting a show together for an audience that gets missed; if I see that, I try to capture it.
When I think back on photos at ABET, the first one that always pops in my mind is the bottle candle from A Streetcar Named Desire. There was something about that lone candle on the table with lilies behind it that reminds me of something I’d see hanging in a gallery somewhere. I probably took a dozen or more shots of that candle in a bottle. I was fascinated by it and actually have an enlarged copy hanging in my home.
My second favorite photo is from Macbeth. As an audience member and as a photographer, I often find myself watching the actors on stage who are not the focus of the scene. In Macbeth, there was a young actor playing a soldier who was sitting on the edge of the stage smoking a cigarette. “Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good” is something we often hear. That night I was lucky as I caught the exhale of smoke in the shot. Love nuances like that!
Going back to Streetcar, Amanda Morales is a dream to photograph. This photo, where she has the liquor bottle and glass, for me that shot captures her angst in that moment, Blanche dealing with the life she lives.
Ah yes, The Boy From Oz. Something that always draws me in, again as an audience member and a photographer, is lighting and shadows. I also love the set before the lights come up and the show begins. That anticipation. 2 shots from The Boy from Oz are like that. An empty stage with a lonely piano with the treble clef on the back wall and music notes that look like vines on the side walls, almost black and white with a hint of blue… that captures me, pulls me in. Oh and the photo of Blake at the piano and the shadow of Jenny on the wall behind him. It was the shadow, perfectly centered in the spotlight that caught my eye. The scene – when Peter Allen played piano for Judy Garland, knowing Judy would die later in the show, you know, it’s hard to explain. This could be a memory after her death. Those are some of the strange things I think.
Speaking of shadows, Hector sitting on stage in Songs for a New World, is a great example of shadows. Shadows on so many parts of the set, not always keeping the actor “in the light”. That type of staging always fascinates me.
Dirty Blonde. Katie is also one of my favorite actors to photograph. In Dirty Blonde, there was a fourth wall and Katie was not looking directly at the camera and yet she was. I see all of the Mae West sass in her in that photo.
Oh, this one grabbed me during the shoot. I didn’t know the show but was wrapped up in it, and sometimes symbolism just jumps out at me. The end of Blood Brothers, where the two brothers are shot and killed. I hope I’m not giving away storylines here. The brothers fall dead on stage and their hands are there, side by side. It just really struck me, that staging. So perfect for the show, and that the actors managed to make that happen, well, it’s just really cool.
Yes! A shot with a dog in it! Everyone who knows me knows that most times when I shoot a show at ABET I have a dog with me. I think I have a photo of almost every show set with whichever dog accompanied me to the shoot. This one, from Macbeth, stands out because Bella is jet black on that red-lit stage. The photo itself is not level or straight, which I like; Bella’s leash is red, disappearing into the stage. This shot is more a “heart shot” to me; mixing my love of theatre with my love of dogs, then adding beautiful staging and lighting. Did I mention I’m drawn to good lighting?
Caryl: Can you share an onstage memory or two about shows you’ve done with ABET?
Susan: Oh wow, there are so many. Before an onstage memory though, I have to tell you about the first time I walked into ABET. I think it really sets the stage (pun intended) for how ABET became my home theatre. Back in 2008, ABET opened their season with Nunsense. Shelli Long, who was my music director at Limelight 2 years before that, suggested I audition. I was on time for the audition, and somehow was the first one there. I’d never been to ABET, so I didn’t know what to expect when I walked in. Opened the door, stepped inside and Judy says, “Oh. You must be Shelli’s friend.” Well, that took me by surprise. Walking into a strange theatre to audition for only my 2nd show, and the director knew who I was. It was kind of surreal. I won’t bore you with the other things about that audition though I still remember them all so very fondly. Suffice to say that my tendency to make smart comments didn’t get me in trouble with Judy, and Patty and Jane thought I was “teachable” when it came to dance. (laughs)
An onstage memory has to start with Nunsense, and you know, I don’t know that I can talk about onstage without remembering the rehearsal process. I just love the rehearsal process and am always sad when it’s over. I played Robert Anne in the show and had a solo titled “Growing up Catholic.” The song was difficult for me because it came right on the heels of more of Robert Anne’s comedic antics. During rehearsal, Judy, our director, came up to me one night, put her hands on each side of my face and said, “Softer, Susan, Softer.” Every show when I sat on the stool to sing that song, I remembered that and the song was what she wanted and the show needed. 10 years later, I still remember it like it was yesterday.
Another strong memory is from 2010 when you directed Aussie Song. I had a song in Act II titled “My Daddy Was A Country Man.” You know, that song had similar feelings that “Growing Up Catholic” does – I may be sensing a theme here. Anyway, you worked with me on getting the emotions right in that song, being able to share that story with Stacy, my daughter-in-law in the show. It was a tough song to sing because it hit the top of my belt and of course, you had me sitting on a box to sing it. But, when it all came together, that song soared…. And a lot of that was due to your direction.
Caryl: Well thanks. My favorite part of a production and strongest memories come from the rehearsal process as well. So.. What are you looking forward to the most with ABET’s new space?
Susan: From a photographer’s perspective the last row will be further from the stage! With only 4 rows at the Grange Center, I couldn’t get back far enough to get the entire stage in one shot. Now I won’t be battling that issue. And I’ll say what everyone else has said – parking! Seriously though, I know some folks have stayed away from ABET because it was so hard to find a place to park. We’ve even heard people say they’ll start coming back to shows at the new space because there will be plenty of parking.
I haven’t seen the new space, but know that we’ll have a lobby! Folks won’t have to stand in the heat or damp or cold waiting for the doors to open. We can hang posters and photos in the lobby and have a great place to socialize. Our new space will be more towards a traditional theatre space, something I think our audiences, actors, musicians, and volunteers will like.
You know, I need to interject something that comes to mind as we take this trip down memory lane. Your first question was something like why I call ABET “home” or why I’m there. These memories we’ve talked about, they make me smile. Thinking back on directors like you and Judy, like Dave and Sam, who pulled things out of me, be it the emotions in a song or getting just the right timing on a comedic line, those memories really warm my heart. And the patrons. The longtime patrons of ABET remember the shows you’ve done and when they see you off stage let you know, sometimes years later. It’s like a family; it really is. Everyone involved – board members, actors, directors, musicians, costumers, set builders, stage managers, other volunteers and our dedicated, consistent patrons – they all make this little theatre “home”. Sometimes I call ABET “The little theatre that can,” after that little train. So much vision and creativity to do top-notch shows in that space. Wow.
My “Cheers” may be changing locations, but I know that everything that has made this little theatre special for my last 10 years and for the last 26 for so many will continue to exceed our expectations. I know I’m looking forward to a very bright future ahead for All Beaches Experimental Theatre!
Caryl: Well said. Thank you so much for all the time and talent you’ve donated to ABET over the years!