The musical Once opens at the Orpheum Theatre on Tuesday, April 1. The Tony Award-studded show was the darling of Broadway in its inaugural season and its current tour has drawn large audiences across the country. I talked to Claire Wellin on the phone, an actress and violinist who donned both hats for the Broadway premiere of Once and reprises this dual role in the Once tour. Wellin holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Musical Theatre from Minnesota State University, Mankato.
Where am I catching you?
I’m in Buffalo, New York…it’s so cold, everywhere, it’s just making me crazy – but I grew up in the Midwest, so I suppose I should know what I’m getting myself into.
What drove your original move from Minnesota to Chicago?
I had always loved Chicago…I spent quite a bit of time there, and knew that it was an incredible town as far as theatre goes. Right after I got out of town, I was driven to do plays. Plays were really what I wanted to do, and knew that Chicago was a good place for a young actor. It’s certainly the most welcoming large city that a young artist can go to.
It’s just a fantastic place and I was really able to work on so many incredible things that helped me get to where I am now. I hope to return to work on more things [there]!
Where is home base for you now?
I go back and forth between Chicago and LA, depending on what time of year it is and what I’m working on. Who knows what will happen after this [tour] is up, but I’m still a sort of dual-city person.
Do you find the theatre cultures in these two cities [Chicago and Los Angeles] to be very different?
Entirely different. When I spend time in LA, it’s [always] for TV and for film; I also play a lot of music there as well. Whenever I’m in town, I play at this amazing Speakeasy called The Varnish… We play old standards for hours and hours. That’s a lot of fun for me and I like opportunities to play my own music both in LA and in Chicago. I’ve actually not been doing any theatre [in LA]…I’ve gone to see theatre there, but I haven’t done any so far.
So you really are living in two different worlds in these cities, both professionally and climate-wise.
Tell me a little about your own music. You’re a violinist, correct?
I am. I play the violin, the guitar, and the ukulele, but in Once I just play the violin. When I’m writing, I use all three instruments. My band name is Youth in a Roman Field and I write all the music – but I don’t really enjoy playing music [just] by myself, so I don’t write music just for myself. I write for triple string players, for accordion, trumpet, and a bunch of different voices singing in harmony. I work with different people on my music.
Kristin Topol is probably my closest musical confidant. She’s a good friend, also based in Chicago, and on the Once tour as well. There are other cast members [as well] who play a lot with me and have really influenced what I write. We recorded an album together and I just recorded a single that I recorded with some friends in LA and we’re going to record another album in San Francisco. I have a lot of things in the pipeline for music writing.
The instruments that you mentioned [violin, guitar, and ukulele] are a fair handful to take with you, even if you’re on a plane where you’re checking baggage-
-so how do you manage all those instruments? Do you have a guitar in every town?
I have one suitcase, and we [also] have one trunk that we can pack with anything that we want that travels with the show from city to city. I usually pack my violin in the trunk, along with any music, cords, and stuff like that, and then carry my guitar with me because it doesn’t fit – it’s a little bigger than the trunk. I carry my guitar and my suitcase and that’s kind of the system that I use.
Our crew, our cast, it’s kind of hilarious – everyone travels with their own instruments with them. You’ve got violins, ukuleles, and guitars – so many that you can’t even count. [Laughs]
Would you say that there are more instruments flying around [during the Once tour] than a typical touring show?
Oh, absolutely. We all play more than one instrument and all the instruments that we play in the show are essentially props. We have this amazing instrument tech whose name is Ken who keeps them up and does all the maintenance – but they [the instruments] all travel with the show. Anything that we [the cast] want to use for gigs, for writing, for recording, for fun…we carry ourselves. It makes for a lot of instruments.
When in life did you pick up your various instruments? You mentioned violin, guitar, and ukulele – one of which, at least in most people’s minds, has a little bit of a higher learning curve…
Of course, the ukulele. [laughs]
The violin is very difficult to play and it helps if you start it when you’re young. I started at age five, at my first day of school, and I practiced almost every single day until I was eighteen. I come from a family of musicians and was in a very disciplined and encouraging household as far as music goes, so I spent a lot of time as a kid with my violin and with music. [By college] I was kind of tired of playing the violin; when I graduated high school, I decided to do theatre and I went to college for theatre. It was after college that I picked up the guitar.
I picked the violin back up again in 2012, because I really missed it and wanted to do some writing [music] on it – so I had a lot of work to do to get to the place where I could play Once. It’s been a long journey with my violin…it’s definitely been left by the wayside and picked up again. We’ve been through a lot.
Since you picked up the violin again, has it opened up any new doors for you as an actor?
Oh, yeah. It is definitely one of the things that began to differentiate me from other young, female actors. There are so many of us, especially in Chicago, where the amount of talent and work ethic is just incredible – but not everyone has the tools to tell stories with music as well. That definitely became something that I was able to bring to the table –and, actually, the last three pieces of theatre that I’ve done have all been things that I played my violin in. I did Eastland at Lookingglass [Theatre] and A Christmas Carol at the Goodman and now doing Once on Broadway and the tour. I’ve definitely played my violin solidly since I picked it up again and it’s definitely opened doors for me.
I really enjoy music and theatre together in this sort of way. I think people really get into it and relate to it and get excited about it…people are starting to take an interest in actors who do more than one thing, and I’m so happy to be part of this group of people that I’ve held so much respect for.
Have you been to LA since you picked up the violin again?
Yes – one of the reasons that I was able to get my [musical] chops back up has everything to do with LA. When I first went there for an extended period of time and moved there in January of 2012, I had a lot of time on my hands at first as I was getting into the community and going to auditions and getting a job. I practiced a lot during that time, then, through a friend, I found The Varnish. I went down there and started singing there, then, as I got to know Jaime (who plays the piano there and is sort of the point guy), I said, “You know, I play the violin…can they bring that in and do some sort of Django Reinhardt-style playing?” And he said, “Absolutely!”
So I started going there every Monday while I was in town – improvising, playing. That opportunity really got my [violin] chops back up.
Having come from a more traditional, classical violin environment and coming back to it more as your own musician (rather than a teacher guiding you and telling you to practice this scale and that)… When you come to a show like Once, how does your background affect your learning the score?
When I started the process for Once, I worked very closely with the creative team – they were very involved right from the start of the audition process, which was incredible. Martin really encouraged me to play a certain way – to play not only more cleanly, but with more abandon. Because I hadn’t had lessons or a teacher guiding me for a long time, his notes and the encouragement he gave me from audition to audition really helped me get the job. He encouraged me to take a finetooth comb to my intonation, and would catch me practicing the music the way I used to practice when I was a kid…
Because you’re moving at the same time [on stage], you have responsibilities beyond just playing the music correctly – playing with love, and fire. I had to go back to diligently learn the music, then on top of that he was constantly giving me notes in a way that I loved. He knew that I could play with more passion and fire and abandon, and would not let me play less than that – less than my potential – when he was working with me on Broadway. That has made me such a better player in general. His direction, and Rob’s, and the whole team in general have been pushing me to play the best that I can.
Did you or do you find it challenging to navigate the different types of material?
I had never sung and played [at the same time] until, essentially, I picked up my violin and did Eastland. That was two years ago now; before then, they were totally separate. Now, when I’m writing for myself and when I’m playing with other people in a show, it’s incredibly difficult [to sing and play simultaneously]. The thing is that you cannot think about it at all – there can be no brain involvement at all. It has a lot to do with practicing, and for me that has to do with focusing on one part and then focusing on the other, and then casting it away so that you experience it without thinking about either of the parts…
Even now, if we introduce a new rhythm where the violin is different from the vocal part, I have to really work on it. It’s one of the most difficult things that I do, but it’s fun!
Just throw in some singing, acting, and dancing with that playing, and you can show up all those triple threats with your quadruple threat.
[Laughs] Yeah, I guess I am.
With all your fellow cast members also playing instruments, if this touring thing doesn’t work out, you can always do your own version of that Company production where everyone who’s not singing is playing an instrument…
[Laughs] I do think that productions like that – and certainly Sweeney Todd, as well – helped pave the way for this to be commercially accepted. I think that was the beginning, at least from a commercial standpoint, of actor-musicianship.
Turning back to the Upper Midwest…
I was born in North Dakota and went to school in Minnesota.
Are there things that you’re missing or craving from this area?
I have my fair share of things that I miss and reasons that I’m not [living here] right now, but really what I love about it is that there’s something beautiful about the camaraderie of people in the spring after you’ve had to endure a long winter together. The excitement and the connection that happens with people in the spring and the summer in the Midwest is just like the greatest time. I really do love the changing of the seasons, I love nature, and I love open space and taking walks, and trees … That, especially in Minnesota, is something that I long for. Like the smell of things blooming in the spring after they’ve been blanketed by snow and ice – it’s just very magical.
There are also definitely some great restaurants in Minneapolis, and I’m excited to visit them.
What’s next for you after the Once tour?
I don’t have any specific plans post-Once right now. The EP that I’m going to be recording will actually be while I’m doing Once in San Francisco. I’m going to record during the day and during my days off; that – the writing – is something that I’ve been working on while I’m on tour, and will continue doing that while I’m on tour. I’d love to take some time off to focus on that, but that definitely won’t be happening during the next six months.
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