OBIE-winning actress currently stars in the musical Working
By Alison Rooney
Donna Lynne Champlin is an OBIE winner, actress, singer, dancer, musician, writer, and relatively new resident of Philipstown — part-time for now, but likely to be more full-time once her young son begins school. A graduate of the prestigious musical-theater program at Carnegie-Mellon University, she has appeared on Broadway in James Joyce’s The Dead, Hollywood Arms, By Jeeves, Billy Elliot and as Pirelli in John Doyle’s seminal 2006 revival of Sweeney Todd.
Champlin is busy on Working, a revival of the 1978 musical based on Studs Terkel’s famous collection of oral histories of vocation in America, which is playing through Dec. 30 at the 59E59 Theater in Manhattan. Champlin provided written answers to 20 questions posed by Philipstown.info/The Paper all connected with the theme of work, some in the broad sense of the word, others specifically related to her chosen profession.
Working is based on oral historian Studs Terkel’s 1974 bestseller. How does it resonate today, and what changes have been made for this revival?
As far as the core message Working is concerned with and what it’s about, the show’s intention hasn’t really changed at all. And now that we’re in another recession, there are even more parallels to the ’70s now than just a few years ago when we did this production at the Old Globe. Most people are dealing with the same issues as 40 years ago; waitresses still deal with exhaustion, truckers still deal with being away from their families too much, and housewives still deal with identity crises.
Structurally, the show has been streamlined and trimmed to a tight 90 minutes without an intermission. We’ve added some fabulous songs by In The Heights’ Lin-Manuel Miranda, new orchestrations by the brilliant Alex Lacamoire, and we’ve addressed the issues of technology. We have brought in new characters who have to deal with tech support, computers, and given already established characters a few lines to include what issues technology might have brought into their jobs.
A teacher now has to deal with cellphones in class, a trucker has to deal with going in and out of range when he’s trying to call his wife, etc. But the spine of the show, the celebration of anyone who’s ever worked a day in their life remains untouched, because basic human truth is universal, and, as we’ve discovered in this process, it never really changes no matter how much technology you throw at it. On a side note, we’ve had some of the original cast members and composers come to a few previews, and they’ve all given glowing stamps of approval to this version. For all of us involved, this is a huge deal. And a big relief.
In one past interview, years ago, you were quoted: “Earnest people in absurd circumstances — you can’t lose, really.” How about the working people you are playing now — are they earnest, and are their circumstances absurd in any way?
Well, this entire show is based on a collection of over 100 brutally earnest interviews by Studs Terkel’s book Working, so whether our character’s situations are absurd varies to some degree, as to what the audience’s perceptions are of what they do. Also, some of our characters come off as absurd precisely because of their earnestness, so there’s that too. All our characters speak freely, which is the source of a lot of humor. This show is tremendously funny, which is unexpected by audiences sometimes.
Some people say the trick to comedy is surprise, but in the case of Working, I think a lot of it is familiarity. It’s when a character says something about their job, and you say to yourself, “Ooooohhh I know what it’s like to have that kind of boss” or “that kind of customer,” you know? It’s the recognition that someone with a totally different job than you still deals with the same stuff in some way or another. The greatest challenge we actors face in Working is fleshing out our characters enough so the audience can experience them as three dimensional people and not just caricatures.
The whole point of the show, really, is to open the books on all these people so we can look past their covers. Working people are working people. Our jobs may be very different on the surface, but deep down, our goals and frustrations and dreams are very similar, whether we’re a hedge-fund manager or a stay-at-home mom. Again, truth is universal, and this whole show is just one big honest celebration of anyone who’s ever worked a day in their life. It’s one of my favorite shows I’ve ever done, and I’m thrilled to be doing it again.
In Working you play six distinct roles, some of which are waitress, teacher, socialite. In the past you’ve play women who’ve held many different jobs, from toll-booth operator to farmer. How important is what a person does in the definition for you as an actor, of a character? How about in real life?
There’s a great line in Working: “You are what you do.” I think there’s a lot of truth to that, onstage and off. Whether you like what you do or not, what you choose to do for a paycheck is a huge part of the identity you are creating for yourself and putting out into the world. There’s a famous saying, “The job of an actor is finding the next job. When you start working on that job, you’re officially on vacation.” Actors are notorious for holding down a bunch of other jobs while waiting for the next acting gig, and every one of us gets to the point during dry spells where we really start to wonder, “Am I still an actor who waits tables occasionally? Or am I now just a waiter, who acts occasionally?”
Even as an actor, there are roles that I’ve felt like were ‘me,’ and there are roles where I felt like someone else would probably be a lot happier and feel a lot more comfortable in my track. Sometimes, it’s a learning curve, and the resistance you feel is just growing pains, but sometimes you’re being asked to do things that are just against your grain.
In those rare instances in my life, I’ve not renewed my contract (if that was an option) so that someone else could step in who would be happier. There are too few roles and too many actresses in this profession to have someone taking up a track who’s unhappy in it. I feel it’s irresponsible to keep a track occupied when there is someone else who would be ecstatic to be doing what I’m doing. I also have faith that if I’m in the wrong job, the sooner I free myself up for the right one, the sooner it will appear.
Another earlier interview quote: “It’s not shameful to have a day job; just make sure it’s something you enjoy and that it doesn’t suck the soul out of your body.” Do you think in today’s times, where many don’t have a choice as to employment, that it has affected people’s souls? Does Working address any of these issues?
Yes, we run the gamut in Working with people who love their jobs, hate their jobs, people who look at whatever they’re doing as temporary, or people who are dedicated to committing their entire lives to their vocation if they can. I know for a fact, as someone who’s held down countless ‘temp’ jobs, that when you spend your day doing something that does not line up with who you are as a person or with people who make you crazy, your soul suffers. And then your suffering affects others around you, and then they suffer. It’s like a virus.
I was temping one time as a receptionist at a job that I just hated. My mom called me one day and told me that I answered the phone as if I was about to be executed. I put in my notice that day, mostly because I didn’t even realize how miserable I was. That scared me. You become so desperate for work, and you’re so grateful to have a job, any job, that you talk yourself into thinking that whatever you’re doing is not affecting you negatively. You go into a sort of zombie state. Next thing you know, five years have gone by in this temp job, and you can’t remember who you are anymore. You’re a different person and not a better one since you began the job years ago. You get lost.
One of our Working characters, a fireman, talks about how he used to be a cop, but he found that he started to really hate people as a result of it. So he switched to being a fireman, because it kept him more in line with who he was naturally, a ‘people person.’ He still risked his life everyday for strangers, but when he went home at night, he loved people even more. With today’s unemployment and with everyone just trying to do anything they can to pay their rent and keep their family together, I can only imagine that it contributes to a general feeling of hopelessness in this country.
The culture of the press certainly doesn’t help either. I really wish there was a news channel that just did news about good and positive things in the world. I think we need it. But I also don’t know if anyone would watch it. I believe it’s our collective belief that there is ‘no other job’ out there that keeps us all so terribly unhappy. I would hope that anyone who’s willing to take the risk to go from cop to fireman, will find that there is a fireman job waiting for them in the end. As actors, we are always looking for another job, and in my experience the more faith I have that the next job will appear for me when I need it, the more regularly it does. Again, it might be complete Pollyanna crap I tell myself, but it gets me through the days.
Your positive reviews for your portrayal of Honoria Glossop in By Jeeves specifically praised your “galumphing,” “high dudgeon,” “horsey English airs” and “laugh … a startling cross between a bray and a chortle.” In your work, do you build a character from the inside out, or vice versa?
Some actors have a very specific plan of action when they come into a new show, and I completely respect that. I just prefer the ‘spaghetti’ approach, which is throwing a bunch of ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks. Sometimes I know who a character is from the first audition, and sometimes I’ll be still searching for her until I get in front of an audience. Sometimes it’s the costume that clinches it, sometimes it’s the accent, and sometimes it’s how I’m reflected in my acting partner’s choices; it could be anything really. I like to remain open to what everyone else is bringing to the table. I think it’s a mistake to underestimate the true collaboration that is the rehearsal process.
Your director, the writers, and especially your fellow actors, they all become part of your process, and I just find it’s easier in the long run to approach every new character in whatever way seems appropriate to that particular group of people. And it’s not easy for me to do that. It’s not my nature at all. I’m a total type-A control freak, but when I feed that fear of being ‘wrong’ by doing copious amounts of research ahead of time, I end up really regretting the rigidity I walk in with. Of course, sometimes I risk being lost until the last minute but, I find this approach’s ends justify the means in the long run.
For that particular character of Honoria, I am embarrassed to admit, I was monumentally lost from day one. In all honesty, I have no idea how I got the part in the first place, I was so at sea with what to do with her. Our director, the brilliant Sir Alan Ayckbourn (who was also our playwright), liked to direct with stories, and either you got them, or you didn’t. Suffice it to say, I didn’t. He kept calling Honoria a “jolly hockey sticks” and referred many times to a famous British dog trainer who had coined the phrase “walkies” in the UK. I was about to pull my hair out when finally, another wonderful actress in the company (the amazing Nancy Anderson) came to my rescue. She was a huge Anglophile and understood every reference Alan was making, especially the dog-trainer lady.
Nancy and I called every library within a 40-mile radius and finally found one with a video tape of said dog trainer. Yes, this was before the Internet. These are the hours upon hours of actual physical detective work we had to do before Google. Again, I am that old. Within two minutes of watching Barbara Woodhouse, I snapped into the Honoria groove and hung on for the fun ride that followed.
In childhood, what used to be play now often feels like work, in the form of what some feel to be over-scheduled lessons, sports and activities instead of downtime. You’ve referred to your childhood as a “whirlwind of activities and lessons,” including piano, dance, voice, flute. Does this “work” for some kids? Did you pursue these things eagerly at a very young age?
For the kind of kid I was, the whirlwind was ideal. From an early age, I was pretty much addicted to the arts. It was like breathing. I had to pursue it, and as I got older I expanded my areas of discipline, but overall, it was an obsession. I suppose in hindsight I was probably over-scheduled with lessons and performances, but if I could have crammed even more into 24 hours a day, I would have done it. My parents never pushed me; if anything, they were constantly trying to get me to slow down, but I was consumed with acting, and music, and dancing. Every minute I was pursuing it, I was happy.
Yes, there are some things I traded, mostly socially. I had no idea that there were Saturday-morning cartoons until I went to college, and I have no idea what the lyrics are to any popular songs from the ’80s except for tunes I had dance numbers choreographed to, but I still wouldn’t change a nanosecond of my childhood. It prepared me not only for my chosen profession but also for life in general.
I had a great teacher who said, “Talent is a gift, but discipline is a skill.” I didn’t just learn how to play instruments or sing or dance, I learned how to apply myself, how to challenge myself, how to not give up, how to prepare, how to manage my time, how to work with others, math, physics, nutrition, anatomy, biology, competition, and most importantly how to handle failure and success. It’s one of the reasons why I just can’t fathom the continual cutting of music and arts educations in schools. To master an art form, you have to master so many other vital life skills. It just seems foolish to me to cut away at such a huge umbrella that covers so much educational ground.
The usual adage is: young musician to old musician, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Old to young, “Practice.” You actually made your New York debut there. How heady was that?
Yeah, that was a kick in the pants. How I got that job is a pretty crazy story. It’s too long to go into here, but suffice it to say, there were many things that should have stood in the way of my getting that job. Just basic miscommunications and random connections that are really the stuff of a TV sitcom, but it was a great lesson early on for me that whatever a job is, if it’s yours … it will come to you. The Universe will conspire to bring that job to you, come hell or high water. Whether it’s actually true or not, it does make surviving this profession a lot easier if you just have faith that what is yours is yours, and what is someone else’s is theirs.
There is no “losing” a job to someone else. You can’t lose a job when it was never yours. Just like no one ever loses a job to you. The flip side to this philosophy of course is, when we don’t get a part we thought was “ours,” it helps us release the desire to play the deadly “what if” game, which can only lead to misery. “What if” I sang some other song at my call back? “What if” I wore another outfit? “What if” I stayed with that agency? It’s endless and exhausting. Believing in destiny, if you will, is a big key to staying sane in this business. And pleasant. Which is just as important, I think.
The resume of you working life as an actor is a long compilation of many short-term jobs and credits, from performing concerts to intentionally brief runs and a large number of workshops. Is the “without a safety net” economic life of an actor intimidating or liberating, or both?
Well, working without a safety net as an actor has gotten easier over time. As I get older, the pendulum seems to swing closer to the middle between intimidating and liberating, but I still have days where I panic about where the next job or paycheck is going to come from. And now that I’m married and have a baby, it’s all about health insurance. We get insurance only if we work a certain amount of weeks on union contracts per year, which is much more difficult than it sounds. A great deal of acting work comes from freelancing recordings and readings that are not on union contracts, or on contracts that are with another union entirely. One day you’re on Broadway, the next day you’re temping in an office that smells like cheese. One of my friends won a Tony Award, and then she didn’t work for almost a year afterwards. Our “careers” make absolutely no sense.
Also, financially speaking, taking an acting job can mean a huge reduction in your weekly income if you have a decent temp job. I was doing an off-Broadway run of a show in the late ’90s, and we were getting paid (before taxes) $99 per week. When the producers told us we were extended due to popular demand, the acting company burst into tears … of despair. We absolutely loved doing the show, but none of us could afford to live on $99 for one more week. We were all waiting for the show to close so we could run out to the one or two jobs that we’d set up, so we could just finally catch up on our bills. Even on Broadway, after taxes, agents, etc., your minimum take-home is shockingly low considering it’s the “brass ring” of our profession. But in the end, no actor goes into the theater for the money, clearly. If they do, they’re wildly misguided.
That said, you can’t deny the excitement as an actor, knowing that your entire life can turn on a dime. I’ve known actors who were down to their last 20 bucks when they landed a big-paying movie or commercial gig, and they became huge stars and made a boatload of cash in a matter of weeks. Being an actor is a bit like having a gambling addiction. With just one more roll of the dice, we could literally go from pauper to prince overnight. It’s that hope that keeps a lot of us in the game.
You’ve done many, many workshops of new, developing pieces. Is there any rhyme or reason to which ones reach the production stage? Does the quality of the work equal the likelihood of success, or the most commercial one, or is it completely impossible to predict when you’re inside of it, as an actor?
I hate to sound jaded, but the rhyme or reason is money. Any production, no matter the quality, goes as far as the person with the money wants it go. So in that respect, it’s extremely easy to know which pieces are going to go the distance. The ones that have money succeed. The ones that don’t slowly disappear. There is a graveyard of fantastic new shows that have died mid-process because they didn’t have the backing they needed. I have been a part of some absolutely amazing readings and workshops that deserved to go to Broadway and beyond, but for whatever reason, they couldn’t get financial support. It’s actually a very heartbreaking part of the business. Ultimately, you can only hope to be a part of one of those rare combinations of artistic integrity and financial solvency.
Sometimes, there is that perfect marriage of artistic genius and massive amounts of money, like the brilliant Book of Mormon. But, if those South Park guys didn’t have the money they needed behind them (whether it was their own, or other people’s who believed in their bankability), Book of Mormon would have never seen the light of day. Corporations don’t want to take risks; they want to know that they’re going to make a profit. That’s their M.O. But considering how outside the box Mormon is, just language- and humor-wise, there is no way they would have gotten outside backing. None. Luckily for us all, they had built-in money because Mormon succeeds on numerous levels.
For audiences, it’s big bang for their buck. For producers, it’s profit. And for actors and casting, it shows that a well-written, risky show can be a huge hit without being based on a movie or with a “star” in the cast. That’s another built-in safety net producers like these days: the token movie star, guaranteed to bring in ticket sales no matter the quality of the show. Mormon has proven that if you present audiences with a fantastic show, they’ll come no matter who’s in it. The show is the star, which only ensures its longevity. If you build it, they will come.
You played Pirelli in the highly-praised 2006 John Doyle revival of Sweeney Todd, in which all the actors doubled as musicians. How did the process work? Did you audition first vocally, or did you tote along your instrument? Was it an organic process weaving in the instrument-playing, or was it plotted out after casting and before rehearsals began?
I was called in for the Beggar Woman initially. At my first audition for the casting director (known as a pre-screen), I played the piano, flute and accordion and sang the Beggar Woman stuff. At my first callback, John Doyle was there, and since there was a lot of confusion as to what this production actually was, I, in my typically bold way, asked him to please explain to me what he was trying to accomplish so I could audition better. As we were chatting he stopped mid-sentence and said, “Do you have conducting experience?” I said, “Yes.” Then he asked me if I felt comfortable directing other people, possibly people of celebrity status. I told him that if these celebrities were aware that I was officially in charge, then no, I had absolutely no problem telling them what to do.
He smiled and said, “How do you feel about the idea of playing a man?” I told him I’d pretty much move furniture around if it meant being a part of this production, and then he explained to me that, in the U.K. production he’d done, a woman had played the role of Pirelli. But what was most important about that track was that while she was “Pirelli” for about 10 minutes, for the rest of the show she was the doctor in charge of the asylum where the story took place. She basically was the onstage manager, did a lot of the conducting, and had to solve any problems that arose (broken bows, spilt blood, smashed chairs, etc.) since the cast was never allowed to leave the stage. I told him that he only needed to meet my family for five minutes to know I was very comfortable in a room full of lunatics. I had my second and final callback a week later for Sondheim, and that was it.
As far as the orchestrations, they had a solid foundation in the arrangements they had done in the U.K. However, they did move instruments around to suit the talents of the U.S. cast. For example, the U.K. actor who played Tobias played the flute, and the actress who played Pirelli just played the accordion and piano. But since I played the flute, and they had found the marvelous violin-playing Mano Felciano to play Toby here, they made some of the U.K. Toby’s flute track into a violin track, and then I picked up the slack with whatever Mano couldn’t play because of scene work, blocking, etc. So the orchestrations were very much like a chess game up until opening night, actually.
Regarding the rehearsal process, John’s approach was ingenious. The idea of playing a character in Sweeney is daunting enough, but the idea of having to commit the entire score to memory on more three instruments was literally vomit-inducing. We would sit down and read through a piece twice (badly), and then we would start blocking immediately. He would block five seconds, we would repeat it a couple times, then he would add five more seconds, and we would repeat everything from the beginning.
He’d then add five more seconds, repeat, etc. The amazing thing is that by the end of the day when the whole song or scene was blocked, we’d repeated it so many times that as he slowly took away our strategically placed music stands, we would realize that we had the entire piece completely memorized. We would sometimes only get through one or two songs a day, but by 6 p.m. we were completely off book and blocked. We actually had the entire show blocked and memorized within two weeks, which is unheard of, even for a regular musical. We spent the third week of rehearsal woodshedding the music, finessing our blend, and running the entire piece on its feet.
Our tech process was also miraculously easy, because the actors moved every set piece, all props had been incorporated into our blocking, and we had no costume changes. The only things that needed to be teched were lights and sound. John used to say, “I want this to be a production where all of 10 of you could bring your instruments into a barn and just do the show,” and that’s pretty much what we ended up with. I’m not going to lie — there were many tears in rehearsal and a lot of swearing, but John was infinitely patient with all of us and insisted that, even though there were times we thought what he was asking of us was impossible, it wasn’t. It was his faith in us that kept us pushing through wall after wall.
You took on the work of producer, bringing out your solo CD for the amazingly low sum of $1,000. What propelled you to take on all of the work involved?
Well, I had foolishly spent years waiting for someone to approach me about producing my CD for me. Then after I got tired of waiting for that to happen, I went around to all the theatrical recording labels in town and got the collective answer that if I wanted to foot the $20,000-$40,000 price tag, then they would put me on their label. My brother was in town on business, and I was complaining about how it was such a racket, and what the hell could cost $40,000 to do a solo CD, and with Garage Band on my Mac I could probably do the whole damned thing myself, blah blah blah. So he dared me. Over bread rolls, he dared me to do it myself on my Mac.
He reminded me that besides being a vocalist, I was also a musical arranger and played a bunch of instruments, so all those things were taken care of. I told him that I didn’t know anything about the price of licensing, PR, art work, etc. I assumed it was extremely expensive. Why else would the labels quote me such an outrageous fee? He asked me how much I had to spare for this, and I told him “a grand, tops.” He said, “Just do it. Stop complaining and just do it.”
He also suggested writing a blog about the process, and while I initially thought no one would read it except for him and my mother, it surprisingly gained a lot of attention, and through that blog, many talented and wonderful people came out of the woodwork and donated their advice and talents, which helped to keep me under budget. It truly took a village. I had never even planned on selling it. I was just going to give it out as Christmas presents to my family and use it for demo purposes. All of a sudden I was getting CD orders from complete strangers, and I hadn’t even figured out how much I was going to charge for them yet. The fact that we not only made a significant profit but won some awards as well still amazes me to this day.
Previous interviews have mentioned your interests in metaphysics and mystic history. You were also a national tap-dance champion for four years in youth. Is there a link between these things?
I believe there’s a link between everything and metaphysics. Cause and effect, the science of mind, knowing something to be true and then doing what is necessary to allow it to become a physical manifestation; these are all metaphysic principles. When I was younger, like most children, I just naturally practiced metaphysics. There were no limitations to what was possible, and my belief that my life could be whatever I wanted it to be was reinforced every day by loving family, teachers and friends. It’s when I got older and I let my fears get in my way — then I put limitations on what I thought I deserved, and that’s when things slowed down for me. The irony is that metaphysics came back into my life a few years after I became stagnant, and I sort relearned what I had done naturally as a child.
My being a national tap-dancing champion was a result of my own belief as a young adult (and the belief of my teachers, my mother, etc.) that I could be a national tap champion. Then, with that knowing that it was possible, I put in the many hours of work and practice to make it a reality. I have to stress that I was lucky enough to have been surrounded by loving adults who did everything they could to also assist in reinforcing my own beliefs. But do I believe that my holding that title four years in a row began in my mind? Yes. Everything in my career, my marriage, my friends, my child, my health, my whole life, “good and bad,” is the authentic result of what I have thought in my mind and felt in my heart about it at some point.
Another old quote from you: “When I moved to New York I had a dry spell. In retrospect, it was the best thing that could have happened to me because … I had a lot of interest in the arts but I had nothing else. In those eight months, I was forced to sort out my life, which was the best thing I could have done as an artist.” Speaking from a different vantage point now, have motherhood and the move to Philipstown also “forced you to sort out your life” in different ways, and have they enhanced your life as an artist?
Before I had a child, I was trying to fill out my life with non-theatrical things. Now that I’m a wife and a mom, I’m trying to fit in work around my life. I’m still searching for balance, just in the opposite way. And as annoyingly stereotypical as it sounds, yes, having a child has totally changed my approach to everything. I feel like the Grinch after his heart grows four times bigger; I feel more, I love more, I worry more, which of course affects my work. I can’t even watch violence on TV anymore. I used to love cop shows and horror movies but now, all I can think of is, “That was someone’s baby,” and I have to change the channel.
Even in Working, we have a segment about a nanny that I always thought was a really beautiful song, but now that I’m a mom, and my kid is with a babysitter while I’m at work, I can’t listen to the lyric “for now, I do what her mother doesn’t do” without bursting into tears. It’s amazing how different parts of this show resonate differently with me now that I’m a wife and a mother. It’s really magnified for me what a different place I’m in, compared to where I was four years ago when we did this show at The Old Globe.
Before, I’d do a job because I had nothing else to do. Now I have to weigh the cost of babysitters, train tickets, but most importantly, quality time with my boy. I have to ask myself now, “Is being at this job worth possibly missing my boy’s first steps, or words, etc.” and the answer to that question is usually “no,” let alone “Will my weekly paycheck cover child care and transportation?” But I’ve found that in saying “no” a lot more, better-quality jobs have appeared. I wonder how many artistically preferable jobs might have come my way before the baby that I just never knew about because I was always tied up with gigs I’d taken to just stay busy.
Naturally, you have a Law and Order credit listed. Were you a perp, victim, suspicious friend or co-worker harboring a secret?
The first Law and Order (L&O) I booked, I was supposed to be the sister of a pedophile recently released from prison. It was a great part with some juicy bonafide scenes, and I was very excited about it. However, I was doing Sweeney at the time, and while they were prepared to let me take one day off to shoot the episode, when L&O changed it into a three-day shoot, I sadly had to pass on it. The next L&O I booked a few years later, I was a detective in the CSI department (who subsequently got cut out of the episode by the time it aired). And the last L&O I booked, I was a regular cop who had been the first at the scene of a particularly gruesome murder. So I did a lot of head-shaking and heavy sighing à la “Whew, boys. In all my 15 years on the force …” right? So I’ve technically booked three L&Os but only been seen and heard in one of them.
What are the special things about working in the theater that are not obvious to the outside eye?
The sense of community is something I cherish in the theater. Not only do we all know each other by a certain point, but we come together frequently to raise money for some great causes such as Broadway Cares, Equity Fights AIDS, The Actors’ Fund, Hurricane Sandy Relief, etc. There is a dramatic idea that we’re all at each other’s throats, competing and sabotaging each other over parts, which makes for an interesting movie or TV show, but in reality, the support and love that we have for each other is quite enormous. Case in point, I just auditioned for a Broadway show and got down to the wire, but ultimately they ended up hiring a really great and talented friend of mine.
I was disappointed, sure, but I was also very happy for her. It actually makes losing parts a lot easier when your competition is your friend. We’re like family, really. We come together, we sing, we dance, we eat together, we support each other when we lose, we cheer each other when we win, and we all try to give back to the world that surrounds us. It’s something that surprised me when I got here, and it’s something that I try to never take for granted.
You are currently working on a “how to” guide for comedy. Is comedy teachable? Assuming the answer is yes or there would be no book, what can be learned off the stage?
Yes, comedy is absolutely teachable. How to have a sense of humor, though, is not. That’s where a lot of people get confused, I think. There is a big difference between the nuts and bolts of performing comedy onstage eight shows a week and whether or not your mom thinks you’re funny. A lot of people who don’t have senses of humor believe that they can learn how to do comedy. Not true. You have to have a sense of humor as a basis first, and even then, you need to put comedic technique on top of that natural foundation. So my book is aimed primarily at professional comic actors and not the general public. My husband likes to say, “Leave it to you to write a book with a demographic of 10 people,” but I can only write what I know.
As far as what can be learned offstage about what to do onstage, as seasoned professionals, we all experience similar pitfalls and problems in the comedy world, so the book provides a lot of solutions to these problems that I’ve learned through trial and error and by watching some of the amazing pros I’ve been lucky enough to work with. For the less-experienced actor, it’s a nice “heads up” on what’s in store if they decide to make a career in show business. It’s the book I wish someone else had written years ago when I was starting out, basically. I finally gave up on waiting for someone else to write it four years ago, and I’m now in the final process of putting everything together.
Once your son reaches school age, you’ve said you’ll spend more time in Philipstown and less at your apartment in the city, even though it will no doubt make your working life more difficult. Do you feel it will be worth it? Why did you choose this area?
I actually discovered Cold Spring many years ago when I was hired to do a concert at The Chapel Restoration near the train station. We had a break between rehearsal and the performance, so I walked up Main Street (which I absolutely fell in love with) and I came upon the historic Champlin Wagon Wheel shop. I’d never seen anything with my last name on it, and I took it as a sign that I was meant to live there. Ten years later, I brought my boyfriend (now husband) to Cold Spring for a day in December 2009 to just enjoy the shops and Christmas decorations, and he suddenly turned to me and said, “Let’s buy a house here!” So we did a year later (right after we got married).
We have a few years before our son gets settled into a proper school schedule, but one of the things that sealed the deal for living in Cold Spring was the fantastic reputation of the Haldane School District. We’re also happy to be within driving distance of so many fantastic magnet schools, should our boy find a specific calling later on. My husband and I are from small towns, so we felt very much at home in Cold Spring, and we both wanted to give our son the same kind of safety and sense of community we had growing up, as opposed to the city. We also greatly admire the historic preservation of Main Street and the village, not to mention Halloween is my favorite holiday, so there’s no other place to be on Halloween than Cold Spring.
Being an actor can mean being in an insular profession. Has it been important to you to have a circle of friends from professions outside the world of show business?
It’s very important to have friends outside the business, but it’s also very difficult. Being an actor is a full-time profession whether you’re doing a job or looking for your next one, so meeting people not in show business doesn’t happen naturally. My family provides a really good “civilian” buffer, and I’m now getting to know our neighbors and other parents in the Cold Spring area, which is introducing me to a whole new circle of non-theatrical people, but it’s still an effort. An effort worth making, but you gotta get yourself outta the house and go up to people on the playground and say ‘hi,’ you know?
With all the professions out there created out of society’s need for certain skills in order for things to function, do you feel that being an actor is a job with an intrinsic value to society?
You know, I struggled a long time with that question: Does what I do matter? Does what I do help people? Does what I do put more good out into the world than it takes? I knew it was my calling, but acting can be a very selfish vocation, and I felt very conflicted about it for years until we went on tour with By Jeeves. We were working our way around the country to Broadway via the Kennedy Center, just a few blocks from another sit-down tour, Chicago. Now, our show is about as opposite as you can get from Chicago. Chicago is sleek, sexy, mature and, in my opinion, one of the best musicals ever written. By Jeeves is basically a hot-air balloon full of very silly one-dimensional British people trying desperately to put on a banjo concert.
I left that performance of Chicago in tears, because I thought, “Why am I not in THAT show? THAT show has substance. My show is just a big ball of fluff,” and I made my way to our theater very depressed. I checked in at the call board, and there was a lovely handwritten note from a woman who had seen our show the night before. It basically said that she hadn’t laughed since her husband had died almost two years ago … until she saw our show. It was the fact that our show was so incredibly silly, stupid, and fluffy that she somehow found it in her to laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of it all. At the end of her note, she thanked us for doing for her what two years of constant therapy couldn’t. We made her laugh. It was then that I put to rest my concern about the nobility of acting. I really believe God was answering me by saying, “No matter if you’re doing By Jeeves, or Chicago, or whatever … you have the opportunity to change someone’s life.”
I also believe that for artists in general, our job is to non-judgmentally hold up a mirror to society. We should hold up the clearest mirror possible and then let the audience members each see what they need to see in that reflection. That’s another great thing about the theater: its subjectivity. I may go see a show with 10 friends, and we might all walk away with 10 different experiences, because it wasn’t the show itself we were watching, but ourselves reflected back to us through what the show was trying to say. In that regard, theater is an invaluable part of society; it’s a time machine. It can show us where we’ve come from, where we are, and it can even warn us as to where we’re headed. Storytelling has been a part of mankind since the cavemen and will continue to be a vital part of the human experience as long as we exist.
Of your own work, what are you most proud of?
Ya know, it’s funny. I’ve worked with some of the biggest names in the business, been on Broadway, won some nice awards, but in all honesty? I am most proud of Old Friends, that CD I made on a dare for $1,000 bucks. I really am. In this profession you’re always compromising, always answering to someone else, and as an actor you are always at the bottom of the totem pole. With my CD, I did everything I wanted and nothing I didn’t. I went against the grain with the song list, the CD cover, the blog, the credits, the PR … everything. So many people would tell me, “Oh you can’t do that, it’s not how it’s done,” and it was so freeing to say, “The whole point of this thing is to NOT do it ‘how it’s done.’”
I recorded it in my bathroom, for heaven’s sake; I was certainly not going to worry about whether I needed more uptempos because “that’s what everyone else does.” That was the key, really; I just didn’t care about the outcome. All I cared about was the process, and I had an absolute ball. I made a CD that I wanted to listen to, and I didn’t care how much money it would make or if anyone would even buy it.
Of course, in hindsight, the purity of intention made it extremely unique and, as a result, very financially and artistically successful. But as artists, at our core, all we want to do is create something good. It’s all the other stuff that gets in our way (producer’s agendas, desires for bottom lines, awards, money, fame) that dampens our creative energies. But that’s the “business” part of the show, isn’t it? You just can’t have one without the other, so it’s very rare to be a part of a purely artistic endeavor these days.
But that’s what that CD is for me. It’s proof to me that I can still create something without worrying about what I would get out of it in the end. It’s something I made, purely for the artistic experience of making it. It reminded me of who I was as an artist. It brought me back to my own personal center. It saved me.