Where Art Meets Romance: ‘Sunday in the Park with George’

by Julie Tereshchuk on May 31, 2018 in Entertainment, Theatre, Living Texas, Austin,
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In another creative production from the talented team at Austin’s ZACH, Stephen Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical is a living painting beautifully wrapped around a love story.

‘Sunday in the Park with George’ centers on the French post-Impressionist Georges Seurat, as the artist discovers unimaginable possibilities while creating what has gone on to become an iconic work of art. Seurat—who influenced the likes of Vincent Van Gogh—is known for his skill with minute points of multi-colored paint which allow the viewer’s eye to blend the colors, connecting the dots into masterpieces that reflect both the unexpected and the beauty of life. ZACH’s on-stage orchestra brings the score, about the art of making art—and love, soaring to life.

Ahead of its opening at ZACH’s Topfer Stage—which has brought some of Austin’s finest theatrical productions to Central Texas audiences over the years—members of the team took us inside this gift of a musical.

Producing Artistic Director Dave Steakley

Is this the first time you’ve worked on a stage production which is a living painting?

In ‘Mary Poppins’ a sculpture comes to life in moments with the Banks children in the park, but Sondheim’s musical is unique in that the plot revolves around a famous painting and the characters who inhabit it.

What kind of challenges does ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ present?

There is a lot of freedom to interpret the characters in the painting because they are fictionalized representations of people Georges Seurat sketched in the park… The challenge for me is to translate the creative process of a visual artist to the ways that we as theater artists make our work. A visual artist’s work can be very solitary working in a studio, and in the theater our work is made from collaboration with many people. The visual artist decides what they want to paint and then it is fixed permanently upon a canvas, is exhibited, and then people respond to that work. In the theater, the audience completes the collaborative process for us, and impacts timing, and the decisions which have been made and get adjusted based on their responses.

What do you want the audience to take away from this musical?

I think the advice that the character Dot gives to her great grandson in the play is so empowering: “Stop worrying where you’re going. Move on. Look at what you want, not at where you are, not at what you’ll be. Stop worrying if your vision is new, just keep moving on. Anything you do let it come from you then it will be new. Give us more to see…” I love this message to reject stasis and the status quo, in favor of extending and challenging yourself to keep moving forward with momentum, and to pursue your personal vision that comes from your heart. In my experience, this is key to happiness and fulfillment in this life.

Cecil Washington, Jr. (George) and Jill Blackwood (Dot/Marie) in the Sondheim musical ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ at ZACH. Photo Kirk Tuck

Actor Cecil Washington, Jr. (George)

Are you a painter?

Well, before starting this show I would’ve said, “No, not really.” Now I believe I am slowly gaining skill as one. You can’t help but be inspired to at least try, being surrounded by artwork such as Seurat’s, and this musical. Short answer: Yes, at the beginner stage.

What challenges did you encounter in this production and how did you overcome them?

The “beautiful challenges” as I learned to call them, were the songs. Not so much if I could tackle them vocally, but Sondheim has such a unique and intricate way of composing music. I worked hard to ensure that I honored that, as well as staying true to my voice. The lyrics of some my character’s songs are so tricky, but so beautiful… When you receive the messages in the music, it becomes like breathing. You become one with the piece.”

Is there anything you’ve learned from ‘Sunday in the Park with George?’

An artist, be it an actor, painter, musician, etc., experiences an array of emotions just to create work to be seen by the world. It is really a part of our makeup to share the gift that has been bestowed upon us. And, it comes with sacrifice. I understand that more than ever having lived the life of George. I’m grateful to have a new appreciation for dedication.

Sunday in the Park with George’ plays ZACH’s Topfer Stage through June 24.

Cover photo Kirk Tuck