Garen Scribner: Out of the Mist; Onto the Benedum Stage
July 21, 2018
When walking down the street in downtown Pittsburgh during the Pittsburgh CLO Summer Season, I like to play a game called “Actor or Civilian.” Some actors are easier to spot than others, like Garen Scribner. Even when walking down the street, he is easy to recognize as a dancer. He walks with the kind of perfect posture that only comes from years of dance training, with graceful movements and a presence that belongs on stage.
Scribner is currently dancing his way through Pittsburgh CLO’s Brigadoon, the story of a mystical town that appears out of the Scottish Highlands mist for one day every hundred years. In 1946, two American hunters from New York City stumble into Brigadoon, one of them falling in love with a girl, Fiona, and the town itself. Scribner plays Harry Beaton, the bitter, rejected suitor of Jean McClaren, who is to be wed this day to Charlie Dalrymple. Though Brigadoon doesn’t have a real antagonist, Harry is the closest thing to one. He is the only person in the town who isn’t excited for Jean and Charlie’s wedding. The audience doesn’t know Jean and Harry’s history; all they learn is that Harry is desperate for Jean’s love and deeply resents Charlie who “has it all,” including Jean.
“Harry is a complicated character, and I like to think that there’s a lot going on for him – that he’s not just a villain,” Scribner says. When he talks about Harry, there’s tenderness in his voice. “He has had a complicated past. None of it is written in the script because few things are written, but it’s up to interpretation. Why doesn’t he have a mother? When did he lose her? Why did he lose her? What was that like growing up without a mom in a town that’s so much built on a traditional family unit? What was his relationship with Jean in the past growing up? Had they been together in the past? Had they not been together? What was his relationship with Charlie? Had they been friends; had they been competitors? There’s just a lot to dig into, so it was a real pleasure. With jobs like this, you have to do your own
internal preparation before you get here. When you get into the room with the other players, you have something to work with and can be flexible about where the character goes.”
In the show, Scribner dances the iconic sword dance. In the midst of the happy wedding scene, Scribner appears at center stage with two large swords crossed above his head. In a traditional Scottish outfit complete with kilt and black knee-high boots, Scribner lowers the swords to the ground with a serious expression and begins a complicated dance of fast footwork around and between the swords. Brigadoon’s bagpiper who is also a professional Highlands dancer, Sean Patrick Regan, said that Scribner’s dancing and the accuracy with which he performs the traditional highland dance aspects of the choreography is impressive.
“I really love the show,” Scribner says. “I find it to be a timeless story about true love, sacrifice, and belief. The idea that anything is possible whenever you hold the belief that love is the truest thing. I like it. I think it has this sort of element of science fiction in a weird way. It’s kind of mystical. I like to think of it happening forever. Brigadoon gets done every few years, and it keeps going consistently so you can add a hundred years on every time.
“I’d never worked at Pittsburgh CLO before, so I was thrilled to be here and do this show. The cast is great. It’s hard to put a show together in six days, but it’s sort of nice because you’re out of town, away from home, and you have your full attention that you’re able to put into the work. It’s like being put into a little thinktank, a concentrated work environment, where you have all these wonderful people around you who are just as committed. It’s a challenge to do it so quickly, but I like it.”
Because Scribner plays Harry so well, it would be easy to assume that he, like Harry, is morose and brooding. Scribner, however, is friendly and easygoing with a smile for everything. His dark hair is kept short, and his lithe body carefully curated so Scribner can remain at the very top of his field. His eyes are a pale blue-green. He has the handsome good looks of a Broadway leading man and the charm to match. His voice is soft and calm, and he answers each question readily, usually with a story to go along.
Scribner grew up dancing in D.C, following in the footsteps of his brother, Justin, who is four years older. He liked being in the studio and the physical nature of dance, but disliked performing. It’s hard to believe that Scribner, whose charisma is apparent on stage, ever felt like performing wasn’t a natural fit.
“As a kid I didn’t love to perform. I was kind of like, ‘Oh, I have to do a recital or The Nutcracker.’ But then, slowly but surely, every time I got on stage I became more confident and had more fun with it. And I realized that, as soon as I heard people clap and felt the adrenaline rush before running on stage and the sense of relief when you come off stage, and you’ve really done all you can do and put all of your energy and essence on stage for people to witness, it’s a really exhilarating feeling. I fell in love with the stage, and, more importantly, with the theater and the people.”
Many people close to Scribner are the crew members, members of the creative team, and the producers of the shows he’s worked on. He respects the people who work behind the scenes to put the shows up and feels at home backstage. Of course, he also admired the professional dancers he saw and worked with.
“My first performance was at seven in the Washington Ballet’s Nutcracker. I did fifty performances every December, and I played Fritz, the little kid in the party scene. I wasn’t able to look at it then in a macro sense, as I can now, but what I noticed was the way the dancers moved around and came in out of the stage door, how they walked, and how they seemed that they had some kind of other-worldly sensibility. They traveled around the world and were speaking different languages, and they just seemed so in their own skin and own bodies. The lifestyle behind it kind of attracted me the most to the craft. That sense of experience and seeing the world. I was definitely hell-bent on becoming a professional dancer for all those reasons. I just loved the rigor of the training, and it’s a really beautiful art form.”
While growing up, he went to see performances and took master classes at the Kennedy Center. He was able to learn from the impressive dance performance groups that toured through, getting encouragement and constructive criticism. It was an incredible experience for Scribner, who appreciates the opportunities he was given.
At seventeen, Scribner joined the San Francisco Ballet, eventually becoming a soloist in 2008. As if he weren’t kept busy enough dancing as a soloist for the ballet, Scribner earned his B.A., with honors, in Liberal Arts from St. Mary's College and served as a guest lecturer and choreographer for Stanford University. He also starred as Tony in San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House’s production of West Side Story. This was the first time that Scribner played Tony, but not the last. He played both of the male leads, Tony and Riff, with the San Francisco Ballet, and he just finished playing Tony in the West Side Story suite in the St. Louis Muny’s production of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway in June. Despite Scribner’s familiarity with the show, each production he does feels new and fresh. With each production, the cast around him changes and that’s what changes the show, he says.
“The honesty only comes through when you’re really present in the moment with the people that you’re with in the room. So it always changes based on who you’re playing opposite, the kind of choices that they make, and how you react to that. You’re listening to another person’s story. The lines are the same, but the subtext is different because that person, that performer’s life is without a doubt coming through the text. It can’t help but change how you react.”
Scribner toured the world with the San Francisco Ballet, and one of his favorite tour memories is from the first one he ever did. He toured Athens, London, and Paris for a month and a half. He remembers performing in Greece especially vividly. He performed on the stage of the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, an outdoor stage built in 161 AD and then renovated in 1950. He danced the ballets Apollo, a ballet titled Tu Tu by Stanton Welch, and Balanchine’s Square Dance under the stars at eighteen.
“It was so beautiful. It’s a two-thousand-year-old stone proscenium, and at night you’re looking up at the Parthenon lit up on the Acropolis. It seemed unbelievable, but there I was doing it. It was really special because it was one of my first things, you know?”
After ten years with San Francisco Ballet and one year with Nederlands Dans Theater 1, in September of 2014 Scribner joined the original company of the new musical An American in Paris, which the Pittsburgh CLO helped create and produce. Paris tells the story of an ex-GI who remains in Paris at the end of World War II and, while there, falls in love with a young French ballerina. The show was based on the Academy Award-winning 1951 movie that starred Pittsburgh’s own Gene Kelly. The score is all George and Ira Gershwin music, some of the songs from the movie and some repurposed from other musicals.
He’d known the director/choreographer of Paris, Chris Wheeldon, since he was a kid at the San Francisco Ballet. Wheeldon did ten works for SF Ballet during Scribner’s time there, and Scribner was in nine of them. They had a nice working relationship and Scribner feels fortunate that Wheeldon thought of him when he was casting the show.
Scribner was with the show from the very beginning, as the alternate for the lead character, Jerry Mulligan. This means that he performed the show twice a week while Robert Fairchild, a principle dancer from New York City Ballet, played the role for the other shows. Scribner was with the show for over two and a half years – from the early rehearsals, to the show’s out-of-town tryout in Paris, to the Broadway production, to the First National Tour. When Fairchild left the Broadway production in March of 2016, Scribner took over the role of Jerry. (There’s a wonderful series of videos on his Instagram account @garenscribner #garymulligan of him dancing in his dressing room before shows.)
In An American in Paris Scribner got to truly showcase his dancing abilities. He leapt across tables in the high spirited “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck” and romanced the female lead, Lise, by the side of the Seine in “Liza.” In addition, Gershwin’s entire twelve-minute “An American in Paris” ballet is performed towards the end of the show with Scribner doing a technically and physically challenging pas-de-deux with the actress playing Lise.
“It was a beautiful experience,” he says. “I had done a little bit of musical theater before, so it was really my first jump-off into musical theater. I’d never done that before, and the production staff really gave us [Scribner and Robert Fairchild] a lot of support. They helped pay for classes. We had vocal and acting lessons every week, so it was it was really, ‘This is what it’s like to be a leading man on Broadway, because you’re about to do it for us.’ It was just a unique way to get access to that opportunity, because we had skills that they needed to do this show, but most people work their whole lives to become a lead on Broadway. They don’t just slide into it. I think Robbie and I were both working so hard in our own directions that it opened up this gate in the space-time continuum for us to become Broadway stars,” he laughs.
“That was really unusual. It was very special because, all of a sudden, we were being asked to do these totally new things, and singing entire songs on stage while dancing, and doing book scenes with these amazing actors, and talking about this character and where he came from in the script and making changes. We created this thing together, so it was really beautiful. I know how special and rare that opportunity was, so I feel really grateful for it. I’m looking forward to more of those opportunities coming around the bend.”
While unfortunately the audience doesn’t get to hear him sing a solo in Brigadoon, there are videos of him singing Paris on YouTube. He has a beautiful tenor voice that sounds like it’s had more training that it has. He’s able to sing and dance at the same time so well that he makes it look effortless. Scribner plans on staying in musical theater after this. He says he will always be a dancer, but he loves creating characters and is doing a real “grabbag” of things now. He sees musical theater taking a direction where being a triple threat will be a necessity. It won’t be enough to be an amazing singer; a performer will have to be an amazing singer, dancer, and actor.
Scribner himself is a triple threat, and he doesn’t simply use his talents to further his career. He’s generous in sharing his skills, often using them to help causes he believes in. In 2012 while in San Francisco, Scribner co-founded a company called DanceFAR with his SF Ballet colleagues James Sofranko and Margret Karl that worked with the Cancer Prevention Institute of California to raise money for them. DanceFAR put on a yearly benefit concert with over twenty dance companies in the Bay Area. Scribner served as the Artistic Director of DanceFAR for five years, even after he moved to the Netherlands in 2013 to perform with Nederlands Dans Theater 1. Over five years DanceFAR raised over $450,000 before being absorbed by a larger organization.
Now that Scribner has handed over the reins of DanceFAR, he’s turned his attention to a school in Uganda, Arlington Academy of Hope, which his parents serve on the board of. He was there for a month last July after he ended touring with An American in Paris, and this April he held a benefit concert with Broadway performers that raised $125,000. Scribner loves doing benefit events like this and hopes to make the benefit concert an annual event.
Scribner practices philanthropy in smaller ways, too. One of his best friends in life is his twelve-year-old rescue dog, Pilot. Pilot, Scribner says with a smile in his voice, is the best dog in the world. While walking in New York one day, Scribner found Pilot tied up to a pole with no owner in sight. The story floating around, Scribner says, is that Pilot belonged to a homeless person who disappeared and left his dog in a highly populated area, knowing that someone would take him in. Scribner picked him up, put him on his shoulder, and took him home. Since Pilot’s been with Scribner, he’s been all around the world. Pilot’s lived in New York, California, the Netherlands, and New York. He even toured with Scribner for the first month of An American in Paris’ tour. He’s not here in Pittsburgh, though, for the week and a half that Scribner’s here. He’s being looked after in New York by Scribner’s brother, Justin.
It’s wonderful to have a performer of Scribner’s caliber on the Benedum Stage with the Pittsburgh CLO. He rounds out the character of Harry so that he’s not a simple villain, but instead a sympathetic, desperate young man. He’s only in Pittsburgh through tomorrow with the incredibly talented cast of Brigadoon so be sure to see him in it. Like the town of Brigadoon itself, the show only appears in Pittsburgh about once a decade. Don’t wait another ten years to see this Lerner and Loewe classic!
Buy tickets here.
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