As an Army "brat," I grew up all over the U.S. and in Germany. I joined the U.S. Air Force out of high school, where I analyzed body fluid in hospital laboratories in Texas, Ohio, Colorado, and Germany. I also worked at the Ataturk International Airport for the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. One of the highlights of my time in the military was the year I spent traveling the globe as a vocalist and dancer with Tops in Blue, a division of Air Force Entertainment. This tour took me to over 20 countries and almost every state in the Union. After earning the rank of Staff Sergeant, I was honorably discharged and moved to Las Vegas, where I worked as a cocktail waitress at the South Point Casino. In the the spring of 2009, I became a certified Bikram Yoga instructor, and taught in Las Vegas for 4 years. I also received my BA in Dance and MFA in Theatre Performance, both from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. I relocated to NYC in 2013 to pursue my acting career, focusing on my one-woman show. When I'm not sweatin' it out in the hot room, you can find me at tapping at Steps dance studio.
"Call Me Adam" chats with actress, playwright, and former US Air Force Sergeant Melissa Ritz about performing her show Journey of a Bombshell: The Ina Ray Hutton Story in the United Solo Festival from October 4-23 at Theatre Row's Studio Theatre in NYC (410 West 42nd Street, between 9th & 10th Avenue)! Click here for tickets!
1. From October 4-23, you are presenting Journey of a Bombshell: The Ina Ray Hutton Story as part of the United Solo Festival at Theatre Row in NYC. What excites you about being part of the United Solo festival? I'm excited to be a part of United Solo b/c the organization celebrates the solo performer for 8 weeks. They provide a beautiful venue to stage your work and they care about supporting a variety of solo acts. I moved to NYC in October 2013, and the first thing I did was search for "solo" show festivals in NYC,' and United Solo was among the first results. Within my first few days in NYC, I attended a number of their performances, so I'm happy to come "full circle" and be on the other side of the stage this time. My opening night is 2 days after my 1 year anniversary of living in NYC, so I'm proud of the goals I've accomplished in that time. I'm thrilled to debut my show with United Solo.
2. How do you feel this festival will foster your show in a way another one might not? I think the United Solo festival is the perfect forum to debut my show in that it has a solid audience base, and their social media network is strong, so the exposure is beneficial. This is my first festival experience, so I don't have any other experience to compare it to. But what I can share with you is that the communication between myself and the United Solo staff is excellent, so I feel like everyone is in sync with getting information together and on the same page. I feel like my show is supported by United Solo and they care about my experience. Although there are 130 participants in this season, I don't feel like my show is "lost in the shuffle." Also, my first show sold out pretty quickly, so they offered me a second show, which also sold out! They then offered me a third show, so I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to perform this show 3 times in 1 festival. I don't know that that's always the case in other festivals.
3. What made you want to tell Ina Ray Hutton's story? What do you identify most with about her? I discovered Ina Ray Hutton by accident in 2011 when I was looking for audition song material on YouTube. I was looking for a particular song from the 1930s and Ina's video kept coming up in my search. After watching the video, I watched her other videos and fell in love with her. She was flirty, fearless, conducting an all-girl band, and tap dancing in an evening gown. I remember wondering why I hadn't ever head of her, so I kept researching more about her and her background was so unique, I knew her story had to be told. I felt connected to her through her singing style of early jazz music, her dancing, and her spirit. I liked that she and her all-girl band found success in an era of male-dominated jazz music.
I think I identified with her in a parallel with my military background. It's a male-dominated environment, but there's room for your own voice and for success, and equality. I feel like I found that to be the most identifiable thing with her...but I discovered that later when I did further research about her via newspaper archives. I also feel like I identified with her "bombshell years" when I was a cocktail waitress in a major Las Vegas casino. I felt my life paralleled hers in that we were both objectified and played the role of a "sex symbol." Ina played that game for a few years, as did I in a casino, but we both eventually walked away from that. Ina did it by dropping the all-girl band, dying her hair brown, toning down her flirty conducting style, and exchanging her flashy gowns for a more conservative look. I also dyed my platinum blonde hair to dark, (although it's blonde now for the sake of Ina's story...) and walked away from my lucrative cocktail job, which had me wear a Brazilian thong and bustier as a uniform.
4. What do you hope audiences come away with after seeing Journey of a Bombshell: The Ina Ray Hutton Story? Great question! I've been asking myself this same question lately. I feel like audiences are much more accepting of diversity today, but that wasn't the case with women in music in the 1930's and on. Ina and her band were considered a novelty act...a joke, and nobody was expecting for them to find the success that they had.
I'd like the audience to walk away with an appreciation for what Ina and her "girl musicians" had to overcome. Ina was also a pioneer in many ways--the first woman to record with an "all-male" band, the first woman to have her own TV show, she had a lot of business savvy at a time when it wasn't easy for her. I'd like for people to revisit this era of music and discover not only Ina's music, but the other women jazz bands at that time. They were swingin'!
5. Journey of a Bombshell: The Ina Ray Hutton Story is your first full length play that you wrote. What did it mean to you to get this complete? I'm a very goal-oriented person. I like to set goals and work towards completing them. I rarely don't complete something I set out to do, but when I started this project 3 years ago, I had *no* idea of what I was getting myself into! I've spent NUMEROUS, NUMEROUS nights, weekends, holidays, etc. at home in front of the computer writing and rewriting. I've scoured and spent more money than I'd like to admit on archive websites, ancestry research, and personal interviews, just to piece together Ina's life. Of course, I don't know everything about her life, but I feel confident with the story I've created from true events in Ina's life. It wasn't just getting the facts together either, I had to learn how to tap dance, and get 16 songs together. This entire process has been a beast! It's been my relationship for the past 3 years...I've dated this story, these characters, these songs, dances, scenes, moments and it's been a very intimate process. I feel empowered by bringing these past 3 years to the stage to share my story of Ina's life. Also, my director, Julie Kline, has been tremendous in helping me develop my research into a play that moves, characters who are fleshed out, and has a clear through line.
6. What is your favorite part of the creative process in putting a show together? My favorite part has to be the research, and crafting all that information into a story. What stays? What's edited out? What's going to propel this story and these characters forward? Where's the strength? What are the flaws? Is there danger in what's being written? Is history repeating itself? What can we learn from the information we've collected, and what hasn't been answered? What gaps are in our timeline and where do we need to fill in the blanks? I love answering and thinking through all these thoughts. Collaborating with my director has been a gift in this sense. There's never one way to answer any of these questions, and it's fun to talk about the possibilities.
7a. Prior to this show, you were a Seargent in the U.S. Air Force. What made you want to go into the Air Force? I grew up in a military family. My Dad was active duty Army when I was growing up, so I moved every two years...I went to 3 high schools! My senior year of high school was spent in Alabama, (after having lived in Germany for almost 3 years!) and I knew I wasn't going to stay there! I wasn't ready for college at that point and I wasn't about to hang out at home, so I joined the Air Force. Obviously, I was familiar with the lifestyle, but I also knew it would get me out of Alabama, provide me with the opportunity to travel, and give me money for school. It did all those things and more, and it paid for graduate school!
7b. Did you know prior to going into the Air Force, you would travel the world with Tops in Blue, a division of the U.S. Air Force Entertainment? I had no idea what Tops in Blue was. I had never head of it! My job in the military was working in a hospital laboratory. I analyzed body fluids for doctors, and I wasn't very happy. My passion was always in the arts, but that wasn't really the mission of the Air Force. I was the soldier who was singing and tap dancing in the lab and my supervisors didn't know what to do with me! I was always talking about theater and they were talking about missions reports, and deployments. I was definitely a square trying to conform into fitting into a circle. One day a supervisor told me that there was a military entertainment group coming through for the weekend to put on a USO-styled show, and he thought I would like it. I attended the free show and auditioned for it later that year. I sent in a video of myself singing acapella (from Les Mes!) and out of the 500 submissions that year, I was one of 10 female vocalists selected to tour. I was SHOCKED! It really changed my life though and it prepared me for the discipline it takes to be motivated enough to put together a solo show. Looking back, joining the Air Force was the best decision I made for myself. I had excellent training, awesome supervisors, met the greatest friends of my life, worked my ass off, and traveled the world.
7c. Was this the experience that made you want to pursue a degree in Dance and Theatre? I always wanted to pursue theater and dance. I got bit by the acting bug when I did community theatre in high school at the Frankfurt Playhouse in Frankfurt, Germany. The thought of moving to NYC out of high school was too daunting for me at the time, and I felt too shy to pursue it to that degree. Tops in Blue definitely gave me the confidence and discipline it takes to pursue that track in terms of preparing for auditions, presenting yourself professionally, being punctual, honest...all those things. But when the war kicked off in Iraq/Afghanistan after 9-11 and I was working at a hospital in Germany, I knew I had to make a choice to either stay in the Air Force, or get out and pursue the arts, so I left the military and moved to Las Vegas to attend school at UNLV and study dance. I was ready to audition and put myself out there. The dance department shared the hallway with the theatre department, so it re-kindled my love of the theatre and acting. Oddly enough, there was an MFA acting candidate in the program who was also an Air Force Veteran, so we connected in that way and he encouraged me to audition for the program. That MFA program only holds auditions every 3 years and they only take 10 students from auditions in LA, NYC, San Francisco, and Las Vegas. I was the 11th choice! I didn't make the top 10, but the director of the program liked my background and since I had the GI Bill from the military, he offered me a place in the class and I accepted! It was just meant to be!
8. What have you learned about yourself from putting this show together? Oy...what a question! I learned that I need to trust my instincts more! When working with Julie, she'd often ask a lot of open-ended questions, and I often second-guess my response. I felt like I had to be clever or "deep," when almost always, my first instinct was a step in a better direction. Answers don't always need to impress anyone, and I felt like I was playing that game.
9. What's the best advice you've ever received? Keep your feet clean because you never know when they're going to end up in your mouth!
10. If you could have any super power, which one would you choose? Is healing a super power? I'd like to heal people...there's so much hurt and suffering going on.
11. If you could have be any original Life Saver flavor, which one would you be? Orange! I can taste it just thinking about it...
12. Favorite skin care product? Coconut oil. I use it on my skin, hair, and it's edible!
13. How do you want to be remembered? I've never thought about this. Um...Melissa took risks!