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Tony nominated Jane Lanier helms Mary Poppins at the Civc
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
The basic story of Jane Lanier’s career as a professional dancer, actor, and (later on) chorographer and director sounds like a movie: talented girl from the Midwest sets out to make it in show business, lands a gig early, and goes on to “work her way up” from the chorus line. On the way she garners an armful of awards and accolades — and a Tony nomination — works with some of the biggest names in the field, gets a few movie and TV roles… That easy.
And doubtless, Lanier would have a pretty good laugh at hearing her career described like that. Not that she’d be laughing at you — Lanier seems like the generous type — but as she often tells her students, when it comes to a career in the arts, you never quite “arrive,” you never really stop learning and striving to be better at what you do. “Well, at least if you want to keep working,” she adds, laughing.
Lanier is special guest choreographer and director for the Fort Wayne Civic’s production of Mary Poppins, which begins its run on July 25.
Lanier grew up in Fort Wayne — she was a company member with the Fort Wayne Ballet, and was in the chorus of a few Civic productions with Philip Colglazier, now the Civic’s Executive Artistic Director. She and Colglazier had discussed Lanier doing something with the Civic, but it wasn’t until Lanier relocated from LA to Chicago in the last several years that the idea seemed like it might actually happen. Lanier also taught in the Fort Wayne Ballet’s Summer Intensive program this year.
Lanier graduated from high school mid-way through her senior year. “After that, I danced and sang on cruise ships for a year-and-a-half,” she says. “I got my equity card in Ohio, then went to New York on a visit and got my first pre-Broadway show when I was 19. I was very lucky.”
The show closed on the road and never made it to Broadway, but Lanier moved to New York, found other roles singing and dancing in the chorus, and began honing her craft. “My normal day in New York, when I was a dancer, was a two or three hour dance class, a voice lesson, a four hour acting class, sometimes an audition, and then the show,” she says. “We’d audition and get jobs and shoot commercials and pray to get back in time to make our 7:30 half-hour.”
And, much like an athlete (for example), “chorus line dancer” isn’t really the kind of job you can “muddle through” when you’re not having a good day. “If you’re lucky enough to get into a show that runs for a year or two, and you decide to stay that long… it’s your job to give 300% every single show,” she says. “I’ve left shows when I started feeling like ‘ugh, do I really want to do this?’ But often, those times when you’re feeling tired, sick, just having a crappy day… you step out on stage and that takes care of everything. It’s such a gift to get out there and give something to an audience.”
But Lanier says that in theater, the chorus line doesn’t get much respect — an unfair perception, considering the discipline and work that goes into it. It’s also a very competitive field. Lanier worked with theater legend Bob Fosse during the revival of Sweet Charity. “700 girls auditioned; 10 of us got the job,” she says, adding, “I’m proud of being an ensemble dancer. It’s hard work. Dancers are still on the bottom of the totem pole, but it takes a lot to do what we do.”
Lanier also worked with another theater legend, Jerome Robbins, on Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, an anthology show featuring musical numbers from Robbins extensive catalog. The show earned Lanier a Tony nomination for “Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical.” Lanier says people still ask her about Fosse and Robbins. “Both were such interesting figures; they changed the ways musicals are done,” she says. “They were very tough, very demanding, and they were never satisfied.” Even Robbins, with classics like West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof to his credit, never thought his work was good enough. “These were huge hits, and he was always insecure about them. He always wanted it to be better,” says Lanier.
“And I think that’s so important,” she adds. “I’m never quite satisfied because of that, because what I’ve learned from the role models I’ve been lucky enough to work with.”
But the role of director and choreographer was one Lanier found herself in almost by accident. After a lot of Broadway work, Lanier moved to Los Angeles, where among TV and film work (she danced with John Travolta in the movie Michael and had recurring roles on Murder One and Medium, to name a few) she was also involved with a small theater company. They did “straight” plays and musicals, and had very limited resources. So while preparing a musical, Lanier was asked to choreograph, since she had a dance background. “That’s kind of how it started,” she says. “Before, I really wasn’t interested, but I did it, did a little more, and though… ‘hmmm, I like this’.”
“The first time I watched one of my pieces being performed… I was so nervous, standing in the back of the house. It was scary but also good. It made me create in a different way, and made me think in a different way. Everyday I think I learn more and get better at it, I hope, but I like that, because it’s new.”
Lanier doesn’t perform much as a dancer these days (though she was on a 2013 episode of Glee, something she says her students got a kick out of), focusing on her work as a director, choreographer, producer and teacher. “(Dancing) was my life, but I just don’t need it as much anymore,” she says. “I do a lot of ‘straight’ acting, which I love, but mostly I love being on the other side of the table now.”
Fort Wayne Civic Theater presents Mary Poppins
Arts United Center
303 East Main Street
Saturdays, July 25; August 1; and August 8 at 8:00PM
Sundays, July 26; August 2; and August 9 at 2:00 PM
Fridays July 31 and August 7 at 8:00 PM
Tickets: $29/adults; $24/ seniors (any performance); $17/age 23 and under
Box Office: (260) 424.5220_or online: fwcivic.org