Have you heard the expression “skin like porcelain”? Well, this summer, for two Minnetonka actors, it’s literal—at least on stage. Susan Hofflander plays Mrs. Potts, the motherly teapot, in a production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. For every performance, Hofflander dons a tea cozy for a housedress, a spout for a sleeve and a teapot lid for a hat. She pushes a tea cart around the stage, offering a warm cuppa to heroine Belle and other denizens of the Beast’s castle.
And who’s inside the tea cart? It’s Jay Soulen, 12-year-old stage veteran and Minnetonka resident. Jay plays Chip the teacup, Mrs. Potts’ son. “It’s so much fun,” Jay says. “The first time I come out on stage in costume, that always gets a laugh.”
We talked with Jay and Hofflander about their theater careers, how they spend their downtime in Minnetonka, and what it’s like to be part of a tale as old as time.
Road to Chanhassen
While Jay Soulen’s theater career is just beginning, Susan Hofflander has performed for decades—all over the country. “When I graduated from college, the first audition I did, I got the job,” she says. And not just any job. Hofflander was hired at Lyric Opera in Chicago, often lauded as one of the top three companies in the country. “I was floored,” Hofflander remembers. “When you’re 22, it sets the bar high for a quality at which you would like to work all the time.”
After five years in the chorus at Lyric Opera, Hofflander embarked on a solo career, performing at Lyric and with other companies around the country. Over the course of her career, she’s done opera, symphony concerts, church gigs, musical theater and more. “In the early ’90s, I auditioned nine times for the national tour of Phantom of the Opera and finally got in,” she says with a laugh. The single mom took her two young daughters, Caroline and Mary Kay, on the road with her, which wasn’t easy. After the tour, the family decided to put down roots, and ended up in the Twin Cities. “I wanted to raise my own kids,” Hofflander says. “I needed to find theatrical venues where I could exercise my chops and stay in one place. Luckily, the Twin Cities affords us an opportunity to do that. Last I looked, the Twin Cities was second only to New York in the number of professional theaters per capita.”
Hofflander took a few years off from performing (she’s also been a Realtor for 22 years, a job she loves). When she decided to jump back in just a few years ago, she auditioned for Chanhassen Dinner Theatres’ production of Mary Poppins and got the role of Miss Andrew, the “holy terror” of a nanny. Her career has been busy once more after Mary Poppins, with stints in the Ordway’s 2015 production of The Sound of Music and now Beauty and the Beast.
And performing is more fun than ever, she says. “As a young performer, you think, oh, I’ve got to be jaded,” says Hofflander. “But I don’t think I ever felt that way. Now that I’m back performing with renewed enthusiasm, I love it. Every minute of it, every second, every time I go into the dressing room and share laughter with these young actresses who are where I was at one time in my career. I love this.”
Jay Soulen doesn’t show any signs of becoming jaded, either. He worked with Hofflander in Mary Poppins last year, and calls it “the best eight months” of his life. “Susan and I had a great time together,” says Jay, who played Michael Banks in Poppins. “I knew I wanted to work at Chanhassen from that point on. I love this theater.” Jay performed in some school plays as a youngster (he attended Deephaven Elementary and worked with Minnetonka Theatre) before landing his big role in Poppins. Now he attends Minnesota Connections Academy, an online school, to allow a more flexible schedule for rehearsals and performances. When I ask him if he wants to pursue a career in theater when he’s older, he says, “Goodness, yes. When I’m working here, people say I’m a ‘good actor,’ not a ‘good kid.’ That makes me feel special.”
Rapport and rancor —on stage
Jay takes his performance seriously—he’s even written a backstory that explains the lives of Chip and Mrs. Potts before the events of Beauty and the Beast. And it’s obvious that he and Hofflander share a warm rapport in real life, too. “In Mary Poppins, our roles were quite different,” Jay notes. “In Beauty, we’re playing this adorable mother-son relationship. But in Poppins…”
“My character hated you!” Hofflander interjects. “That’s a big departure, from having an acrimonious stage relationship to being nice and warm and loving.”
Much has been made of Beauty and the Beast’s creative costumes, essential for telling the story of household objects—from the clock to the candlesticks—come to life. “They are genius designs by Rich Hamson,” Hofflander says. She especially loves Mrs. Potts’ spout—a quilted sleeve that goes over Hofflander’s arm, with an aerosol can of water vapor hidden at the top so she can lean over and pour real “steam” into a cup.
Jay’s costume is also creative: He sits inside a small cart, with his head popping out from the top, encircled by a foam teacup. “It can be a real strain on my back and feet, because I’m sitting on my knees the whole time,” he says. “And it gets really hot.” But he’s able to hop out for breaks backstage. And he admits, “it’s kind of comfortable in the cup.”
Costumes and set design aside, the real draw of Beauty is its “transformative message,” says Hofflander. “Love transcends and transforms everything. We don’t really know what a person is like inside until we get to know them.”
Jay adds, “There aren’t too many people who don’t already know the story. It’s a classic. So [director] Michael Brindisi says it very well: ‘Tell the story.’ We think about, why do these characters want to become human again? What is their motivation?”
“The audience has to see what the stakes are,” says Hofflander. “Mrs. Potts wants better for her son. In order for the Beast to make his transformation, the stakes have to be high for everyone. That’s what I love about this show—all of the actors are so genuine and good.”
During the run of Beauty, the actors keep busy schedules. But when they can, they spend downtime with family and friends. “My daughter Caroline lives in Minneapolis, so we get together about once a week and have a meal together,” Hofflander says. “I love my location in Minnetonka. I feel like I’m five minutes from everything that’s amazing: Ridgedale, Whole Foods and the freeways to get everywhere I need to go.” Hofflander enjoys the views of the woods and creek from her third-floor condo, and she gardens, cooks and entertains friends in her free time.
On keeping busy, Jay says, “It’s important to keep things interesting. A couple of people in the cast and I have this little club, where we play around with foam swords and put together some stage combat. We’re working on it now.”
Hofflander laughs. “I’m going to have to join this fight club.”
(Stage photos courtesy of Heidi Bohnenkamp)
Beauty and the Beast
Through September 24
Chanhassen Dinner Theatres
Show times and ticket prices vary; check online for more details.