For 13 years, Michelle Massey played one role: Nadine DuBois. The burlesque character took her from Twin Cities stages such as the Ritz and First Avenue to national performance festivals and Las Vegas' Burlesque Hall of Fame. Nadine DuBois even made appearances in Australia and New Zealand.
But now, Massey is prepared to show off her theater chops. She's about to tackle an adaptation of Jean Cocteau's "The Human Voice," produced by Theatre Novi Most at the new Off-Leash Art Box in south Minneapolis. Cocteau's one-woman play, first published in 1930, centers on a young woman named Elle, who speaks on the phone to her lover one final time before he marries someone else. Theatre Novi Most will offer a deconstructed version.
Massey's shift to drama isn't all that unexpected. She studied acting at Gustavus Adolphus, where she majored in music. She even considered a theater career before falling in love with the art of burlesque. For "The Human Voice," Massey will share the stage with her Nadine DuBois alter ego, mixing her performance with singing and elements of cabaret.
Massey met Theatre Novi Most co-founder Vladimir Rovinsky through her day job at the Museum of Russian Art, where she manages volunteers and events. Theatre Novi Most has hosted readings at the museum, revisiting classic Russian plays such as Chekhov's "The Seagull" and "The Three Sisters." Together, the two artists hatched the idea of reworking Cocteau's psychological text, creating a completely original work starring Massey and directed by Rovinsky.
The collaborators sat down recently to discuss Massey's journey out of her comfort zone. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: As a young artist, at what point did you discover you could do burlesque?
Massey: I was an artist looking for a home. I did a lot of studio singing. And recording and performing here and there. And then, when Le Cirque Rouge started in 2003, I was walking down the street and saw the show happening — one of the first shows. I was like, those look like my people! So I went in and got acquainted with those people. And I auditioned.
Q: Did you set out to recruit Michelle to perform with your company?
Rovinsky: Well, I've seen her perform. I like her as a human being. We had this conversation going, that we both wanted to try something different. I had just finished a big show — "Dancing on the Edge" — with a huge set and a big budget. I thought I wanted something very simple and slightly different. Not as epic. Maybe with some elements of cabaret. Maybe a more intimate setting. And Michelle was talking about material for her to do — something that is not quite as burlesque. "The Human Voice" first came to mind as a suggestion for Michelle.
Massey: We were actually sitting at the museum, and you were like, "Look it up." I didn't actually get what you were asking me at that point.
Rovinsky: I thought it could be a cool project. I wouldn't want to do the play as it was written. It was interesting to me if we could rework it somehow.
Q: Are you adding to the text at all?
Rovinsky: Oh yeah! With more time to prepare publicity-wise, we would have given it a different title. Because, in many ways, it's a completely new piece of work. It's not Cocteau. It's a dialogue with Cocteau.
Q: What were your reactions after reading Cocteau's play?
Massey: I was a little overwhelmed at first. I did a Bowie show a while back at Hook and Ladder Theater. And [Rovinsky] showed up and was like, "I want to do this. I want to direct you in this." An artist wishes to have more opportunities. But for me personally, I was also afraid. I've been playing the same role for 13 years. I haven't stretched my legs in that way, even though I wanted to.
Rovinsky: At first we thought we'd do something in the fall of 2018, but I couldn't find a place to host us. But it's all for good, because it gave us time to really digest and dive into the play. I only wanted to do this project if Michelle would be an equal partner in creating it.
Q: What has the experience been like, playing a character other than the one you've been playing for so long? But also to participate in creating something new?
Massey: It's been profound thus far. Cocteau's writing seems antiquated, like how a man of that era would write a woman. And yet I've said those things, I've done those things. We spent a long time talking about my history, specific relationships in my past, and one in particular in my 20s. So I've been processing how I felt about that relationship at the time, how I feel about it now, and how those feelings inform how we write the play.
Q: So Nadine is playing the woman from Cocteau's play? Or is Michelle playing the Cocteau character and Nadine is playing someone else?
Rovinsky: I would say Nadine allows Michelle to play this character.
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis critic and arts journalist.