JoAnn M. Hunter Brings Decades of Skill, Experience and Perspective to Bad Cinderella and SuperYou
JoAnn M. Hunter has given the term “triple threat” a new meaning as her long career on Broadway has evolved. A director, choreographer and collaborator who used to sing, dance and act, she is now a sought-after part of creative teams, in a field that has had few women of color in leadership roles. Andrew Lloyd Webber described her to The New York Times as “a wonderful collaborator who you can really talk to about what the show needs. She is hugely important to the look of the show.”
Born in Japan, Hunter grew up in Rhode Island and moved to New York in her late teens. She has performed in Miss Saigon, Guys and Dolls, Steel Pier, Kiss Me, Kate and Thoroughly Modern Millie (to name a few) and created choreography for Broadway’s School of Rock and Bad Cinderella, which recently opened. She’s currently directing and choreographing SuperYou (written by Lourds Lane), scheduled to open in Milwaukee this month.
My mom is Japanese, and my father is of Irish and Scottish descent. We moved around a lot because he was in the military. By the time I started first grade, we were planted in Rhode Island, and there was not a lot of diversity. My brother and I were made fun of a lot. I had two really good girlfriends—they were both Caucasian—and a really wonderful dance teacher, Nancy LeFebvre DeCicco. She was like a second mom to me. She took me under her wing. In dance class, the only label I had was “dancer.”
When you’re an outsider, you can go one of two ways. You can either put a blockade up and become a bully to protect yourself, or you can recede and try to appease and please. I enjoyed school because I enjoyed my teachers, because they were kind to me. In dance class, I never felt different. I felt like I belonged because I was a dancer, just like everyone else.
When I turned 16 and had my driver’s license, I ran one of the dance studios. My only day off was Sunday, but I loved it because I was teaching.
I love collaborating. Even as a performer I didn’t want to have a solo, I wanted a duet or trio so I could bounce with other people onstage. Whether it’s a physical or spoken dialogue, there’s always a dialogue. Behind the table, there’s collaboration with the director and designers. When you have open dialogue, it makes the product better, and the process is so much easier and much more fun! I’m a good collaborator because I have good instincts and I’m not afraid to say, “I don’t know.”
In the dance industry, we’re lucky because people tend to be open. I remember taking over for a lead in a musical, and they gave me a three-month contract until the director was able to see me in the show. I got the green light from everybody: producers, musical director, choreographers. The director came to see the show, and, at intermission, came into my dressing room. He said something like, “I think you are one of the best actresses I’ve seen do this part. You do it really well, but you’re not the right type.” I’m sitting there wondering, What does he mean by that? Then he continues, “If I didn’t know you or your talent, and someone showed me a photo of you, I would say, ‘No, she’s not the right type.’ ”
Then I had to go out and start Act II with one of the longest songs in the history of the world, and I was supposed to be funny. I thought, Wow, he doesn’t think my face belongs in this role? With choreographers, they only cared about my talent. But I take that experience with me, and, hopefully, I’m becoming a better person every day. That’s my goal.
One of my skill sets is knowing how to navigate a room. Every room is different. When I started out, I would look down the creative team’s table and notice that I was the only female in the room besides, maybe, a stage manager. Knowing how to guide a situation is not manipulation. Sometimes talent is not enough. We all know many talented people who are out of work!
You’ve got to figure out how to work with people so they’ll listen with an open mind and not just shut you down because you’re a woman. Being an outsider for so long, I’ve had to navigate the peripheries in order to slowly weave my way in. It’s like moving through a labyrinth. All those different obstacles gave me experience and skill sets.
The first time I worked with Andrew [Lloyd Webber] was on School of Rock, and it was intimidating. He’s both “Sir” and “Lord”! Andrew is incredibly intelligent, and his knowledge of theater is unbelievable. There have been a couple of times I’ve disagreed with him, and each time I thought, Oh, I’m gonna get fired! But I wasn’t. One time I disagreed with a decision he had made, and, two weeks later, he realized “Yeah, you’re right. Let’s go back to how you did it.” That’s collaboration. It’s not compromise; it’s about give-and-take.