SIX’s Leandra Ellis-Gaston Had Her Biggest Onstage Fear Happen—And It Was ‘Ruff’ | Playbill

Special Features SIX’s Leandra Ellis-Gaston Had Her Biggest Onstage Fear Happen—And It Was ‘Ruff’

The Broadway musical’s new cast members talk about crying onstage, advocating for each other, and building a community of queens.

Hailee Kaleem-Wright, Leandra Ellis-Gaston, Bella Coppola, Nasia Thomas, Zoe Jensen, and Taylor Iman Jones Michaelah Reynolds

At the time SIX’s newest queens on Broadway sat down at the table to talk about their new roles, they had only taken their first bows three days earlier. In less than a week, Leandra Ellis-Gaston, who plays Anne Boleyn, had one of her worst fears come true. “Last night, there was a lady in the audience. During ‘Get Down,’ I came back onstage with the ruff,” which is a costume piece worn during the previous number and which Ellis-Gaston had to take off before going into “Get Down.” That night, she forgot to do it.

“And the lady is looking at me. And I’m like,” Ellis-Gaston recreates her reaction, turning her chin towards a shoulder as she gives a confused side-eye. “The woman is pointing at her neck and mouthing ‘ruff.’” Now comes the recreated look of horror that must have flashed on Ellis-Gaston’s face when she realized she was still wearing the costume piece. “I’m like, ‘My biggest fear is happening right there.’” The rest of the room erupts in full-throated laughter.

Leandra Ellis-Gaston Michaelah Reynolds

The moment serves as a perfect example of one of the biggest surprises and challenges for Ellis-Gaston and her castmates Hailee Kaleem Wright, Bella Coppola, Nasia Thomas, Zoe Jensen, and Taylor Iman Jones: What it takes to interact with the audience. And in SIX, which is structured like a concert, there’s a lot of direct address. It takes a lot of confidence as Jensen, the show’s newest Katherine Howard, adds, “Boy, I didn’t expect that our first time we had an audience. I’m looking at them, and they are looking at me.”

The six actors are the first full replacement cast to join the Broadway musical, a pop-infused history remix telling the stories of the six Renaissance women who all married King Henry VIII of England. The new cast stepped into the show December 5.

With only a month to prepare to step onto the Lena Horne Theatre stage, one of the ways the cast has risen to the challenge (in addition to all their hard work) has been to treat each other—and themselves—with grace. As Jones explains, “We’re coming into an already running show, so it’s not like we get previews. Our opening night was only our third time doing it with all the elements, and that was our very first audience ever.” Jones elaborates about how the time crunch required them to use all their skills to be “Broadway ready,” be confident in their character decisions, and give themselves space to mess up.

Thomas, who plays Anne of Cleaves, picks up on Jones’ words, sharing the importance of “giving yourself grace and saying, ‘This is hard, and it’s OK that it’s taking a second to adjust to it. And being OK with what you’re bringing every single night even if it’s not perfect.’”

Nasia Thomas (center) with Taylor Iman Jones, Bella Coppola, Leandra Ellis-Gaston, Zoe Jensen and Hailee Kaleem Wright in Six Joan Marcus

That explicitly shared understanding of the task they are collectively taking on, and the support they are providing each other, has its roots in the first time the new cast met. “We all [“Alternates, too!,” interjects Ellis-Gaston] met each other the day before rehearsals, and I feel like that really set the groundwork for the community that we’ve built,” says Coppola.

Since that initial foundation was laid, the group has continued to build each other up, and are “very heavy on the advocating for each other. You don’t mess with one of us, you mess with all of us,” Thomas says emphatically. “I don’t know how to say that in a nice way.”

That bond also shows up onstage, with real tears. Opening night was a special one as Coppola and Jensen made their Broadway debuts. Ellis-Gaston recalls that as Coppola finished her big ballad, “Heart of Stone,” “behind her, we all were crying.”

Recalls Coppola with a laugh, “I was finally able to let go of all the pressures I was putting on myself, because everyone knows the show. The bootlegs, they’re out there. When I sang ‘Heart of Stone,' I saw all the phones go up, and I went, ‘It better be good!’”

Bella Coppola in Six Joan Marcus

Jensen points out, “It’s a good show to debut in. If your loved ones are in the audience, you can look at them. I blew a kiss to my mom … And she caught it!” A hand flies up in the air as Jensen mimics her mom’s enthusiastic catch.

It's clear from how these Queens all talk over each other that a sisterhood has formed backstage at SIX. As Ellis-Gaston puts it, “A lot of times with shows, it’s like, that person is singing a solo, so let me look to the left. In this, I have to honor your performance in the same way you have to honor mine. And that feels immensely better to my spirit to know, if there’s three people there or a packed house, these women honor my work.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Thomas, who says, “I don’t win unless my sisters and my siblings win. And that’s the first time I’ve ever felt that way in a cast.”

Zoe Jensen (center) with Hailee Kaleem Wright, Nasia Thomas, and Leandra Ellis-Gaston in Six Joan Marcus

That healthy environment is part of the key to succeeding in such a fast-paced show, in Jensen’s view: “You want to feel safe with your people onstage so you can do the best job you can. And it’s so fun. Even if something messes up, I know I can look at someone and go ‘Oops!’” Another genuine round of laughter fills the room.

It’s not just in their performances, the new cast has been able to bring their own flair to the SIX costumes. Boleyn’s half-down, half-up side-buns hairstyle is now styled completely in box braids. It’s an important change for Ellis-Gaston, who shares, “I’m strictly coming to it from a Black experience, and that’s the only experience I have to bring forth to Anne Boleyn. It feels empowering to have box braids on a Broadway stage, that doesn’t happen very often.”

Another look that has changed is Catherine Parr’s wig, which now features longer hair, at Jones’ request. The actor says, “Feeling that comfortable in my own skin from head-to-toe really helps me embrace myself in the character.” These changes to the hair designs seem simple, but they are clear examples of how to follow-through on embracing diversity.

Taylor Iman Jones Michaelah Reynolds

While SIX has featured women of color as a majority of the leading ensemble since it began on Broadway, for this new cast, representation has been extended even further. There are now more attempts at size inclusivity, as Thomas points out. “The fact that I am on Broadway embracing my curves, and taking every opportunity to do so,” says Thomas, “it’s really cool. Because we love to see thicker bodies onstage.”

“And darker skin!” adds Ellis-Gaston.

Beyond the cast and the Queendom, that camaraderie has also appeared between the queens across productions and casts. Coppola shared that she’s been in contact with almost every actor to play Jane Seymour, including those on SIX’s touring productions. For opening night, Bre Jackson left Wright a little care package of items the former Catherine of Aragon found useful while playing the role. “I felt very taken care of and thought about,” says Wright. “And there is this little Aragon Army, so I’ve been getting messages from all the Aragons on cruise ships, on tour, even the girls from the U.K reached out. It feels like a sisterhood.”

Leandra Ellis-Gaston, Hailee Kaleem Wright, Bella Coppola, Nasia Thomas, and Taylor Iman Jones Michaelah Reynolds

Jackson’s generosity extends outside helping her fellow Aragon. For their put-in, Jensen had to use Jackson’s dressing room station. There, Jackson left a note for the new Katherine Howard, offering the use of everything at the station.

Says Jones, “What’s been cool about the transition is it’s the same message as the show gives, which is we all win when we’re all together. And instead of taking someone down because they’re stepping into your role, it’s more like, ‘Oh cool, another person who knows what I’m going through. Another person who’s going to get to experience the joy of this show.’”

That support system across the Queendom’s various casts has been a boon to the Broadway production’s new arrivals. And at same time, the connection these actors have found and built at the Lena Horne Theatre has been what makes coming to work so much fun. At the end of the day for Thomas, “The show is the show. But, I’m excited to come be with these people,” she says as she motions around at her castmates. “To know there is a guaranteed safe space with my siblings in this show is the most important thing to me.”

It’s a sentiment the rest nod to, and one that Wright clarifies with her parting words—because safe spaces don’t simply appear out of thin air. “That has to be advocated for,” the actor points out. “It is not by nature of the systems that are already set up. Each of us have advocated for ourselves time and time again, and that’s the only way we continue to have a safe space. It’s not just luck. It happens by working for it, advocating, and speaking up. That’s how we got here.”

Check out the cast testing their herstory knowledge, about the real-life monarchs they play, at Playbill's studio below.

See New Production Photos of the Broadway's Queens of Six

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