Interview: Donna Gardner Learned to Play the Accordion in 8 Days for Her ‘Once’ National Tour Audition
Once, the Broadway musical based on the Academy-Award winning film of the same name, is currently touring around the country. I saw the show on Broadway and it’s wonderful. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know how incredible the music is and to see it performed on stage by a company of talented actors just made me love it even more.
The show is about an Irish musician and a Czech immigrant who come together by their love of music. Over the course of a week, their friendship turns into romance and the songs they write and perform reflect their time together.
Donna Gardner, who plays the Baruska of the bar that the show is set, has a really inspiring story about getting cast in the show. She’s been performing for years and is also a professional pianist, so when she heard that the show was casting a woman who could play the accordion, she decided to take a chance and audition. Even though she didn’t play the instrument. Eight days later, accordion in hand, she was in front of the casting directors auditioning. Check out the story below!
Once is currently at the San Diego Civic Center though August 17th. For tickets, go to BroadwaySD.com. Next stops are Costa Mesa, Baltimore and Nashville. For tickets and more information, click here.
Well, let’s start off with probably the most important question. When I saw the show on Broadway, I was able to go on stage and have a beer. Are we able to do that in the touring production?
Donna Gardner: You certainly are. If you’re over 21, but yeah.
Unfortunately I’m past that 21 year old age. I want to ask you something incredible and totally inspiring. You learned how to play the accordion the week before your audition?
Donna Gardner: Yeah.
Can you go through the whole story of how you got the part and your audition?
Donna Gardner: Yeah, I was rehearsing Full Monty and one of my cast mates, Allen Gillespie, he suggested that I should audition for Once. And at first I didn’t realize there was actually a part for me. So I said, “Oh, I don’t think there’s anything in that for me.” And he said, “Well, here’s the breakdown, woman between 40 and 50. Check. Plays piano. Check.” I play the piano. And then he said, “Plays accordion.” And I thought, “Well, I don’t play the accordion but I’ve been thinking lately that I should learn that.” So, I rented one that night and I had 8 days until the audition. So, yeah, I just kept picking it up.
And the accordion is really heavy so the biggest thing for me was getting used to the stamina of playing it. So I would play for about 5 or 10 minutes and then I would set it down for a while. And then I just kept coming back to it. Probably drove my cast crazy because we were in tech during that time. I took the accordion to the theatre and just kept finding an empty dressing room and going in there and figuring out how to play the accordion every time I wasn’t needed on stage.
So by the time you got to the audition, how good were you?
Donna Gardner: Well, I mean, you’ve got to remember, I am a professional pianist. So the right hand wasn’t an issue. So that hand was no problem. And the left hand, you know, I just tried to keep it pretty basic and pretty simple and since then I’ve started to get more complex with the left hand. There’s a lot of different things you can do and a lot of different… and rhythmic things you can do with the left hand that I didn’t worry about at first.
But I knew for the audition I just needed to show them that I had facility in the instrument and that I had a basis from which to learn.
Now, I didn’t tell them that I had just learned it. I didn’t think that would help my cause. Until I guess… yeah. When I went down to New York for my callback I did the whole audition and then they said, “You know, tell us about your work as a pianist and your accordion playing.” And that’s when I told them that I had actually just learned the accordion.
I think our creative team could see that, you know, if somebody’s really willing to go for it and if they’ve at least got some facility on that primary instrument then they definitely have somewhere to go from for that.
Was there a particular song that they had wanted you to learn?
Donna Gardner: I had to learn my own song and I had to learn a few things from the show. So I just, you know, tried not to bite off the entire cookie. I just worked a little bit at a time and just kept chugging away at it and the song that I chose for myself, I was kind of hemming and hawing over a couple of things. So I knew it should probably be kind of folky but it should kind of be a little bit rocky. So I decided to make it a little bit funny too, so I chose The House of the Rising Sun and I sang that with a Czech accent. And they seemed to think that was amusing, so… and then I played the stuff from the show that they wanted to hear.
How heavy is an accordion? I’ve never actually held one.
Donna Gardner: Well, a full adult male accordion is around 25 pounds.
Donna Gardner: Yeah. And a lady size would be more like 18. So I actually found a full lady sized accordion because the first night I was trying to play a man’s accordion because my neighbor actually has one. He’s a great musician. But I couldn’t even see over the top of it. And I’m not a very big person, I’m only 5 foot 2, and I thought, “Well, I can’t go into this audition and they can’t even see my head. They’re not gonna be able to see the character, they’re not gonna really want me to take the part.” So I went and I got this lady’s full sized accordion. And that was about 18 pounds, 20 pounds I guess. That’s the one I was trying to get used to playing on.
But in our show we actually use a little bit smaller accordion and it’s around 14 or 15 pounds. So even that was a bit of a thing to get used to because we, you know, we dance while we’re playing the instruments. But I just kind of worked away at it and strengthening my stamina improved and now it’s not really an issue at all.
When they offered you the role and you obviously said yes, you had to take a leave of absence from your job?
Donna Gardner: Yeah. I mean, I’ve been working as a professional singer/actor for a long time, so this is part and parcel of it. But I also teach at a couple of colleges in Canada for performing arts programs, so I did take leave from those jobs and a job that I have with the Royal Conservatory as a singing examiner for the conservatory exams. And all of those institutions were quite happy for me that I got this and they were fine with me taking a leave of absence to do this. It’s a pretty special show, so I just was really happy that they were ok with me pursuing it.
Had you seen the show prior to auditioning?
Donna Gardner: No, I had not seen it. I had 2 auditions in Toronto over the course of a weekend. My first audition and my callback was 2 days later. And then I guess a month or so later I went down to New York for my final callback and that’s when I saw the show for the first time. I saw it the night before my final callback.
How do you like being on tour?
Donna Gardner: Oh, it’s fine. I mean, it’s great for me because I’ve been to a number of US cities on the east coast but I’ve never seen anything on the west because I’m Canadian. So I just haven’t… Especially living on the eastern half of Canada, I haven’t gotten to the western US very much. So it’s wonderful for me to see all these amazing US cities and all the history. So I don’t mind it at all. Obviously I miss home sometimes, I miss my husband and my little dog. But they come to visit quite regularly and I get home once in a while as well. So I have no complaints about being on the road so far.
When is your contract up for this?
Donna Gardner: Well, I just resigned for another year. So right now I’m contracted until October 2015. The tour right now is open ended, but our actor contract, you know, they’re offered to us a year at a time. So for now I’m good until the fall of 2015.
But having just employment as an actor, that’s gotta be the coolest thing. Steady employment.
Donna Gardner: Yeah, it’s great. I’ve been lucky because I’ve always played a lot of other instruments, so I’ve had pretty regular employment in my life as a performer so I have no complaints there.