Becoming Belle and Beast: An Interview with Jessica Lauren Ball and Matthew Schleigh

Jessica Lauren Ball and Matthew Schleigh as Belle and Beast in Disney's Beauty and the Beast

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is in full swing this holiday season, with performances running through January 15! Filled with memorable tunes like “Be Our Guest”, “Belle”, and “Beauty and the Beast”, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast has something for everyone! We decided to talk with the show’s Belle and Beast, Jessica Lauren Ball and Matthew Schleigh, about performing the live version of this animated classic.

How does it feel to perform in the title roles of the stage version of such a classic animated Disney film? Is there any added pressure to playing such beloved characters? What, in your opinion, sets this stage version apart from the film?

Matthew Schleigh: I haven’t felt as much pressure preparing these roles as I expected I would.  I think that’s a testament to the treatment of the depictions of Beast and the “household objects” that Kate, as director, and Eric, as costume designer, envisioned.  We’re not cartoon characters, which is very obvious and silly to say, but having that added difference in medium helps focus on our reality presented onstage. By not recreating the iconic images of these characters within the costume design, we’re allowed a freedom of expression in our faces and bodies to develop these characters through our textual examinations, which hopefully propels an honesty in our performances in the intimate space of the Lerner Theatre.

Jessica Lauren Ball: It is a dream come true to be able to play Belle! What little girl wouldn’t want to? She is feisty, smart, and the heroine of her own story. I won’t lie–it is a little daunting to play such a well-known and loved Disney princess. But, Kate made it clear from the start that, although it is Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, we don’t need to be mimicking the cartoon, which makes performing the part a little easier. A clear way to see this is just by looking at our costumes. For instance, my opening costume looks nothing like the famous blue and white “Belle peasant dress” from the movie, and Kate wanted me to use my own hair instead of a brown wig. Knowing that I’d be blonde, Eric Abele, our costume designer, created marvelous looks using a color palette that would complement a blonde Belle. All of our characters are very clearly people with costume pieces and fabrications, allowing our physicalities and vocal expressions to suggest beastly behavior or magical objects, rather than using traditional Styrofoam or prosthetic pieces.

You both experience several costume changes throughout the show. Do you have a favorite?

Cogsworth (Matt Dewberry) presents Belle (Jessica Lauren Ball) in her gold dress.

Matthew: While not as fast as getting into “Lady with Baby”, I enjoy first getting into the full Beast costume after the opening number. I must admit, not only do I feel cool stepping into this larger than life outfit, but Jessica kindly applies makeup for me as the final touches to the “look”.  It’s a nice moment to check in with my real life wife before our characters connect a few scenes later.

Jessica: Of course my favorite costume that I wear is the gold ballgown!  It’s just beautiful!

What is your favorite part of this musical and why?

Matthew:  I love the castle battle and the Beast/Gaston fight near the end! Sword fights are always exciting to see, and I enjoy whatever chances I get to participate in some stage combat. It’s great hearing the varied reactions from the kids when Beast gains the upper hand too. And, it’s a joy to dance with Jessica every day. When she’s brought down stage in the iconic gold dress, I have flashes of our wedding. It sounds cheesy, but it’s true!

Jessica: My favorite part of this musical is getting to sing all of the classic Beauty and the Beast songs. When you hear the opening prologue, you cannot help but feel the magic. I personally love this production because I get to act opposite my husband. We rarely get the chance to work together, so it has been such a gift to do this show with him every day.

How does performing in front of an audience full of children and families differ than that of performing in front of solely adults? Are there reactions different?

Matthew: Children are always honest audience members. They let you know immediately how involved and invested they are in our storytelling. Yet there’s still room for variety within the manifestations of their honesty, which keeps me on my toes and helps me to focus on my intentions scene-by-scene and for the show overall. As adults, we’ve developed a stronger sense of decorum and etiquette, so we become more self conscience and prefer to be “hands off” theatre goers on the whole, even though the experience is meant to be shared and transformative with an audience. With kids, you know you’re all on the same roller coaster–we can all throw our hands in the air and enjoy the ride!

Jessica: I find a huge difference when performing for groups of mostly adults versus groups of mostly children, and even between weekday school group audiences compared to families attending together on the weekend shows–but their different experiences are what makes performing this piece so wonderful! Adults tend to gravitate towards certain humorous moments in the show, which Disney has always achieved brilliantly, so it’s great to hear parents and grandparent involved in the story. But, I must admit my favorite is performing for the school groups. The kids talk to us, clap during the dance numbers, and are very vocal during the big castle fight scenes and any romantic moments. Right away, you can hear that they’re invested in what we’re doing, which becomes a huge motivator for me to tell them a wonderful story!

If you want to see Matthew and Jessica onstage in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, buy tickets online or call our box office 301-280-1660. The show must close January 15, and tickets are selling fast. Buy yours today!

About Imagination Stage

Imagination Stage is a non-profit, professional children's theatre and arts education center located in Bethesda, MD. It is the Washington, DC region's leading theatre dedicated to children.
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