Teaching via Zoom.

Interview by Keith Waits. Photos courtesy Barb Cullen.

Entire contents are copyright © 2020 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

Barbara F. Cullen‘s energy and optimism is infectious; it is reflected in the liberal use of the caps button when she answered these questions through email. She is a professional actor, singer, dancer, choreographer, director, and recording artist, she has performed in, directed, and/or choreographed hundreds of professional theatre productions, all across the USA. 

For twenty-three years, she was Resident Choreographer at Derby Dinner Playhouse,  and from 2008 – 2012 she was the Resident Director and Choreographer at The Encore Musical Theatre in Dexter, Michigan. Recently she has worked on shows for Derby Dinner Playhouse and Kentucky Shakespeare. 

Cullen has directed and choreographed many Broadway veterans, including Jessica Grove (Les Miserables, Wizard Of Oz), Dan Cooney (Bonnie & Clyde, Nine To Five), Sara Litzinger (Beauty and The Beast), Michael Lanning (Civil War), Aaron LaVigne (Spiderman), and Stephen West (16-year Metropolitan Opera Resident Baritone).

1.    What is the next performance you are/were scheduled to do?

I will be Choreographer and Music Director for Kentucky Shakespeare’s Shakespeare in Love sometime this summer.

2.    When did you first know you wanted to be a dancer?

I started taking dance classes at age 7…but I was actually a singer first! loved MUSICAL THEATRE and grew up listening to the albums my parents played when I was a kid. My brother and sister also ended up in show business! When you love MUSICALS you need to do it all so my parents knew I needed dance classes. My sister was already taking ballet so I followed in her footsteps. I was really more into the jazz and tap but I’m so GRATEFUL for a strong ballet foundation! I couldn’t be a choreographer without that.

3.    What is your favorite role?

My favorite role is Nugget Rialto in Club Morocco! Jon Huffman and I wrote the show in 1999 and it premiered at Derby Dinner Playhouse that year. Jon basically wrote the role for me. That show has played all over the country since then. She’s a tough broad with a heart of gold……and Nugget gets to sing some great songs and dance in some fabulous productions numbers! 

4.    What has been your most difficult role or performance?

The Unsinkable Molly Brown was definitely the most difficult and challenging role I’ve ever played! I also choreographed the show as well as played Molly. We did the show at Christmas time and we did 22 shows in a row with no days off. Plenty of 10 am shows and matinees in those 22 days!

Choreographically the most challenging show was Cats! A HUGE DANCE SHOW and we were doing it in the round. I always get my work done before I get into REHEARSALS, knowing I may need to change steps quickly. This is a triple threat show and putting it together in 2 weeks is challenging because the whole show is dance and music!

5.    When did you make your debut as a choreographer?

My first professional choreography job was Showboat at La Comedia Dinner Theatre. …I had done a few other things before that  (numbers in my high school plays, the drill team at my school…) Showboat is a show that keeps popping up in my career. A few years after the production at La Comedia, I was working at Derby Dinner Playhouse ( Bekki Jo Schneider was the Producer/Director then). I was hired as a performer for 2 productions and she said she was losing her choreographer and she was looking for a replacement. She had seen the Showboat I had choreographed for La Comedia and wondered if I would choreograph for her at Derby Dinner. I choreographed and performed in Productions at Derby Dinner for the next 23 years.

In 2016  I once again choreographed Showboat, this time for Kentucky Opera.

6.    When you choreograph, who is your most important inspiration?

Most important inspiration: Bob Fosse, Agnes DeMille, Susan Strohman, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire & Hermes Pan…and my mentor BEKKI JO SCHNEIDER. As a director she gave me great insight on being a good choreographer. Two of my favorites are ‘A choreographer is only as good as your dancers”…and …’ When you can’t figure out how to get from one musical transition to another, cut…Cut …CUT!” 

7.    You spend a lot of time teaching. What advice can you give dancers to stay in shape while self-isolating?

This is a crazy time! During self-isolation I am still teaching, but virtually! The studio I teach for, Dancers Center for Training, has several classes that ZOOM! I taught 20 virtual classes last week. Some were group classes and many were private classes. Students need to keep stretching and keep up with their skills. Also getting outside, walking, jogging, doing anything physical will help with energy levels and oxygen levels.

8.    Besides Louisville, what other places have you worked?

I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio and I have traveled and worked all over the USA. I put roots down in Michigan, Missouri, California, Kentucky, and spent several years touring with productions and bands that I performed with.

9.  What is different about working in Louisville?

The difference is Louisville’s love for the Performing Arts! I knew after spending a few months in Louisville that this could be a place to make my home. The opportunities are abundant and you can do what you love and make a living! After being on the road for years, having a home and a washer and dryer are very inviting. You can do that in Louisville and I know lots of out-of-town actors who decided to make Louisville their home! It’s affordable, you can get anywhere you need to get to fast (unlike LA, New York, Chicago), and there is an AUDIENCE for THEATRE here that supports the Arts community, not to mention many young people who are interested in going into the business!

10. What music is on your quarantine playlist?

Quarantine playlist! It changes daily….but today it was: Hamilton, A Chorus Line, Xanadu, The Greatest Showman…..And songs: Accentuate The Positive, Forget Your Troubles, Come On Get Happy, Friend Like Me, Lose Yourself (Eminem).

11. What book is on your bedside table?

The book on my bedside table is Call Your Daughter Home, by a dear friend, Deb Spera who is from Louisville, KY. We worked together at Derby Dinner. 

12. What is the first thing you will do when quarantine ends?

The first thing I’m going to do after the quarantine is to go out to dinner with JON HUFFMAN! I love going to one of our great Louisville restaurants and enjoy a great meal!

I would also like to add that being in the Arts is a passion. I realized early on that to stay in the business and make a living, I needed to be able to do it all: Direct, Choreograph, Perform, Teach; especially because I am a woman, I’m always hoping that there will be another opportunity and  I need to prepared and ready to take on that new challenge. I try to learn something new every day — a new tap step, a new song, a new piano riff.  

I am so blessed to still be doing what I love and thrilled to be doing it in LOUISVILLE!

Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.