Nicolle Rochelle (credited as Nicole Leach) played Tanya, Harry Cupper's grand-daughter in Season 1 of Shining Time Station. Now an adult, Nicolle was happy to share her memories of working on the show with us.
Interview compiled by J. Gratton from email correspondence. 2012
Nicolle, what first inspired you as a child to get into acting?
Actually, my first desire was to sing. At the age of about 5 years old, I remember having this "realization" that I was born to be a singer and that that was my destiny. After this point, I approached my parents and told them the news, to which they responded : "Ok Nikki, well where exactly do you want to sing? On stage, on TV, etc...?" And my response was basically Yes and Yes and all of the above!
So my mother then took it upon herself to find me a private voice teacher and enroll me in a great performing arts program in Livingston, NJ called PTW (Performer's Theatre Workshop), where I went several times a week and had a ball singing, dancing, and acting.
Can you tell us about how you joined the Shining Time Station cast as "Tanya"? How old were you at the time?
I had just begun working with a manager that approached me after one of my first showcases at PTW and I had already booked a few plays and regional commercials when this big audition came up for a TV series with Ringo Starr. I was about 8 or 9 years old (going on 30!) and I didn't have any idea who Ringo Starr was, nor would it have changed my reaction much because my parents had always taught me to treat everyone with equal interest and respect (probably where my interest in anthropology came from!).
I remember initially going to the audition and seeing lots of little girls and boys everywhere in the hallway and waiting room and then about 6 auditions later, only two little girls remained, my friend Danielle and I. I knew her pretty well because we had already worked together on a play and we were a very similar type physically, I remember marvelling at how even our parents resembled one another. So in my mind, it was truly anyone's job to gain, and I remember that last audition day was long, the casting door would open and say: Danielle! Then it would open again and say: Nicolle! Then again: Danielle! Again: Nicolle! Until finally, they decided on me!
I was so excited even as I felt a bit guilty that I had gotten the role and my friend hadn't, but I knew already that that was Show Business and that the wheels always keep turning so you have to appreciate when you get it as much as when you don't because if it wasn't your turn this time, it could be your turn the next time and I believe karma counts, so it is important to remain positive for yourself and others and not to fall into a negative competitive spirit.
click arrows to see slideshow - all photos courtesy Nicolle Rochelle
At the time, what did you think of your role and the show's concept?
At the time, I felt the role of Tanya was similar to myself except for her interest in her Grandpa's train stories and the Thomas the Tank Engine stories, which I didn't really share. It seemed to me these stories were more for boys. But I did enjoy the concept of the mini-conductor-man who was played by Ringo, even though we spent most of our time talking to a piece of tape on the wall or a doll imagining that it was him! But when I did get to chat with him, he seemed to me like a very cool guy, his accent alone was interesting to me (I always loved linguistics!). I liked to hug him and everyone a lot so he used to call me "Miss Huggy". I also had fun working with Jason Woliner and the funny characters and wonderful real-life personalities of Didi Conn and Brian O'Conner with whom I have very fond memories!
That sounds a bit challenging. Was someone from the crew reading Mr. Conductor's lines to cue you along?
Yes, having a conversation with a piece of tape was definitely more challenging than actually speaking with another actor, but we did have someone reading his lines and usually close to the tape and sometimes, they would even leave the doll there. In this way, it really wasn't very different from preparing your normal audition where you have to completely imagine a different actor giving a different emotional reading than the actual person in the room doing the reading with you, not to mention imagining yourself in completely different circumstances and surroundings. So in the end, it seemed to me quite a regular acting exercise and I just imagined Ringo there instead!
Can you elaborate about the stand-in doll that was used?
Yes, If I remember correctly, they dressed up an Effanbee Groucho Marx doll (about 17" tall) to look like a mini-Mr. Conductor. That also helped our imagination being that we were mostly talking to the wall!
Did you have any knowledge of the Thomas characters beforehand? If not, what did you think of them later?
I suppose I had heard of Thomas the Tank Engine before the show, but I hadn't paid much attention because it wasn't the type of toy I normally played with. After the show began, I always associated Thomas the Tank Engine with memories from our show so I liked it a lot more!
Before Shining Time Station was launched in Jan. '89, you and the cast (including Ringo) went on a media tour to promote the show. What are your recollections and thoughts of that time?
I remember going on a sort of luxury tour with the cast where we were flown first class in a double-decker airplane, and also a long train ride with great cabins and lots of chatting and eating great food together with Rick and Brit. If I remember correctly, we even went to Didi's house in Los Angeles for dinner once! I remember feeling very lucky and very happy!
Were all of the episodes taped by the time of the promotional tour? Do you recall what period (months/weeks) taping took place?
I really don't remember the exact timing of it all because I was pretty young and just going with the flow. But I'm pretty sure the series was finished when we did the promotional tour because we had been taping everyday for a long time and it was like a long wrap-party-end/celebration. I remember going to the set every day in uptown Manhattan (except Saturdays and Sundays), near 135th street in Harlem for about three months. There was always a lot of traffic, and it would take us a long time to get there even though it actually wasn't very far from New Jersey. I remember that my mom used to cry while we waited in the traffic sometimes because it was so frustrating to just sit there and not move, and then you finally got to move, it was only to inch along!
Do you recall where in New York (studio) the episodes were taped?
I believe we were in Harlem at the Metropolis Studios near 106th street on the east side.
Please take us back to the first day that you walked onto the set to tape an episode. Were you nervous meeting all of those new faces of the cast & crew? What was that first day like?
Wow! Honestly, I really don't remember the first day at all. I have more specific memories concerning the auditions, certain moments with people and episodes that I particularly enjoyed. But in general, whenever I started a new acting job, the first day was always very promising, full of energy, introductions, and possibilities! I was usually more excited than nervous on these kinds of days, so much so that I would get migraines and my mom would have to turn off all the lights in my dressing room and put a wet hot rag soaked in special Jamaican Rum on my head.
How early and late was your typical work day? Did you also rehearse your lines in private?
I believe I woke up around 5 or 6 in the morning to be able to get ready and get on the road for the long traffic-filled drive from Jersey to New York in rush hour. It was an 8-hour work day with a scheduled break for school/tutor-time during the day. I would rehearse my lines at night with my mom at also just reading and memorizing them by myself in the car and at home.
Can you share your favorite memories of your co-stars with us?
Jason Woliner: I remember Jason was very mature, like a little man already grown-up! He was cool to explore the set and play games with when we were not filming. One time we had fun climbing into the mini-set where they filmed the puppets and it was really fun to be inside the jukebox!
Didi Conn: I remember Didi was a sweetheart, the kindest woman you ever met, always seeing the positive side in everything just like her character Stacy! It felt like you could tell her anything. She helped Jason and I start a club called "The PBS Club" which had a double sense in that it stood not only for our TV network PBS, but also for "Professional Behavior on the Set." We really liked this club because along with the main goal of learning how to be super professional on the set of a TV series, we got to earn "stars" on a chart regulated by Didi which in turn earned us special gifts from her! She would surprise us with cool, thoughtful things every week if we had enough stars so we were always motivated to maintain our good behavior!
Brian O'Connor: I remember Brian played a "mean guy" but he was far from it in real life. He was so nice and super funny, I really enjoyed playing scenes with him and being around him in general.
Leonard Jackson: I remember my "show grandpa" was not quite as huggy as I was. Instead, he was quite the serious actor, always telling his train stories stories with great care and even though I didn't care too much for trains in reality, his melodic voice was soothing. He reminded me a bit of my own paternal grandpa.
Producers/Directors (Rick, Britt & any others that come to mind):
I remember that they were really nice to us and always smiling, happy with the show and as it seemed, happy with their lives as well!
I will also never forget the awesome director Matthew Diamond who was a very pleasant man, warm and nurturing (not to mention he had a great smile), as well as Rich Jacobs, an audio guy who was particularly fun and lovable that I would continue to see and work with on other shows in the future, and he became a good friend of my family.
click arrows to see slideshow - all photos courtesy Nicolle Rochelle
I've since learned that the Jukebox Band set and the puppets were actually quite larger than I thought. Did you ever seem them (& the puppeteers) in action?
Yes! I remember the day Jason and I were on a mission to explore and we ended up climbing into the small jukebox set where they filmed the puppets. It was shaped kind of like a treehouse so we had to climb a small ladder to get inside. Once inside the jukebox set, we saw that it was a mini-world with musician puppets almost our size in front of their instruments! They weren't playing any music while we were in there, but it was still really cool.
Do you have favorite Shining Time Station episodes or stories that stand out for you or were memorable to tape?
I remember the sleepover at the station episode (Things That Go Ga-Hooga in the Night) and how it was fun to act like we were going to sleep and then get spooked by Schemer and Mr.Conductor!
I liked the fact that I got to wear pyjamas all day and have my favorite stuffed animal in my sleeping bag on the set with me.
In that same episode there's a segment with a lady (Wendy Brockman) who makes paper hats and masks. Many episodes included interesting guests like her. Do you have a favourite?
I have a few episodes that stand out in my mind as favorites! After looking over my photos again, it came back to me how much I enjoyed filming the episode with the masks and the balloons and how many cool faces and shapes the artists made with them. I have always loved arts and crafts, so this fascinated me. Our siblings, Lauren (my sister) and Zachary (Jason's brother), often came to visit us on the set and they joined in on the fun with these artists as well!
Would you have any anecdotes to share of what went on during taping or behind the scenes?
My favorite anecdote from behind the scenes of Shining Time Station is probably the creation of our "PBS" Club that I mentioned earlier and how seriously Jason and I took it! We even made our own club cards for the cast!
'Tis a Gift with Lloyd Bridges as Mr. Nicholas was the first Holiday Special. What are your memories of taping it?
Oh wow, I actually didn't even realize that I had met, much less worked with, Lloyd Bridges until you just asked me that question! I rewatched the episode and I realized that I didn't quite remember him because for most of the episode his character spoke to and interacted with the character of Vickie. Finally at the very end of the episode when he made the Christmas tree light up, Jason and I had a moment reacting to him actually being "Santa Claus".
We taped this episode in 1990 in Canada and I'm not exactly sure what month it was, but I do remember that it was cold outside and I was excited because it was my first time flying out of the country! I flew to Toronto with my mom, and a few days later my great aunt Shirley came to take care of me while we were filming. I remember really enjoying the French-influence in the city as I had already taken French classes at age 3 and was looking forward to studying French again. I also really enjoyed the food, especially at a place called Movenpick!
'Tis a Gift also had a few segments singing Christmas songs. With your love for singing, did you enjoy these segments?
Oh yes! Anytime there was music I was happy, so this was definitely a highlight for me. I also related to the pure soprano quality that Rachel Miner had in her voice because I also sing soprano, and had begun studying classical voice at the age of 7.
Your and Jason's final appearance was in Season 2's first episode - Scare Dares, then to a lesser degree - Field Day. What were your feelings about that?
We were aware that this would be our last episode as "Matt and Tanya", and I remember it being kind of sad because we were leaving behind our friends and co-workers that we had spent so much time with. I definitely cried (as I did at most wrap parties on many sets afterwards). But it was also nice to be able to do a pass-the-torch kind of episode like that where we met and interacted with the new cast. All of the new casting choices were explained in terms of transfers and family members coming to visit, and of course there was Mr. Conductor who went off to help Lloyd Bridges' character Mr. Nicholas!
Did you and Jason get to interact off-camera with your successors? Ari Magder (Dan Jones), Erica Lutrell (Kara Cupper), Danielle Marcot (Becky).
I remember interacting with the new kids a bit and they seemed pretty nice. It was cool the see the new "mini-us" in Ari and Erica and bid them a good season with the awesome Didi and Brian!
Did you manage to meet or see the "new" Mr. Conductor George Carlin during the taping of 'Scare Dares'?
I did meet Mr. Carlin on the set, but I didn't get to talk to him much, so I don't really remember his personality.
'Scare Dares' had a Halloween theme where you were dressed up as a witch - green skin and all! Was the costume your choice or the scriptwriter's?
I'm pretty sure that my costume for 'Scare Dares' was the scriptwriter's choice because being a witch for Halloween was never really my thing. I preferred pretty girly costumes like a fairy or something interesting and goofy like a martian! One of my favorite Halloween costumes was that of a genie, which I got to wear in the film "Tales From the Darkside: The Movie."
Did you continue to watch the show after leaving?
No, I was actually never big on watching myself in anything I did after it aired. Of course I would watch the premieres with the cast or reruns with family members or friends who wanted to see what I was up to if it came on TV, but I didn't usually seek it out. I mostly prefered to keep my own memories of how it happened and how it felt.
This is something I've always loved about live theatre. You just do it (like Nike!). You prepare for weeks and weeks and then with all of your information and trepidation, research and preparation, you finally let go and go with the flow. You throw caution to the wind and let it happen in real time the way it will, for that first premiere night, and then every night afterwards. You have a chance to feel it again, the character and the situation, and each time you can feel something different because it is not, as in a TV show or a film, recorded, printed, and engraved in stone. It is present and alive to be reinvented every time as you will, as you feel! I love this!
Can you tell us about what you worked on after Shining Time Station?
Shortly after Shining Time Station, I ran into my childhood friend from auditions Tatyana Ali who said something to me like : "I was supposed to do "The Babysitters Club" series but now I can't because I just booked a new TV series called "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air" starring Wil Smith! So I am going to move to Los Angeles instead! I guess I'll see you around!"
It was maybe the next day or a few days later that I got a call to audition for the TV series "The Babysitters Club" and I was overjoyed because I had already read all of the books and I loved the idea of babysitting even though I myself was still considered a child! I booked the job and started filming that show when I was 11 years old. It lasted for a few years on and off, and during this time, I also got to play the role of Danielle, one of Rudy's best friends on "The Cosby Show."
click arrows to see slideshow - all photos courtesy Nicolle Rochelle
You later went on to receive a degree from Brown University (Rhode Island) in linguistic anthropology. Can you describe the science and what interested you to pursue it?
I have always had a very academic side and enjoy research, reading and analyzing, no surprise there since both of my parents are teachers! I graduated one year early from high school and strongly considered attending NYU, UPenn, and Tulane, but in the end, I was most inspired to attend Brown as my favorite teacher from Montclair High School, Mr. Thomas Clifford, was a Brown alumni. He was such an engaging and nurturing teacher that I thought -- if Brown can produce someone like that, that's where I need to be!
Once at my dream school, I searched for a major that could not only push me academically, but also express who I am as an artist. At first, I had thought International Relations would be my cup of tea for a degree. I vividly envisioned myself translating for the United Nations in my spare time between auditioning. After all, I had always been interested in studying different languages and much like Josephine Baker, in the politics of helping people. However, I soon discovered a more interesting major (as Brown certainly has many!) that seemed tailor-made for me where I could apply my artistic self and my love of research.
This major came to my awareness when I heard of a particular professor who had studied and written about "the language of German opera singing" and I immediately thought : "Cool! Well the one thing in this world that I know I would love to do and truly want to do is go to France and study the language of French night club or French band singing!" So the decision was made and I began my journey studying Linguistic Anthropology, which can be best described as an interdisciplinary study of the intricacies of language; how it influences social life, shapes culture, and moulds communication. As it turns out, these anthropological studies go hand and hand with the character building work of an artist and the in-depth analysis required for the varied roles I have played on television, in film, and in theatre.
Whether acting, singing, or dancing, truly embracing a role often spills over into historical and culture exploration and thus, anthropology is inevitably involved! In this way, a large element of my adventures in Linguistic Anthropology at Brown link to my present artistic endeavours.
You've devoted your time to a musical live show that pays homage to Josephine Baker, an American-born and fascinating woman who found international fame only after emigrating to France. What attracted you to the role, and did you do a lot research about her life?
I was attracted to all things Josephine Baker the minute I saw the TV movie of her life story when I was 11. I sat there watching her and thought : Wow. That's me. I mean she's me. I mean I'm her. Same soprano range. Same playful yet flirty spirit. Same comfort with her body and desire to dance. Same love for children and France. Same goal of helping people to attain their civil rights by being politically active!
I discovered through this film that she had worked with the French Red Cross during WWII, then became involved with the Underground resistance and in 1946, was awarded La Croix-de-Guerre, receiving a Medal of Resistance. During the 1950's, although at that point already a French citizen, Josephine rallied for the Civil Rights Movement that took place in the United States, flew in from France to stand alongside Martin Luther King, Jr and was the only woman to speak at the historic March on Washington. In 1961, she was yet again awarded in France with the Legion d'Honneur.
This was all truly inspiring to me as I remember myself as young as 9 or 10 reading personal testimonies about Apartheid, such as "Kaffir Boy" by Mark Mathabane, and crying, wanting to do something to fight back. I too wanted to sing and dance and help people just like Josephine and she had a great idea, why not do it from France where racism was less dominant?! Learning about her many amazing talents and plethora of positive action motivated me to begin searching for any and all information that I could find about her life. At that time, there was no google or YouTube to compile all of the information quickly and easily for me, not to mention that sadly, the US never regarded Josephine Baker as the full-fledged respectable star that she was, so there was not much to be found when I looked in libraries and bookstores for videos and books about her life and sheet music for her songs. Eventually, I found a handful of books and old movies and I read about her and studied her dance moves, music, lyrics, and vocal quality. I think it is safe to say that it was her voice that initially struck me as so special and attracted me most to playing the role of Josephine one day. She had a gorgeous lyrical soprano voice with jazzy qualities, one of the only voices I had ever heard like this and being that I had begun my vocal training as a soprano, yet was also regularly singing jazz, musical theatre, and pop styles, her voice was an ideal model for me.
Paris is now your main home these days. What attracted you to live in the "City of Light"?
This is a loaded question! Let's see...everything! I was always attracted to French culture from a very young age and thought I would somehow end up in France. As it turns out, just when I had decided to take a break from musical theatre and move to Los Angeles in order to audition for pilot season, make music, and to ride my motorcycle, destiny stepped in and granted two of my biggest wishes; to play the role of Josephine Baker and to go to work in Paris, France! The show "À la Recherche de Joséphine/Looking for Josephine" toured for approximately 4 years on and off, in several different countries such as France, Spain, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, Denmark, Lebanon, and once in the US in my hometown of Montclair, NJ!
After the show ended, I decided to stay for awhile in the City of Light to truly experience its depths of history and romantic allure while also trying to make the most of my artistic connections. I suppose I wanted to see for myself if the myth was true and that in fact, American artists, specifically African-American artists, are more well-received in Europe, particularly Paris, as was the case years ago for Josephine Baker. I believe that I have already seen and felt a difference while performing here in Europe and I am still exploring what this means to and for me. Needless to say, I have not been disappointed by this decision!
You speak/understand several languages. Can you tell us what they are and if it comes in handy for you living in continental Europe? Do you have a favorite one?
Oui, si, ja! Growing up, I loved exploring languages and I imagined using them while traveling and/or working in Europe. I have studied French, Spanish, and German, mostly in schools in the US, but also in France and Spain. Another language I have enjoyed studying is American Sign Language. I have a half-sister who is deaf and my father and I would take classes in order to better communicate with her. These languages all have different energies that appeal to me. For example, French feels to me romantic, yet elegant and precise, Spanish feels passionate, more emotional and a bit more sensual, German, as the father of the English language, feels to me informative, complicated and often funny with its guttural sounds and über-long words, and sign language feels to me very poetic, expressive and mime-like at its core, not to mention very practical as it gives my vocal chords a rest when I speak it! :)
I have been fortunate enough to be able to use all of these languages in a professional setting already from my character Jessi in "The Babysitters Club" who spoke sign language in a special episode to my role of Josephine Baker where the text and certain songs would change language depending on the country we were performing in, thus allowing me to have performed the show in French, Spanish, German, and English!
You ride a motorcycle? Awesome! Do you have a dream bike in mind that you'd like to own/drive?
Yes! I have loved motorcycles ever since I was a little girl and often rode on the back of my dad's bike. Almost all of the men on my dad's side of the family from a few generations back are mechanics and ride motorcycles, and I have always wanted to be the first girl in the family to ride with "the big boys".
I suppose this is due to the tomboy side of me that likes a physical challenge and resents the expected frail qualities of women and thus, enjoys borrowing the implied masculinity in motorcycling all the while reveling in the complete look of a "girly girl" when I ride: feminine outfit and super red lipstick included!
Having often spoken to my dad about this dream, he first bought me a moped when I was 15. I then bought myself a Honda Rebel 250cc in Los Angeles when I was about 23 and finally, my dad offered me my dream bike a few years ago, a Harley Davidson Sportster 883cc! My dear old dad and my uncle Lenny gave me lessons on my motorcycle, and I also took a motorcycle safety course. Whenever I am home in New Jersey, we try to organize a few rides together if it is the right season and we ride in a group as little as two or three, to as many as a few hundred bikes at a time!
I love my Harley-Davidson, but my dream would be to invest in dressing it up a bit more, adding accessories to make it personal; painting the gas tank, changing the pipes, maybe add fringes hanging from the handle bars, and strapping on cool saddle bags! Ideally, I want to really personalize my bike one day, but as it is now, I am just so happy to have a Harley in the first place! I feel very fortunate to have grown up in a family where motorcycling was considered normal and even encouraged, I know this is pretty rare.
Are you involved in any interesting projects/shows these days?
Presently, I am involved in a few different projects as my interests are quite varied. I have been working on a solo album for a few years which is still in demo-format but can be heard and seen simultaneously in a video on my new website: www.nicollerochelle.com.
Otherwise, one of my main priorities right now is the French band GINKGOA in which I am the lead singer. This group is based in Paris, but we have also performed in Switzerland and New York City. The music ranges from delicate melodies with poetic French text to more swinging tunes of a jazzy pop variety with a mixture of both French and English. Some of my other projects include singing the songs of Duke Ellington with big band "Duke Orchestra", 20's jazz with the "The Harlem Drivers", boogie woogie, blues, and jazz duos with pianist Chistoph Steinbach and pianist Julien Brunetaud, electro-swing dance tracks and live shows with dj's Bart and Baker, and last but not least, dancing with the group "Les Danseuses d'Or/The Dancers of Gold".
Could you share the story behind one of the music videos you recently performed in - "Bart & Baker's: The Swing Phenomenon" that we're showcasing (below) with your interview?
The story behind Swing Phenomenon is the story of Bart & Baker! They are quite an original pair, part of a new phenomenon of electro-swing dj's that have sprung up all over Europe, especially Paris and London. These two have a great love for all things jazz and rhythm and play all around the world! I have known them for some years now and enjoy collaborating with them for recordings and live shows where I can combine my two favorite types of dance : Swing and House!
If by some magical chance it ever were to happen...would you like to reprise your role in a new Shining Time Station Reunion Special?
Oh yes I certainly would, it would be so cool to see my Shining Time Station Family again! I hold my connections very dear to me and even if I don't speak with someone for a long time, I hold them in my heart and mind.
Lastly, is there any special message that you'd like to pass on to the fans of Shining Time Station?
Mostly : Thank you for watching and thus, sharing the experience with us, the cast! And don't forget to believe in the magic that existed in Shining Time Station because anything is possible, so dream big!
We'd like to express our heartfelt thanks to Nicolle for sharing her memories and photographic mementos of her time with the show. Our best wishes to you for any endeavour you take on! :)