The first time I saw Britt Olsen-Ecker was from the audience of the Strand Theater in 2010. She was playing Giselle: a brassy, over the top, drug-addicted rap artist in Alena Smith’s The Lacy Project.
I was already admiring her acting skills during the play, when at one point the surly Giselle (Britt) stands on a table-top and belts out a seemingly impromptu song, delivered so strong that the audience cheered! This is when I discovered that she could also sing.
The Lacy Project is a coming of age play about the daughter of a famous photographer. In keeping with the idea of photography, the director chose to have the actors hang their own photos around the theater. On my way into the theater I noticed Britt’s photography right away. Her portraits are intimate, energetic and un-contrived. She was also a photographer.
By the end of the show, her combination of stage presence, acting chops, vocal ability, and photographic skill had me deeply intrigued. And I hadn’t even met her yet!
After the show, when she appeared in street clothes to talk to the audience I didn’t know what to expect . I was immediately stuck by how different she was from the person she was just a moment ago. As she continued talking, I strapped on my mental helmet and prepared myself for a whirlwind, but instead got a laid back, self-effacing and intelligent conversation from a woman that’s as quick to laugh at her herself as she is to give a compliment.
Since then I’ve seen Britt perform many times and in many ways. Recently I had the chance to catch up with her, shoot some portraits, and ask her some questions.
Phil: When I decided to interview you I couldn’t decide which Britt I should approach – the actor, the director, the musician or the photographer? Is there one medium of expression that you identify with the most?
Britt: The thing I’ve been doing the most in my life is performing. Singing and acting are my main passions and I’ve always felt the most at home when doing those.
I believe that when I do photography, I put on a performance. There’s a quote of Helmut Newton’s that I really identify with: “To be a portrait photographer is to seduce, amuse, and entertain.” Now if that’s not performing, I don’t know what is!
Performing inhabits everything I do.
Phil: I like that you connected Helmut Newton’s quote with performance. I love his work. His subjects are empowered, and it seems to be one of his themes. Do you see a prevalent theme in your own work?
Britt: In my work, whether it be directing, photography or singing – a prevalent theme that I see is my dedication to my city, Baltimore. I sang a song to Baltimore in a cabaret show I did in 2010, I directed an opera at Liam Flynn’s Ale House last December, and most of the photography I do is in Baltimore. I’m a lucky girl! I have alleys full of bright, colorful, and beautiful graffiti; I have unique architecture, I have rooftops galore – and I’m still exploring! I also love Baltimore because I can be anyone I want to be here. Baltimore is a great place for a starving artist because creative opportunities are everywhere, and rent is cheap!
PR photo for Britt’s(in red) 2010 Cabaret show: “Taking The Long Way; Singer Meets World.” photo: Philip Laubner
Phil: I recently saw Den of Thieves, a play you directed for Glass Mind Theater. Was this the first play you’ve ever directed? Also, as an actor, and a self-proclaimed “performer”, what’s it like being on the other side?
Britt: Den of Thieves was the first full length play I directed. Being on the other side is amazing. It made me feel proud and accomplished that I was able to get it up on it’s feet successfully. I think every actor or artist should direct something at one point; it’s a humbling experience and one where you learn a lot.
Phil: When you direct do you sometimes know where an actor should go before they go there? Do you say something immediately, or do you wait to see where it evolves?
Britt: Directing and guiding go hand-in-hand. I usually never tell someone how to move, I love watching them figure it out and then throwing questions their way to make them find a more concrete path. I love watching actors play it out by themselves, and then helping them refine. If you have good actors, they will have a basic idea of what to do and where to go. But often, they don’t know that they’re doing things out of character. It’s your job (as the director) to watch and notice.
Britt: The first meeting I had with the composer (Ruby Fulton) and the librettist was exciting because I showed them what I wanted and they were thrilled. Part of me can’t believe they trusted me on this project, but the packed house on opening was the reason.
The singers I worked with – Elisabeth Halliday, Bonnie Lander, and Robert Maril – were amazing to work with because they were open to absolutely anything. Just because they don’t act primarily doesn’t mean they don’t know what they’re doing – I was impressed to see that they had thought about their characters, had questions, even challenged some of my blocking. They made the experience completely painless.
Phil: As a director, how does your approach to contemporary opera differ from traditional opera?
Britt: With contemporary opera I feel you can lose an audience if you don’t involve them because it’s sometimes really abstract and you can’t always hear what they’re saying. So my challenge or my goal was to make sure the audience was participating and involved.
Phil: Can you give me an example?
Britt: The opera KETAMYTH is a story about a guy who’s relived a near death experience with fire. One of the challenges in the opera is that when he goes back into the house, the two sopranos that I had were chanting: “Burning, it’s Burning,” over and over and over again. And I was thinking to myself, “how am I going to create the illusion that everything is burning?” Then it came to me that the most far out thing, the most opposite thing I thought from fire would be water, bubbles specifically. So I went out and bought sixty or seventy little containers of bubbles and the sopranos handed the bubbles out out to the audience, and the audience blew bubbles, so he was slowly engulfed in bubbles that represented the fire. It was fun and people could take a break from the show which was really intense.
Phil: Let’s talk about the future. Tell me about your upcoming show in May with the Baltimore Rock Opera Society?
Britt: My experience with the BROS has been a really good reminder on why I’m doing this stuff in the first place. I started acting and singing because it was fun – not a chore, but fun. The BROS are all about having fun, but at the same time creating and writing and composing. It has been so awesome to work with people who are having fun while premiering something that is very near and dear to them – it only inspires me to do better every day.
Phil: Is there anything coming up immediately that people should be aware of?
Britt: April 11th! I have a show with the Stillpointe Theater Initiative, the show’s called “35mm” written by Ryan Scott Oliver, and it’ll be at the new 788 Gallery/La Caja Estudios by Hollins market.
Phil: Tell me about the Stillpointe Theater Initiative?
Britt: I love singing. That’s a given. And when I find myself at rehearsals with Stillpointe, I find that time just flies by. I’m working with such fabulously motivated and talented singers – and the best thing about it is that I feel challenged every day I’m there. I live for that – to constantly be challenged. And Stillpointe is serving it to me on a silver platter. I’m in love.
Phil: Quick, give me five goals and we’re done.
Travel to India
Do art all the time
Never give up
Click here to visit Britt Olsen Ecker’s Website