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Blog Less Traveled: An interview with Michael Walline

Michael Walline's sharp photography has sparked New Phoenix Theatre's Peter Pan.

blog by Scott Behrend  • 

This week I talk with choreographer, actor and photographer Michael Walline about his career in Buffalo and his sensational photos for Peter Pan, which is onstage now through Dec. 23 at the New Phoenix Theatre (95 Johnson Park, Buffalo).

Some fast facts about Michael:

- Mark is native of Williamsville and received his BA in musical theatre performance from the University at Buffalo.

- He has written three award-winning musicals, including Zooma Zooma, a musical celebrating the life and music of Louis Prima.

- As a performer, he has been seen internationally as Big Bird in Sesame Street Live’s production of 1,2,3 Imagine!

- Michael is a six-time winner of the Artvoice Theatre Award for Outstanding Choreography in a Musical.

Michael Walline

Blog Less Traveled: The name Michael Walline is practically synonymous with musical theatre in Western New York. Please talk a little about the journey from UB musical theatre major to industry institution.

Michael Walline: I started (at) UB as a landscape design major with no intention on going to school for theatre. I did the musicals in high school productions… but my mind was set on a world of architecture once I started college. In my sophomore year, I took a class on a whim called Body Movement For Actors, taught by Lynne Kurdziel-Formato. I started dancing when I was 20, thanks to her. She was the biggest influence on my life - she took me under her wing, allowed me to learn from her by being her assistant, (and) hired me… for my first professional theatre job. That was in 1993. To this day I thank her for what she (taught) me: “Be trusting, be relevant, but most of all, know the history of your craft.”

After being onstage for a number of years, I realized my passion was in choreography. I have had the great privilege to work with some of Buffalo’s best theatrical masters at nearly all of the professional theaters in the area. I am proud to be part of the Buffalo theatre community. And yes—I changed my major and got my degree in Musical Theatre Performance!

BLT:Besides your prolific work as a choreographer, you’ve also written the books for Familiar Strangers and Zooma Zooma: The Essence Of Prima. How is the challenge of conceiving of and creating a musical different from (or similar to!) that of choreographing a show?

MW: Choreographing a show is always interesting. Many people feel that it is unnatural to break out into song and dance in the middle of a show. For me, song and dance really work if they are integrated into the story and propel the story forward. In writing a show, you need to start with an idea and objective and flesh it out from there.

Zooma Zooma was a jukebox musical that Jim Runfola and I conceived using the music of Louis Prima and Keely Smith. Our objective was to capture the essence of what Louis and Keely gave to their audiences every night - it was an all out party. It was personality and showmanship - they wanted the audience to leave as exhausted as they were.

Familiar Strangers, on the other hand, had a Point A-to-Point Z plotline that was told through dance. Four spoken words were used in the show’s entirety. The challenge for that show was using song and dance for two hours to tell the story and to keep the audience engaged. As long as there is a reaction from the audience I am pleased, whether I am choreographing, directing, or have written a show. If an audience member leaves with no reaction I have not done my job. 

BLT:Your publicity photos for New Phoenix Theater’s production of Peter Pan are generating a lot of excited buzz. How did you begin to moonlight as a photographer? And does the striking and highly stylized look of the photos reflect the actual production—or has it even informed or inspired the production?

MW: I have many influences when it comes to photography. My older brother Jim gave me a camera four years ago and said, “Do something with this.” He is an amazing landscape and architectural photographer, and I tried to emulate his work.

After a few months, I found that I wasn’t too interested in photographing buildings. I asked a friend if I could do his headshots for him. Looking back, they were a complete mess, but they were a starting point. I started doing headshots for more of my friends and honed my craft. I started doing production stills when I did a shoot for Macbeth at the New Phoenix. It was then that I knew I could help propel a show by capturing not just a photo, but a mood.

For Peter Pan, (director) Kelli Bocock-Natale gave me some ideas for what she wanted and she let me choose the location. And quite honestly, it all fell into place that day. When we got to Amherst State Park, we all said, “Yes!” We knew it was right. It was a great feeling. I hope the photos have inspired the production - I have to say that that shoot was one of my favorites I have ever done.

BLT: Your photography has also included Western New York actors and actresses in very stylized fashion type shoots. What inspired this concept?

MW: One of my biggest influences is Alexander McQueen. He was so daring and controversial and stylized. Each of his runway shows had a different theme and they all were over-the-top and fabulous.

Another one of my influences has to be my own life. My first photo shoot, “A Modern Fairy Tale,” came out of reading my niece a goodnight story. My second, “Ghosts in the Trees,” came from my relationships with my sisters. My “Suburban Animal” shoot came from hanging out in a costume shop with my best friend staring at all these furs that were donated to the theater. I’m planning my next one if anyone’s interested in being a model for me.

BLT: What forthcoming projects are you particularly excited about?

MW: I am directing Hedwig and the Angry Inch for ALT at the Warehouse, opening Jan. 6. After that I am directing and choreographing A Grand Night For Singing at Musicalfare. I’m very lucky to have had another full theater season and to work with the people I do. Buffalo’s a great town and I’m happy to call it my home.

The Blog Less Traveled is a bi-weekly look at the Buffalo theater scene by Scott Behrend of Road Less Traveled Productions.  Previous entries have included interviews with Buffalo-born playwright Sean Cullen and Derek Campbell of the Irish Classical Theatre Company, among others.

TAGGED: blog less traveled, michael walline, new phoenix theatre, peter pan, photography, road less traveled productions, scott behrend, theater

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  1. Ben Kirst December 08, 2011 @ 3:06pm

    The photo of Peter Pan on the tree limb is pretty amazing.  It’s really a different way of imaging Peter Pan—much less Disney-fied, much more emblematic of the kind of dark fear and danger of a child responsible for a group of fellow children, fighting off a murderous pirate.  It’s a take you rarely see.

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