Gillian Jackson Han Interview (Dear Evan Hansen Preview)

The 2016 six-time Tony Award-winning musical Dear Evan Hansen is coming to Cleveland May 16-21 to the stunning Connor Palace in Cleveland’s prized Playhouse Square district! I was lucky enough to enjoy a chat with actress Gillian Jackson Han, who will be playing the role of Alana and understudies Zoe in this year’s national traveling DEH musical tour!

Although this was my first time meeting Gillian, her upcoming stay in Ohio won’t be her first time on our turf. For four years, Gillian attended Baldwin Wallace University, becoming a proud graduate and earning her Bachelor’s in Music Theatre in 2019. All the while, she was personally trained by vocal, acting, and dance coaches along the way and also mastered her proficiency in acoustic guitar, ukulele, banjo, and mandolin!

Gillian was asked how this traveling production has been for her, she responded calmly and confidently saying, “We’ve been at it for a little under 10 months now, so I’ve sort of gotten the hang of it.”

I was pleasantly surprised to hear her positivity about being able to adjust to that lifestyle, but she was honest and continued, “It’s tricky at the moment because we’re bouncing to a new city every week now. We used to be able to sit down for a while, but now we’re doing a bunch of one-weekers back-to-back, which is a little exhausting!”

Performers in touring productions have to find the right balance of being dedicated to their road obligation while still keeping this afloat back home. Gillian’s secret?

“It’s definitely a concerted effort. I have to put in work to make sure that my friends and family at home know that I love them,” she said. “But for the most part, my day-to-day life is spent with the people I work with. Luckily, they are all wonderful!”

She touched my heart when she proclaimed, “I’ve come to find a very good, solid circle of people here on the road that will stay in my life forever, which is a very cool thing to think about.”

Pivoting, I asked Gillian about the process of landing her role in Dear Evan Hansen. After all, she’s been out of school only a few short years and already has a coveted job! (Note: This is not abnormal for graduates of Baldwin Wallace’s Musical Theater Program!) Gillian answered in detail:

“I got my first audition a long long time ago, 2019 or something, and I didn’t make it very far into callbacks because casting is largely arbitrary. But after many many auditions in the future and following COVID, I just kept making it further every time I got called in. Then last February, I had an audition and I went in person, which was exciting since we weren’t doing many of those since COVID. And then two weeks later I had a callback and another two weeks later I had a final call back. Then, ten days before I started rehearsals, I got a call saying ‘You booked it!’ I had to fly to New York from LA.”

Gillian went on to say that she has a goal to visit all 50 states, so a tour seems like a perfect way to achieve that! It inspired me to ask her if she has a new favorite venue or city that she has traveled to:

“I do really love the Pacific Northwest. Seattle, that was super fun. Salt Lake City’s venue was stunning. I had an amazing time in San Francisco too,” she said. “But I am so excited to come to the Connor Palace and hopefully get to play the theatre that I spent so much time in college because it’s a gorgeous theatre.”

How nice to hear of her excitement to be returning to the C-L-E and her love for Playhouse Square.

I then inquired about her roles as Alana and Zoe, asking her what it’s like having to perfect multiple roles and being expected to be ready at any moment to perform either at any given show. :

Well, I did have to do a mid-show swing once, which means in the middle of the show, one of my principals decided that she couldn’t finish the show. So I had to hop into action. We didn’t even have to stop the show. That’s how fast we worked. It was crazy,” she recalled. “You have to like, hop into action and then get on stage as fast as you can. The one time I did that was in San Francisco. It was such a nice moment of being like, ‘Oh, I absolutely know how to do this!’ I don’t have to review, I know what I’m doing and I can trust myself and I was like, well, that’s awesome.”

I could not express enough how impressed I was at learning how she can be stepping into a role on short notice at mid-show! Impressive!

Getting into the heart of the topic, I asked Gillian for a summary of Dear Evan Hansen:

“It’s a very untraditional coming-of-age story about a group of eight people trying to find connection through different experiences. It’s all told through the vessel of this boy who gets caught in a lie that spirals out of control,” she described. “There is a trigger warning since there are themes of suicide, although it’s really not what the show is about. It is a beautiful, very unique story. If you’re used to a very classic musical with lots of jazz hands and squares, this is not it. I feel so lucky to be part of such an important and beautiful show, and I think everyone who gets to come to see it will agree.”.

It was amazing to hear the passion coming through her teeth as she was biting her tongue to save me from any spoilers.

I continued by asking what makes this show so powerful:

“I think that people hear the term ‘coming of age story’ and they think one thing. It is also such a hard topic to explore without glamorizing or inappropriately promoting this health crisis. But I truly believe that this show does such a good job of making it so accessible, tolerable, and informational,” she said. “It’s so unique and so special, and the music is so digestible. This stuff will get stuck in your head, but it will also do such a good job of telling the story.”

I can personally attest to the soundtrack to this musical being a killer earworm with a lot of heart! 

As we continued our lovely conversation, Gillian let me in on a little something to listen for when I go to see the show:

“Every time Evan is lying, there’s a sound they have programmed that plays underneath the music. Then, when he’s telling the truth, it goes away,” she revealed.

(I’ll have to keep my ears open!)

I then asked Gillian if there is a moment that she always gets excited for the audience to experience within the show:

“There is a moment in Act Two when one of my characters does something that gets the whole audience if they’re paying attention, to gasp. That is such a good feeling when you get a great reaction from the crowd,” she reveals.

I followed up by asking what her favorite moment of the show was as just a viewer.

“The first time I saw the show, I remember basically feeling almost, not quite, to the same extent but almost the same sensation as when I watched Uncut Gems, and you’re just sitting on the edge of your seat. Your heart has started to move faster and faster as you get more and more anxious for these characters and I get deeper and deeper into it,” she answered. “I remember thinking, ‘What’s gonna happen?’ It’s exciting! There’s not that element of like thrill in most theatergoing experiences and that makes it so much fun as a viewer as an audience member.”

I asked Gillian how she first obtained her love for the theater:

The first show that really sparked my love for theater was Beauty and The Beast. Just the spectacle, the magic of Disney; the beautiful ingenuity of this timeless story brought together was just enough to make my brain go into overdrive and think like, ‘I am invested, I want to do this now,” she answered.

Being an actress touring as part of a major production is like being a rockstar: Many pursue the field; few are successful! It’s a hard journey to obtain that level of success. What made Gillian decide to pursue her dreams?

“In 10th or 11th grade, it became very clear to me that I had a couple of different options. Not everyone figures it out that fast, but I knew pretty early. I just discovered you could actually study theater in college, so my path seemed even more clear,” she answered. “I then became invested in the college audition process, and through that is when I realized that this isn’t a game anymore. This is going to be a job and I’m going to work very hard to make this my life’s reality.”

Inspiring, to say the least!

I asked Gillian to discuss the influence her coaches had on her and how she helped prepare for a career in the industry. Gillian answered honestly saying, “I will say what I got from the program is that it toughened me up. I came into that school with very thin skin and just plain love. I love this thing and I wanted this thing but I didn’t really have the skin and the emotional Teflon yet. School was hard. It never slows down. They say the ‘real world’ is a lot less scary than anything you will experience in high school or college. It’s more and it’s faster paced and you actually have to make money. But in terms of people rooting for you, it’s not a lie. The people on the other side of the table who are casting, they are rooting for you! They want the best for you, but it doesn’t feel that way in school. Through that brutal emotional training was how I got the skin that I have now to be able to do the work and get the job and fight.”  

Gillian studied at Northeast Ohio’s very own Baldwin Wallace, adding comments about her time there, saying “That tough skin wasn’t the only thing I got from Baldwin Wallace. There were amazing opportunities and some very important and significant introductions I made through the school. Those were hugely important things for me. That and being under the tutelage of BWMT and Victoria Bussert.”

(We’ve lost the official count, but this adds to the large tally of performers that come through Playhouse Square with high praise for Ms. Bussert!)

There’s an old saying: “Acting is being.” I asked Gillian if she relates to her characters in the show.

“Yeah, absolutely. I, in many ways actually, have related to both of them. Although, I think I find a little bit more similarity to Zoe because, well, first of all, she’s given more material to sort of find a relation to. But then again, both of these girls are just people that are looking to be loved and understood and I think those are very universal themes that most people can relate to in different parts of their life.” 

I then asked if she differs from her characters in any way, Gillian hilariously answering, “Well, Alana was a much better student than I was! Then Zoe is a little bit more introverted than I am. I mean, to be fair, her circumstances in the show lend itself to her being more to herself.”

I had to ask Gillian if she has an all-time favorite piece of theater to consume, versus an all-time favorite production she performed in.

Gillian thought for a bit, then revealed, “My spiel about how I fell in love with theater is through three shows that really influenced me early on. They are Beauty and the Beast, South Pacific, and Next to Normal. They all influenced me in huge ways. Then I would then say my favorite production that I’ve been in outside of DEH, was being in Once at the Beck Center. It was so cool because we were the regional premier, which again was an amazing opportunity that I got from school.”

Final thought from Gillian before wrapping up:

Well, we have the most incredible musical theater fan base in the world. So to all our fans, I hope you come out and see the show. And to everyone who just loves theater, you will absolutely not regret coming to see our show! And if Barrio wants to sponsor me while I’m in town, I’ll take it.”

Gillian: Barrio, Cleveland, and theater fans from all over are here waiting for you and the rest of the Dear Evan Hansen cast with open arms! Break a Leg!

Dear Evan Hansen will run at the Connor Palace Theater @ Playhouse Square from May 16 – 21. Complete show and ticket details can be found on our events calendar: RIGHT HERE!

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