Greek gods. Monsters. Young demigods traveling cross-country to save the world as we know it. “The Lightning Thief,” a young adult novel from 2005, tells the story of Percy Jackson, a middle-school boy who discovers he is actually the demigod son of Poseidon. A fan favorite, it has spawned multiple spin-off series, two movies and an Off-Broadway musical. The musical originally premiered Off-Broadway in 2017 (though other shorter versions of the production were created earlier). It is now traveling across the United States on its first National Tour and will stop in Charlotte in January. Actress Kristin Stokes, who plays the role of Annabeth Chase, talked with Niner Times about transferring to a National Tour, the purpose of a musical adaptation and staging fight choreography.
My understanding is that you’ve been with “The Lightning Thief: The Musical” for quite some time, starting with the workshop productions, is that correct?
So you played the role of Annabeth during the Off-Broadway production. What continues to draw you to this musical? What continues to bring you to this role?
“You know, every time I dive into this show, I can find something new and something deeper to kind of latch onto. I feel like, you know, like you said, I’ve been doing this…the first workshop was actually in 2013, so it’s been five years which I think is hilarious because one of the lyrics is ‘five long years stuck at camp’ and it’s going to be true this year. I will be here for five years stuck at camp. But not stuck. Like, in the best way possible.
This time around, I really am feeling this kind of new-found feminism that is kind of taking over the world right now. And that was always kind of a part of Annabeth; she is very straightforward, she knows what she wants, she is very much an individual and a fighter, and I found that. But the last production we did was the first time she got her own song, so it was kind of figuring out, ‘Okay, how does this song ‘My Grand Plan’ fit into these past versions of her that I created?’ Now being able to, like, sit with this for like a year almost since we last did it, you know, it sinks in deeper; the meaning of the song and of the lyrics. So I’m just like really excited to get out there and like tie it all together even more with Annabeth’s purpose and strength of who she is, not just as a character but as a female, and kind of like a female who is standing on her own two feet without the plotline of a love story or anything. She is just like her own woman and I love that about her.”
And is that what drew you to her initially or is that a new thing?
“That’s definitely something that I loved about her always but I’m finding it even more so this time around. I think what initially drew me to her was [that] she’s just like a badass. I was like who is this girl? Why is she like the smartest person in the show? Love that. I’m like, ‘that’s me.’ I love that she’s like, ‘Okay boys, if you’d stop talking for like five seconds, I had the answer like 10 minutes ago.’ And I just really found myself identifying with her. Honestly, she’s allowed me to become more of myself; allowed me to be more of the smart girl in the room as opposed to being like, ‘Alright, well eventually someone will hit the idea I have sneakily proposed a while ago,’ as opposed to now I’m just like, ‘Actually, no, this is the idea. This is the right idea,’ or ‘This is the answer.’ You know what I mean? So yeah, I love her and I just love her even more with each passing year.”
Going from doing something like an Off-Broadway production where you are in the same theatre every night, how is transferring that to a National Tour and approaching that different?
“You know what? I don’t even know yet, I don’t even know. I have the same question! It’s going to be really exciting and it’s going to take the show up a notch even more so. This show is so energetic; we do so much, you know, we’re doing all the fighting and stage combat and movement and it’s a very hands-on show where we, as the actors, we’re moving a lot of…not the set-pieces, but big chunks of the set around, whether that’s like a podium or a chair, or we’re holding this down because now it creates a monster. We are the ones creating the show and so I’m really excited to see how each space is going to inform how we create the show because it’s definitely going to be a part of our journey, for sure.”
I know there are some new additions to the cast as well as original cast members. Would you say it’s more a feeling of excitement than loss of losing old cast members?
“So, I’m very excited. Obviously Chris McCarrell, Sara Beth Pfeifer and James Rodriguez, they are all coming back and we are so pumped. We are so excited, we are making like all of our tour plans. And I also was on like pins and needles waiting to find out, ‘Okay, who are going to be our three new cast members?’ I didn’t even know until the Playbill article came out announcing them. And then I did some online stalking — as everyone should — and I was like, ‘They’re awesome, they are great!’ So I’m just really excited to see what this new family is together, and especially because I have had the amazing opportunity to be in the show since the beginning, I have experienced that with each new reiteration. There are always new people who come in and then we lose people and then they get replaced with someone who’s going to add even more to it. That’s always amazing for me. It’s always why it is never going to be the same show for me because each person that comes to the cast, they really get the freedom (and that speaks to our director, Stephen Brackett) to really invent the character for themselves. So I’m just so excited to see what these three new people are going to bring to the show and the roles and it’s going to be amazing.”
I have a genre of questions that relate to “The Lightning Thief” being an adaptation of a quite popular young adult novel. How do you prepare yourself to take on a role that is an adaptation of well-loved, popular character?
“I read the books. I’ve read them so many times I’m actually reading the series for the third time right now to prepare myself because every time I read it I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s right! This happens.’ At least for me, this is part of my prep, I don’t know what everyone else likes to do, but I want to know everything. I want to know everything that we don’t even get the opportunity to touch upon in the musical because, you know, it has to be two hours. So we take short-cuts but we still get the emotional arc and the storyline across, but we might have to cut a few things that are that are more elaborated obviously in the book. Having it be a book, especially as opposed to, you know, a lot of musicals are adapted from movies nowadays and having it be adapted from a book that’s a humongous series, there is just a wealth of information that I get to dive into and it’s basically just like secrets into how this character thinks constantly and it is so helpful, so I just try to learn as much as I can and figure out how she aligns with who I am naturally.”
So would you say that “The Lightning Thief” musical is much closer to the book than, say, the movie adaptation?
“(laughter) Mhm, have you seen it?”
Yes, I went opening night sixth grade.
“Oh my gosh, you did?”
“Oh my gosh, did you dress up? Be honest.”
No, I did not. But I had a blog. Like a fan blog.
“Yes, I love it! I actually haven’t seen the movie because, you know, the fans are very vocal about their dissatisfaction with the movies (as well as Rick Riordan), so I have steered clear, honestly, of the movies and have only been reading the books. But maybe, I’ve always wanted like all of us in the cast to like get together and have a fun night watching the movies and being like ‘Oh, what is happening right now?’ because I know, I’ve heard everyone’s been like, ‘Don’t do it!’ but I have to; it’s like that thing you can’t look at but you want to.”
It is an interesting endeavor. Do you think when people compare books to movies — or books to musicals — is that an intimidating comparison or, you know, musical theater is such a different medium, is that even a fair comparison to make?
“Yeah. More kind of your second option there. I feel like you, especially with books, it is a fantastic source material. But I feel like part of what is the purpose of an adaptation is kind of being like, ‘Alright, what didn’t this version of the story do that we can uplift in this new genre?’ The books are incredible, and it’s like, ‘Okay, so why make it into a movie? Why make it into a musical?’ The characters have such a wonderful emotional life throughout the entirety of the books. Rick does such a great job of, kind of…they’re angsty and their feelings come through with everything that they are doing and I think when you add music to that and underscoring that and you get to, kind of like, within a book you get to hear someone’s inner monologue, that’s what happens on stage with the song. And I think just like when you add music to anything that takes care of someone’s emotional life already, so I just think it’s fun to be like ‘What is the music of these characters?’ And it’s a really cool, kind of rock score.”
I think that totally already answers my next question, which was what is added via a musical format? But I think that exploration of emotional life totally already speaks to that.
“Yeah, and I think also, especially with Percy (since it is his story especially in this first book), you know, he is the son of the sea god and to me, water and the sea [are] all about emotions, and that’s kind of what happens. When Percy feels great or emotional, this kind of wave comes out of him and that’s when he gets to express his abilities, and what better way to express those waves of emotion than with a freaking high belting rock song?”
Was Rick Riordan involved in any way with the production?
“No, not really. We had his blessing, which was huge, as obviously with the rights. His…I think it’s his publicist or manager…he had someone from his office that’s very close to working with Rick, she was with us always and she was such a huge supporter. Everyone in Rick’s office, including Rick, they’re fans of the musical. Rick will tweet out something about the musical, like when the album came out or when the show is running. He’ll probably tweet about the tour and every time we see that, honestly, kind of like the inside joke is like [that] Rick is one of the Greek gods and we are the demigods and we’re like, ‘We’ll never see our dad but we still love you!’
So he hasn’t been able to see the show?
“No, not that we know of unless he’s come incognito and didn’t tell anybody. He’s kind of like Poseidon, where we’re like we love him and know we probably will never see him but we have his blessing to continue on our quest of spreading ‘The Lightning Thief’ all around the world and so that’s all we really need.”
What has the fan response been like for you? Have you ever engaged with the fans?
“Oh yeah, they are very vocal and they love it and I am so blessed. We are blessed by the gods that they love our show because we knew what we were heading into with the dangerous movie territory. Honestly, we were like we got to get this right. That’s really thanks to Joe Tracz and Rob Rokicki who did the book and the music. Joe Tracz also did the book for ‘Be More Chill’ and he also did the adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events,’ so he also is a writer on that show…he is very familiar with adapting young adult novels to current formats. He is meticulous in the story and he just has such a wonderful feeling for the humor and who these kids are, that it is really thanks to him and Rob that this is such a success because, you know, if the book wasn’t good, if the music wasn’t good, then I think we’d be in deep trouble. And you know, he knew [he had to focus on] what are the key points that the fans need? What is the point of these books? It’s not, obviously, I haven’t seen the movie but, it’s not to be like a big, Hollywood blockbuster, star-studded gorgeous-looking-cast-member mystical movie. It’s like, ‘No, these are scrappy kids who are angsty and who are upset about their parents and are finding out who they are and finding out the things that make them different are the things that make them strong.’ It’s really thanks to Joe and Rob that we have the fan following that we do.”
Do you have any standout experiences that you remember from an interaction with a fan?
“Oh my gosh, it’s been like a while, it’s been over a year-and-a-half now, but it would just be incredible to walk out after the show and see, just the lines of people in their own Camp Half-Blood shirts that they made or other shirts that they made. And then after they’d been running, now they are coming and they’re cosplaying like us. There are people that come that wear a blonde wig and buy my shirt and my pants, and the same with Chris. We’re like ‘Okay, you guys have, you are truly on board with this show.’ I get tons of fanart still to this day from the show and it’s, you know, I am so lucky that we have such support of the fans and I love it. I’m like you guys are just the sweetest. Chris would always say (I never got to see it) but during my song, ‘My Grand Plan,’ Chris, who plays Percy, he would get to sit back and watch me vent during this song and he might, you know, do a little peek out into the audience and he was always like, ‘You know what? Every girl in that audience is watching you and hearing everything you say.’ And the lyrics of the song are just so uplifting and powerful for these young girls to hear and so that was always cool, even though I didn’t get to see it, but hearing Chris say that. Yeah, they’re listening for sure.”
What would you say the audience is typically like, is it typically younger kids or is it college-aged people who maybe grew up with it, that kind of thing?
“Honestly, it’s all ages and I was shocked. I thought it was going to be young adults, maybe college kids who grew grown up with it, but it has been spanned the gamut to like young kids or just discovering these books for the first time so it can be like really scary and exciting, to high school/college kids who know everything by heart and know all the facts and they’re like cheering us on, to parents and adults who are really loving all of the like ridiculous adults and their representations in the story. I think it’s something that really brings everybody together because everyone can find themselves in the story for sure.”
Do you have a favorite moment in the show that really sticks out with you?
“Oh gosh, I’m trying to remember. I mean, there’s like a few. I really love the fighting sequences. It just feels like so cool to be like, ‘I have a staff, I have this knife, I’m fighting, I’m super cool.’ It makes you feel like a demigoddess and after you finish the show you’re like (exhausted) ‘Oh My God,’ which you kind of have to be to get through this entire show. But I really love all the fighting sequences, it makes me feel like an action superstar and I love that. I want more of that in my life. Also ‘Drive.’ ‘Drive’ is such a fun montage of a song; it’s kind of our road trip song. There are so many moving pieces and different things that are happening. We’re like on a bus, then we’re on a motorcycle, then we’re like ‘Oh, we’re in Vegas!’ and it’s just the most ridiculous thing. There’s a tractor that we’re on, it is so…it is just the most fun song. For me, it’s the first time that the trio is getting along and that always feels good. Because when you have to have tension for the entire show and now, it’s like ‘Okay, now we’re a team,’ and you really feel that. All three of us are at peace and we’re all like, ‘Oh, we’re all on the same side, we’re grooving, we’re singing this one song, we’re traveling.’ It really is like a real moment of joy.”
How do you train for the on-stage combat fighting sequences? How do you stage those?
“We have an amazing fight choreographer, Rod Kinter, and he’ll go over all the basics and stuff with people who haven’t done the fighting before, but, you know, it’s a lot of training. We spend a lot of rehearsal time learning the fights and perfecting them, making sure they’re safe, and then we have to put them to some pretty fast-paced music. It’s not like some normal fight choreography where you get to take your time and you’re looking for cues and breathing and doing all this stuff. It’s like ‘No, do all that. Plus, can you time it to music? And it has to be done in like one bar. Thank you.’ It’s pretty intense so we start pretty slow and we gradually build up speed until we all feel extremely comfortable. With any show that has fight choreography, we do a fight call before every show. The amount of fights that are in the show, there’s a lot of them, so fight call can take like 15 to 30 minutes (so it’s pretty extensive when like usually a fight call is like five to 10 minutes), so we’re always practicing, we’re always checking in and just making sure that everything is safe.”
So had you come into this with fight experience before?
“Yeah, I had. It had been a while but I had some fight experience in college mostly and throughout a couple different shows, but this is definitely the most extensive stage combat that I have done in a show which is great. It is super fun.”
I think it’s really great that the show has managed to get a cast album that you can listen to on Spotify. What is the process like of recording a cast album and do you ever listen to it on your own time?
“Yes is the answer. I totally do and I’ll totally be listening to it, honestly, to be like ‘Oh yeah, what was that song? How did my harmony go?’ because it’s a really great reminder of everything that I sang a year-and-a-half ago. So I’ll be able to go, ‘Oh, okay that’s right.’ So I’ll probably be listening to it this week before going into rehearsals to get the vibe up. Recording the cast album is super fun it’s like a dream. We got to be in this gorgeous recording studio that tons of other Broadway musicals have recorded in. ‘Sunday In The Park With George’ was recording the same day as us, so for someone has been in theater like all her life, I was like, “Ahhhh! I am on hallowed ground! Everyone has recorded here! This is amazing! Whose mic is this? Should I kiss it? I don’t know…’ It was so awesome. Everyone is like so nice, they were all rooting for you to sound your best. It was just like a dream of a day for all of us to be in a recording studio and looking at each other across the booth and being like ‘Oh my God we’re singing right now, this is going to be the album that other people listen to!’ It was a dream for sure.”
Wrapping things up, I do always like to ask everyone: How did you get into acting and was there a moment that you knew that you wanted to be an actress?
“I got into acting because I was an outgoing child. Honestly, because my mom was into it. She did shows when she was in high school and then she went to college for musical theatre in California. And then she kind of stopped for a while and had a family and had me and my two siblings and then she kind of decided one day that she wanted to maybe get back into it again. The musical that was auditioning had a kid part and she was like ‘Oooh! Kristin, will you come with me? I’m too nervous to go by myself.’ I was like, ‘Okay, sure!’ and that was kind of it. It was a college production of this show called ‘Working’ by Studs Terkel and I got to play a newspaper boy, and I don’t know, that was kind of it. I guess there was like an ‘aha moment’ but for me, it was always the most natural thing in the world. It was already a part of my upbringing with like listening to musicals in the car and hearing about my mom’s shows, and me wanting to do talent shows and dancing. It was just always a part of my life and so, for me, I was very lucky where it’s not like everyone in my family was doing something so different that I was like a black sheep and I was like ‘I’m going to be an actress!’ and they were like ‘No, don’t do it, you’ll be broke forever!’ Luckily, they were like ‘Yeah, that sounds great. You should totally do that,’ because they all loved it too.”
Do you have any advice for people who are may be interested in going into an arts field or are struggling to get into it?
“Oh gosh, you know what? It can just feel like hitting a brick wall with your fist over and over and over again but one day you will break through. It takes unbelievable stamina but as long as you are staying true to who you are…always be checking into who you are and what makes you, you, what makes you unique, and your light and your artistry will always shine through and eventually, you’ll break through into what you’ve always wanted. That’s what I had to tell myself.”
“The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” will be hosted by Blumenthal Performing Arts in the Knight Theater from Jan. 15 – 20. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased here: https://www.carolinatix.org/events/detail/the-lightning-thief-the-percy-jackson-musical.