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Indie musician finds inspiration in Broadway tour

The original Reza in ONCE, Wellin tours the country with the musical.
The original Reza in ONCE, Wellin tours the country with the musical.
Claire Wellin

In national tour of "Once," the skills of street musicians provide much of the dramatic color. Scene changes come about as actors challenge each other with fiddle, guitar, drums, and more as they set up moments in the life of the Guy and the Girl, two lonely individuals who find a connection through music.

Before the play opens and during intermission, audience members can climb up on the stage and tour the "pub" that provides colorful and flexible background of the story. In a short pre-show musical interlude, the cast plays in the center of the stage as the audience walks around them.

Independent singer/songwriter Claire Wellin reprises the role of the Girl's roommate Reza on the tour, a role she originally played on Broadway. Besides holding a BFA in musical theater from Minnesota State University, Mankato, Wellin also leads the Chicago-based indie group "Youth In a Roman Field" and also contributes to "Glad Fanny."

In a recent interview, Wellin discussed she manages multiple creative careers while on tour.

Actor, singer, songwriter: how do you balance being all three?
Ah, balance! I am still trying to figure out how to balance, especially the writing and the acting. It is a continuous challenge. Because both things require a lot of time, which goes hand in hand with money and with commitment. Most days I count it a blessing that I have more than one creative path because they really do affect each other in positive ways. I essentially have more than one way to tell stories, and that is the bottom line. Plus I’m never bored which is great; I always feel like there is so much work to do. Other days I feel pressure to prioritize or put all my eggs in one basket, as if I’ll never “make it,” whatever that is, unless I choose one or the other. However, saying that feels ridiculous, which I guess is a good sign. So yes, finding balance is tricky but I am learning to listen to myself and follow my heart and my instincts in the process.

You played Reza in “Once” on Broadway and now on tour. What’s your favorite moment?
I am so thankful to have worked with both amazing companies. There are a lot of things to love, but my favorite part of the play is the pre-show. It just feeds my soul. It’s amazing to be up there with the audience, to feel them, to give them that introduction to a really unique night of theatre. It’s the ultimate invitation to come along for the ride, to have them in the space at the start.

Sounds amazing. Any memorable moments?
There was an older guy who started playing the spoons one show. And a woman who brought her flute up onstage and was pretty disappointed when told by stage management that it wasn’t an open jam. It’s really fun for us to connect with one another, to switch parts and instruments, to continue to develop and play and create.

How does your work with Youth In a Roman Field and Glad Fanny"connect with your work in “Once”?
Because I write (for Youth In a Roman Field) and arrange (for Glad Fanny) I am most often looking at things from a big-picture standpoint. Especially in the pre-show. So I’m tailoring what I’m playing to help the song as a whole. “What is missing here? Should I play more of a rhythmic thing, or a linear or melodic line? What’s covered, should I switch instruments?” are the sorts of things I’m assessing, especially because there are two of us playing violin and the goal is to elevate and support the song as opposed to overwhelm or crowd it.

Does your experience as a musician help shape you as an actor as well?
Oh, absolutely. Because music is in my bones, because it’s what I started with, and what’s most natural to me, I am more confident in it. I have more ideas and less inhibitions as a musician. The wonderful thing about this show is that I am able to directly connect that string to being an actor. Something about doing them together and as a part of one story has enabled me to apply that abandon to acting, especially because Reza can and will get away with a lot. The biggest difference between playing in my own group and playing in “Once” is that I don’t get to call the shots. It teaches me how to lead in quiet ways, and how to support others as the bottom line. Which of course is a great thing to translate to my writing and to my work as a band leader as well.

You worked with "Once" star Stuart Ward on his EP. How did that project come about?
It was a fantastic challenge for me. Stuart had asked me, along with a few others, to play on his debut EP which we recorded while the tour was in Toronto. As we started rehearsing, my big picture brain emerged and he asked me to do some arranging for the strings. I was thrilled, especially because he really gave me free reign in creating the parts. I arranged I think four of the songs, and I loved the journey and the feeling of helping someone communicate a more fully realized version of their story. We really discovered a lot of what worked and what didn’t together, and it was fun to hash that out. It was fascinating to see how the parts changed and shifted during rehearsals and even during the recording process. The experience also helped inspire my own EP undertaking, which we’re preparing for San Francisco. The Youth in a Roman Field sound has definitely been shifting and I wanted to capture that while on the road. So, back to balance...


"Once" opened May 27 and plays through June 8, 2014 at The Paramount Theatre in downtown Seattle.

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