How a Millennial Channels Janis Joplin

Kristin Piacentile in A Night with Janis Joplin. Photo: Mark Kitaoka

Kristin Piacentile is a woman of many hats: artist, athlete, traveler, foodie and “seeker of happiness.” She’s a rock climber, including one time with monkeys in Thailand. She’s a scuba diver, including one time swimming with sharks in Honduras. She says she has always made a fool of herself on the dance floor and will never turn down free coffee. In her capacity as a young New York actor, she has Off- and Off-Off-Broadway credits at and with Ars Nova, The Drilling Company, Theater for the New City, The Secret Theatre, The Triad, The Cell and The Public Theater. Who else is she? This is what she writes:

I’m a daughter, sister, girlfriend and friend to the best people in the world. And sometimes I get to bring characters to life on a stage. And though it doesn’t seem real, apparently it’s a job.

Piacentile knows that her use of the word “apparently” is cheeky, for she does have a job and it’s a tough one. She stands by for Kelly McIntyre — who has starred this summer in the national tour of A Night with Janis Joplin — and then, at matinees and Sunday shows, she goes on in the title role. She’s at the Barter Theatre in Virginia right now through Sept. 10; there were earlier runs at Albany’s Capital Rep and Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre.

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According to her press materials, Piacentile is on, shall we say, the enviable side of just 25. Unlike her age, her task is unenviable — not so much because she’s the alternate lead in the show, because, again, “apparently it’s a job,” but because she must channel in some authentic, compelling way the legendary singer with the unmistakeable voice. Watch below and judge for yourself:

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For a young actress born in the early 1990s, what can a voice from decades earlier, saturated with raw emotion, tinged with Southern Comfort, possibly mean? Not only having to sing “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Piece of My Heart,” “Mercedes Benz,” “Cry Baby” and “Summertime,” but to reincarnate Joplin is the idea, and to do so it takes guts and fearlessness. That’s what makes Piacentile a fascinating subject for an interview, as you’ll see.

And now, 5 questions that Kristine Piacentile has never been asked:

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PiacentileWhat’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?

Whether or not the audience affects the energy of the show — and the answer is yes. When you’re doing a show that’s almost like a rock concert, the audience plays a big part! The show’s crux can either hit at the big rock numbers or the emotional crux in Act 2. It really depends on what the audience is feeding off of, but, no matter what, everyone experiences the roller-coaster of emotions that is Janis Joplin.

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?

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Ha! If I ever saw Janis Joplin live. I wasn’t quite born in the ’60s so, no, unfortunately I never got to see her in concert.

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?

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If I’m actually drinking whiskey onstage. Some audience members think I’m truly drunk towards the end and when I come out afterward, they’re so surprised that I miraculously sobered up in five minutes.

Your resume shows wide-ranging musical theater opportunities — lesbian dominatrix in one show, zombie slayer in another, now Janis Joplin. How did your NYU training prep you to move so easily between characters and genres?

NYU was great because my freshman year they basically ripped me apart as a performer and a person. I didn’t know who I was and they made sure of that. Then, slowly with my training they built me back up and gave me the tools I needed to acclimate to my surroundings. So no matter what character is thrown at me, I know how to approach it without my own insecurities getting in the way.

You were born nearly 25 years after Joplin died — you’re two or three generations past her time. What do you wish you could know, deep down, about being alive and in music during the 1960s and ’70s? Is there anything in pop music today that you think might feel like then?

I get the impression that musicians in the ’60s and ’70s represented the rebellious nature in people at that time. With the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle came the sex, the drugs, the trouble and the freedom. I would love to go back in time and just follow some of these bands on the road and experience what they did. It must have felt so empowering. As for music today, I feel everything is coming back full circle. I think rock is coming back in style. We’re starting to hear more rock guitars in songs, songs more emotion-centric and emboldened — for women especially.

You’re super-athletic. How does your athleticism affect your voice and performing ability? What are your top five do’s and don’ts for being a performer-athlete?

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Ha! Well, having an active lifestyle definitely allows me to do more with Janis. She was a very physical performer and surprisingly had a lot of stamina, so doing this show is a workout physically and vocally. Top five tips:

  1. Warm up your body in order to warm up your voice. I always do a circuit or intervals before a show, even for matinees.
  2. Hydrate hydrate hydrate hydrate.
  3. Eat something small or nothing at all. This might be a more personal preference but I find that performing on an empty stomach allows me to hold nothing back.
  4. Remind yourself how lucky you are to be doing what so many wish to be doing. This show is daunting and I have to take a step back to see what an amazing opportunity I’ve been given.
  5. Have all the fun! Do what makes you happy, on and offstage, during and after the show. Just make sure you have a good time. Otherwise, what’s the point? I know Janis would want me to have a good time.