The Great Illusion
In the wings with Bayou Artist Corey Trahan who dishes the magic of performing, teaching and the challenge of resurrecting an iconic community theatre
article by Michael DeVault | photo by Brad Arender
Not so long ago, Corey Trahan was in Bangkok, Thailand, pondering his future. The performer and educator had traveled to Thailand in 2012 to take a position as chairman of Mahidol University’s musical theatre program. For a performer and educator of his stature, it was a dream job. Not only was he able to teach and direct, but Trahan also was able to perform operas and musical theatre roles in an international city. By any measure, it was a job that should have been longer term than just two years, but like other Americans living and working in Thailand, Trahan had just received troubling news. The political climate was deteriorating rapidly, and safety was becoming a concern.
“The American Embassy basically said to all the Americans there, ‘We can no longer protect you,'” Trahan tells BayouLife Magazine. “So I knew it was time to get out.”
Instead of accepting a professional defeat, Trahan looked at his situation as an opportunity. His parents and family live in Dallas, and this could give him a chance to get closer to home. That’s when he found out about a similar position as director of musical theatre at Northwestern State University. For decades, NSU in Natchitoches has been one of the South’s premier musical theatre programs, producing class after class of actors, singers and dancers who would go on to tour nationally or appear on Broadway. Trahan applied for the job, hopeful at the opportunity. NSU offered him the job, but before he could accept the position, another opportunity to helm a storied Louisiana theatre institution developed.
The general manager position at Strauss Theatre Center in Monroe was vacant, and the job was his if he wanted it. Trahan was torn. Northwestern had offered him their position, and it was attractive. “At the same time I was offered the Strauss job. I was afraid I was not going to be able to do both,” Trahan said. “But Northwestern was quite supportive.”
Instead of being without a job, Trahan now found himself with two illustrious programs. At Northwestern, musical theatre is a popular major, and the college has a long history of staging ambitious theatrical productions. On the other hand, Strauss Theatre is one of the oldest community theatres in the nation, and it, too, has frequently fielded impressive and difficult seasons. But Strauss was in trouble. Strauss was just regaining its footing in the wake of the 2008 recession when a major storm dealt the theatre a body blow. Winds ripped the roof from the prop house, dealing more than $100,000 in damage to the facility and its collection of props and costumes. Trahan hasn’t flinched in the face of the challenges of running two major programs.
At Strauss, his long term vision is focused on rebuilding the theatre’s membership. The immediate future, though, is a different challenge. “I think we need to continue repairing our building,” Trahan said. He noted the repairs were almost completed when a tornado ripped through Monroe and dealt another round of damage. “We’re almost there, but it did suffer a lot of damage.”
Trahan brought to Strauss’s situation the same optimism and foresight with which he approaches students with. For Strauss alum and current NSU junior Chase Miller, he’s unsurprised by Trahan’s focus at Strauss. “I think he brings a high level of professionalism into anything he’s working on,” said Miller, who recently appeared in the ensemble of the NSU production of Sweeney Todd. “He’s honest, hard working, and brings the best out of his students.”
Miller sees a lot of Trahan’s work as a teacher–Miller studies in Trahan’s vocal studio–that will carry over into managing a rebuilding era at Strauss while juggling the demands of a university theatre program. “He’s able to pinpoint a problem and find an easy fix for it faster than any other music professor I’ve worked with,” Miller said.
It stands to reason, according to Miller, that Trahan would bring that same ethic and skillset to the task at Strauss. Trahan’s work there, overseeing the staff, coordinating volunteers and staying abreast of developing shows and seasons, draws on the same problem solving techniques he uses with studio students like Miller. While he doesn’t direct shows at Strauss, Trahan nevertheless stays in touch with his production team. For the first time in many seasons, a single, established production team will shepherd all five of the year’s shows through rehearsals and performances. In recent years, each show director recruited a technical director, stage manager, costumer and props team. Going forward, those roles will be filled for the season. “That way, we’ve assembled a team, and we have the same person doing that job throughout the year,” Trahan said.
It may not sound like a major shift, but Trahan illustrated the importance of the move by noting each show’s technical director would otherwise have to spend the first two weeks of rehearsals finding light switches and locating hammers. “If they’re doing it throughout the season, they know where all of those things are. Just that right there is a tremendous time saver.”
Meanwhile, he’s focusing on developing the next season, as well. One goal laid out by the Board, and one Trahan shares, is to expose Strauss to a wider audience while respecting the legacy and the continued support of the existing membership. It’s a tightrope walk that can imperil a young director, and Trahan acknowledges the risk. “We’re trying to choose shows that we know the Strauss membership will appreciate, but we’re also looking for a show that may stretch that a little bit, that’s a little more cutting edge than something they’ve done before,” Trahan said. The ultimate goal is to strike a chord that allows Strauss to continue to entertain its existing members while attracting younger professionals to the theatre. “We’re trying to come up with ways we can develop that audience.”
It’s a challenge Trahan has at Northwestern, as well. After all, Natchitoches is a conservative community that shares more than a few similarities with Monroe. At NSU, Trahan must also balance cutting edge with traditional. To that end, Sweeney Todd appeared on their season in the main theatre while, in the spring, the off-Broadway hit Avenue Q will go up in the NSU black box theatre. The show will be one of Trahan’s first efforts at directing both the music and stage direction. (For Sweeney Todd, Trahan was the music director.)
Trahan believes Avenue Q will entertain the college audience, but he admits he’s a little concerned with how the community at large will accept a musical comedy in which Muppet-inspired characters deal with adulthood in New York’s Alphabet City community. The show not only deals with “twentysomething” malaise, but it also touches on themes from racism, homosexuality and intimacy in the confines of a small apartment building. And then there’s the language.
“That’s part of the challenge of live theatre,” Trahan said. “Finding a way to censor a show appropriately for the audience it’s being performed for while remaining true to the show’s themes.” The last thing any director wants to do, after all, is offend an unsuspecting audience. “It’s a risk any theatre runs.”
Challenge is part of the game, and that’s one of the reasons Trahan continues to work on the stage. In fact, he won’t do a show unless it offers him the chance to work hard and grow as an artist. “The show’s got to present some type of challenge to me to make it interesting,” Trahan said.
If anyone is up to those challenges, it’s Trahan, according to ULM vocal instructor Julian Jones. Jones first met Trahan when Trahan was on faculty at ULM as a voice instructor. Jones expects that Trahan will face each show just as he faces each of his vocal students, by challenging his students to grow as performers, tempering that challenge with inspiration and encouragement. “He’s really great at finding unique or obscure pieces for the student,” Jones said. “It’s all about being expressive, about helping students become better performers. He helps them learn how to find characterization.”
Trahan approaches the task of molding young performers with a single, unified goal in mind. That goal is to make each student into the ideal version of themselves. In theatre parlance, it’s called the Triple Threat.
Performers naturally exhibit strengths in a particular area. Where one may be a strong singer, they may not be a particularly strong actress. Then, there are those who can act and dance, but maybe the singing could stand to improve. Trahan specializes in finding those strong skills, embracing them and then focusing the student’s energies on building up the weaker components. “It’s my job to assess what they do well and then immediately address what needs work, so that, when they leave, they have a fighting chance,” Trahan said.
The eventual goal: the triple threat, a performer who sings, dances and acts equally well. Even in Trahan’s own performing career, he’s still trying to get there. “I’m not a particularly strong dancer,” he said, which is surprising considering that one of his first exposures to Monroe audiences was in Singing In the Rain, where Trahan appeared as Don Lockwood, the role immortalized by Gene Kelly. No one would ever accuse Kelly of not being a talented dancer, and Trahan was nervous about the role. Yet, he worked hard, attended tap lessons daily, and wowed the Strauss audience. That’s unsurprising to Jones. “He’s an incredibly charismatic performer, with lots of energy and an ability to think on his feet,” Jones said. “He’s very quick and witty, and he’s able to respond to whatever situation occurs at the drop of a hat.”
The ability to find solutions on the fly is an important skill for a performer, and Jones said it’s one of Trahan’s strongest points as a performer, which is ironic, considering Trahan said he spends his evenings in the wings, watching performers trod the boards. “I like watching people when, if something goes wrong on stage, how they’re going to get themselves out of it,” he said. “That’s where the fun of live theatre takes place.”
He calls live theatre “the great illusion,” and from a chair in the wings, Trahan can observe the best of both worlds. The ultimate goal, even when mistakes happen, is making sure the audience doesn’t have a clue. “A whole other world is going on on stage and backstage, and the audience has no clue,” Trahan said. “It’s pretty awesome.”
With theatres at his disposal in Monroe and Natchitoches, Trahan has more than a share of magic to watch. Yet, therein lies the biggest challenge–distance. While he keeps in touch with Strauss staff and teams by phone, email and weekly meetings, he misses being at rehearsals. “There are a lot of things that I would love, to be able to attend every rehearsal that Strauss has,” Trahan said. “But that’s physically impossible.”
So for now, Trahan accepts the limits of time and distance. “It’s challenging, physically. Sometimes, I get tired. I do work seven days a week,” Trahan said. His last bona fide day off was Labor Day. But like any great stage performer, he never cracks, never lets the audience see the strain. Instead, he keeps moving, perseveres against the exhaustion, the endless stress of managing two programs at once. And yes, he misses Strauss when he’s not there to lend vociferous support. But that’s just one part of the illusion that is any great director. “Sometimes, it is from afar I have to show that support,” Trahan said.