Magic Alive! An Interview with Choreographer Maxx Reed of Xanadu

Amanda N. Gunther | TheatreBloom

I’m alive! And you will be too if you catch the RWS Entertainment Group’s National Tour of Xanadu, the Tony Award-nominated roller-skating smash hit musical while it pops into Charm City at the end of the month. Gliding into The Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore’s Bromo-Arts District for just two performances on Sunday September 29, 2019 this fun-loving show is featuring two of America’s iconic and beloved Drag Queens who gained national stardom on the hit series RuPaul’s Drag Race. Season five winner Jinkx Monsoon and seven finalist Ginger Minj both join the cast of this wild, fantasy musical, giving audiences a chance to see these gals in acting action. In a TheatreBloom exclusive interview, we sit down with choreographer Maxx Reed to talk shop all about the production and what it’s like to put the show on its dancing feet (and skates!)

Thank you so much for giving us some time out of your busy schedule, Maxx, we really appreciate it! If you could just give our readers a quick introduction to yourself and include the last few projects you’ve worked on, we’ll get started!

Choreographer Maxx Reed
Amanda N. Gunther | TheatreBloom Choreographer Maxx Reed

Maxx Reed: My name is Maxx Reed and I am a choreographer, originally from Memphis, Tennessee, living here in New York City. The last few projects I’ve worked on have been Claudio Quest, the California/West Coast premiere of that. I worked on Nikola Tesla Drops the Beat at The Adirondack Theatre Festival, and I choreographed Spun for the Bloomington’s Playwright Project, as well as a few other workshops here in New York City. I also do music video work and I choreograph and direct for a production company called EsoteriCam. Before that, I was performing. I was in Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark for three years. That was a fun show; I enjoyed that work. Everyone always has questions about that particular show.

I think they might have questions about it because I don’t think many people realized that it was open and ran for three years! I didn’t know it ran for three years.

Maxx: Yeah! You know everybody thinks it closed real fast because of the amount it was in the press, but because we were in the press that much, people kept coming. And we kept having fun.

Got it. So, you’re primarily a choreographer nowadays. And given everything you’ve just said you’ve worked on recently, it sounds like Xanadu might be the most main-stream, recognizable project that you’ve worked on in a while?

Maxx: For sure! I’m usually pitched projects, being that I worked in commercial dance and worked on music videos and that kind of touring work before crossing over into theatre, I usually get asked to do experimental stuff. I get a lot of things that cross the hip-hop—theatre line.

What is it that drew you into wanting to do the Xanadu project or how did that come to your table?

Maxx: Two things really. I’m a really big fan of Kenny Ortega and the way that he’s worked as a choreographer and a director in essentially every genre and field that you can. He’s bouncing around a lot. He was heavily involved in the movie Xanadu and I follow his career a lot. So that and our director Alan (director Alan Souza) is a dear, dear friend of mine and a long-time collaborator. He really brought this project to me; I wasn’t thinking about it much before. When he decided that he wanted me on the project, well, I’m never going to say ‘no’ to that man. He’s a trusted, trusted collaborator, as far as I am concerned. He had new ideas for it. I like the opportunity of taking a piece that is set in the 80’s and set in California and then having this added bit of the Muses, the ancient Muse ideology and being able to draw from those paintings. On top of that, we’ve got Drag Queens! So I can throw the vogue world in there. It can be very interesting with the way we physically tell the story.

Amanda N. Gunther | TheatreBloom

Tell me a little bit about the Drag Queen involvement and what has that made the experience like from a choreographer’s standpoint?

Maxx: You know it’s interesting. I have a lot of experience working with Drag Queens. I used to choreograph and dance background for them in my much younger years. It’s not something that I was not familiar with. But going into the project I over-prepared. I created work, I created dances and made these scenes in the pre-prep process. And then I got into the room with these Drag Queens who are lovely artists and are really smart and they know their brand. They know what works on their body and what looks good on their body. So I just started teaching stuff and eventually had to say, “You know what? This doesn’t work. We have to collaborate.”

Sometimes you have to open up and look at the actors in the room and realize “if I’m just making work that I think is cool and I’m not making it for the people that are doing it, then I’m failing at my job.” Sometimes you just have to take a breath, look at the people in front of you, and then make it work. I think that’s what people who are good at their jobs do in choreography. And sometimes we need to be reminded of that. This was a great project to remind me of that because they are so specific. I am making it for them but I’m also serving Doug Carter Beane’s words (Douglas Carter Beane, librettist for Xanadu.) It’s a fun challenge.

What has been the biggest challenge choreographing Xanadu?

Maxx: Roller skates.

Excellent! So that means there will be roller skates?

Maxx: Of course! How can you do Xanadu without skates? But choreographing with roller skates has indeed been a challenge. It’s interesting because before I entered the ballet world and the theatre world, growing up in Memphis, Tennessee there is a lot of Urban Dance there. That’s the world I came up in. I grew up with battle-dancing and break-dancing. And there has always been this thing of “break-skating” so I’ve played with that a whole lot in my life, but most of that is on the floor; it’s not standing up. Being born in the 80’s and growing up in the 90’s, I was a roller-blader— in-line skates. So I have limited experience on actual roller skates before this project. I had choreographed and break-skated on roller skates but had spent most of my life on in-line skates. So I practiced a whole bunch before I even got dancers in a room. I would just practice all by myself, making sure that I was not only able to choreograph on them but that I could be upright on them and be the safety coach on them. I practiced making sure I knew how to make sure everybody else was going to move forward or skate backwards, turn this way, turn that direction, make all those things happen, and make sure everyone stayed upright and safe while doing it. That’s not usually my job. I had to come up with an “across the floor” like you would in a jazz class, but for skates to help get everybody comfortable. And it was a blast, actually. I love body mechanics so it was fun.

Once that was all taken care of, once we figured out how to make them all look cool, it’s then figuring out how to layer our story on top of that. Its interesting. I love that though. When people give you a big stage and say “choreograph something” that’s always a great feeling, it’s “Yay! I can do whatever I want.” But then you get a box and a rail and only two-inches on one side, and you have to be on wheels, that’s when you have to get really creative. And I love that really creative part.

What would you say being involved with Xanadu has taught you about yourself as a choreographer? As a person?

Maxx: I would say two things. I would say that it’s really hard to recognize the importance of a happy project. Sometimes, as theatre-makers, we really want to do the thing that’s super innovative so that we feel good about doing it. We’re creative and we have egos and I do want people to say “Oh, he’s a genius, he’s the first person to ever do this.” We think that way. And even if it’s not my favorite part of myself, I’m a creative, so I do that. At the end of the day, if you can just find a hook into a solid piece of a story and then have happy outcomes through it? Especially in a time like now? I think that just getting people in a room together to laugh and to smile and to sing songs that they recognize is a very powerful and positive thing. I’m learning that. And any time you go into any piece of theatre, I think the value of collaboration is something you have to relearn, no matter how many pieces you make. Just sitting down with people and getting on the same wave-length so that we agree; we all have different views that have to be lined up into one story that gets put up in front of people. It’s a community thing and I enjoy that.

Amanda N. Gunther | TheatreBloom

What are you hoping that people will take away from seeing Xanadu?

Maxx: I hope that they will leave smiling. I hope that they will leave, especially if they are already fans of the Queens, if they are already fans of Ginger and Jinkx (Ginger Minj and Jinkx Monsoon), that they will leave seeing them as actors. Because they are really approaching this project that way. They are not a gimmick. We’re not going to pretend that they’re not who they are and that people aren’t coming to see that, but they are really working this show and approaching their roles as characters. And I’m really impressed and proud of them for that. I hope that their audience reacts to that as well. I hope that they see that it’s a project that pays homage to a film, that pays homage to a Broadway show that already existed but is done in a totally new way.

If you had a chance to do the marketing person’s job and tell people to come see the show, what would you say?

Maxx: If I had the chance to do the marketing person’s job, I would just post 16 times on Instagram every hour. No, I would say it’s fun! I would say it’s new. I would say it’s a love story, I would say it’s an art story, and I would say it’s a chance to see characters and people in new lights. I think that’s about all I would say. It’s just everything I want to see. After a long day of work, sometimes you want to come home and watch something that’s technicolor and bright and familiar and funny but it still makes you think. It sneaks the making you think part in? None of that is the flashy marketing lingo, but I make dances, so that’s what I would say.

Maxx, this has been really great chatting with you, thank you again so much for your time. Anything else you want to touch on before we go?

Maxx: No, I just want to thank everybody for the opportunity and for bringing themselves and their art to it. We’re making a lot of good work and we’re having fun doing it and I hope the audience has the same amount of fun as we are making it when they watch it.

Xanadu comes to The Hippodrome Theatre Baltimore for TWO SHOWS ONLY on Sunday September 29, 2019. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 800-982-2787 or by purchasing them online.

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