Parker Esse

Choreographer
Parker Esse

Photo courtesy of Mr. Esse

Transcript of conversation with Parker Esse

Music from Oklahoma, up and under. "Oh what a beautiful morning€¦.."

Parker Esse: It's quite a process when you create choreography. I mean you have to do research and more research and more research. You have, you have to to come up with the steps. You have to create every single movement. It's pretty exciting, it's pretty exciting. When I finally let go of performing and gave into if you will choreography, because it's something I've been wanting to do for years, I was able to just tell the story as a choreographer, and I worked closely with the director to tell her vision and the musical director because the only way I'm going to be able to choreograph a piece of dance is by becoming one with the music, and so by breaking down the music and story boarding the music into beats, because music if you listen to it, it tells a story.

Jo Reed: That was choreographer Parker Esse talking about Arena Stage's recent revival of Rogers and Hammerstein's 1943 groundbreaking play, Oklahoma. Welcome to Artworks, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine reed.

Oklahoma tells a very simple story about a cowboy Curly and his romance with farm girl called Laurie, who's torn between her love for Curley and her attraction to the malevolent farm hand Jud. And for comic relief, the sweet dopey cowboy Will Parker just returned from Kansas city to win the heart of the equally sweet if flirtatious , Ado Annie. The action is set in 1906 just as the Oklahoma territory is becoming a state. What made Oklahoma stand out was that for the first time in musical theater every element of the show was dedicated to moving the story forward: the music, the lyrics, and the dancing had to develop character and advance the action. And this was a charge that choreographer Parker Esse took to heart. While he knew the iconic dances created by the play's original choreographer Agnes DeMille, he was determined to make the dancing in this production his own.

Parker Esse: Agnes de Mille's one of our greats. Again, we were talking about how storytelling through dance started with these early shows, right? Oklahoma being the second, so I should tip my hat, I should pay homage to her, but I really felt in order to tell this story, the grittiness, the dirt under the fingernails, the vision that Molly Smith had with our Oklahoma, I needed permission to do my own work, and she did. I didn't even have to ask for it, because when Molly talked to me about coming on board with this production, she said, "I want you. I want your strengths. I want everything you and your energy will bring to this production, because you have the athleticism, you have the passion, you have the technique to tell our story." And so I said, "Great Molly, if you believe in me, I'm gonna deliver." And yes, I've done research over the years, and researched Agnes' work, Michael Kidd's work, Michael Bennett, Bob Fosse, they all influenced me as a choreographer, but I wanted to tell my own story. And speaking to my mentors about taking on this huge show, they said, "Just do your homework. Do your research and don't worry about Agnes de Mille. She'll be smiling down, she'll be enjoying this. As long as you're telling the story, go for it." And I felt like I could fly, felt like I could do whatever I wanted to do. If you think about it, if you break it down and you think, "Oh my goodness, it's a 14-minute ballet, that's a lot of dance." It's daunting. But the minute you press play and listen to the music, as a choreographer it just takes me there. I just break down, beat by beat, story as an actor, I break it down and then the steps will just come, they just come, they flow, and what beautiful music to work with.

Jo Reed: Did you use any of de Mille's choreography?

Parker Esse: When somebody asked me early on how much of the de Mille choreography am I going to use, and I said, "Well, no disrespect, but none of it." I really feel like if we're going to tell the story and we're going to for it, I have to do my own work. But many times what choreographers will do is they'll tip their hat, if you will, to other choreographers because they paved the way, you're following along in their footsteps, their path and it's your job then to take the next step, right? You want me to tell you a secret? There's one moment, one itty-bitty moment in the 14-minute ballet, and it's one gesture, and it's when Curly comes in to the scene and lifts Laurie's chin up to look at her in the eyes, that one little gesture of him touching her chin, and lifting it up so they can look eye to eye is Agnes de Mille. Other than that I didn't use one step in the show. But I also wanted to be respectful and give a little taste of what she had, because her work was gorgeous, and it was revolutionary for dance and musical theater.

Jo Reed: From looking at the show I was also struck by how appropriate the dances seemed for not only that era, but that place.

Parker Esse: I had to go back and look at what was happening at the turn of the century, what styles were being used, what people were familiar with, and in Oklahoma in the middle of a prairie, what were they dancing? And it was pretty raw and basic. They knew of the waltz, they didn't know the Charleston, they didn't know the Swing, they didn't know any of those styles that we all know as a modern audience, so I had to go back and find out what basic styles they knew and then I had to expand upon those styles. It was quite complex, because if you think about the show and it's mentioned that Will Parker comes back from Kansas City and he's learned the Two-Step and the Rag. Well I had to be true to the text of the script, and as a choreographer show that. But Josephine, in doing that research the Two-Step is pretty basic. I looked at four different versions of what I thought a good Two-Step would be in the time period to use, and then I took my own style and vocabulary of steps and I developed a number out of it, you know, a production number out of it. The same thing with the Ragtime; I took my favorite steps and I collaborated with my Will Parker, the star of Kansas City to see what looked best on his body too, because the only way my choreography will tell a story is if it's cohesive through my dancers. In researching the Two-Step and the Ragtime, I then had pages of vocabulary and notes to then take and shape a dance number. Once the music starts playing, it all unfolds. Once the music starts playing for me, my mind starts to dream and I start to picture how it all should lay out, and how I want to tell a story from the moment the music starts to the moment the music ends, and it's my job as a choreographer to further the plot. Whenever we left off at that moment of the scene and the script, I have to take the audience to their next take off place. I have to get them through to the next moment in the show, because the only reason to sing and dance is because you can't express yourself through spoken word and that's where my job comes in. My job comes in to take people even further into the story, and it's so exciting to be able to do that through dance.

Jo Reed: You mentioned that you'd done a lot of research but researching how people were dancing at the turn of the 20th century is a little problematic, it's not as though you could look at a film. How did you figure this out?

Parker Esse: It's interesting because I take a style and picture also, photographs tell a lot, because if something's not notated in text or through video, there are early pictures of the turn of the century and how people looked, how these pin up women looked, right that I could go, "Well if they're body is shaped that way, they probably would move this way." And I have to do a lot of that imagining and creating myself and make sure it doesn't look contemporary, it doesn't look like the Swing, or '60s or '50s jive. I have to make sure it feels authentic. If you think about Oklahoma and how strong these people were and how they were survivors, because they were trying to create their own life in this new land and they had to be tough and they were all hard workers, the men and women, and so how would they move, how would their feet hit the floor. Would they be light on their feet? Or would they be heavy on the heel? That influenced my choreography. I use this term called "eat nails", you know be that tough that you could eat nails, alright that's how they dance, and that's how I thought those men would move back then, right? They got all this work to do, they're bailing hay, right? They're roping steers, they are tough.

Jo Reed: They're on a horse 12 hours a day.

Parker Esse: They're on a horse, right, 12 hours a day. And the women, think of all the chores they do, and how strong they are, I mean they do so much and so I thought, "Well, then they have to get down and dirty too when they dance. They can't just be pretty little cookie cutter dancers. You know, what people may expect. No they're tough." So when we go into the square dance in Farmer and Cowman, they have to equally match each other in their technique, in their strengths on stage. Those men are strong, but those women can turn and whip those churns around just as fast as the men. It's just that grit, that strength that I felt from these photographs at the turn of the century, that I thought, "Okay, I've got to physicalize that." So I just went for it because I didn't have a lot to draw on other than maybe how Agnes de Mille did it when she first did Oklahoma, and I didn't want to do that.

Jo Reed: What always fascinates me about choreography is the collaboration between the choreographer and the dancer because dances are made on people.

Parker Esse: Right and you can have one idea right, as a choreographer you have one idea and you create a style and a passage of dance and then you get in the room with these dancers and you start putting it on their bodies, right? But then it may not work, so you have to be able to be open to change it, because it's my job as a choreographer to make these dancers look good, and tell the story. I think in musical theater to be true to the art form of acting, singing and dancing within one show, that all three tell the story, and otherwise it's just steps, you can do steps for days, but unless it tells the right story and it's authentic to the time period, if it doesn't do that, it's out of place.

Jo Reed: Well, and most particularly with Oklahoma, because this was the turning point in American musical theater.

Parker Esse: That's right.

Jo Reed: Here's suddenly singing and dancing did all come together to tell a story.

Parker Esse: Absolutely. I mean look at the 14 minute dream ballet at the end of Act I, there's no spoken word, it is all storytelling, and through Show Boat, and Oklahoma paving the way, dance had permission to do that in a musical.

Jo Reed: Well let's talk about that ballet because it's probably one of the most famous dance sequences of American theater.

Parker Esse: Absolutely. This was the ballet as seen through Laurie's eyes because it's her dream and what she's going through when she falls into this deep state of sleep is she's torn; she's torn between who she thinks her true love is, Curly, and who she's tempted by in a very sensuous way with Jud, and so what an opportunity to show the romantic side and the more risqué dangerous side of Jud. You know that good girl that wants to hop on the Harley Davidson motorcycle, that's what she does with Jud, when she's close to him, and it was important from the minute the music began to tell her story. I chose to, rather than just fall into sleep, I chose to wake up into life, and so at the top of the ballet dream Laurie wakes up into the dream and she's flying through space and then there's dream Curly who she thinks, "That's my love, that's who I want to be with." And she's really able to give herself into Curly and the romanticism of what life would be with him, whereas in the play up to this point, she doesn't allow herself to do that. Where has he been for all those weeks? He's been off. I had to do my own research within the text of the play to say, "Well why is she playing so hard to get?" Or, "Why doesn't she just say 'I love you, Curly, yes I want to be with you. Everybody thinks we should, we're the talk of the town, everybody wants us to be together,'" well there would be no stakes in the show, right? So she plays hard to get, she really wants to go to the box-social with him, but she resists, and then Jud asks her, and she doesn't want to let him down for whatever reason that's going on in the back of her head. So all of that built up tension between Laurie and these two men comes out in the ballet, and it also then sets up up Act II. What's going to happen at the box-social when she ends up going there with Jud? How is she going to confront Curly? What is her bond going to be with him now? Is Jud completely out of the picture? Does she still have some fascination with Jud, or is she really whole-heartedly going to go for Curly? So that's what I hope the audience is thinking. At the end of Act I when they back to see Act II, is "Oh my goodness, what is she going to do now?

Jo Reed: The Fishhandler is a theatre in the round. The audience sits literally around the stage. What's it like choreographing in the round?

Parker Esse: Thrilling. It's thrilling because you're not only dancing with your whole body, your face, you're performing to the people in front of you, but your back is dancing. It is so crucial to be breathing out of every single pore of your body when you dance. I talk to dancers about forced suspension relaxation when they dance. It's just the dynamics, it's so crucial that your body be continually in motion, whether it's in isolation; it's always breathing and moving because people behind you are getting the show, too. And I constantly keep it moving because it's a gift to be in the round, because that's reality. That's real life. We don't talk to one another and stay flat, we move around, and so it's just as if we're in real life dancing. And not to mention that the space you can travel, and the different layers that the audience can really see, and all the reveals. One thing turns into another, and patterns reveal another form, and it's quite exciting to be in the round.

Jo Reed: And Camelot, and South Pacific all of which I had seen.

Parker Esse: Oh great.

Jo Reed: And now here you are as you say you've birthed the choreography for Oklahoma, talk just a little bit about the difference between being the performer who is dancing, and being the person who suddenly has to conceptualize the dance.

Parker Esse: It's quite a process when you create choreography. I mean you have to do research and more research and more research. You have to find out what the show is really about. In other words I have to do a lot more homework I think as a choreographer, than as if I were just showing up to learn my dance steps. Yes I have to develop on a character as a performer and tell a story through my character, but as a choreographer you have to come up with the steps, you have to create every single movement, and so it's a lot different, it's a different process in your head to develop that material and it's pretty exciting. When I finally let go of performing and gave into if you will choreography, because it's something I've been wanting to do for years, I was able to just tell the story as a choreographer, and I worked closely with the director to tell her vision and the musical director because the only way I'm going to be able to choreograph a piece of dance is by becoming one with the music, and so by breaking down the music and story boarding the music into beats, because music if you listen to it, it tells a story. So if I've done the research with the styles of dance that are appropriate for that era, that whatever show I'm doing, specifically Oklahoma, I had to go back and look at what was happening at the turn of the century, what styles were being used, what people were familiar with, and in Oklahoma in the middle of a prairie, what were they dancing? And it was pretty raw and basic. They knew of the waltz, it was before Charleston, it was before the '20s so they didn't know the Charleston, they didn't know the Swing, they didn't know any of those styles that we all know as a modern audience, so I had to go back and find out what basic styles they knew and then I had to expand upon those styles. So it was quite complex, because if you think about the show and it's mentioned that Will Parker comes back from Kansas City and he's learned the Two-Step and the Rag. Well I had to be true to the text of the script, and as a choreographer show that. But Josephine, in doing that research the Two-Step is pretty basic. I looked at four different versions of what I thought a good Two-Step would be in the time period to use, and then I took my own style and vocabulary of steps and I developed a number out of it, you know, a production number out of it. The same thing with the Ragtime; I took my favorite steps and I collaborated with my Will Parker, the star of Kansas City to see what looked best on his body too, because the only way my choreography will tell a story is if it's cohesive through my dancers. In researching the Two-Step and the Ragtime, I then had pages of vocabulary and notes to then take and shape a dance number. Once the music starts playing, it all unfolds. Once the music starts playing for me, my mind starts to dream and I start to picture how it all should lay out, and how I want to tell a story from the moment the music starts to the moment the music ends, and it's my job as a choreographer to further the plot. Whenever we left off at that moment of the scene and the script, I have to take the audience to their next take off place. I have to get them through to the next moment in the show, because the only reason to sing and dance is because you can't express yourself through spoken word and that's where my job comes in. My job comes in to take people even further into the story, and it's so exciting to be able to do that through dance, it's such a gift. I mean there's times I go to see dance, and I feel like, "Okay, that was entertaining." I saw beautiful dancers, I saw great technique, but does it tell a story? And it's really important I think in musical theater to be true to the art form of acting, singing and dancing within one show, that all three tell the story, and otherwise it's just steps, you can do steps for days, but unless it tells the right story and it's authentic to the time period, if it doesn't do that, it's out of place.

Jo Reed: Well, and most particularly with Oklahoma, because this was the turning point in American music theater.

Parker Esse: That's right.

Jo Reed: Here's suddenly singing and dancing did all come together to tell a story.

Parker Esse: Absolutely. I mean look at the 14 minute dream ballet at the end of Act I, there's no spoken word, it is all storytelling, and through Show Boat, and Oklahoma paving the way, dance had permission to do that in a musical.

Jo Reed: Well let's talk about that ballet because it has to be one of the most iconic moments, or moments' since it is quite long on the stage.

Parker Esse: Absolutely.

Jo Reed: And there's a number of ways I think it's very interesting, because in seeing Oklahoma last night I was thinking, "Golly, this is just such a combination of absolute and complete charm as a piece of theater, but with moments that are so dark that are absolutely dark and probably the dark moments are most vitally expressed through dance."

Parker Esse: Absolutely. Well I had to tell Laurey's story. This was the ballet as seen through Laurey's eyes because it's her dream and what she's going through when she falls into this deep state of sleep is she's torn; she's torn between who she thinks her true love is, Curly, and who she's tempted by in a very sensuous way with Jud, and so what an opportunity to show the romantic side and the more risqué dangerous side of Jud. You know that good girl that wants to hop on the Harley Davidson motorcycle, that's what she does with Jud, when she's close to him, and it was important from the minute the music began to tell her story. I chose to, rather than just fall into sleep, I chose to wake up into life, and so at the top of the ballet dream Laurey wakes up into the dream and she's free, and she feels light as a bird and she's flying through space and then there's dream Curly who she thinks, "That's my love, that's who I want to be with." And she's really able to give herself into Curly and the romanticism of what life would be with him, whereas in the play up to this point, she doesn't allow herself to do that. Where has he been for all those weeks? He's been off. I had to do my own research within the text of the play to say, "Well why is she playing so hard to get?" Or, "Why doesn't she just say 'I love you, Curly, yes I want to be with you. Everybody thinks we should, we're the talk of the town, everybody wants us to be together,'" well there would be no stakes in the show, right? So she plays hard to get, she really wants to go to the box-social with him, but she resists, and then Jud asks her, and she doesn't want to let him down for whatever reason that's going on in the back of her head. So all of that built up tension between Laurey and these two men comes out in the ballet, and what an opportunity to see how her brain and her heart is torn. She gets to explore what it'd be like to be with Curly, and then I bring four other couples that are mirroring, four other couples that are already romantic in the show, that you get to see how they feel love, and then Laurey and Curly are one of those couples. So I take the audience through that journey, but then just when everything seems to be going right, fairytale ending, they're getting married, right, they're going to live happily ever after, Jud enters the scene, and as a puppeteer he pulls the strings out of the number, which is where reality becomes not reality, and all of the people that are closest to her like Aunt Eller, Ado Annie, Will Parker, and most of all Curly turn their back on her, but in an odd way, in a way that she's not sure what's going on, and they're not who she thinks they are, and they leave and she turns around to see Jud who is there, not to be a monster, but to say, "Hey, look at me. Look at what you could have. I'm here. We're alone. This is what it could be like if we're alone." And that's when the smokehouse comes up and she gets a real glimpse and taste of what his world is like. His pinups come to life. All the pinup pictures inside his smokehouse come to life and they're sexy, they're beautiful, they move in a way she's not accustomed to, and when he sheds her of her other self, of the wedding dress, underneath it she's just like them, she gets an opportunity to be one of these women, which really excites her. And so she goes for it, she falls into the world just totally enraptured in this intense, sexual, new self that she's been wanting to explore but really hasn't given herself permission to do, just like the romantic side of falling head over heels for Curly. But within that, what a lot of people call nightmare, because the dream always goes into nightmare traditionally with this show Oklahoma, because people think Jud's the monster, right? He's the bad guy. But in our version he's just a different choice for Laurey until he puts on the heat and they do this passionate Tango, and at the end of it they start getting intimate, and she realizes, "Well wait, no! I don't want you like this. I don't want this from you." And that's when she realizes she can't go any further in this direction with him, but he doesn't accept that and that's when the true monster inside comes out, because he wants her all to himself, and that's where Curly comes back in to stop him and to save her, her real Curly and they fight, and I think to me the darkest, most unexpected direction I can go in at the end of the ballet was for Laurey herself to try to stop these two men from fighting over her and to put an end to it, and when she sees that Curly's about to be killed, he's being strangled by Jud, she goes to stop it, but accidently kills Curly, and that's a nightmare, I mean that is a nightmare. I mean I've tried to think of what's the worst thing that could happen in your dreams, you killing your love, that's terrifying. So she does that and it also then sets up the rest of the play. It sets up Act II. What's going to happen at the box-social when she ends up going there with Jud? How is she going to confront Curly? What is her bond going to be with him now? Is Jud completely out of the picture? Does she still have some fascination with Jud, or is she really whole-heartedly going to go for Curly? So that's what I hope the audience is thinking. At the end of Act I when they back to see Act II, is "Oh my goodness, what is she going to do now when she leaves with Jud?"

Jo Reed: This original dance was choreographed by Agnes de Mille.

Parker Esse: Yes.

Jo Reed: Was that daunting for you when you had to approach Oklahoma?

Parker Esse: Let me tell you this, I love dance and I love storytelling, so as long as I have good music, and the permission to do good work, I love it, I just do it. And Agnes de Mille's one of our greats. Again, we were talking about how storytelling through dance started with these early shows, right? Oklahoma being the second, so I should tip my hat, I should pay homage to her, but I really felt in order to tell this story, the grittiness, the dirt under the fingernails, the vision that Molly Smith had with our Oklahoma, I needed permission to do my own work, and she did. I didn't even have to ask for it, because when Molly talked to me about coming on board with this production, she said, "I want you. I want your strengths. I want everything you and your energy will bring to this production, because you have the athleticism, you have the passion, you have the technique to tell our story." And so I said, "Great Molly, if you believe in me, I'm gonna deliver." And yes, I've done research over the years, and researched Agnes' work, Michael Kidd's work, Michael Bennett, Bob Fosse, they all influenced me as a choreographer, but I wanted to tell my own story.

Jo Reed: Oh it's definitely yours, there's no question about it.

Parker Esse: Oh right, what a gift to be able to do that, and speaking to my mentors about taking on this huge show, they said, "Just do your homework. Do your research and don't worry about Agnes de Mille. She'll be smiling down, she'll be enjoying this. As long as you're telling the story, go for it." And I felt like I could fly, felt like I could do whatever I wanted to do. If you think about it, if you break it down and you think, "Oh my goodness, it's a 14-minute ballet, that's a lot of dance." It's daunting. But the minute you press play and listen to the music, as a choreographer it just takes me there. I just break down, beat by beat, story as an actor, I break it down and then the steps will just come, they just come, they flow, and what beautiful music to work with. And what I mean by that is if you listen to it, out of my dreams, the first musical piece in the ballet tells one story, into Oh What a Beautiful Morning, which is the romantic love fest that Laurey has with Curly and the other couples, into Kansas City which is just action and all this masculine testosterone energy that comes out on stage which I felt who better than Will Parker and his buddies to come celebrate their union? So that's how it unfolds. When somebody asked me early on how much of the de Mille choreography am I going to use, and I said, "Well, no disrespect, but none of it." I really feel like if we're going to tell the story and we're going to for it, I have to do my own work. But many times what choreographers will do is they'll tip their hat, if you will, to other choreographers because they paved the way, you're following along in their footsteps, their path and it's your job then to take the next step, right? You want me to tell you a secret? There's one moment, one itty-bitty moment in the 14-minute ballet, and it's one gesture, and it's when Curly comes in to the scene and lifts Laurey's chin up to look at her in the eyes, that one little gesture of him touching her chin, and lifting it up so they can look eye to eye is Agnes de Mille. Other than that I didn't use one step in the show. But I also wanted to be respectful and give a little taste of what she had, because her work was gorgeous, and it was revolutionary for dance and musical theater.

Jo Reed: Well one of the things that she insisted upon which we the audience, as well as choreographers are now beneficiaries of is her insistence that there were dancers who come in during the dream sequence.

Parker Esse: Yes, and that is tricky, that's tricky because in modern musical theater, as we all know, you go see a show like A Chorus Line.

Jo Reed: Or Chicago.

Parker Esse: Or Chicago, or even West Side Story where the actors do everything, right. They do their scenes, they sing their songs, and they dance their dances. It was her concept that there would be a dream Laurey and a dream Curly and sometimes a dream Jud, it's been up the creative team to decide what they want to do. I guess it could go either way, if I wanted to tell a different story and just use the real Curly, the real Laurey, the real Jud, we could've done that, but with this version and the type of dance I wanted to do, and the depth of technique, dance technique, it was important to really have strong dancers, and it's known for that, and I thought, "Well if I really want them to dance, and I want to take us as far into this dream as possible, why not? Let's do it. Let's have a dream Laurey, let's have a dream Curly," and what a gift, what a gift to have those dancers to do that, a blessing.

Jo Reed: They were remarkable dancers.

Parker Esse: Oh they're fantastic.

Jo Reed: What's it like choreographing in the round?

Parker Esse: It's thrilling because you're not only dancing with your whole body, your face, you're performing to the people in front of you, but your back is dancing. It is so crucial to be breathing out of every single pore of your body when you dance. I talk to dancers about force suspension relaxation when they dance. It's just the dynamics, it's so crucial that your body be continually in motion, whether it's in isolation; it's always breathing and moving because people behind you are getting the show too. And I constantly keep it moving because it's a gift to be in the round, because that's reality. That's real life. We don't talk to one another and stay flat, we move around, and so it's just as if we're in real life dancing. So when I'm dancing I'm not going to stay flat and use one plane in space, I'm going to use the whole space. I'm going to take a step and I'm going to turn it like I would if I really wanted to be natural with it. I think it's an opportunity. It's such a gift to be able to do that, and not to mention that the space you can travel, and the different layers that the audience can really see, and all the reveals. One thing turns into another, and patterns reveal another form, and it's quite exciting to be in the round.

Jo Reed: That was an extraordinary set that was designed for Oklahoma.

Parker Esse: Oh yes, it was exceptional. Do you want me to tell you how it influenced me?

Jo Reed: Yeah.

Parker Esse: Early on in the design meetings, I went up to Providence, Rhode Island to visit Eugene Lee the set designer at a studio and we sat down with his first model of the set, and it looked like a playground for a choreographer. I mean I looked at it and I thought, "Oh my goodness, where you're building the barn, where the orchestra's going to be, that's fantastic, can you give me a little bit more scaffolding up top? And then I'll have Will Parker climb it. We'll use those found elements, and I'll use it." And I said, "So you're doing some rigging here, well can that plank actually be a slide because then I can have someone slide down, what a great delivery to the stage that would be." And he was like, "Yes, yes, do it!" And so he designed that plank to make it a slide, and then it became a brick slide that I would use practically, you know, to help build the school house, but also for Will Parker to slide down, for Ado Annie to stand up on, to deliver Curly's Oklahoma. Also these fantastic voms on you know all four corners that deliver the life of the theater, right? All the actors coming to stage said, "If you're going to take that up there, can you make this railing a split rail fence, because then our leading man will come around that windmill and he'll sit and just be that cowboy sitting on the fence?" And he said, "Sure." And then, "Can he slide on it? Can someone stand on it, can we swing from it?" All those ideas start to come in those first meetings and we collaborate together, and it was fantastic.

Jo Reed: Well, Surrey with a Fringe on Top was charming. Just charming.

Parker Esse: Thank you. Stereotypically Aunt Eller's out there with a butter churn, okay?

Jo Reed: Yeah, that's the way it opens.

Parker Esse: That's the way it opens, and actually Eugene, you know, our first meeting up in Providence, he said, "Oh look at this antique butter churn I found." And I went, "Oh well that's beautiful, that's great, Molly's going to love it, that's great," and I said, "But let's talk about what else we can do. What else can we do that's unexpected? What are the different chores that everybody does? We started brainstorming about all these chores that happen on a farm in the morning.

Jo Reed: For people who haven't seen the show we should say that show opens with Aunt Eller doing laundry and she's at a washtub that has wheels on it and has a top that comes down and this is what turns into the surrey that Curly wheels around the stage.

Parker Esse: Exactly.

Jo Reed: And it's charming.

Parker Esse: Thank you. And the laundry lines, I said, "Can we have laundry lines that go the length of the stage and then they can turn into the reigns, and the clothes hanging from the lines are the horses and he just said, "Yes, you can have whatever you want." Made it happen, designed it for me, but I drew it out, I said this is what I think it should look like, if it's a T then you have lines on both sides, and he said, "Great, got it, I'm going to go with this and work on it," and that wash tub, once I talked to Chuck Fox in props here, and explained, "Well, you know, I'd love it if the seat could be on top and then whatever the basket's sitting on could be the step, and he's like, "Oh got it," and then they went away and did their artistry, and they're masters at it, they know what they're doing. But then I had a surrey, and she got to be swept off her feet.

Jo Reed: Literally.

Parker Esse: €¦ that vision made it to the stage.

Jo Reed: Well what's so interesting and just wonderful about that moment is that not only do we see why Laurie is in love with Curly but the audience is charmed by him. We're just completely swept away at that moment by him.

Parker Esse: That's great. That's great because that's where we need to be at that moment in the play. It's like little mini-dream right there. It's so romantic, and she's swept off her feet, but then, when she doubts him, "Wait a second, Curly, are you really going to deliver?" And she turns on him and she questions it and because he's probably promised things before and not delivered, right?

Jo Reed: Well, he's a cowboy and she's a farmer.

Parker Esse: Right, exactly. Where have you been for those two weeks you said you were going to come back? So it was important to just build, build, build, build and then take it away. Yeah, I made it all up, dashboard and all.

Jo Reed: What attracted you to musical theater?

Parker Esse: Okay, I started really young.

Jo Reed: Well given your resume, I hope to God.

Parker Esse: Okay, ready? When I was five years old, my sister who was five years older than me, she was ten, took this musical theater class, and each semester they would put on a show, and it was Oliver, and I had to sing "Who will buy this€¦" I had to sing for an audition, I cried, I was terrified, I didn't want to stand up in front of anyone and sing at five years old, I was "What is this?" and then when I got to actually get up and move around and dance and sing and connect with people, the audience, I thought this is really cool, oh look they're laughing at me, because I was so young I was looking at all of their faces out in the audience. Did they like me? Were they entertained? Did they feel something? So as a five-year-old I thought, "I have an opportunity to change somebody." I know that sounds deep for a five-year-old, but I was like, "Oh I can entertain them, I can make them happy, or I can make them sad. However they felt before they came into the theater, I'm going to change them when they walk out the door. They're going to feel something different." And I fell in love. I fell in love with musical theater. It's my mission in life to affect people that way, it's my ministry. And musical theater is an American art form that is a true American art form in its inception that we thrive on, we need. No matter what else is going on around the world in our daily lives, politics, war, whatever, we can go see musical theater and be swept away. We can get lost in a story. We can hear music and it takes us somewhere we never thought we'd go. We can see dance and it can change us and affect our spirit, and that's why I do it. I do it because I want to share and I want people to feel something deep inside, and if I'm not in that place, if I'm not in that open place when I'm creating, it doesn't work for me, and I always tell my dancers when we start working on a number, I tell everyone, I said, "Okay, if you're in this room with me, you have to be open. You have to be open because the more open you are the more my work will inspire you and you're going to inspire me, because it just unfolds. When you're all open to that opportunity to tell story through dance it's magical on a deep level." Otherwise, like I said earlier on, it's just dance, it's just steps, shuffleball change, yeah but how do you do that shuffle, ball change? How do you feel inside? What kind of story are you trying to tell? How are you going to take the audience on that ride?

Jo Reed: Parker, thank you.

Parker Esse: Thank you, Josephine.

Jo Reed: You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.

Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor. Excerpts from "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" sung by Nicholas Rodriguez.

Excerpts from Oklahoma sung by the full cast from the play Oklahoma; Produced by the Arena Stage. Music by Richard Rodgers; Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein. Used courtesy of Arena Stage.

The Art Works podcast is posted on Thursdays at www.arts.gov. And now you can subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U, just click on Beyond Campus and search for the National Endowment for the Arts.

Next time, a conversation with MacArthur Genius grant recipient, Sebastian Ruth.

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTSon Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Choreographer Parker Esse talks about his experience creating new choreography for Arena Stage's revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic musical Oklahoma!. [26:29]