By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
In this bleak mid-winter of theatre, heartbreaking news of the January death of actor Melanie Piatocha at 36 seems particularly cruel.
The abrupt loss of a talent so expansive, and a quester so spirited, so restless, makes the world of theatre seem especially fraught and fragile. Our sense of possibility is dimmed by the tragedy. Exceptional talent, hard work, kindness are recurring motifs as theatre people think of their fellow artist. So is the more elusive theatrical term “sparkle.”
In a dramatic way, Edmonton-born Piatocha, the beautiful north end kid who found her people at Victoria School of the Arts and Grant MacEwan theatre arts, was the quintessential triple-threat, the actor/singer/dancers who are the essence of musical theatre. And Piatocha had the resumé to prove it.
When she strapped on those musical theatre single-strap pumps or tap shoes and found her light, there seemed to be nothing she couldn’t do, as 15 years of revues and Broadway musicals at the Mayfield, her most frequent employer, attest. And that archive of work, show after show, runs parallel to striking performances in the challenging off-centre, small-scale musicals, Drat! The Cat! and Little Fish among them, that are the specialty of The Plain Janes.
But, more than that, as the Mayfield’s Van Wilmott points out, and her Janes’ history reveals, Piatocha was driven to seek unexpected depths under the surface glitter of even the flimsiest revue. For Class of ’63, “a silly revue in which she was brilliant in every scene,” Wilmott remembers sending her the name of a movie to watch. “I asked, simply, if she would still have time to do this. … I didn’t have to tell her what to look; I knew she would know. Twenty-four hours later came her reply: ‘Candy rocks.” So did Melanie!”
“It didn’t matter if she was the lead or in the ensemble, her attention to detail was the same…. She had an unequalled work ethic. She did more evening post-rehearsal homework than any actor I’ve ever encountered,” says Willmott. He valued the “trust and respect” in their professional relationship. “She had no problems pulling me aside and telling me whatever I just said was a bad idea. And she was always right. We miss her terribly.”
He remembers advice in 2005 from the late Tim Ryan, whose credentials as a talent scout were honed by his years founding and leading the theatre arts program at Grant MacEwan. “You gotta see this girl; she’s terrific!” She landed her first Mayfield show, the Christmas revue, that year.
The size of the role didn’t affect the unflagging commitment from Piatocha; her ensemble esprit de corps has many testimonials from her fellow theatre artists. In Kate Ryan’s 2018 Mayfield production of All Shook Up, for example — a jukebox musical that’s a sassy cavort through the Elvis canon with Shakespearean storylines — Piatocha was a sparkling lovestruck heroine in men’s garb, à la Twelfth Night’s Viola or As You Like It’s Rosalind. In the Mayfield’s Hairspray, she brought a particular piquancy to the role of the heroine’s nerdy bespectacled BFF; their relationship was one of the highlights of Tracey Flye’s production. In Bob Baker’s Citadel/ Banff Centre production of West Side Story, she threw herself into the tiny but impactful role of Anybodys, the little gang wannabe.
Lead or ensemble, in musical revues or Shakespeare in the park (Freewill Shakespeare Festival), Piatocha was a full-commitment artist. With the Plain Janes, she starred as an 1890s New York socialite-turned-jewel thief who preys on the rich in Kate Ryan’s 2015 Plain Janes production of Drat! The Cat!, a highly unusual Victorian melodrama/caper. As part of the gallery of fractious Manhattanites who surround the angst-ridden protagonist in the John Michael LaChiusa chamber musical Little Fish, she was Anne Frank, of diary fame.
“Melanie cared with her whole heart,” says director Ryan. “She was a fierce and fragile light onstage and off-. She elevated every story, every moment. She was direct and honest. I loved working with her as a friend and an artist, and miss her terribly….”
Catalyst Theatre’s artistic director Jonathan Christenson who cast Piatocha — as Jack, a crack sniper in the ensemble of all-female secret agents in his original musical play The Invisible: Agents of Ungentlemanly Warfare, echoes that thought. “She was a truly special talent,” he says. “Fiercely committed, uncompromisingly professional, demanding nothing but the best of herself at all times. At the same time she was phenomenally sensitive, generous, kind-hearted, thoughtful, and despite her exceptional talent, humble…. She threw herself into everything she did.” She was slated to re-join the cast next month to prepare for a remounting of The Invisible.
Northern Light Theatre artistic director Trevor Schmidt’s first sighting of Piatocha was as a 15-year-old Vic student in an NLT production of The Oedipus Project, an arty deconstruction of the Greek tragedy. “She was shy but the sparkle in her eye said she was mischievous. I adored her immediately.”
When Schmidt discovered Victoria Martin: Math Team Queen to launch his NLT season in 2009, he thought of Piatocha, 24 at the time and getting ready for her marriage to fellow actor Mike Zimmerman, to be the title character in a play in which “the third most popular sophomore” reluctantly invades the brainiac world of four math geeks. “It could be played shallow, silly and clueless — like Clueless or Legally Blonde.… But I think there’s a lot of pain in these characters. I wanted Melanie because she’s so emotionally accessible as an actor. I needed her to anchor the whole show, as the central character and the catalyst.”
“I told her she was the only person I would consider for the role. And if she didn’t want to do it I wouldn’t do it, either,” Schmidt remembers. “Melanie very seriously sat me down, and said that she wanted me to know she was considered ‘slow’ in the rehearsal process by other directors, but assured me she would ‘get there’ by opening.” And indeed she did, in a very funny performance as the popular girl who gets her comeuppance from a bunch of nerds, and then joins them.
“Her self-awareness of her own personal process was insightful. And her willingness to articulate it was simultaneously extremely vulnerable and brave,” says Schmidt. “’Extremely vulnerable and brave’ are the best descriptions I can think of for Melanie. So talented, promising, kind, and gentle. I felt very protective of her….”
I remember interviewing Piatocha for the Journal at the time about the show, her first in some time in which dance breaks were not involved. “It was so refreshing,” she said, “because it reminded me that I was an actor first, someone who can hold the storyline, then a singer second and a dancer third.”
Piatocha returned to NLT the following season in another challenging role, a hard-edged tough-cookie of a 15-year-old out clubbing with her more malleable pal in Jailbait. She appeared in Schmidt’s production alongside Zimmerman.
Piatocha and Zimmerman moved across the country to P.E.I. five years ago. She described the relocation as personal rather than professional — a quest for beauty and adventure as she described to Alan Kellogg in an interview for Teatro La Quindicina’s AIEEEEE! newsletter. “I’m embracing not knowing. I might just stretch out and start self-producing in a new city,” she said.
Piatocha was back in her home town to make her Teatro debut in Ron Pederson’s 2017 revival of Shocker’s Delight, Stewart Lemoine’s funny/sad love-triangle comedy with its trio of collegiate characters struggling to apply their book learning in the laboratory of real life, and attach it to something as unmappable, unreadable as the human heart. Piatocha was delightful and touching as Julia, the bright, impulsive, forthright romantic heroine.
The word Julia tosses around with her friends through Shocker’s Delight is “unfathomable.” It has an echo for us too, now. As Christenson says, “we’ve been reeling, as have so many theatre folks across the country, trying to make sense of the incomprehensible and figure out how we move forward without her.”