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You Gave Me a Mountain (of a Show): An interview with Elvis’s director Will Cleveland

Will Cleveland is the Artistic Director of ColdTowne Theater, and has performed, produced and directed shows at the theater since moving to Austin from NYC in 2013. Prior to coming to ColdTowne, he managed UCB’s traveling team and was a producer for UCBComedy. He is a native of Arkansas and you can see him in Play by Play with Chris McKeever every month at ColdTowne.

Tell us about the show.

Elvis’ Rockin’ Nativity is a throwback variety show from TV shows like The Johnny Cash Show, The Dean Martin Show, Sonny & Cher, and The Smothers Brothers. It’s final conception asks what if Elvis had a Christmas Variety Television Special and things didn’t really go as planned. Elvis is the host of the show and his friends play different roles in the Nativity Christmas Pageant like Johnny Cash and June Carter who play Joseph and the Virgin Mary.

What inspired you when creating this show?

I grew up watching reruns of the Smothers Brothers, Sonny and Cher, and sketch shows like Laugh-In, and Carol Burnett. Also, I’ve always been a big Elvis fan. I wrote and directed a version of this show in 2012 at Upright Citizens Brigade Theater East in New York. I was on a video production team for UCBComedy and wrote it as a commercial parody first, but couldn’t really see us producing it as a short video, so I pitched it to the theatre as a full show. So, we put up a 25 minute version that was a lot of fun, but one night only, so it really left me wanting more.

Kim Lowery plays Elvis, and there are several other male characters played by females. Tell us about the thought process behind that casting decision.

Kim Lowery as Elvis.

Kim Lowery as Elvis.

Yeah! When I was in high school, I found a “lost” episode of Seinfeld online, and directed it as my senior project for theatre class. Jerry, Elaine, and George were no-brainers, but nobody in my class could play Kramer. Except Rachel Harding. She was taller than anybody and she was really funny. And then, of course, she crushed the role. After that, I never really questioned casting roles based on gender – especially for comedy. When casting Elvis for this show, I thought about some awesome dudes to play Elvis, but something was holding me back from asking or even holding auditions. I went to see a play at Vortex in the summer and Kim was there too. After the play, we were having drinks in the courtyard, and it just kind of hit me. I think it was something about Kim’s rock and roll style and her very open mind, but I thought she should play Elvis, so I just asked her right then and there. Once we started our writers meetings, all bets were off and every role that was written was on the table for anybody to play.

If someone isn’t familiar with Elvis, will they still enjoy the show?

No doubt about it. We have a short film intro to Elvis and who he was at the top of the show. And, even though it’s set in 1970-something, the sketches are very contemporary and satirical to issues we’re still talking about today. There’s something for everybody in this show.

Why Elvis?

There’s so much to explore with Elvis – Rock Star, Movie Star, Soldier, Karate Master, Spiritualist, “Government Agent”…all these things are ripe for parody. but Elvis is already such a big, larger than life character – almost a myth, like John Wayne, Teddy Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart. Of all the things Elvis accomplished in his career, he never made a Christmas movie or TV show. He made some Christmas albums, but of the 31 movies he starred in, there wasn’t a Christmas Movie or TV special, so it was just kind of up for grabs so to speak.

What else should we know about the show?

It’s about 70 minutes long. BYOB if you’re into that. We have a very merry atmosphere in the lobby before and after the show.

Elvis’s Rockin’ Nativity runs through December 17th, Saturdays at 8:30pm. Tickets are $10 advance and $12 at the door, with advance tickets strongly recommended due to the popularity of the show.  Pick up your tickets here, darlin’.