By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
A s the lights dim in The Little Theatre of Alexandria, the crowd hums with anticipation. The energy is palpable. They are all here to see a show, to relish the collective joy of live entertainment.
Even if the venue is different, it’s the kind of moment most of us can relate to. But what about the people on or behind the stage? On the other side of that curtain is a squadron of storytellers working in concert to bring life to words on a page. For folks like Janice Rivera, who has been an actor and sound designer at LTA for 15 years, the experience is genuinely addictive.
“That kind of electricity that happens with the actors on stage, that’s my soul food,” Rivera said. “I just love that. I love that we took all this energy and time and created something, and then it’s unique every single night.”
Rivera, who has performed at LTA and community theaters around the DMV, counts “Tommy,” “The Nance” and “Rumors” among her LTA credits since first stepping on the Alexandria stage 15 years ago. Her vivacious work on stage is matched by her work backstage: She won an award for her sound design on LTA’s 2018 production of “Dracula.”
However, the roots of Rivera’s love affair with the theater go back to her adolescence, when music and performance were an escape from “family issues” at home, she said. A gifted singer, Rivera first connected to musicals in sixth grade, but it was through her work on the middle school stage that she found a band of misfits just like her.
Her love for theater grew as she continued through middle and high school. When she thought about her future, she was certain she would be an actress, but her parents thought otherwise. They told her point blank that they would pay for her college education as long as she didn’t pursue a theater degree.
Despite her consternation, Rivera mostly listened to her parents. She attended Towson University in Towson, Maryland, majoring in mass communication – with a minor in theater. Although she originally thought she wanted to enter Hollywood, Rivera quickly discovered on-camera work was not for her.
“I hated being in front of the camera. I hated this lens staring at me. It felt very cold, very impersonal,” Rivera said. “I can perform in front of 1,000 people on stage, but this just felt bad.”
Her degree also helped her get some experience working behind the camera, and she found that she enjoyed “the ability to tell stories electronically with media” in a way that differed from her performances. After graduating, Rivera started to work in editing and began her career with United Way, which brought her to Alexandria. She worked on United Way’s television ad campaign with the National Football League and got a crash course in the many facets of production.
“We had a studio, so I had every job from script supervisor to assistant editor,” Rivera said. “I just did it all, so I got a real taste of everything, and I found that I loved post-production the best because that’s where you could really manipulate [the] story the best and do things with it.”
Rivera ended up working at United Way for five years in the mid-1980s before becoming a freelance editor, which she remains. She has edited political ads, music videos and training videos for nonprofits, but no matter where her career has taken her, she has remained involved with theater. Her community theater work has become almost like a part-time job, with rehearsals in the evenings and performances on the weekends.
“I love working with especially community theater people because you meet people you would never meet. You could go to a million bars and you wouldn’t meet the kinds of people you do in theater,” Rivera said. “You’ve got lawyers, you’ve got teachers, you’ve got doctors, you’ve got everything, and you’re in all one show together. It’s kind of like a summer camp for adults.”
Rivera took a five-year hiatus from theater after she got married and had children, but the desire to return to the stage never left her. Although Rivera had performed in one LTA production in the 80s, she didn’t become a regular fixture in the local theater’s company of performers until after her five-year break.
“It just sparked a renewed love because a little absence makes the heart grow fonder,” Rivera laughed.
In 2005, she made her return to the LTA stage in “Tommy,” the rock opera based on music from The Who. The show won the Watch Award for Outstanding Production and stretched Rivera’s vocal cords in new directions.
“When we struck the set that Sunday, I sat in the theater and cried for like 10 minutes because, A, I was just sad it was over, but, B, I was so happy to be back where my soul is, which is in the theater,” Rivera said.
As an actor, Rivera fully embraces her characters, diving deep into the heart, mind and soul of whoever she is playing. Research has become one of Rivera’s favorite parts of the process. Although the work does not always appear on stage, it informs her characters in subtle ways – even when the performances are big – and helps her conjure something, or someone, real onstage.
“It’s not something the audience sees, but it’s part of what you bring,” Rivera said. “I like the research, I like experimenting, I like doing accents. Some of them fall on their face, but you just find the right thing, and then you trust. You trust that the director and other people are elevating you to do the best you can.”
The farther afield from her own personality a character is, the more enjoyment Rivera gets from her performances, she said. That mindset has led Rivera in some unexpected directions.
In the burlesque theater-set play “The Nance,” Rivera played a stripper, a role that forced her to reveal herself, literally and figuratively, in ways that were both exciting and terrifying.
“I was working my ass off, literally,” Rivera said, breaking into a hearty laugh at the memory. “ … Getting on stage, I had to striptease – not something I thought I’d be able to do at my age. But also she had a really heavy New York accent and then she also pretended to have a Spanish accent – that one I can do because I’m Hispanic – and then her character was all out there.”
Rivera naturally exudes the kind of charm, self-confidence and conversational enthusiasm of an extrovert, but her role in “The Nance” pushed those qualities to the extreme.
“I’m a little bit like that, but not in that particular way,” Rivera said. “So, it was scary when I was taking this on in a lot of ways, both physically and then creatively, but then it was also really freeing too. Literally, the metaphor of stripping was perfect for this because as an actor, I had to strip a lot of layers of my fears, whether it was body image or playing this character that is really outside my zone.”
When Rivera first returned to the stage, she thought acting would be the extent of her involvement at Alexandria’s community theater. However, she found a new path after staff at LTA discovered she could edit reel-to-reel audio tape. The increasingly ambitious productions at LTA necessitated more ambient sounds and music, and Rivera was one of the few people with the blend of technical and creative abilities to bring those soundscapes to life.
“Basically, when you’re a video editor, you’re a sound designer as well, adding music, adding sound effects to your video, so that seemed very natural to me,” Rivera said. “But then it brought an even bigger excitement because it was combining my theater love with my technical skills.”
The work of a sound designer for theatrical productions works best when it blends seamlessly into the fabric of the play. Unlike Rivera’s work as an actor, which is front, center and everywhere in between, her sound design functions as one brush stroke of a much larger canvas.
“Sound design, like lighting design, you’re experiencing it, but you’re not aware of it,” Rivera said. “… If there’s a background of some crickets or thunder or something, you’re not necessarily aware of that but it is creating so much of a response.”
As a sound designer, her first point of contact is the director. Rivera works closely with each director to understand their vision for the production. Some directors embrace collaboration and welcome others’ ideas, while some maintain tight control over every aspect of production. Rivera has to ride the director’s wavelength in order to find the right choices for a particular play.
In the case of Rivera’s award-winning work on “Dracula,” she pitched the director on the idea of giving each character a theme that would play when they walked on stage. Her director immediately gave her the go ahead, and she ended up combining her skills as an actor and sound maestro to bring it to life.
“This is not something many sound designers will do, but I would go to rehearsals and watch because I’m a performer and I like to get the vibe of the performance, especially when I was doing something like that, trying to come up with a theme for their character,” Rivera said. “I would see how they’re acting it, not just something I had in my mind about how that character should be.”
Each production is different and requires a different stylistic approach, but the core of Rivera’s work is about finding sounds and pre-existing musical scores to fit each moment in the story. A wolf’s howl, a sword unsheathed or the chirping of crickets: They all help to accentuate the mood of a scene. Rivera amasses a library of sounds for each production, sometimes even marrying multiple sounds to create a completely custom piece of audio.
Rivera said she remains most proud of her work on “Dracula,” where she built a sonic landscape designed to draw the audience into the dark, Gothic world of the central character.
“I had done a lot of things with surround sound going around the speakers. I just remember thinking that even if I hadn’t done the sound design, I would have noticed the sound design of this one,” Rivera said.
During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rivera’s freelance work dried up and LTA canceled all its shows. Instead of sitting with a theater-shaped hole in her heart, Rivera found a way to keep her passion alive. She worked with Missing Link, an upstart podcast creator, to produce and edit Between Acts, a 14-episode series based around one act radio plays with volunteer actors. It kept her going through the toughest stretches of the pandemic, but it was no replacement for the stage.
Rivera said she feared the pandemic would spell doom for live theater, and while audiences have been slow to return, she remains heartened to see there is still an interest in communal experiences and live entertainment.
“I think that even if it’s silent, there’s this bond that’s happening with everybody experiencing those things together, whether it’s beauty, happiness, sadness,” Rivera said. “That communal experience of a slice of somebody’s life or a slice of humanity, I think there’s something really powerful about that.”