When Patterson went on as Helene, she got to speak lines of dialogue and sing lyrics solo for the first time on stage. Associate conductor Liz Nantais proved to be an invaluable ally for Patterson as she honed these new job skills. “She took me under her wing and worked with me every week for free, the entire tour,” says Patterson. “She was really my cheerleader, in my corner. And she’s still my vocal coach.”
Charity’s choreographer, Wayne Cilento, and associate choreographer, Corinne McFadden, have also helped further Patterson’s theatrical career, as they hold those same responsibilities on Wicked and hired her for the Chicago company, starting just a week after the Charity tour ended. “Corinne McFadden has been a godsend,” says Patterson. “She was pushing to cast me in Sweet Charity when I was completely new to her. She saw something and trusted me and my work enough to say ‘I’d like to put you in something else.’ I’m forever grateful to her.”
Around the same time she was offered a slot in the New York cast of Wicked, Patterson also got a job offer from La Jolla Playhouse for Memphis, a new Joe DiPietro musical about the birth of rock and roll. She opted for Wicked not just because it would bring her to Broadway but also for the longer-term income, as she’d purchased an apartment in Brooklyn earlier this year.
Home for the first 18 years of her life was Midlothian, Va., near Richmond. A daycare teacher noticed her talent during dance time when she was only 2, and her parents promptly enrolled her in a local studio. A few years later, however, “I distinctly remember not wanting to go to dance class, and wanting to just play in the dirt. I was such a little tomboy!” says Patterson, who’s the middle child between two brothers. “My mother had to drag me [to dance class] for a while—until it got to the recital time and I experienced my first applause. I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m sticking with this!’”
As she was starting high school, Patterson was wooed away to a smaller studio named Ingrid’s Dance Theater, owned by Ingrid Pettus. “She really, really shaped my dancing,” says Patterson. “Without sounding pompous, she enforced [in] me that I was a star. She really pushed me and did a lot of private coaching with me. At my other studio, we did a lot of group competitions and I had never been chosen to do a solo. She gave me not one but three solos. I had never had anybody that invested in me. I had solid teachers before, but they were definitely catering to the group. And she was like, ‘You’re my project.’”
During her high school years, Patterson was at the studio nearly every day and had to quit the track team to leave more time for dance. Yet she squeezed in a few other extracurricular activities: cheerleading and the Latin Club. She also sang in the school choir, but was focused on dance for the future.
“I had selected my college because they had a jazz major in dance,” Patterson says. “I got there and experienced all of the teachers and then decided that I wanted to be a modern major. It was a skill that I didn’t have. What was the point of paying all this money if I was just going to reinforce what I already know?” Just as she’d been doing throughout her childhood, Patterson trained in all types of dance while attending the University of the Arts. Her tap teacher was the legendary hoofer LaVaughn Robinson.
She moved to New York in 2003, to dance with Urban Bush Women. She remains affiliated with them to this day, and is also still a board member of INSPIRIT, another NYC-based troupe with whom she’s performed. Both companies are all-female, and their work is inspired by African and African-American culture, themes and issues. A Village Voice review of a June 2005 Urban Bush Women show at Manhattan’s Joyce Theater said: “In Give Your Hands to Struggle, the gorgeous solo that opens the program, Rhea Patterson’s resilient strength, fluidity, and big, soft jumps embody pride and joy. Her shoulder and torso ripples come from deep inside her body.”
Patterson began helping out in UBW’s office when they weren’t in rehearsal or performance, and was eventually put on staff as an administrative assistant. “I was given more and more responsibilities and found out I liked it. I wanted to be able to do this well.” So, in the summer of 2007, she enrolled in a master’s program in arts administration at Goucher College. She spends two weeks on the Maryland campus every summer and takes courses online the rest of the year, and she should receive her degree in 2010. “I was not interested in stopping performing in order to get a degree,” she explains. “This is the best of both worlds: I’ll have the foundation when I’m ready to stop dancing. I’ll still get to be a part of the arts when my body is done.” She has used Urban Bush Women as a case study for assignments on strategic planning and a marketing audit. “That’s also my contribution to the company—that I am using this new knowledge to figure out how we can improve.”
Compared to dance, theater is “more difficult artistically,” says Patterson, “[because of] finding the newness in doing the same material every day. In concert dance, you get to shuffle around more—repertory switches around and you get to change parts.” Offstage, theater definitely has the advantage. “The schedule is great,” she says. “If you want to train other ways, you have the time, you have the finances, the health insurance—all of those things that keep you living a comfortable life.”
Patterson was surprised to find the life comfortable even on the road. Her dance companies’ out-of-town engagements usually lasted only a few days, at most a couple of weeks, and then she’d be home again. But the Sweet Charity tour was almost a full year away from home. “It was an adjustment, but then I got used to being in a hotel and it was actually kind of comforting,” she says. “To have a limited amount of baggage and that’s all you had to deal with, having someone clean up after you…and having somebody have your back all the time, the company manager. You just kind of felt taken care of. It’s hard to come back to New York and have to carry your laundry up four flights of steps!”
Though Patterson intends to stay in musical theater, she has been working on a new dance piece titled Blood Dazzler, about Hurricane Katrina. Blood Dazzler—named after the Patricia Smith poems on which it’s based (Smith’s book was published last month)—was created by Paloma McGregor, a choreographer for Urban Bush Women and INSPIRIT, and is directed by Paloma’s sister Patricia McGregor. In the piece’s development at Dance Theater Workshop, Patterson has danced the role of Katrina—personified, she says, as “a moving, speaking, living, breathing sort of terrorizing force.” She further describes the character: “Katrina is sort of a diva. They envisioned her as this glamorous woman who has a little delusion: She believes that the destruction she created is really beautiful and people should praise her power.”
Whether dancing or acting, Patterson has always leaned toward art with a social conscience. “I do like work that has weight,” she says. “Wicked has a nice dark side to it that I appreciate. Color Purple is definitely weighty. Memphis is a really rich story that deals with conflict.” Through Urban Bush Women’s extensive community outreach, “I got to do a lot of research, as part of art making, into the political process,” says Patterson, who wears a Peace Love Obama button on her jacket and has been registering people to vote. “Once you know, you can’t pretend you don’t—you’ve got to do something.”
Photos of Rhea, from top: outside the Gershwin Theatre as Wicked's 5th anniversary on Broadway nears; in costume backstage during the Sweet Charity tour; with Gregory Haney in the Chicago production of Wicked; as an Urban Bush Woman (center) with Maria Bauman and Nia Eubanks-Dixon; in Broadway's Wicked, top left, with other Shiz students. [Bottom photo by Joan Marcus.]