Monday, July 11, 2016

Karissa Royster (CAS ’16) on her Broadway Debut with "Shuffle Along or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed"

Karissa Royster
Can you tell us about your experience as a student at NYU?

I was in the Liberal Studies program for my first two years at NYU. I wanted to focus on either international relations or politics, and I ended up majoring in history with a minor in politics. I thought the program was great, and I have been considering going to graduate school to continue studying history.

When did you start dancing?

I have been dancing since my mom enrolled me in classes when I was three. We used to live in Colorado Springs and I originally started out doing figure skating. When my dad retired from the military, we moved to Texas, and I started focusing more on dance. I found a great tap teacher when I was twelve who had a youth ensemble that I joined.

When I moved to New York to attend NYU I continued taking tap classes at local studios with teachers like Derick Grant, cast member of Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk. On Mondays, I regularly performed at Swing Dance Night at the Cotton Club in Harlem with Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, who is an award-winning choreographer and tap dancer.
Karissa Royster: her story continues

Have you always wanted to be on Broadway?

I don’t know if I had ever pictured myself on Broadway. The style of tap that I was used to performing is very different from the style of tap you usually see on Broadway.

In many ways, the stars aligned for me with this show. Coincidentally, when I began working on the show I was studying a lot of material related to the content of our show in one of my NYU classes. It was a Tisch course examining race in twentieth century pop music. We studied the history of blackface and other racist tropes such as those present in the original Shuffle Along, which combined my extracurricular hobby with my studies.

You are an ensemble member and Dance Captain on Shuffle Along. How did you get involved with the production?

I was taking a tap class with instructor Marshall Davis Jr. who is a close colleague of Savion Glover. One night when I was dancing at Cotton Club, Savion came to see the show and I met him briefly. About a week or two later I received an email from The Public Theater saying that Savion wanted me to participate in a developmental workshop with him and Tony-winning director and producer George C. Wolfe. At the time, I thought it would just be a two-week workshop experience. There were five of us participating in the workshop in October 2014, and they were creating the show from scratch. George hadn’t even written the book (the narrative structure of a musical) for the show yet.

After the two weeks, I didn’t know if I would hear from them again. Then a few weeks later, they contacted me for another workshop in the end of November, and my relationship with the material and creative team kept growing. I am good at memorization and remembered Savion’s choreography from the first workshop, so he named me Dance Captain during the second workshop and I have been on the show since then.

George wrote the book as we were working in the room, so everyone in the cast is woven into the story. We are telling part of a real history of regular people who were trying to put on a Broadway show in the 1920s. There are many parallels between the actual, historical story and the work the creative team was creating for modern audiences. As a person of color, being able to bring this kind of story to the Broadway stage, which isn’t always the most diverse, has been really special.

What is a Dance Captain?

As Dance Captain, it’s my job to memorize all the choreography in the show, including all of the different versions of the numbers. I have to be in the room any time when Savion is creating new work. He was rehearsing with us through the tech process, preview performances, and opening night. Now, I am in charge of running certain dance rehearsals and giving notes, in order to preserve the original choreography. We have swing and understudy rehearsals twice a week. And we have rehearsals about once a week for the full ensemble.

Who was the first person you told, other than your parents, when you found out that you were going to be in a Broadway show?

I am a very private person and I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, so I was very quiet about it. The first person I told was a good friend of mine who lived next door to me in my residence hall my freshman year at NYU. We’ve stayed good friends.

How did you balance your NYU education with rehearsals?

In the early stages, when the show was still being developed, the creative team would allow me to go to class and arrive at rehearsal late. Then, as the production grew bigger, they weren’t able to accommodate my schedule as easily. I was a junior and I have always cared deeply about my academics, so I was determined to find a way to make it work. I refused to not get my degree, but I also refused to give up the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of the show.

We would rehearse from 10:00am-6:00pm, so I scheduled my classes early in the mornings and in the evenings. I also took summer classes and did an independent study, and I had great professors that were willing to work with me. I was able to finish a semester early, so I was available for our contracted Broadway rehearsals in January 2016. Then I walked and received my diploma in May.

Congratulations to you, and the cast and crew for your ten 2016 Tony nominations. What was award season like as a cast member of a Tony nominated musical?

I feel like I am still processing the experience. When I started working on the show, I had no idea what I was getting myself into, so everything has been kind of a shock. I never in a million years thought that I would be on Broadway. And I never thought I would be in a Tony-nominated show with Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes-Mitchell, Billy Porter, and all of these incredible Broadway veterans. And to have the opportunity to perform at the Tony Awards – it has been a lot to digest. It was a really amazing experience, especially to be a part of this Broadway season that is so diverse with Hamilton, The Color Purple, Allegiance and On Your Feet.

What has been your experience working with Broadway legends, like Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes-Mitchell?

What has been so amazing about working with them is watching their process. Audra has won six Tony Awards and, in watching her work, you see why. She has earned a name for herself by working hard. We do the show eight times a week, and you can see that they are constantly exploring and reaching for something new and outside of their comfort zone. It says a lot about who they are as people, and what it takes to excel in your craft.

I love seeing them get into character, because they are so versatile and they know how to play so many different kinds of people. The character Audra plays in this show is very different from her Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. It has been a pleasure just to see them work and rehearse, on top of getting to hear Audra sing every night!

What’s next for you?

Before the show happened, I was looking at applying to law school or NYU’s PhD history program. But now, this experience has sparked something new for me. For now, I am absorbing all of this, and seeing where this path naturally takes me.

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