Behind The Scenes with Charis Gullage of SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical
Ashleigh spoke with Charis Gullage (Disco Donna) about SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical, the legacy of Donna Summer, the female force behind SUMMER and more. Read on for highlights from the interview, or listen to the full interview below. Tune in to Talk of the Commonwealth with Hank Stolz on WCRN 830AM Fridays at 9 AM and Saturdays at 1 PM for more behind-the-scenes interviews.
Ashleigh: Hello and welcome back to another very exciting episode of Behind the Scenes at The Hanover Theatre. Today, we’re talking to Charis Gulledge from SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical. Hello Charis!
Charis: Hi! How are you?
Ashleigh: I’m so good, and I’m so pleased to welcome you on our show! If you attended our preview party, you would have seen Charis on our main stage for a preview performance from SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical. We’re so excited to be able to welcome her back.
Charis: Yes, it feels great to almost be back. We’ll be back in a couple of weeks. I’m so excited!
Ashleigh: I know! The casting was announced the day after you had come for our preview party, and we were all so excited to have actually seen you perform right as that was happening. I think that this is a real treat. If our audience is not familiar, SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical is coming to The Hanover theatre March 31 – April 3. Charis, would you mind introducing yourself to our listeners before we begin?
Charis: Yes! Hi, everybody! My name is Charis Gulledge. I’m from New Orleans, Louisiana, and I play the role of Disco Donna. She is the part of Donna Summer’s life where you hear all of her hits like “Bad Girls,” “Hot Stuff,” “Love to Love You Baby” and more! I’m so excited on behalf of all the cast. We’re all super excited to be heading over to The Hanover Theatre.
Ashleigh: Absolutely! I mean, Donna Summer is such an icon. She was breaking through barriers and really inspiring the genre for every music diva that followed. If we’re talking about someone like Janet Jackson and all the incredible trailblazers that came after her, I think that it all really started with Donna and her persona and her charm.
Charis: Yes, 100%! She paved the way for so many artists, especially artists that we know and love today. There would be no Beyonce, there would be no Rihanna, there would be no Janet Jackson without Donna Summer because she not only paved the way for challenging stigmas in the industry for women, but also women’s rights to own both themselves and their artistic property. She really paved the way for a lot of artists, especially women of color in the 70s. So many artists nowadays still pay tribute to Donna Summer through their music. Beyonce samples “Love to Love You Baby” in her song “Naughty Girl,” so if that’s not a big homage to the legend that she was, then I don’t know what is.
Ashleigh: Where would we be? When we think about popular music today, I think we would be lost without her.
Charis: Absolutely, absolutely. I can guarantee you that we would not have as much glitz, glamour, disco, and all of that. There is no disco era without her, she was the reason for the season.
Ashleigh: Absolutely. One thing that I think is interesting about this show is it explores three eras of Donna’s life. So would you mind talking a little bit about that?
Charis: Yes! So, as I said, I play Disco Donna, which is in the middle of her career or the up-and-coming part of her career and onward. When the show starts off, you meet Duckling Donna, who is played by the beautiful and amazingly talented Amari Edward-Jones. She is definitely the wide eyed, bushy tailed, naive, younger version of Donna Summer as she’s finding her voice, singing in church and growing up singing that music. She grew up with a lot of insecurities that a lot of us have as children, where we don’t know if we’re considered beautiful, and she’s finding out what it means to be beautiful and understanding that she’s beautiful being herself.
Charis: Then, there’s Disco Donna. We travel into the disco era where she moves to Germany, she does a production of “Hair” there, then she starts to embark on her journey as a musician, as an artist and as an actress. Many people don’t even know that she started off as an actress. She wanted to be an actor and a singer, she wanted to do it all. That’s when she starts to discover herself as a sexual being. She starts to understand who she is as a woman, as an artist, and how those two are intersectional. You see a lot of that through her hits like “Bad Girls,” “Hot Stuff” and especially in “Love to Love You Baby,” which she actually wrote in Germany.
Charis: Then we move on to Diva Donna, who is the much wiser version of Donna Summer. Diva Donna is the through line character for this show. She begins and ends the musical, and she narrates it from a perspective of if “I knew then what I know now.” You start to hear many of her non-well-known hits like “Unconditional Love” and “Friends Unknown,” the songs that really speak to you from Donna Summer’s heart and bring some humanity to her. Many of us know her as an icon, but not completely as a human. It’s so important that we humanize her so that we can learn more about her and we can celebrate her.
Ashleigh: Yeah, I think that we’ve been seeing an interesting trend in popular media of exploring the lives of incredible women to learn more about them as people rather than the glamorous icons that we all are familiar with. I think it’s so interesting to see something like this, where we get to know a different side of Donna and of all these other trailblazers.
Charis: Absolutely. It’s so important that we recognize these artists not just as artists, but as human beings that are creating art.
Ashleigh: I think that for our attendees, there is another interesting layer of Donna being a Boston girl!
Charis: Oh my goodness, yes! She has grown up there! There’s so much to love knowing that there’s such an artist that came from a place like that. When I went to Worcester and Boston, everyone was so loving and so sweet. It’s no surprise that someone like Donna Summer came from a place like that.
Ashleigh: Oh, I’m sure that she had some of that Boston attitude. I just think that our audience has so much to look forward to and relate to when this show arrives.Let’s talk a little bit about you and your experiences. Aside from this touring production, tell us a little bit about your background.
Charis: I was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. I’m a musician’s kid so my father, he’s a bassist, and he’s toured all over the world with various artists and collaborated with them. He’s actually played a lot of Donna Summer’s music in different sets with different artists. I’ve always had a genuine connection to Donna Summers music through that. Donna Summers built her songs through the baseline, and it gave me a genuine connection to both her show and her music that I was able to tie into my own life. I’m from the bayou and love it. I spent a lot of my acting career and my educational career in the city of New Orleans. I ventured out in 2020 and I started performing professionally after that. In 2021, I got this role of a lifetime!
Ashleigh: That is amazing. I love New Orleans. Such a cool city and such an amazing place, it’s corner to corner art and music. It makes sense that it has created such an iconic and lovely group of talented artists. I understand that the musical is dominantly female led, not only in the cast, but in the crew.
Charis: Yes, and in our creative team as well. We have a lot of women on our stage crew and our cast is primarily dominated by females. It feels great! We also have more diversity within that as well, we have a lot of women of color. Our cast is very diverse. We have women from all walks of life joining us to tell the story. It’s so nice because when telling a story like Donna Summer’s story, you can tell that she wanted the audience to understand that it’s not just about being black. It’s not just about being a woman. It’s not just about being a Black woman.
It’s about existing in this world and understanding what it means to be a woman. By having such a diverse cast, creative team and crew, we get to tell that story and bring it to life every single night. I think that a lot of audiences get to walk away having seen and understanding that as well.Charis Gullage
Ashleigh: It’s a total game changer. I think it’s amazing to have audiences look up on the stage, see artists that are like them, and experience something different, beautiful and diverse.
Charis: And then show it to them that it’s possible! Growing up, many of us think “oh, no, I’ll never get to do that because it’s meant for people that x”. No, it’s showing that there are people from all walks of life on this stage doing this, it’s showing that it’s meant for you, this is for you. This is our gift to you. Hopefully it inspires other people to want to do it. I remember being that teenager in the audience watching Cats. That was the first professional show I’d ever seen. I remember when I saw it, I was like “yeah, I want to do this.” It was people showing me that it’s possible. Beyond anything, that is exactly why I do this art form. It’s because it’s not just about the glitz and the glamour, but showing people that it’s possible. It means the world to me.
Ashleigh: Absolutely. I was always a theater kid, and I had a similar experience of watching performers and seeing people that were like me. I mean, seeing Brandy as Cinderella blew my mind and changed my whole life. It is so important, and representation is so important. I’m just so eager to experience this show for the first time. Before we wrap up today, do you have any kind of parting notes for our audiences and our listeners?
Charis: Yes! Break out your disco pants, break out your afros, break out the glitz and the glamour and the wigs, because we are ready to see you at the party! Seriously, leave it all on the dance floor and come dance with us. We encourage you to dance with us within the first five minutes of the show. I want to see you there!
Ashleigh: If you’re planning out your outfits ahead of time, feel free to snap a picture and tag us. I would love to see some outfit inspos for Summer, we can start a look book.
Charis: Please tag us as well! Tag @donnasummerbway on Instagram and follow us all on the socials. We would love that. We love to see it, we love the support and we love to love you. That’s an amazing idea, a Donna Summer look book. I love it.
Ashleigh: We’ll have to work on that. If you haven’t gotten your tickets yet for SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical, what are you waiting for? Go to TheHanoverTheatre.org and get your tickets now. March 31 – April 3, we cannot wait to see you. Thank you so much for joining us, Charis. We look forward to having you back.
Charis: Thank you, I’m looking forward to it. I can’t wait to see all of y’all.