Ariana DeBose has performed in so many popular shows it may be hard to figure out where you first saw her perform. It may have been on TV in “So You Think You Can Dance?,” or cheering in BRING IT ON, creating a pivotal presence as “The Bullet” in HAMILTON, or when she stepped into the spotlight as a lead in THE BRONX TALE, she is no stranger to hard work and success.
Now, Ariana has brought her colossal talent to the La Jolla Playhouse in their new musical in SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL, playing through December 17th. DeBose now finds herself playing ‘Disco Donna,” a pivotal time in the life of music superstar Donna Summer. This musical s full of powerhouse performers as LeChanze and Storm Lever are also tackling other segments of the life of this successful and innovative musician.
Ariana was gracious enough to answer some questions as she goes into her opening week of the show, so without further ado, here we go!
From MOTOWN, PIPPIN, HAMILTON, A BRONX TALE, the list of shows you have been in are all really varied, but all seem to have a very strong point of view and social message – what draws you to a show?
AD: Ultimately I go where I’m called. That’s the nature of the business….I admire Judith Light for a number of reasons, but she frequently talks about the entertainment field being a service business. That stuck with me. I like working on pieces that provide a ‘service’ to the community, that expand someone’s horizons. Now the subject matter, I get a prickly feeling in my gut. A good one. Call it instinct.
Your history shows with “So You Think You Can Dance,” BRING IT ON and more you have shown you have very strong dance skills, but in A BRONX TALE and in SUMMER you are stepping into the spotlight with larger roles, how do you approach the different challenges these roles bring?
AD: I approach them head on! Whatever it takes. I go back to class. I read every interview. I watch every piece of footage I can find. But most importantly I mentally prepare to fail in rehearsals quite a lot before I get it right. But hey- you’ve got to be free to fail. I’ve learned not to be afraid of making mistakes. My dance training provided me with a healthy perfection complex that I’ve had to check. I choose to be perfectly imperfect every day.
What specifically drew you to the “Disco Donna” role for this production?
AD: When I first read the audition material I was all over it. It sounds crazy, but I could hear her in my head. I could relate to every circumstance on the page. I was reading the story of a ‘complicated woman’, which was exactly the challenge I was looking for. I also was so intrigued by the concept of things not being as they seem. Your Instagram life is not your real life, and while Donna didn’t live through the age of social media, she certainly dealt with her fair share of invasive press.
In SUMMER, you are playing a real person that a lot of people know, how does that inform your performance?
AD: Yes, Donna was a real person, but I am not doing an impersonation of her. I’m fascinated by her physicality and her body language, but beyond that I have to find her with myself. That way I’m both authentic to myself and I honor her memory. She is an inspiration.
From Lin Manuel Miranda, to Chazz Palminteri, Alan Menken, Robert De Niro, Jerry Zaks, and LeChanze you have had to opportunity to work with some iconic people, how has working with them influenced you?
AD: Well, I count myself lucky to have had the opportunity to have worked with & observe every one of those people you mentioned. All fascinating studies. I think ultimately what I’ve taken away from experiencing heavy hitters is to have courage and be kind to everyone. Your work will speak for itself, but your ‘status’ doesn’t exempt you from treating others with kindness. I think that’s how you gain respect and keep it.
In HAMILTON you were “The Bullet” but your presence on stage through the show, even in that pivotal scene, is very much a strong female presence. With SUMMER, you will be playing a very strong female performer. Is this something you purposely look for in roles or do you think you bring some of that to characters as you work on the piece?
AD: It is 100% something I look for. It’s not what is always there. I think most female characters have notes of strength even if it’s not their dominate characteristic.
You seem to make very clear goals for yourself and your career; in a business that can sometimes be very hard to navigate or to prep for the future — what advice do you have for people who are interested in pursuing the arts?
All I can speak to is my journey, but what I will tell you is that you will take multiple hits & you will have the choice to get back up or stay down. I chose to get up again and again. I will say if you keep running into walls maybe it’s time to access your part in the equation. Accountability is a big thing I’ve become acquainted with in the last couple of years. When one door closes go knock on another. However, you can’t do the same thing and expect a different outcome. You have to be willing to do the work, learn the new skills, and go to the uncomfortable place(s), willing to change. The work doesn’t stop after you’ve graduated from university or entered the workforce. That’s when it begins.
To check out Ariana DeBose, and the rest of the talented cat in SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL, playing through December 17th go to www.lajollaplayhouse.org for show time and ticket information.