By DAVID DUPONT
BG Independent News
Doesn’t seem that long ago that Layan Elwazani was gracing local stages, first as a member of Horizon Youth Theatre, then as a member of the Bowling Green High School drama club.
On Sunday night, she was at the Tony Awards celebrating with her colleagues from “The Band’s Visit.” They had a lot to celebrate. The show hauled in 10 awards including for best musical.
Elwazani serves as an understudy for three of the four female roles in the show.
“It was a really fantastic experience celebrating the accomplishments of these incredible talents,” she said. Elwazani said she felt honored to share in the joy of having “that hard work and dedication to this show recognized.”
Being in New York, being in a Tony-winning Broadway show, is “a crazy, really surreal experience,” she said. “So I’m just trying to take in every moment.”
The 24-year-old actor said it was like “when you see a rocket ship blast off, you just stare and wonder. It’s definitely along those lines.”
Elwazani graduated with a home school diploma in 2011, but she had worked extensively with the high school theater department. That allowed her not only to act, but to “dabble” in the other stage crafts.
“It’s important to know how the whole machine operates and that informs how you do your job the best,” she said.
Elwazani said she never had an epiphany that acting would be her life’s work. It was a chain of realization starting with Horizon Youth Theatre and then continuing in high school. That cultivated her love of theater, and then performances with the Black Swamp Players and 3B productions pushed her to further develop her skills.
As a high school sophomore she was involved in an All-Ohio production of “All Shook Up.” She was the swing for all the female roles. Many of her fellow cast members were seniors and heading off to college.
She realized she could do that, too. It’s also where she heard about Wright State’s theater arts program. That’s where she earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting.
She graduated in 2015. Elwazani got a diploma on Saturday and moved to New York on Monday.
That first week in New York, she attended a showcase presented by the university. That included a performance attended by agents, producers and others in the business. The showcase also offered courses in how to acclimate to the New York scene.
While Elwazani has had her share of non-theater jobs – bartender, server, maître d’ or being a commercial model, since coming to New York, she’s been working and touring as an actor.
Her first job was Pushcart Players in New Jersey. She did day tours to schools with that troupe. She also joined the Vixens En Guard. The all-female company specializes in swordplay and presenting shortened, parody versions of Shakespeare’s work. She’s still a member.
Then in March, she got a call to come in and audition for “The Band’s Visit,” which was already paying on Broadway. The production team had decided that the cast needed some more “cover.”
Elwazani had auditioned for the casting director before, so he had her materials. She came in prepared to do what they asked. Five days later she got the job. A day after she was notified, she was at the theater. And a week after that she was on stage for a couple weeks of work.
She knew the musical and the 2007 film it was based on. She said she watched it over and over while in college.
“It was so incredible. It felt like I circled back and was able to hop on to a train that was already going.”
The story resonates with her. She is the daughter of Salim and Beverly Elwazani. Her father is Palestinian. “I have Palestinian family who are now Israeli citizens and proud to be there,” she said.
“The Band’s Visit” tells of an Egyptian musical ensemble that ends up in an Israeli village by mistake. “It’s a beautiful story of these people who open their homes to strangers who are stranded in the middle of the desert.” The show is a contrast to how the region is usually depicted as a place of conflict and hostility. This exists, she said, but that’s not the complete picture.
“It’s beautiful to see a story that touches on a human connections, on laughter and joy and the things music brings us together. This cultural divide doesn’t have to exist. … The things that make us different are not as important as the ways we are all the same. All humans experience grief and longing. The story really resonates with me because it touches on the human spirit and our desire to connect with other people.”
She added: “It’s also incredible to see Middle Eastern people on the stage.”
She dreamed of being in classics such as “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Guys and Dolls.” Those are “beautiful pieces of art.”
“I got to the city, and I was really blown away by this whole world of theater and now film and television where people who look like me are on the stage. It’s important for people that stories about their lives are considered worth telling.”
Elwazani is hoping the buzz from the musical’s Tony success, including top acting awards for the leads Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk, will draw more attention to the musical, and lead others to discover it.
As a standby, Elwazani goes to the theater every day. Sometimes, she waits in the wings. Sometimes she views the show from the house, and sometimes she stays in her dressing room and does yoga or other work to make sure she’s prepared to go on when needed.
Because the show is up and running, she often knows weeks ahead when she’ll be on stage. This summer Elwazani knows she’ll be in the cast for three weeks.
Then there are days like Sunday when she got a call at 11:30 a.m. to go on for a 3 p.m. matinee.
The work week is six-days with two shows on Wednesday and Saturday. On Thursday the understudies have a rehearsal.
That schedule, Elwazani said, leaves her time for other daytime or late night projects – workshops, readings, or cabarets.
Actors, she said, always have more than one project going. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”