Interview by Danielle Boise; Photo Courtesy of The Fox Theatre
With a strong blues background, Mary Bridget Davies was the no-brainer choice to step into the lead role in A Night with Janis Joplin and become the embodiment of one of the world’s greatest female blues rock ‘n’ roll legends of any generation, none other than Janis Joplin herself. Davies has personified Joplin since 2012, both off and on Broadway, until the show closed on February 9, 2014. The same year Davies was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Lead Actress in Musical for her candid portrayal of Joplin.
I had the privilege and pleasure to sit down and talk to Ms. Davies on what it feels like to step into the shoes of Janis Joplin and what the role has meant to her.
Ms. Davies, you have been playing Janis Joplin since taking over the lead role in 2012, both off and on Broadway until the end run in 2014. After a 2-year hiatus, A Night with Janis Joplin is now out on the road. After such a long break, how did it feel to step back into the role of Janis, a character you played for so long?
It was literally, I’d say it in the best way as visiting an old friend. It’s like a reunion. I love this role. I love this character. I love her so much. I’ve been a fan of hers for so long. We were talking and talking like “oh it’s going to go back on the road, it’s going to go back on road” and instead it’s feeling like it wasn’t and it made me sad. So when I got the call that the North American tour was set and asked if I would want to do it. I was just thrilled, it was like summer camp. It’s so wonderful.
How do you keep connected to each performance to make it fresh and new, not only for yourself, but for the audience as well?
Well the audience also informs [sic] a lot of my energy. It’s a different audience every night, and I remind myself. [sic] I told myself the day that you dread going to work and doing this is the day you stop, because there is no half-stepping Janis Joplin. You have to be fully committed and ready to give yourself completely away every night.
I remind myself that lots of people in the crowd saw her the first time, so those are huge shoes to fill. On the other hand, there are people that she died when they were too young.[sic] they never got the chance to see her and I am the closest thing that it’s going to be for them. So I have to do it like it’s the first time and I love the music, I’m still not tired of it.
I feel just like Janis had said, in one of her monologues, during “Ball and Chain” at the end when she kind of just goes off the rails. I forgot what concert it was, but she talks for a very long time and she’s like “If you bought it today, you don’t wear it tomorrow man. You got to do that. You got to [sic] love that person like it’s the last day of your life.” I always think of that, like I have to do this show like it’s the last time I’m ever going to do it.
What was your source of inspiration to take on a roll like Janis and how did you make it your own?
Well the beautiful thing about Janis and I is there are a lot of accidental parallels in our life, like I started out as a blues singer and so did she. And having that type of school and having that type of sort of pedigree and foundation to any person’s musical style is a true line that connects me to her. But, because blues is so improvisational in of [sic] itself, that’s where I can steal moments to do things Mary Bridget, but they still come across as Janis because she and I were both schooled the same way. We have the same building blocks. So that’s what really what I accredited [sic] giving me that freedom without breaking character and having the audience feel like, well obviously she’s just singing like herself right now.
How did you get into the headspace of such an iconic, albeit tragic, complicated character as Janis and truly show the audience the many depths and layers to a complex personality?
I really truly believe having been a touring musician on the road with a band, and being an actor; bringing that road experience, having lived literally, except for the drugs, like Janis did. I’ve seen behind that curtain to know what that loneliness is like. I know what that joy that you get from the crowd every night – that give and take. I understand it on a personal level and I believe I plug that into her character every night and throw it out there because Janis was one of the most authentic people in the world. When she spoke, she spoke the truth and when she sang, she sang the truth and so I believe my real life experience help to portray that honesty and authenticity for the crowd.
How does it feel to play a real life person, who was known as one greatest woman in blues and rock ‘n’ roll, while maintaining being a leading feminist voice? And how do you feel that it translate to today’s feminist movement?
I think that it’s a huge responsibility, but it’s also an honor. She really accidentally became a voice and a face for women, because she refused to stay in the category and in the little box that society had created for her. I think if she were alive she would be tickled that she was so important and one of the figureheads of the movement.
Honestly, I don’t think that she even had that on her radar. She was just being herself, but in that, it gave that freedom and the counterculture at the time, there just was so much going on. [sic] I really wish I would have lived then. I really do, I wish I was my parent’s age – it would have been amazing to be around at that time.
I know that for the people, I’m the vehicle for them, for Janis. I know they are clapping after the performances and I am the one that did it, but I know it’s for her, and I am happy about that. I’d much rather she’d still be alive and people going to her shows, then be the one to do it, but I’m happy I carry the torch. And I don’t take it selfishly. I really do believe it’s for her, and I’m happy to do it.
What is your personal favorite moment in A Night with Janis Joplin?
Mine has changed over the years, but right now it’s “Ball and Chain.” It was the song that was the breakout performance in 1967 at Monterey Pop that got Albert Grossman’s attention and he became management for Big Brother and the Holding Company and then got them signed to Columbia Records and got them to be the famous group that they were. But because it is a Big Mama Thornton blues song, the [sic] Chicago blues song, and Janis turned it into this psychedelic wailing banshee-like heartbreaking insane, in the best sense of the word, power song. By this point in the show, we’re almost close to the end, we’re two-thirds of the way through the show and my adrenaline is completely riding the rails (and) I can go places vocally and emotionally in a completely different was every night. It’s just when the song is over, I’m like well there was that. It’s fun for me, it’s experimental almost and so since coming back on tour that’s my favorite part of the show, but it does, it changes.
What has it meant to you to portray Janis for so long?
It’s an honor and to know that her brother, sister and her band mates they’ve [sic] all seen me, heard me and have given me their stamp of approval. I’m responsible for keeping her legacy alive and when I say that it’s like it’s not even coming out of my mouth, it makes no sense to me. I’m just happy to be the one to do it. I still pinch myself like you’re the one doing this and it’s like wow, I am me. [sic] I’m enjoying the ride as long as I can and as long as I can pull it off I’m happy to do it.
What do you want people to take away from A Night with Janis Joplin?
I want them to realize that she wasn’t just this stage persona that people saw; this drunken out-of-control, wailing banshee that had no social grace or anything like that. That was her onstage persona. She was a very well-read, hysterically funny, loving, almost kind of, I don’t want to say childish, but she was so smart, yet there was this little girl blue quality to her. There was something about her personality that there is an impish, child-like part of it where she was still, as heart-broken as she was personally, she still had that glimmer of hope. Like you can do anything. She believe that. She was so multi-faceted and she revered these women who came before her. The women whose songs she covered and I want people to see that part of her personality.
Really I just want them to leave entertained, and go “oh that, I didn’t know that about her” and then go look her up on YouTube, or iTunes, or buy an album or go watch the Nina Simone documentary or Bessie Smith, because we talk about all these other women too. Hopefully it just wakes people up, because it’s too good to be forgotten, and we are getting further and further away from those times. Janis died forty-six years ago.
I just hope that people leave with a better understanding of her, and maybe kind of more of an interest in the other artists and that they had a good time. Life is hard, when you go out you want to be entertained. You want to be taken to a different place for a couple of hours, and I want to be able to do that for people. I want them to leave feeling invigorated.
On the two year anniversary of the end run of A Night with Janis Joplin Davis kicked off the North American tour at The Panasonic Theatre in Toronto, which will run through April 24, ending at Gaillard Center in Charleston, SC. Don’t fret, A Night with Janis Joplin will be making a stop at the Fabulous Fox Theatre in Atlanta for one night only, on Sunday, April 17. A Night with Janis Joplin is a once and a lifetime chance to get to experience all the soulful rawness that was Joplin, so grab your tickets fast, for this is a must-see show.
A Night with Janis Joplin Tour Dates
March 29- April 3 in Saint Paul @ Ordway Center for the Performing Arts
April 11 in Thunder Bay, ON @ Thunder Bay Community Auditorium
April 14 in Durham @ DPAC – Durham Performing Arts Center
April 17 in Atlanta @ The Fox Theatre
April 20 in Daytona Beach @ The Peabody Auditorium
April 22 in St. Petersburg @ The Mahaffey Theater
April 24 in Charleston @ Galliard Center