Interview with Bari Biern of Capitol Steps
Capitol Steps, Cranwell Inn, Lenox, MA
through September 2, 2014
Bari Biern has been "stepping" since 1993 and has appeared in several Capitol Steps off-Broadway runs. She currently reviews plays and videos for Metro Connection on WAMU-FM. She is also a playwright/lyricist.
Spotlight: Are you essentially an actor, singer, comic, or pretty much all three?
In this group, you have to be all three, as well as a quick-change artist!
Spotlight: How politically savvy were you prior to Capitol Steps? Now?
My dad was a party precinct chairman when I was little, so I used to go with him when he distributed literature around the neighborhood during the campaign season. I guess I could claim that I was politically savvy at age seven but, truth be told, I really went along because he bought me Pez at the drugstore when we were finished. Today, being politically savvy is an ongoing part of my job. After all, that's where we get all our material.
Spotlight: What are your favorite roles? Do you enjoy performing as the opposite sex or a different ethnicity?
Wow, there are so many! I guess, if I had to pick just a few, I'd include Monica Lewinsky, Hillary, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and, of course, Dick Cheney's heart.
As for playing the opposite sex, I think I do a killer Jim Lehrer. Morgan Duncan, who plays President Obama in the current Cranwell cast, was a mighty foxy Condoleezza Rice!
Spotlight: How fun is it to work as a team? Do you ad lib or ever surprise each other onstage?
I see us more as a big happy dysfunctional family. Do we ad lib? Yes, although generally, not intentionally. It usually happens when someone's fake mustache falls off.
Spotlight: Please describe the rehearsal process. Do you learn the new lyrics and sing the songs with the pianist first or later on?
We usually try out new numbers at our home performance space in DC, the Ronald Reagan Center. Generally, we'll have a few days to learn the lyrics before the show. Since we cover familiar songs with parody lyrics, we often already know the tune, which is a great time-saver. Then, we put the number on its feet at sound check, around 90-minutes before the performance. We sing it through a few times with the pianist to determine the best key and tempo. Then we try it out on mic and add choreography if we don't think it will make our heads explode.
Spotlight: How easy/difficult is it to add new scripts constantly and become new characters?
There's no fancy-schmancy acting "method " that quite covers but we do. Often, we need to work hot button issues into the show very quickly, sometimes even the same day! So, we have to be able to think and work fast. It's sort of like developing a special creative muscle -- the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets.
Spotlight: Have any of the politician/celebrities you have played ever seen you perform?
Yes, indeed, from presidents to pundits to politicians from the top of the heap to the bottom of the barrel.
Spotlight: Is there any anecdote you would like to tell us?
There was a number in our show called “Pack the Knife," about a nun trying to get through a security line at the airport as a TSA agent is frisking, manhandling, and harassing her. Meanwhile, everyone else is being waved through. A Viking with an axe, Darth Vader and other menacing characters all breeze past the checkpoint. The frustrated nun disappears and returns with a suitcase that says, “Acme A-Bomb” on it and no one stops her, of course.
But try getting through a real checkpoint with that prop was the real problem. Once, on our way back to Washington from Charleston, SC, a security screener discovered the Acme “suitcase,” which is actually just a flat cardboard sign cut and painted to look like a suitcase. Instantly, we were whisked out of line to a private holding area. A state trooper watched our every move. No one was permitted to budge, not even for a bathroom break. Twenty minutes later, the FBI arrived. Fortunately, one of the agents was a Capitol Steps fan. Moments later, the agent released us with a wink, a smile — and an autographed CD for his daughter.