‘She Is Getting Every Ounce of Performance That These Actors Can Give’: Town Resident Ali Tesluk Makes Professional Directorial Debut with Summer Theatre of New Canaan


Though she’d spent many years singing, dancing and acting—and in live theater programs familiar to New Canaanites, including at the Performing Arts Conservatory on Pine Street, St. Luke’s School Theatre and Summer Theatre of New Canaan—town resident Ali Tesluk came to directing unexpectedly, as a sort of fallback.

Ali Tesluk. Contributed

It was 2014, her senior year in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in theater arts at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Penn. Tesluk had a directing class under her belt when went out for the acting part of a gypsy in “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”—a part she didn’t get.

“I went to the head of the Theater Department and I asked him for some feedback, and he pretty much said to me, ‘You were so great, you were so great, but the other girl who got the part, it was her turn,’ pretty much,” Tesluk recalled with a smile during an interview in downtown New Canaan on a recent morning, about two miles from the outdoor stage where she soon will make her professional directorial debut. “And then I emailed the theater department and asked if I could have that last directing spot.”

She got it.

And that first true directing gig was “a great experience,” Tesluk recalled. Collaborating with multiple performing artists and crew—stage manager, music director, lighting and sound designers—harnessing their collective energies and talents for a cohesive stage production “was really inspiring for me,” she said.

New Canaan’s Ali Tesluk. Credit: Michael Dinan

On Saturday night, the seeds of that inspiration will come to bloom in a completely original musical conceived by Tesluk, with book, music and lyrics written by her friend Nathan Fosbinder. “The Dancing Princesses” will run for 11 weekend performances from June 24 to July 30, as part of Summer Theatre of New Canaan’s “Theatre for Young Audiences” program.

A family-friendly, 75-minute show (with intermission) that’s designed to appeal to children of all ages, “The Dancing Princesses” opens at 10 a.m. Saturday as the culmination of nearly one year’s work for Tesluk since the idea came to her during a mini-tour with STONC last fall, including pitches, revisions, deadline-setting, trial performances and, most recently, an intense rehearsal schedule.

“It’s really exciting,” she said. “I’ve always been really passionate about new works and creating new stories, and developing new material. One of the things I love about this show in particular is that we have a cast of seven people and six are women. There’s one guy, and there aren’t a lot of shows that have a lot of strong female characters in them, so we have a lot of these big funny dance numbers and just the girls are in it. Usually in musicals the big funny number is all the guys, and then the girls just come in.”

For Summer Theatre of New Canaan Executive Director Ed Libonati, what’s so special about “The Dancing Princesses” is that Tesluk herself started as a STONC intern in 2011, working as a box office manager and actress in the intervening years.

“To see that growth and evolution over the years, working with our professional staff and teams, it’s just great,” Libonati told NewCanaanite.com.

“It’s great to know that it’s working. That is what is really cool. Ali came to us with an idea and we know Ali—we know her talents and skills—and to be in a position to help a developing artist is part of our mission. It’s a perfect circle of, let’s say, of the arts where you come in and you learn and then you have the opportunity to give back on both levels. And the show is going to be spectacular. She is a tough director. She is getting every ounce of performance that these actors can give.”

It’s based on a fairytale long favored by Tesluk, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” that’s built around a mystery facing an enchanted kingdom: Why do the young princesses awake each morning with their shoes worn through?

She approached Fosbinder with the idea of creating an original musical out of the story last fall, while the two acted as part of a two-week elementary school tour of STONC’s production of “James and the Giant Peach.”

“Melody Libonati, the artistic director, had created a new musical” for Summer Theatre, Tesluk recalled, “and so they’re really invested in creating new works.”

Fosbinder had written musicals in college, so she asked him whether he had ever considered doing the same for STONC.

“He was like, ‘Sure, that would be really cool, but what would we write it about?’ We talked about a few fairy tales but I suggested ‘Twelve Dancing Princesses’ because it was one of my favorites growing up, so then he looked up the story online and read the story and said, ‘This could be a really cool musical,’ ” she recalled.

As Fosbinder’s book, music and lyrics materialized, Tesluk faced the fact that there was no guarantee that the Libonatis would produce the show.

She met with the STONC leaders three or four times until February, when the Libonatis said, “ ‘OK, this sounds like a good idea but we really need to hear people performing it,’ ” Tesluk recalled.

“Because in those meetings we would just kind of read the scenes to each other and sing the songs ourselves, so they said, ‘We need to hear a cast do this.’ ”

So Tesluk and Fosbinder put together a group of friends, rented a studio in Manhattan’s Garment District and—after an hour’s rehearsal—read for the Libonatis.

They said yes.

Asked how her life is, Tesluk answered: “Right now, it’s so busy.”

“It’s a really quick rehearsal process, so we have about three weeks. Two weeks to rehearse, and then we have one week to ‘tech it’, which means we add the lighting and we add the costumes and we add the effects, and we rehearse on stage for just one week, so it’s really really busy. And we rehearse six days a week. It’s going really well.”

Asked what is the long-term vision for the original show, Tesluk said that she and Fosbinder would like to “continue to develop it after this summer.”

“We’d love to bring it to other theaters and present it for different audiences, so what we’re hoping to do is at the end of this summer, create a portfolio for the show so we can do exactly what we did with STONC and pitch it to other companies as well,” she said. “I think it’s an incredible show. It’s a show with this really strong female characters. I think it’s going to be really inspiring for young girls, but also all audiences will love seeing these characters, and they’re fun too, there’s nothing preachy about this show either. It’s really fun music and it’s a great show.”

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