CEDAR CITY, Utah — Shortly after the curtain rises on “The Comedy of Errors” at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, the audience watches a shrill, angry woman take the stage. Speaking in a sharp Southern accent, she rails against her husband while her sister, looking meek and concerned, stands nearby.
Things are progressing as they should for this production, but there may be just a moment of surprise for some audience members in the Adams Shakespearean Theatre who previously saw these two women perform not just in a different venue but also in very different roles.
Cassandra Bissell and Eva Balistrieri portray the Southern belle sisters Adriana and Luciana, respectively, in director Brad Carroll’s 1849 California gold rush spin on Shakespeare’s famous comedy. But at other times, they grace the stage of the Randall L. Jones Theatre as the Dashwood sisters Elinor and Marianne in an adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan.
In “Sense and Sensibility,” it’s Balistrieri’s Marianne who lets her feelings get the best of her while Bissell’s Elinor generally remains the calmer, level-headed voice of reason. As the actresses move between roles, their characters trade temperaments.
While playing roles in more than one show is often a requisite element of repertory theater, in which multiple shows are performed in rotation, it’s not often that two actresses get the opportunity to play two sets of sisters together — or have to spend so much time together.
“Luckily, we like each other,” Bissell said in an interview with the Deseret News. “It’s really fun getting to play sisters in both shows because we get along.”
The duo said there are benefits to working so closely together.
“I think from the beginning, for both of us, we were much more comfortable in ‘Sense and Sensibility’ World than we were in ‘Comedy of Errors’ Land, ” Bissell said. “And that was good that we both felt that way so that while we were in rehearsals for ‘Comedy,’ we sort of had each other’s backs.”
Balistrieri agreed with Bissell and added that it would be much more difficult to play opposite a different actress as Adriana in “Comedy.”
“But the fact that even when we weren’t in ‘Comedy’ rehearsal, we were still building a relationship that served ‘Comedy’ and vice versa, that makes the process a lot easier and makes the shows better, because you have these real relationships with people,” she said.
Both actresses said their roles and relationships in “Sense and Sensibility” align more closely with the way they are in life than do their roles in “The Comedy of Errors.”
“I think she (Bissell) has more Elinor, and I have more Marianne in me than I do Luciana,” Balistrieri said.
Despite which roles they say fit them best, the actresses said they are grateful for the chance to push themselves to fill their roles in both productions.
“I feel extraordinarily lucky that these are the two shows that I’m getting to work on because they are so different from each other, and so you get to stretch these different muscles,” Bissell said. “It’s always a gift as an actor to be given an opportunity to sort of push yourself outside of those comfort zones.”
Getting in character
Performing two such different roles poses some challenges, the actresses said, in terms of both developing the characters and adapting to the stage environments.
Bissell and Balistrieri had to adopt British accents for “Sense and Sensibility” and Southern accents for “The Comedy of Errors.”
“I had to brush up on it,” Balistrieri said of her British accent for “Sense and Sensibility.” “I was sounding too much like Hermione Granger.”
That they would need to do Southern accents for “Comedy” came as a surprise to both of them.
“We didn’t know until the first day of rehearsal that we had to do it in southern accents,” Bissell said. “We both were like, we’re not going to do it for the first read-through because we would like to go home and say it and hear it before we do it in front of all of these strange people that we don’t know.
“We got together and had tea and practiced our southern dialects together because we didn’t want to embarrass ourselves and we wanted to sound like we were related and had come from the same background.”
The Utah Shakespeare Festival also has two dialect coaches, Philip Thompson and Jack Greenman, who help keep the actors’ accents on track.
Although it takes effort, Bissell said, putting on an accent can have a powerful impact in creating a character.
“With Adriana, because she’s this railing, angry shrew, to then take on this Southern Belle accent felt a little bit like my brain wanted to explode, like these two things don’t line up,” Bissell said. “It actually ended up being somewhat of a stroke of genius on Brad’s (Carroll’s) part, because what’s so funny in Adriana is those 180-degree turns from when she’s railing and completely over the top, and then she plays the damsel. And those switches back and forth are where a lot of the humor in this production lies, and I feel like the Southern accent thing helps with that.”
Another part of repertory theater can be having to adapt to different stage environments as the actresses do for their plays, which are split between the Adams and Randall theaters.
“ ‘Sense’ is particularly interesting,” Balistrieri said, “because the back wall of ‘Sense’ is not like a solid back wall, and so your voice in that space just feels so different than any other indoor space I’ve experienced.”
As for performing in “Comedy,” she said, “Outdoors, you have to make sure that you’re loud enough to not only fill the house but fill beyond because there’s wind and sometimes fireworks and things like that.”
Being able to see the audience during the first part of “Comedy” can also be a little weird, Balistrieri said.
“When you walk out, you’re like, ‘Oh hey, audience.’ They’re right there,” she said.
“You see all their smiling, glowing faces,” Bissell said.
But as unnerving as seeing that audience can be, it can also help the actors in their performance, Balistrieri said.
“With ‘Comedy,’ because it’s comedy, and because it’s like big slapstick comedy, we really needed the audience,” Balistrieri said. She added that having costumes also helps, especially for shows such as “Comedy.”
“We needed the costumes, we needed all of the exterior elements. And ‘Sense’ is like pure heart, so you had to really dig deep into that, and then when the costumes came it was like a nice little bonus, but it didn’t really drastically change the production.”
Rehearsing for repertory
With the season now well underway, Bissell and Balistreiri have eight shows each week. Outside of performances, they’re busy with understudy fittings and rehearsals, talkbacks, interviews and other assignments.
But before they got to this point, there were hours of rehearsals and other preparations. While the process at the Utah Shakespeare Festival is long in terms of weeks, Bissell said, it’s short on hours compared to a regular theater run where just one play is being produced.
Because the majority of the actors have at least two roles, not to mention understudy assignments, they’re generally always needed somewhere.
“On a given day, these two shows who don’t have any shared cast members get primary rehearsal hours, which means they have their entire casts available to them if they need them,” Bissell said. “And then if they have any actors that are not called during that primary block, those actors are then available for secondary rehearsals in any other shows where directors might need them.”
Before the season starts, a typical day for the actors consists of costume fittings, voice and text coaching and other preparations between 9 a.m. and noon. Rehearsals are held in afternoon and evening blocks of four hours each. During tech week, the blocks become five hours.
Moving from one rehearsal to another, Balistrieri said, requires actors to “flip a switch in your brain” and access different skills from their “acting toolbox.”
Working on two productions with different directors can be interesting when the directors have a different way of doing things, the actresses said.
“The thing about these two shows in particular is our respective directors have very different approaches and processes, so the two rehearsal processes were completely opposite,” Bissell said. “ ‘Comedy of Errors’ was very outside-in, whereas ‘Sense and Sensibility’ was very inside-out.”
Bissell said that for “Comedy of Errors,” Carroll used “very broad strokes” and had all of the blocking figured out early on.
“Things didn’t feel kind of detail-oriented,” she said. “But what it meant was that we got several more passes at the whole thing, running the whole thing from start to end. We got to do it many times before we were in front of an audience.”
When it came to “Sense and Sensibility,” Bissell said, Hanreddy layered in detail as they went.
“But what that meant was that we didn’t get the full arch of the story,” she said. “We didn’t get a pass at the full feel of the arch of the story until we were in front of audiences.”
“But now that we’re getting into the runs of it,” Balistrieri said, “I feel like because of how much detail he added throughout the process, it does feel like a thorough, fleshed-out production. It’s just two completely different approaches to the work at hand.”
Taking time offstage
Although both Bissell and Balistrieri are kept busy with acting in their two shows, they recognize the need and manage to find time to unwind to help them handle the mental and emotional rigor of their work.
Balistrieri said she does this through spending some time alone.
“I need time where I’m just by myself, either writing or doing yoga or running, just time where I’m totally disconnected from the festival. Some people tend to go the other route and they like to socialize, so people will get together after rehearsals, and I do that too, but I would say for the most part I need time to be alone and process my life outside of here.”
A popular activity for many of the actors, Balistrieri and Bissell said, is hiking.
“When we have our day off on Sunday, most people go hiking just because it’s nice to get out of Cedar City and just be in nature, and it’s quiet,” Balistrieri said.
Although they’re in Cedar City for the summer season, both Bissell and Balistrieri are from the Chicago area. Bissell has a B.A. in gender studies from the University of Chicago and did a lot of theater while she was there. Balistrieri grew up in Wisconsin and attended the University of Wisconsin–Parkside.
Bissell and Balistrieri met a couple of years ago in Milwaukee, but they had never worked together before this year. This is their first season at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.
“I’m really glad that we like each other so much, because we spend more time on stage with each other, interacting with each other, than any other actors in the company, so that’s really nice,” Bissell said.
“It’s just fun to play opposite her,” Balistrieri said of Bissell. “I’ve done a lot of rep theater, and I feel like I’ve had that experience before but never as close-knit as this has been.”