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Broadway Q&A: Stephanie Bissonnette of ‘Mean Girls’

Category Broadway

|by Jeryl Brunner |

The 'Mean Girls' actress shares what gave her the courage to come back to the show after a brain tumor

Stephanie Bissonnette plays high school student Dawn Schweitzer in Mean Girls on Broadway. The musical is based on Tina Fey’s hit film Mean Girls, and includes music by Jeff Richmond, lyrics by Nell Benjamin, a book by Tina Fey and direction and choreography by Casey Nicholaw. Mean Girls is all about how to navigate and find your place in a fierce jungle otherwise known as high school. The production was nominated for 12 Tony awards, including Best Musical. An original cast member, Bissonnette has been with the show since 2017. A few months ago, she returned to Mean Girls after she was diagnosed with a brain tumor and had to undergo radiation. A dancer, singer, actor and choreographer, she has performed around the country at The MUNY, Riverside Theatre, Shakespeare Theatre Company and Seven Angels Theatre. Bissonnette has also appeared Keith Urban's “Never Comin' Down” music video. 

Stephanie Bissonnette plays Dawn in ‘Mean Girls’ on Broadway (Photo: The Gingerbeard Man)

Stephanie Bissonnette plays Dawn in ‘Mean Girls’ on Broadway (Photo: The Gingerbeard Man)

How did you start dancing?
Stephanie Bissonnette:
When I was in preschool I would sit on the floor with my legs in a split and play with my little farm action figures. In my head I thought of my legs as a fence for my farm animals. My preschool teacher also owned a dance studio. She went to my mother and said, ‘She is very flexible. She clearly has some natural ability. You should put her in dance. When I was five I studied ballet and tap. Then I added more classes and dance styles. I fell in love with dance from the beginning. As a kid I could be pretty shy. Dance was my way of expressing myself. It is such a freeing way to release all of these feelings without having to say anything. Sometimes I'm more confident when I'm dancing than I am just talking to someone.

At what point did you become a professional dancer and performer?
I graduated in May from the Conservatory of Performing Arts at Point Park University in 2012. And by June I had a contract to dance for a Broadway variety show for Royal Caribbean.
 I actually didn't want to take it because I was, I had all these big dreams of New York and Broadway. But I looked at the itinerary which started in Lisbon, and went throughout the Mediterranean to Asia and the Middle East. Working on a cruise was a great way to save money, learn about putting on a professional show and getting paid to do it as a job. It taught me at 21 that I could do the same show for a year without getting bored.

How did you get cast in Mean Girls?
For many new Broadway shows, they do what they call a Developmental Lab. It happens before the show actually gets put up on the stage. The cast and creatives are in a studio for four weeks workshopping scenes, dances and dialogue before they actually add costumes and sets. So I auditioned for the Developmental Lab.  Even though I had nine callbacks and I was hoping that I was going to get the job, you never stop auditioning. So I was actually at another audition when I got the call from my agent who said,  ‘I have great news. You got the Mean Girls lab.”

What is it like to work with your director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw, who has done so many shows like Aladdin, The Book of Mormon, The Prom, Something Rotten, Elf, The Drowsy Chaperone and more?
He is the nicest human and focuses on the work and telling a story. He trusts his dancers. He doesn't talk down to us. We worked together to create the story and he found things in our skillset to showcase things we do well.

This past October you went back into Mean Girls after undergoing treatment for a brain tumor. Can you share more about that?
SB: I had Medulloblastoma, a very rare form of cancer found more commonly in children.  When I was told, ‘You can't go back to work. You have cancer,’ I said, what do you mean, I can't go back to work? I have to go back to work. I finally got to Broadway. I worked all this time to get here. It was all so sudden. After I had surgery, it took me about six weeks to recover from that. Then I went through the six weeks of radiation, which made me so sick. Because the radiation was pointed at a spot that was so sensitive from surgery, it delayed everything from healing.

How did you get through?
Through my parents, friends, family and my Mean Girls family. I would have a crying fit saying, “ I'm never going to be able to dance again. I'm never going to be able to go back to the show. I'm going to have to change careers.” All these things would make me panic. My parents would say, 'You’re going to be fine. You've always been a fighter. give it time and let yourself heal.

Also, a bunch of my Mean Girls castmates came to the hospital before a two show day. At one point I had rented studio to choreograph a video. But I was too sick to use it and couldn’t get my money back. I texted everybody in the cast asking if anybody needed a studio space for anything. The entire cast went to the studio and filmed a dance video for me. When I saw it I cried for three hours. It was the sweetest thing anyone's ever done for me. Also before my surgery Tina Fey sent me a video where she showed me a photo of me and said, ‘I'm putting this by my bed until I can hug you in person.

It sounds like you are all really connected. 
SB: Many of us in the cast have been together for two years every day. I see them more than I see my family. Especially when we were creating Mean Girls that first year. The second year when we opened on Broadway, we did the Thanksgiving Parade, Late Night with Seth Meyers, the Tonight Show Jimmy Fallon, the Tony Awards. We would be doing the Today Show at six o'clock in the morning, then going back to the theater and doing the show that night. We are constantly together.

What was it like coming back to the show on Mean Girls day, October 3?
I was more nervous than I was during my Broadway debut. It was probably the most nervous I've ever been on stage. Off-stage, I was that five year old kid again, saying, “I can't do it. I can't do it.” But I realized I was in my head about it. mean, you of course I could. I did it over 700 times for the past year and a half before all of this happened. I nervous, excited, had friends in the audience and was back with my cast.

Each show gets better and better. I'm the closest right now as I've ever been to being the old Stephanie. I still have my moments here and there where I think, “I used to be better at this specific section, and now am struggling to get through it.” But those moments get easier each day. I have to try to be patient. I feel lucky to be in a show that I could leave for nine months, come back and it's still going strong, which is incredible. I’m also grateful to be a part of a company that would let me do that. At the end of the show when we bow, I still look out at all the people, I think, “Oh, I made it, I'm doing another show, another day.” I’m so lucky that I get to dance around and be a high schooler for a few hours, and get paid to do it.

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