The Painful Reality of Playing Janis Joplin

How the actor taking on the role for 5th Avenue Theatre’s production of A Night With Janis Joplin preserves her vocal chords and gets closer to the late, great singer.

Kacee Clanton as Janis Joplin at the Pasadena Playhouse

Kacee Clanton’s vocal cords are sturdy. In 15 years performing as Janis Joplin, the singer has needed steroid injections only once, required to help calm incredibly swollen vocal cords.

“There is no healthy way to sing this way,” she says during a lunch break at the 5th Avenue Theatre in downtown Seattle, where she is rehearsing A Night With Janis Joplin. “So I have to figure out how to do it the healthiest way possible. With Janis, she typically did a couple gigs a week and it was about a 40 minutes set. But for me right now I’m doing five shows a week and it’s two hours and however many minutes. It’s a lot.”

Clanton first played Joplin in a 2001 production of another musical, Love, Janis, at the San Diego Repertory Theatre. She was so convincing in that role that she was asked to join Joplin’s original band Big Brother and the Holding Company, with whom she toured off and on for a decade between regional productions of Love, Janis and a four-year stint as a back-up singer for Joe Cocker. When A Night With Janis was first produced in 2013, Clanton was a natural choice, and when the show went to Broadway, she went with it as the alternate to Mary Bridget Davies, who was nominated for a Tony in the role. Due to the damage that the role inflicts on the lead’s vocal cords, though, Clanton was taking the stage almost as often as Davies. This is also true for the upcoming production, which will see Kristin Piacentile perform three of the eight shows each week. Clanton says she is busy giving Piancentile, who has never played the role, a crash course in Janis.

“The way that Janis sang is counterintuitive to everything we’ve ever been taught,” Clanton says. “We’re taught that you push everything up through your chest and to the front of your face, and that’s that healthy mixed voice. The mixed voice doesn’t live in the land of Janis. You have a head voice and pulled chest, where we pull our chest way up high. Most singers never pull their chest that high. ”

No amount of technique, nor the 90 minute warm up and warm down she does every night, can save Clanton’s cords from the abuse inflicted while reproducing Joplin’s distinctive rasp. And so the singer institutes a strict no-talking policy between performances. “It’s a little bit isolating for me, because I can’t be out with the party,” she says before heading down to the theatre for a full rehearsal. “I have to be resting and not talking. But that’s OK; it helps me stay in character… . Janis had this great quote where she said, ‘I make love to 20,000 people a night and I still go home alone.’ I can relate to that.” 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave. $24–$61. Runs March 25–April 17; see 5thavenue.org for full schedule. 

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