Columbus, Ohio USA
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Experience is the greatest teacher for Columbus singer-actress
By Ann Starr
September/October 2012 Issue
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Photo © Larry Hamill
There’s a temptation to compare the multi-talented singer-actress Deb Colvin-Tener to the shape-shifting god Proteus, to a chameleon, to a cloud that reconfigures itself as it passes in the sky. But any such comparison would do a disservice to a woman who sums up her true nature when she remarks, “The more work you do, the better you get.” If she is a woman with many aspects, it’s because of her big investment of time and labor in each and every one of them.
Colvin-Tener excels in more arenas than most two or three of us combined. She is an Actor’s Equity member who is constantly on an Ohio stage in dramas and musicals: Contemporary American Theater Company (CATCO); Huron Theater; Dayton’s Human Race Theatre Company (Resident Artist); the former Arden Shakespeare Company, of which she was a founding member; and the sorely missed Players Theatre Columbus. She is a founding board member of the Garden Theater and its resident company, Short North Stage. As associate director of Shakespeare-in-a-Box, Colvin-Tener is active in the Greater Columbus Arts Council’s Artist-in-Schools program. With Larry Marotta, her guitarist partner of ten years, she’s developed Songs of Bertolt Brecht to take on the road. Then there’s husband, John Tener and Tony, her dog, from whom no complaints have been heard.
I first encountered this powerful woman from the audience for her early August cabaret show with Marotta, Cool Songs for a Warm Night, performed at the Garden Theater’s intimate Green Room. When I think “women in cabaret,” I think slinky gowns of Peggy Lee, or of Mabel Mercer, erect and queenly on an upholstered throne. But Colvin-Tener’s was a stage prepared for a comedienne, with the piano in the background and, up front, a coat rack dripping props: there’s a chintz kitchen apron with yellow piping, a collection of floaty scarves, a feather boa, and against one of the stand’s legs, a ukulele is propped. Colvin-Tener appeared herself as a stunning Marilyn blonde with cobalt-blue eye shadow, assertively red lips, dazzling sparks of jewelry…and blue jeans. She didn’t seat herself at the piano like Blossom Dearie or Nina Simone, but swung a big old acoustic guitar across her shoulder by its strap and launched into a set of Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and Annie Lennox. Great merciful Gershwin! How long has this been going on?
One thing for sure, the cabaret could have gone on much longer than it did for a very contented audience. Colvin-Tener, without histrionics, while giving the air that her listeners had simply dropped by her patio for a summer’s domestic leisure, possessed the attention, moods, and hearts of her guests. Her range is warm alto-mezzo soprano, and her articulation in song and speech are perfection, yet completely natural-sounding. I did not miss a single word all evening.
Any slips of diction would have been noticed because Colvin-Tener is a storyteller in song and speech both. She always makes us want more, keeping us in suspense for the outcomes. Highly sensitive to lyrics and the arc of a song’s emotion, she takes us with her through well-prepared, convincing personal interpretations. Her interpretative assurance and her high energy enable Colvin-Tener to make quick transitions between contrasting songs, from Waits’ sober “Cold, Cold Ground” directly to his light-hearted, double-entendre-studded “Ice Cream Man” in the first set; or, in the second, from Stephen Sondheim’s ironically sweet “By the Sea” (Sweeney Todd) into the crushing drama of “Another Winter” from Grey Gardens.
Colvin-Tener, all the while convincing us that she was really our good-humored neighbor, playfully gave us occasional characters – Mae West; a Jennifer Lopez-type diva – and executed them so smoothly from the inside out that I was completely taken in, almost without noticing the tremendous leaps of persona she’d made into and out of character. When she’d do this, I’d feel like she and I were the girlfriends sitting on the pink-covered bed, spinning vinyl, posing for each other like glamor girls and singing into tissue box microphones. Her knack is for appearing utterly real, wholly accessible and familiar, while she pretends to perform.
The friendly blonde who had so much fun singing and chatting us up from the Green Room stage was proving that “the more you work, the better you get.” Over a cup of coffee at Cup O Joe on the Cap, Colvin-Tener satisfied my curiosity about what it takes to pull off such a breezy show, beautifully sung, with seemingly spontaneous conversational interludes. In short: It takes months of hard work.
Starting only with the title in mind – Cool Songs on a Warm Night – three months before her first performance of August third, Colvin-Tener began collecting song titles with “cool,” “cold,” “winter,” “chill,” and other suitable words in them. She included everything she could find, songs she didn’t know and hadn’t ever heard. Assembling a song list isn’t pulling names from the memory or the air: It’s a research project that begins at the Columbus Metropolitan Library. She finds sheet music and lyrics; she scouts out any alternative lyrics, this often through hearing the many-recorded versions of the song. She researches the song’s history and decides, in consultation with Marotta, what version and arrangement she wants to do, or how they wish to vary the lyrics or rewrite an arrangement.
Colvin-Tener learned new songs for this show: “The Cold, Cold Ground,” “By the Sea,” and “Somewhere in Brazil,” which her friend, composer Mark Winkler, gave her brand-new. This latter dramatic-format song requires two voices, so Colvin-Tener enlisted her drummer, Joe Nelson, who performed nobly.
Dividing the songs into sets – the first more folksy, the second composed of standards and jazz – and then fixing the order within the sets was the next job. This is a crucial artistic decision that determines the dramatic arc of the evening, how to open and close each half with flair and to keep the audience engaged by varying moods and tempos in between. It also requires Colvin-Tener to manage her voice and to know the limits of its range and endurance.
She planned to keep the music within a low-stress range at the beginning, with acoustic guitar accompaniment only. Later in the first set, when she introduced piano, bass, and drums, her voice was ready for the extra work. This planning allowed her to extend her voice through a generously long, eleven-song first set. By contrast, in the second half, she did big Broadway songs first, easing later into material in a lower, more comfortable range to wind up with Bob Dorough’s Small Day Tomorrow as an encore, again to the end of extending her endurance.
So, Colvin-Tener is confident about her performance only after a lot of research, strategy, experimentation, and rehearsal to insure her physical readiness. She and Marotta practiced once a week at her house throughout the preparatory months, editing and shaping the whole program and each song. Toward the end, the complete band (add Joe Nelson on drums and Ly Apelado on piano) rehearsed five times. There were two performances one week apart. I saw the second, and it was smashing.
Colvin-Tener is a Columbus girl. She grew up in Clintonville and attended North High School just like her parents did, although she saw it closed and was bussed to Linden/McKinley. She graduated from Fort Hayes, where she specialized in music and drama.
College time was when she decided that she needed to get out of town.
Colvin-Tener is a proud alumna of North Carolina School for the Arts in Winston Salem, where she studied theater with schoolmates Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games), Mary Louise Parker, and writer/director Peter Hedges (The Odd Life of Timothy Green). Of Hedges she has a story that went a long way toward explaining the fealty of this exceptional talent to her Columbus home. After all, wouldn’t she like to be out on a coast like her friends Hedges, Parker, and Collins?
Hedges was in town a few years ago for the local opening of his film Pieces of April. Colvin-Tener sat with him in a theater row until he left for the podium to speak. A pair of ladies, impressed that she had been speaking with the famous director, leaned over to ask about her association with him, and even asked if she were an actress.
Delighted to find that she was the real deal, they flutteringly wondered where Colvin-Tener was from. They were visibly upset to hear that she was from Ohio: “You’re an actor and you live in Ohio?” they asked with contempt. Every idiot knows that real actors live in New York or Los Angeles!
Colvin-Tener told me this story with a mixture of hilarity and disgust, but those feelings were sublimated into her confidence about knowing the truth, that Columbus has given her what her coastal friends only envy: a stable career with constant work even into the foreseeable future; a well-trained, exciting artistic community; and a low-stress, agreeable lifestyle. “Most of my friends on the coasts don’t have half the opportunities I do,” she confesses. Even her good friend in New York who does work regularly lives in a tiny space on a meager income and is always struggling. Colvin-Tener and her husband own their Victorian Village home, have a garden, huge networks of friends and fellow artists, and she is very rarely out of work.
“Columbus has a weird reputation,” she admits. “You love it or hate it,” but Colvin-Tener only loves it, particularly because she has such a wide professional circle all across the country to compare it with. She thinks of a friend who is touring with Jersey Boys: It’s great to have a long-term gig. But once the tour is over, you start from scratch; you have nothing until you make something happen. In Columbus, Colvin-Tener is always in the loop. “If you’re well-trained,” she says, “you’ll always work as long as you persevere and keep working. But the question is whether you’ll get rich with money or with the satisfaction of the art that you’re making.”
Not only does Deb Colvin-Tener make a good case for being an artist in Columbus, she is a force in making Columbus a good place for other artists to be. As a major presence on stages, she has become one behind them too. She’s passionately committed to the Garden Theater and the Short North Stage because they further expand the opportunities for local artists. “Columbus is brimming with top professionals, artists with degrees, deep backgrounds, and big talent. I feel so fortunate to be a part of it. Out-of-towners are always amazed and impressed when they get here and see what I’ve been telling them about!”
Colvin-Tener is, herself, just that amazing Columbus she wants everyone to know.
If you enjoyed this article, visit Ann Starr’s blog starr-review.blogspot.com where she reviews and muses about her experience with contemporary fine art and music.
© 2012 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.
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