Mother-Daughter Act: Sharing a Passion for the Stage

Tess Adams and Anne Runolsson visited Iowa for nearly two months in summer 2010 to be part of Way Off Broadway’s summer season.

Mother-daughter duo Anne Runolfsson and Tess Adams shared Fairfield’s Sondheim Center stage in June during Way Off Broadway’s production of South Pacific. In July, 11-year-old Tess starred in WOB’s production of Annie as well. Anne and Tess have both sung on Broadway stages and with esteemed symphonies as well. Here are their thoughts on having parallel careers.

Cheryl Fusco Johnson: What was the best part about working on South Pacific together?

Tess Adams:  Supporting each other. That makes us a lot closer in life. When either of us comes offstage, just seeing each other can be nice. Working together on the stage is really fun, because it’s so easy to really connect with her. Sometimes it isn’t easy and that’s fun, too, because I get to work with her. She’s a lot better than I am. She’s a lot more experienced. So learning from her is really good.

At what age did your career start, Anne?
Anne Runolfsson: I didn’t turn professional until I was 19, but at 14  I started doing community theater. It didn’t really occur to me that it was an option as a career until I was headed to college. No one in my family was a professional artist, actor, or musician. My dad had been a musician early in his life, but I never knew him as a musician.

Was there lots of music in your household, though?
Anne: Tons of music and lots of love for music and musicals. Both my parents have beautiful voices. I just assumed everyone had a beautiful voice, because my entire family sang.

Did you suspect Tess would follow in your footsteps?
Anne:  When you first hold your baby, you look at them and wonder. My thoughts were, “Wow, who are you?  What’s your story? Who are you going to be?” Later, when she would dance around and sing little things, I thought, Oh, that’s interesting. But I never anticipated or predicted or necessarily even wanted her to start performing as a child. That was really her idea. I tried to talk her out of it.
Tess: She did.  She really, really tried to talk me out of it.

At what age did your career start, Tess?
Tess:  I was cast in Les Mis when I was six and turned seven while we were in. . .

Les Mis on Broadway was your first show?
Tess: Yes.
Anne: That’s why I panicked. She’d never done anything, and suddenly my kid was going to be on Broadway singing a song by herself, with no one on the stage.

Tess, what gave you the idea to go onstage?
Tess:  My mom was in Phantom when I was really young, so I literally grew up in the theater.
Anne:  We were lucky. A lot of Broadway shows wouldn’t allow you to have your kids backstage. Our stage manager at Phantom had a really lovely policy. Tess could be in my dressing room. She could be in the hair room. Or she could be in the wardrobe room. My dresser would walk her down to the hair room. Tess would hang down in the hair room and talk to the ballerinas and all the girls who were getting their hair changed.
Tess: It was a really lovely environment to grow up in. Wanting to be a part of it was such a big want in my heart. I had such a big passion already growing for it. When I had an opportunity, I really wanted to be a part of the community.

How did you know they were casting Les Mis?
Tess: My babysitter, an aspiring actress and singer, told me they were doing a revival of Les Mis. I loved Les Mis way before this. It was funny how, at such a young age, I got fascinated with this complicated show and for me to understand it completely and wholly.
Anne: At six, she would ask me to read things from the unabridged Victor Hugo version to her when she’d go to bed.  It was bizarre.

Before she was in the show?
Anne: Yes.
Tess:  When I heard they were doing a revival, I was just—I have to be young Cosette! I have to be young Éponine! I have to be in the show!
Anne:  Julie Andrews, a good family friend, just reminded me of this story. I was in my dressing room at Phantom, and I was saying I don’t know how I feel about this. I don’t believe in kids in show business.
Tess:  And I said, “But, Mom, it’s my dream!”
Anne: And this one tear rolled down her cheek. So I’m like, Oh, my God! Okay, I’ll let you audition. But you’d have to go to school and do the show, and she says, “I can manage.”
Tess:  At this point, she didn’t even know that I could sing. And I got cast!
Anne: Tess hasn’t had much training.  Her training has been by absorbing, being a sponge, being backstage at shows. She’s been on the road a lot with me when I do concerts. Her dad was a producer.

Was auditioning scary, Tess?
Tess: It was really nerve-racking when I was little. I think one of the reasons I got cast in Les Mis was that I had all of the original part for Cosette memorized. When I auditioned, they had me do the entire original scene that is always cut. I bet I was one of the only ones who knew that.
Anne:  Les Mis was my first Broadway show, and it was her first Broadway show.
Tess:  When you found out that you got Les Mis, you were in Grandma’s room. I was in Grandma’s room when I found out I got Les Mis.
Anne: When she was doing Les Mis, I was doing Phantom at the same time.  We were next door to each other in shows, which was incredibly special.
Tess: Our relationship is really important. We always have great fun together. The most important thing that we do for each other is that we’re very supportive of each other, in musical theater and in life.
Anne:  To be in South Pacific, and be telling a story, and looking at each other as actors rather than as mother-daughter was a unique, thrilling, and amazing experience. Who knows if that will happen again?
Tess: We want to be in A Little Night Music together. And in Mary Poppins together.
Anne:  And in Into the Woods together.

What was the best part about being in Fairfield?
Tess: The Sondheim Center.

Will you return?
Anne: We’d love to come back. This theater company is very special, and this performing arts center is very special.

What will you miss when you leave?
Tess: Walking around the town square. I’m learning that I really like a small town.
Anne: Friends that I talk to in New York say, “So, what is it like?” And I say I don’t think I’ve ever been somewhere where I’ve experienced so little stress in the air on a day-to-day basis. No one seems to be in a rush. There doesn’t seem to be any sort of status competition. I feel very peaceful here. That I like—a lot. I want to take that with me wherever I go, but I think that’s unique to this area.

©2010 Cheryl Fusco Johnson

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