‘When All Is Said and Done’

Nicolette Clivio draws from her own life experiences to influence her acting in “Mamma Mia!”
Theatre senior Nicolette Clivio played the lead role of Donna Sheridan in “Mamma Mia!”
Theatre senior Nicolette Clivio played the lead role of Donna Sheridan in “Mamma Mia!”
Nicolle Forestieri

Amidst a circle of cast members in the Brandt Black Box Theater, theatre seniors Nicolette Clivio and Austin Bailly stand beside each other. The two enthusiastically chant “What time is it?” in unison. The cast responds with a chant relating to the theme of the show (“Preview time!” or “Taverna time” in the case of “Mamma Mia!”). Just before this, Clivio could be found meditating to get in the mindset of her character. She uses her own experiences to tap into her character’s emotions, tying a specific word or memory to each scene. If you’re uncomfortable, you’re doing it right, Clivio believes. 

Clivio plays the lead role of Donna Sheridan, mother to Sophie Sheridan (played by theatre junior Payton Borowski) in “Mamma Mia!” this fall. Donna runs a taverna on the fictional island of Kalokairi in Greece. Clivio describes her as a “go-getter” who has a “motherly vibe,” but is still the “life and soul of the party.” Donna is different from other characters Clivio’s played — she tends to stereotype herself as the “ingénue,” a young woman who is often characterized by her innocence. It’s hard to take on a motherly role at such a young age, Clivio says, but her connection with Donna allows her to experience a different side of womanhood. 

“To me, theatre is so fulfilling, because as an actor and as an artist, it is my job to put a story out on stage that will make people look and see themselves represented,” Clivio said. “(Donna) is a single mom. (She)’s somebody who’s only ever had herself. She had to do this all on her own. Nobody ever tells stories about single moms. Seeing a mother going through something is also very different, and it’s very different for me because I’m so young.”

While this role is uncharted territory for the rising actress, her preparation is what helped her feel confident in her audition; She researched the show, the time period, and the character before doing anything else. 

“You always have to go into an audition knowing the background of the pieces you’re doing,” Clivio said. “You can’t go and do a monologue never having read the play, because then what are you saying? Who are you as a character?” 

Besides looking into the history of the show, she delved into the style, selecting her music and personalizing it. For her “Mamma Mia!” audition, Clivio sang “On the Radio” by Donna Summer, citing the show’s “pop-disco vibe” as the inspiration behind her selection. She typically sticks to musical theatre style songs and tends not to riff, or sing multiple notes over one vowel or syllable. This time, she pushed herself outside of her comfort zone. 

“I (usually) print out my sheet music. I plunk it on the piano (and) make sure my notes are right,” Clivio said. “With pop, it’s very different. You do not have to sing the notes on the page. This was a lot harder because I was like, ‘Oh, how do I want to style it up in a way that makes sense for me?’ You never want to copy what you hear on a recording.” 

Clivio reminisces on her experience in her “Mamma Mia!” audition and how she had to improvise on the spot when “Mamma Mia!” director and theatre teacher Charles Swan asked her to belt, or sing powerfully above her vocal range, for the show’s choreographer and theatre teacher Sandra Christie. 

“We had a new teacher, Ms. Christie, and she had never heard me sing before,” Clivio said. “It was my first impression. Then Mr. Swan was like, ‘Okay, great, can you belt for us? Ms. Christie wants to hear you belt.’ I was like, ‘Okay,’ and I got out my book. It’s just about being prepared, having your book cover, having your songs. If I’d just walked in with one song, you never know how it could have played out. It’s all about preparedness.” 

Mr. Swan has had Clivio in his theatre classes since he joined the theatre department in 2021, so she’s been under his mentorship since her sophomore year. During Clivio’s audition for “Mamma Mia!” Mr. Swan remembers her “knocking it out of the park.” 

“Nicci confirmed my hunch that she was the lead of this show,” Mr. Swan said. “We’re going to be in great hands with her as our leading lady.”

Nicolle Forestieri

The “big three,” as Clivio describes singing, acting, and dancing, is only some of what makes an actor fit for a role. Mr. Swan adds that her intelligence and skill as a “dynamic entertainer” are what stuck out to him during the casting process.

“Not only does (Clivio) understand the inner workings of the play and the character, and what the character is going through, and the structure of the story, but she’s also savvy and understands what the audience needs and what the audience wants,” Mr. Swan said. “And that is ‘Mamma Mia!’”

Actress Meryl Streep, who plays Donna in the film adaptation of the musical, is an inspiration to Clivio, both in the context of the play and in life. She describes her acting as “dramatic and over-the-top,” while she still portrays Donna as “a grounded human.” Clivio was “obsessed” with “Mamma Mia!” as a kid, and she was especially drawn to Meryl Streep’s nuanced version of Donna. 

“I’m most attracted to actors who have this inner life,” Clivio said. “It’s a very specific thing you learn. In Meryl’s version (of Donna), you see a completely different woman from start to end. It’s really cool, being able to play Donna and having always had a connection to it since I was a kid. I’m 18 now, a woman. It’s cool, being able to look back and be like, ‘Oh, it’s come full circle.’” 

Clivio’s parents first introduced her to ABBA, a Swedish pop group whose music was the foundation for “Mamma Mia!” This fostered her love for the show and inspired her to land a lead role. She grew up admiring Donna, who she now gets to “bring to life.” 

“I actually have a list of all my dream roles,” Clivio said. “I think I made it when I was in sixth grade. One of them was Donna because I had grown up on ‘Mamma Mia!’ When they announced that we were doing ‘Mamma Mia!’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, I need to do it.’ I feel like in my time at Dreyfoos I’ve been training, and it’s so great to get to a point where you’re ready to leave and you’re like ‘Oh, I get this last thing. My hard work has paid off.’”

Clivio says that theatre is, in essence, all about forming connections. Rosie Mulligan (played by theatre junior Jaelyn Korkin) and Tanya Chesham-Leigh (played by theatre senior Isabela Aronson) are part of Donna and the Dynamos, a band made up of the three best friends in “Mamma Mia!” After working alongside Korkin and Aronson in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ production of ‘Songs for a New World’ over the summer, Clivio got closer to her co-stars. Upon being cast in “Mamma Mia!” they were ecstatic that their trio was reunited.

“That’s so cool because it’s this dynamic, especially with the Dynamos (Donna, Tanya, and Rosie), that they’re lifelong friends,” Clivio said. “Their relationships never went away. Their friendships never went away. That’s also what I hope for when I leave Dreyfoos. I feel so lucky that I get to be with JJ (Korkin) and Isa (Aronson) because they’re the nicest people, and we just get to play around. Especially in the ‘Dancing Queen’ scene, we’re having a pillow fight on the bed. It’s so much fun because part of it is just us. That’s just us having fun for a moment. It’s not just our characters. There’s a piece of us in it.” 

Aside from the camaraderie between the Dynamos, Clivio has also fostered her relationship with Borowski. Borowski and Clivio, who have the same coach outside of school, have known each other since they were nine and 10 years old respectively, but they haven’t had the opportunity to work together this closely until now. Through group bonding and hours of rehearsal, Clivio says that they have formed a connection between not only themselves, but also their characters. 

“I truly feel like I’m Payton’s (Borowski) mom,” Clivio said. “It’s such a different dynamic because it’s easy to go do a scene with your friends and be able to play around, but now I have to switch gears and be like ‘I’m a mother now. This is my child.’ I think we’ve just been discovering what (it means) to be a mom, what (it means) to be a daughter. For us, that works. Nobody’s version is going to be the same. If two other people played Donna and Sophie, it would be a completely different version than from what me and Payton (Borowski) do.”

Both Clivio and Borowski shared that the song “Slipping Through My Fingers” is an emotional climax of the show that encapsulates their relationship as Clivio prepares to graduate this spring.

“Our energy really clicks, and when (Borowski and I are) in a room together, we really can make something special,” Clivio said. “During ‘Slipping Through My Fingers,’ when I’m singing that song, I’m like ‘Payton, I can’t look at you. I’m going to start sobbing on stage,’ because we’ve just formed this connection that makes me so emotional because it’s something so near and dear to me.” 

Borowski is bittersweetly anticipating Clivio’s graduation. While she doesn’t want her to leave, Borowski is grateful for everything she’s taught her through modeled behavior. 

“Seniors always talk about like, ‘Oh, last one, last show,’ and I literally want to cry because (the seniors have) all taught me so much, and they’ve been with us the longest,” Borowski said. “I really just don’t want (Clivio) to go because she’s genuinely taught me so much, with the advice she gives and the way she acts in rehearsal. I always think to myself, ‘What would Nicci do?’ in a scene because she does everything so well.”

It goes both ways. Co-stars such as Borowski view Clivio as their inspiration, and Clivio views the work of her castmates in a similar light. Clivio cites the talent and dedication of her co-stars as her “(inspiration) to do the work that (she) does.” 

“I watch Payton (Borowski) sing and I’m like, ‘This is why I do this,’” Clivio said. “And hearing Isa (Aronson) and JJ (Korkin) sing, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, please, continue.’ Being able to be surrounded by all of that (talent) is so special and 100% plays into what (I) do on stage.” 

Nicolle Forestieri

In “Mamma Mia!” Sophie Sheridan moves on to a new chapter in her life as she prepares for marriage to her fiancé, Sky Rymand, who is played by theatre senior Jackson Gentry. Clivio compares the experience of moving on from high school during her senior year to Sophie’s journey. 

“I feel like I’m in such a pivotal part of my life right now,” Clivio said. “I thought it would come crashing down and be like, ‘Oh my God, I’m leaving. What is happening? What am I going to do with my life?’ But I’m at peace with it. I love these people, and I love what I do. I’m so ready to start this new chapter. And that does not at all mean (that I) have to leave these things behind. Change is extremely terrifying, but it’s necessary. I think that’s the theme of ‘Mamma Mia!’ I’m at a point where I’m getting ready to move on from these people that I’ve known forever. I think that’s terrifying, but at the same time, I’m so excited.” 

Clivio aspires to get her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Musical Theatre, seeking a “well-rounded career.” She looks forward to exploring the technical side of theatre in college; Lighting, sound, costuming, and stage management all pique her interest.

“I really do just want to do this all for the rest of my life,” Clivio said. “Mr. Swan and I were talking and he was like, ‘Okay, so you want to be the next Susan Stroman?’ And I was like ‘Yeah, I want to be a performer. I want to be a choreographer. I want to be a director. I want to do it all.’” 

Mr. Swan describes Clivio as “radiating joy and light and positivity that’s really infectious,” explaining that this will get her far in her career and in life. 

“I’ve nicknamed her ‘Broadway’s Nicci Clivio’ because that is definitely in her future,” Mr. Swan said. “I know she has big college plans, but she’ll get snatched right up out of that to do this professionally. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t want to work with her … This is a great human to have at the helm of a big undertaking like this.”

When preparing for some of these new adventures and upcoming changes to theatre and in her life, Clivio found comfort in Mr. Swan’s words and his experience in the art form.

“So much of what (Mr. Swan) has done and has said is going to stick with me forever,” Clivio said. “He’s just been the best mentor. He’s the one who taught me that nobody can tell you that you can’t do something, that you should always walk into a room thinking you’re the best person in there.”

She attributes much of her foundation of acting to Mr. Swan’s instruction, as he has “worked through the business and gone through the process,” as well as “experienc(ed) the hardships.” She says his wisdom regarding the theatre industry has helped her form a sense of self on and off the stage. 

“The most crucial time of training is the base of it, what you learned when you started,” Clivio said. “Mr. Swan has made me love my craft even more than I already did, which I didn’t think was possible.” 

Mr. Swan admires Clivio’s spirit and optimistic outlook — she “chooses happiness” —  as well as her passion for the art form. He remembers her as a strong actress from the start but has enjoyed watching her grow. 

“(Clivio has) been a rockstar since she came in,” Mr. Swan said. “She’s stepping into her power as an 18-year-old who is about to go into college. She’s killing it in this show, and her big Act Two ballad, ‘The Winner Takes It All,’ is going to bring down the house.”

While Clivio says that the process of college applications, her schoolwork, and the show have been stressful, the fact that she got this far and her passion for the art form are what drive her. She looks forward to working on her craft for the next four years, grateful for the “gift” that is her training and time in the theatre department.

“I’m so excited that I get to enjoy my last year of high school surrounded by the people I love the absolute most,” Clivio said. “It’s the most rewarding thing, being in a show. When you do what you love, you wouldn’t rather do anything else … I was put on this earth to do this. I was meant to tell these stories. Nobody can ever take that away from me.”

View Comments (1)
Donate to THE MUSE
Our Goal

Your donation will support the student journalists of Dreyfoos School of the Arts. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment and cover our annual website hosting costs.

More to Discover
About the Contributor
Ella Jensen, Content Team Editor
Ella Jensen is a second-year staffer and Content Team Editor on The Muse. In addition to her passion for journalistic and creative writing, she enjoys reading and graphic design. Outside of the communication arts, Ella devotes herself to competitive dance, spending the majority of her free time at her studio, That’s Dancing, in the evenings. She looks forward to her next two years on The Muse, helping her staffers cultivate their creative voices while writing stories of her own.
Donate to THE MUSE
Our Goal

Comments (1)

Posting under a pseudonym is not permitted. Online comments that are found in violation of the editorial policy will be removed as quickly as possible.
All THE MUSE Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • K

    KerryOct 29, 2023 at 8:29 pm

    Great article El!