Tag Archives: Arthur Miller

Theatre: Entertainment or art? Can it be both and still be challenging and relevant?

zelda-fichandler

Zelda Fichandler (1924-2016)

by Howard Shalwitz

The loss of my friend and colleague Zelda Fichandler, the legendary founder of Arena Stage, has got me thinking about the role of theatre in our society.

Over the past decade, I had a few cherished opportunities to compare notes with Zelda about the founding of our respective theatres. As different as Arena Stage and Woolly Mammoth are, there’s one word that always came up for both of us: art. Here’s a quote from Bob Levey’s obituary of Zelda in the Washington Post:

“From the start, Mrs. Fichandler wanted… to reverse what she called, with characteristic dramatic flourish, ‘the contraction and imminent death of the art of the theater.”

And here’s a quote from Woolly Mammoth’s founding manifesto that I wrote with Roger Brady in 1978:

“Among all the art forms, theatre is the one which is least often taken seriously as a form of art… [and] it should be so taken. That is the long and short of what we propose.”

What do we mean when we proclaim that theatre is “art” rather than “entertainment?” We certainly don’t mean that theatre shouldn’t entertain, shouldn’t captivate audiences with diversion and delight and amazement. The survival of our theatres depends on this. The difference lies in what we ask our audiences to do when they’re in our theatres.

When we set out to entertain, we ask our audiences to sit back, relax, and enjoy themselves on terms they already understand. When we set out to make art, we ask our audiences to sit forward, to encounter something different, and to meet the artists halfway in figuring out how it works and what it means. Entertainment nestles us comfortably inside the lives we already lead. Art challenges us to stand outside our own experience and look at our lives and our world in new ways.

Art and entertainment are not mutually exclusive. Every play, every production, has elements of both. But in our conversations, Zelda was concerned that theatres across America were tipping too far toward entertainment and away from art. Some of the reasons are obvious: competition for ticket sales, pressure from new forms of diversion, loss of arts education in our schools, shrinking government support.

However, Zelda saw a potentially deeper problem. A couple of years ago, she asked a question I’ll never forget: “What’s happened to the arrogance of the artist in our country?” She talked about path-breaking playwrights like Arthur Miller, Caryl Churchill, and August Wilson, who boldly expanded the stylistic framework and political range of our theatre, and European stage directors like Liviu Ciulei and Lucien Pintilie, whose experimental approaches completely changed the way we look at classic works.

The forward motion of theatre as an art form depends on playwrights, directors, designers, and actors with the arrogance, the chutzpah, to try things that are different. It also depends on audiences who have the confidence to meet them with openness, empathy, and a spirit of inquiry. When we wrestle with the play itself, then we’re led to wrestle with what the play is about, what it’s saying, why it matters. This is what gives the art form of theatre its relevance in relation to the pressing questions our society is facing.

Howard Shalwitz is the Artistic Director at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, DC. 

Interview with Actor Tim Cummings from ‘The Normal Heart’ at the Fountain Theatre

Tim Cummings and Bill Brochtrup in rehearsal for 'The Normal Heart' at the Fountain Theatre.

Tim Cummings and Bill Brochtrup in rehearsal for ‘The Normal Heart’ .

by Don Grigware

The Normal Heart hasn’t been done in years. Tell me about the play’s relevance today, from your perspective.

Tim Cummings

Tim Cummings

The play mentions gay marriage, which is relevant today: DOMA being struck down, Prop 8 being ruled unconstitutional, more and more states are voting to allow for it. The play also brings up the failures of the health care system, and those are relevant today as well. We’ve yet to see what Obamacare results in, ultimately, but I have hope. The play discusses homophobia, bigotry, closeted gays, politics, conspiracy theories, etc. Those are all relevant now. 

Suicide among LGBT youth has been tragically high, of course there’s this putrid Putin/ Russia debacle. The gay-bashing rate in NYC is currently on an alarming rise, which includes the murder of Mark Carson on May 18th, shot directly in the head after his assailant hurled anti-gay slurs at him and his companion. Right in the heart of the West Village. To be honest, I don’t think there will ever be a time this play is not relevant. It’s only a matter of who is brave enough to produce it, as it is not an easy play to do.

What about your character and how he affects the issues at hand? What are the challenges in playing him?

Tim Cummings and Bill Brochtrup, 'The Normal Heart' at the Fountain Theatre.

Tim Cummings and Bill Brochtrup, ‘The Normal Heart’ at the Fountain Theatre.

Ned Weeks goes from hesitant participant to full-blown activist and loses nearly everything along the way: his family, his friends, his love, his station in life. Ned is a fighter. A warrior. He does not understand why other people cannot fight back the way he does, and ultimately this alienates him from his community. He will do whatever it takes to wake people up and make them pay attention to this epidemic. He wants pride for the gay community, not shame, not hiding. He wants gay men to think with their hearts and minds, not their pecs and cocks.

The challenges in playing him are that his intensity, passion, Jewish intellectualism, rallying, rants about promiscuity, confrontational nature, and bursts of outrage are not things that can be handled delicately. Yet, we are in this intimate space—so it’s about striking a balance. Where can we hold back? Where do we need to go forward full throttle?

Talk a little about Lisa Pelikan and your working with her – now in 2 plays.

Tim Cummings and Lisa Pelikan in 'The New Electric Ballroom'

Tim Cummings and Lisa Pelikan in ‘The New Electric Ballroom’

A passionate perfectionist, a questioner, a force, a presence, a joy. With those mesmerizing blue eyes, to boot. Definitely an actor’s actor. Oddly enough, she is also making me take off my clothes in this, just like she did in The New Electric Ballroom. Ha.

Your participation in Ballroom was the best. I really enjoyed your performance. Was that harder to do than Heart, or easier since you are Irish and probably have lived through a lot of similar experiences in Ballroom? (Or am I all wet?)

Thanks, Don. That was a fantastic experience. Yes, I am Irish, but I tend to play Jewish men a lot, too, as I am now. I grew up in New York, surrounded by an abundance of Irish, Irish/Italian, and Jewish heritage. It comes naturally, I suppose.

What I loved about Ballroom was the transformational aspect: my character, Patsy, goes from smelly chubby fishmonger to sexy, slick, pop idol—right before the audience’s eyes. No special effects, no cutaways, no magic. Just good old fashioned in-your-face theatre. Brilliant playwriting and storytelling.

Was that harder than The Normal Heart? I don’t think anything will be harder than The Normal Heart. The role of Ned might be bigger than Hamlet. He barely leaves the action. He never stops talking. He rarely calms down. The level of stage skill—physical prowess, emotional intensity, collaborative endurance—required to play Ned assures he will likely never be conveyed by any actor that is incompetent, lazy, or timid. Larry Kramer was clever to have
written Ned the way he did.

Tim Cummings and Carmela Corbett in South Coast Repertory's 2012 production of "Eurydice" by Sarah Ruhl.

Tim Cummings and Carmela Corbett in “Eurydice” at South Coast Rep (2012).

Speak about your writing career.

I write novels, short stories, plays, screenplays, and poetry.

I released a collection called Orphans in the summer of 2011. It’s an idiosyncratic assemblage of short stories, poetry, screenplays, plays, and a film treatment. I wanted to put all the different writing forms together in one weirdly prismatic vessel, and unleash it unrepentantly onto the world. So, I did.

I have a full-length novel called Jake Curve that my agent in NYC is working on. It’s a story of a brilliant little boy who loses his identical twin to a mysterious disappearance, and how he contends with the difficulties of his family falling apart. Ultimately it is a story questioning the validity of family, and whether it is okay to leave them behind if you don’t fit in there.

My most recent play, Bully, is an exploration of this pandemic of teenagers committing suicide for being bullied for being gay. It’s a deeply polemical slaughtering of what masculinity is supposed to mean in today’s day and age. It pays homage to William Golding’s seminal masterpiece about savagery versus civilization, Lord of the Flies, probably my favorite book.

Writing or acting, if you had to make a choice?

Yikes! Can’t I conjoin them and be both? We’ll call it wricting! ‘Hi, I’m Tim, and I’m a wrictor.’

Who are your favorite actors?

Argh, this is a hard one—

Meryl Streep, Mark Rylance, Kate Winslet, Simon Pegg, Edie Falco, Sean Penn, Viola Davis, Richard Jenkins, Kristin Wiig, Gene Wilder, Jack Lemmon, Gene Hackman, Bryan Cranston, Richard Pryor, Benicio del Toro. I like people with passion. Jack Nicholson, he’s another. Gary Oldman. Cate Blanchett.

Also, many of our brilliant LA locals, like Anne Gee Byrd, Jenny O’Hara, John Getz, Hugo Armstrong. Our town is so ridiculously chockablock with talent. And no, not all of it is in the Fame and Fortune industry—it’s right there, in your face, on our small stages.

Tim b&w

Tim Cummings

Your favorite playwrights?

Tracy Letts, Maria Irene Fornes, Enda Walsh, Ruth Margraff, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Albee, Chekhov, O’Neill, Shaw.

Any role you haven’t played yet that you are yearning to play?

Jonny ‘Rooster’ Byron (Jerusalem).
Willy Loman (Death of a Salesman).
Eddie Carbone (A View From The Bridge).
George (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf).
Thomas in Enda Walsh’s Misterman.
Father Brendan Flynn (Doubt).
Medea, in some awesome, twisted, all-male version.
A one-man version of The Crucible.
I’d also like to do The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh.

As I get older, I get to play increasingly interesting and substantial roles. The best is yet to come, I feel. I don’t fear or ward off age in any capacity. Bring it, I say. Look at Judi Dench, for fu**’s sake. Clint Eastwood. Bette White!

Anything else you care to add?

Looking forward to taking part in The Skylight Theatre Company’s honoring of Terrence McNally in a four-day event at the end of September called Salute. I was very honored to be asked. And, of course, I’m looking forward to The Normal Heart opening, and audiences experiencing it for its beauty and intensity. I hope it encourages conversations, think-tanks, and outrage.

Don Grigware writes his own blog and writes for Broadway World.
The Normal Heart  Sept 21 – Nov 3  (323) 663-1525  MORE

Where Do You Stand on Standing Ovations?

by Ben Brantley

Something rare and wonderful happened at the opening night of the Encores! concert production of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” at City Center last week. At the end of the show, when the performers took their bows, the audience remained seated.

Let me hasten to add there was no doubt that this audience had mightily enjoyed what it had just seen. We had all beat our hands raw with clapping through a succession of showstoppers, including a tap sequence that would have made you swear the ghosts of the Nicholas Brothers had possessed its performers; an athletic series of variations on the Charleston; and a knockout rendition of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” that immortal anthem to non-liquid assets.

That number was performed by Megan Hilty, who as the gold-digging Lorelei Lee gave an original, audacious comic performance that, for the moment, wiped out memories of Carol Channing and Marilyn Monroe, her indelible predecessors in the role. It felt like one of those fabled performances (much cherished by theatergoers) that in a single, golden night thrust its leading lady into the firmament of musical stage stardom.

And at the final curtain, we stayed in our seats.

We whooped, we roared, we wolf-whistled. Our applause might well have sent tremors all the way to Battery Park. But no one, as far as I could tell, was standing up. “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” had been accorded the five-star tribute of a sitting ovation.

I would like to make the case, officially and urgently, for the return of the sitting ovation. Because we really have reached the point where a standing ovation doesn’t mean a thing. Pretty much every show you attend on Broadway these days ends with people jumping to their feet and beating their flippers together like captive sea lions whose zookeeper has arrived with a bucket of fish. This is true even for doomed stinkers that find the casts taking their curtain calls with the pale, hopeless mien of patients who have just received a terminal diagnosis.

The s.o. (if I may so refer to a phenomenon that no longer warrants the respect of its full name) has become a reflexive social gesture, like shaking hands with the host at the end of a party.

Or, to put in cruder and more extreme terms, it’s like having sex with someone on the first date, whether you like the person or not, because you think it’s expected of you.

The reasons for the ubiquity of the promiscuous s.o. have been widely pondered by cultural pundits. One theory has it that it’s because habitual theatergoers have become a relative rarity. Many of the people who attend big Broadway shows are tourists whose itinerary includes, along with visits to the Statue of Liberty and the Hard Rock Café, a performance of “Wicked” or “Jersey Boys.”

Megan Hilty in the Encores! production of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."

For such audience members, standing up to applaud at the end has become of the Official Broadway Experience. And of course, if you’ve spent several hundred dollars for that pair of orchestra seats, an s.o. seems to help confirm that the money wasn’t wasted.

I also have a suspicion that for some people, standing up immediately at the end of the show is simply a physical relief after an hour or more of immobility. Besides, the sooner you’re on your feet, the greater your odds are for beating the crowd to the exits. And, oh yes, let’s not discount the domino effect of an s.o.: Once the person in front of you is standing, you too must stand if you want to see what’s on stage.

In London, where theater remains a larger and more natural part of the general cultural conversation, the s.o. is less epidemic. True, I have felt its sweaty presence at some of the bigger West End musicals (often imported from Broadway, so perhaps they arrived carrying the virus). But I can’t remember the last time I witnessed an s.o. at the National Theater, where the level of professional quality is consistently and rewardingly high.

Admittedly, there are some shows that deserve an s.o., which I don’t necessarily mean as a compliment. “Newsies the Musical,” in which the characters keep dancing and cartwheeling and jumping all over the place, seems so pathetically eager for an s.o. that to deny it one would be like forbidding an adorable puppy its chew toy. Similarly, Liza Minnelli – whenever and wherever she appears – must receive an s.o. It’s part of the unwritten but unbreakable contract between her and her audience (as it was with her mother, Judy Garland).

And then there are – or once were, the old ones tell us — the meaningful s.o.’s. These were not instantaneous or knee-jerk. Legend has it that on the opening night of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” the audience was so moved by what it had witnessed that it sat in sat in shocked silence, collecting itself and drying its tears, before the applause broke out.

I think that people seeing Mike Nichols’s current revival of that play may well be similarly moved by the tragedy of Willy Loman, its title character. But at the performance I attended, they were on their feet in a mega-second, as if electrodes had been applied to their legs.

So I can’t tell you how heartened I was, at the end of a packed spring theater season, to be part of that seated ovation at “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” I should point out that among audiences for musicals, those who attend the Encores! productions are probably the most sophisticated and discriminating in town. Many of them know the history, in detail, of the show they’re seeing and the resumes of those appearing in it.

But can’t we all, please, strive to be a little more like them? I’m not asking for the wholesale abolition of the s.o. That would be a sadly quixotic demand. I’m just asking you, my comrades in urban theatergoing, to think before you stand, if you must stand at all. And to remember, in an age in which the s.o. is as common in a Broadway theater as an endless line for the ladies room at intermission, that staying seated has become the exceptional tribute.

What’s your diagnosis for s.o. fever? Do you have any prescriptions for curtailing it? Or do you feel it even needs to be addressed?

Ben Brantley writes for The New York Times

Women Attend More Theatre Than Men: Why Not More Roles?

by Lauren Gunderson

"El Nogalar" at the Fountain Theatre.

It appears that in many major theaters across the country, men’s roles out number women’s by half. One out of every three roles go to women. (An informal survey of 10 theatrical seasons from across the country that I did put women in only 35% of the total roles). This means that men’s stories out number women’s by the same amount.

Those of us noticing this could be considered big old whiners if it weren’t for some solid business-y sounding facts:

  • Women buy 70% of theater tickets sold
  • Women make up 60%-70% of its audience (see here and here)
  • On Broadway, shows written by women (who statistically write more female roles than men) actually pull in more at the box office than plays by men

In any other market the majority of consumers would significantly define the product or experience. Why not theater?

Raushanah Simmons in "In the Red and Brown Water"

I will disclaim right away that this is not about women playwrights, though plays by women represent less than 20% of the works on and off-Broadway and in regional theaters (and also in the UK, as The Guardian illuminates). I consider August: Osage County and In The Red And Brown Water plays about women though men wrote both.

This is about modern theater telling its predominantly female audiences that the human experience deserving of dramatic imagination is still the male one. In TV, this might be a top-down insistence. In politics or business we see it all the time. But in theater?

Sean Daniels, Artist-At-Large/Director of Artistic Engagement at Geva Theater, says:

“In addition to it being inconceivable in 2012 to not program any female playwrights (or really any year past 1913), it’s also just bad business. Just from a business model, look at Menopause: The Musical. Though we may take it to task for not hitting all of Aristotle’s Six Elements, it’s a show that looked at who the main people buying tickets were, and allowed them to see themselves on stage — thus making millions and not only preaching and loving the choir, but getting tons of new patrons into the theater.”

But what would it be like if this were more common? What if American theater equally reflected and projected its own audience (at least 60% women) and their audience’s wallets (which are in their purses) in their season choices?

Estelle Parsons on Broadway in "August: Osage County"

Theaters might make more money. A friend and artistic leader at a major regional theater remarked on the marked success of Molly Smith Metzler’s plays Elemeno Pea, a play about sisters. Or what about Tracy Letts runaway hit August: Osage County (a play with incredible parts for women including three sisters), or Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, or Margaret Edson’s Wit, or John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt or Steve Yockey’s Bellwether (with seven parts for women)?

Cate Blanchett in "Streetcar Named Desire".

We wouldn’t lose our classics. Shakespeare’s plays are notoriously under-femmed, but not all of them are. Give me Much Ado About Nothing or Twelfth Night or wacky Midsummer. Or re-imagine the Bard for us. I saw a truly fresh and powerful production of Julius Caesar at Oregon Shakespeare Festival last year in which Caesar was unapologetically played by a woman (it might have been the best show I saw all year, including my own). I didn’t think “Oh look at that woman playing a man’s part.” I thought, “Oh my god she’s channeling Benazir Bhutto.”

Ibsen also gave us stunning women’s stories. So did Shaw, Chekov, Williams, Miller. And don’t forget the female playwrights of those same eras. Complex parts for more than one token women are there for the planning.

We might inspire new classics. I’m not telling playwrights what to write.Wait. Hell yes I am. And I’m hoping they get commissions to do so. Please write those complex and shocking and profound parts for our great female actors. Lead roles, supporting roles, lots of roles. Imagine writing for Stockard Channing or Viola Davis or Amy Morton or Meryl Streep. How about putting all of them in the same play. Oh my god, I just died a little thinking about it.

However, the now famous study by social scientist Emily Glassberg Sands about gender bias in theater says that though female playwrights write more roles for women, they are aware that plays with female protagonists aren’t as likely to be produced as plays with male protagonists. “One way women have compensated for writing female stories is to write fewer [female] roles, which make their plays accessible to more theaters,” the study finds.

So American theater might need a theatrical version of the The Bechdel Test for movies which names the following three criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man.

There are bright spots however. Chloe Bronzan and Robert Parsons of Symmetry Theater in San Francisco have already put into practice their own version of the Bechdel Test. They built their company around the precepts: “We will never produce a play with more male than female characters,” they said, “We will never have more male than female union actors on our stage and we will produce plays that tell stories which include full, fleshed out and complex women that serve as propellants to the human story being told.”

"Menopause: The Musical"

We won’t lose our audiences, but we might just gain new ones. Another Artistic Director colleague noted that if theater companies counted Menopause: The Musical as part of their actual season (as opposed to the touring or rental production it usually is) it would be the best-selling show in their histories. Why? Women go to the theater and they bring their friends if they have shows that reflect their experiences. A dear friend connected with August: Osage County‘s fierce females so much that she flew from Atlanta to New York three times just to see it as many times on Broadway.

As Hanna Rosen has pointed out in her articles and lectures — there is a definitive rise in women as breadwinners and moneymakers in this country. I live in the Bay Area and am delightfully surrounded by brilliant women running major intuitions, businesses, and government orgs. Smart institutions will notice this and deliver. Women are already your majority, and women share experiences with other women, so it shouldn’t be hard to bring new women into the theater patronizing community.

Sean Daniels again:

“I think there’s a hidden thinking in here that men won’t watch women centric plays, but women will watch men centric plays — which really just sells everyone in that equation short. There are men watching The Hunger Games, but eventually there won’t be ladies watching dude filled plays and seasons.”

Viola Davis in "Fences".

We might help the world. Women are always underrepresented in positions of money, power, and personal safety. This comes, as most inherent biases do, from a lack of understanding and empathy. If we see more stories of women on stages across the country and the world we can change that.

Maybe what we really dream of is the day when plays by and about women would stop being “women’s plays” and start being — oh, y’know — really successful, moneymaking, audience-supported, universal, true, bold, smart plays. Everyone wants those plays, no matter what your gender.

Theater audiences want the designers of theatrical seasons to pay attention to the women onstage. Count them (as Valerie Week is doing in The Bay). The women in your audiences will.

Joy Meads of Center Theater Group in LA says:

“It’s frustrating that we have to have this conversation in 2012. But I’ve experienced this in my conversations about plays with colleagues across the country. Colleagues dismissing a play because its female protagonist was ‘unlikable.’ Producers should recognize that ‘we just choose the best plays’ is no longer an adequate defense: no one believes that there’s a shadowy cabal of avowed misogynists determined to keep women offstage. We need to be brave and rigorous in examining the shadowy, unconscious ways gender bias influences our decision making.”

Theater should be in the complex and necessary business of illuminating the human condition, of inspiring empathy and community, of provoking understanding, of entertaining and surprising and exposing and making beautiful the complete world of our time.

You know what helps that?

Telling everyone’s stories.

Lauren Gunderson is an award-winning playwright, screenwriter, and short story author living in The Bay Area. She received her MFA in Dramatic Writing at NYU Tisch, her BA from Emory University, is an NYU a Reynolds Fellow in Social Entrepreneurship. Her work has received national praise and awards. She writes for The Huffington Post.

To Be “Well Liked” on Facebook? The Willy Loman in All of Us

by Charles Isherwood

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman."

Aside from its implicit critique of the notion of valuing a man’s life by the rung he occupies on the ladder of commerce, other elements in the play resonate freshly today. Among the most famous phrases, recurring in the dialogue almost like an incantation, is Willy’s fervid emphasis on the importance of being “well liked,” once again using a quantitative measure to establish a human being’s inherent value. His son Biff, Willy asserts, will inevitably rise in the world, despite the moral failings they both swat away like pesky gnats, because he is “well liked,” not merely “liked,” as is Charley’s studious son Bernard.

Thanks to the explosion in social media, being “well liked” has become practically a profession in itself. Adults as well as teenagers keep assiduous count of their Facebook friends and Twitter followers, and surely are inwardly if not outwardly measuring their worth by the rise or fall of the number. People are turning themselves into products, both for profit and for pleasure, and the inevitable temptation is to equate the popularity of your brand with your fundamental self-worth.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Andrew Garfield and Finn Wittrock in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman."

Many of us are willingly becoming versions of Willy Loman, forever on the road — that is, online — selling ourselves and advertising our lifestyles: describing the meal we just consumed at a restaurant (with uploaded photograph of course) or the trip we’re planning to take. A social-media gadfly (or, say, me) might suggest that there are vestiges of Willy’s tormenting self-doubt in the need to advertise every moment of our life so assiduously, as if constant Facebook updates could vanquish the inner voice whispering in Willy’s ear that his life is built on sand.

The play moves us on any number of levels, perhaps most fundamentally as a mid-century American version of that classic dramatic archetype dating back to the Greeks: the family in mortal conflict with itself. The Loman family’s conspiracy to support Willy in his delusions — at least until Biff decides he has to destroy his father’s illusions to save himself — is drawn from true filial and marital love, and it is in observing how little this love can do to save Willy that the play is most devastating. He is too consumed by the belief that his failure to succeed, and to inculcate success in his sons, has somehow disqualified him for full membership in the human race.

Despite Willy’s delusions and moral evasions, Miller always insisted on the nobility in his struggle. “The play is really about mortality and leaving something behind,” he told The Times during an interview on the occasion of the Chinese production. “Willy Loman is trying to write his name on a cake of ice on a hot July day.” His contradictions and his failings are all human and all common, which is why the hallucinatory last day of his life will always retain the power to command not just our pity but our respect too.

Charles Isherwood writes for the New York Times

Tracy Middendorf Looks Back on her LA Fountain Years

Tracy Middendorf and Morlan Higgins in "After the Fall" at the Fountain Theatre (2002, photo by Ed Krieger); Tommy Schrider and Tracy in "Battle of Black and Dogs" at Yale Repertory Theatre (2010)

by Mark Kinsey Stephenson

Tracy Middendorf was hailed for her “delicious mixture of beauty and raw emotional vulnerability that makes you care deeply about her” by director Stephen Sachs in the March 2002 cover article of LA STAGE magazine. She had already become an LA stage star in 1999, when, at age 29, she received the Ovation Award for leading actress in a play – against powerhouse nominees Annette Bening, Ruby Dee, Phyllis Frelich and Linda Lavin. She earned a LA Drama Critics Circle Award for the same performance, in Summer and Smoke.

A little background

In 1992, straight out of SUNY Purchase, Middendorf was tested in NY for the successful daytime soap opera Days of Our Lives. “I was quite surprised they couldn’t find a young blonde actress in LA,” she says with a light, ironic laugh. “Surprise, surprise,” as she was promptly hired and moved over 2,400 miles — but only on Middendorf’s terms, which demonstrated her mettle.

“I was worried about taking the part; doing a soap opera wasn’t my first choice. They asked me to sign a five-year contract and I told them, ‘No.’ You can imagine the reaction of my agent. How many actresses get an opportunity to be a regular on a soap? But I had high ideals right out of college. They brought the contract down (in years) to what I wanted.” And she thoroughly enjoyed the Days of Our Lives experience – without compromise.

During the next decade, following her soap stint as Carrie Brady, Middendorf was cast on a variety of TV shows including Beverly Hills 90210, Murder She Wrote, Touched by an Angel, Ally McBeal, Six Feet Under and The Practice.

Larry Poindexter and Tracy Middendorf in "Tender is the Night" at the Fountain (photo by Ed Krieger)

But she also was able to incorporate her first love – theater – by performing at the small yet mighty Fountain Theatre. The relationship between actress and theater was mutually rewarding. Middendorf wowed critics in her first LA stage outing in Simon Levy’s 1995 multi-award-winning adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, and followed up a year later with an Ovation-nominated feature actress performance in Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending.

The East Coast beckoned Middendorf to return, which she did briefly in 1998, performing in Tony winner Daniel Sullivan’s Ah! Wilderness at NY’s Lincoln Center and Joanne Woodward’s The Big Knife at the Williamstown Theatre in Massachusetts. Then in 1999, Middendorf struck gold with Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke at the Fountain, under the direction of Levy. The actress and the production both received Ovation Awards. Life was good for Middendorf, but it was going to get better.

No fluke

It is early 2002. Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, directed by artistic director Sachs, has opened at the Fountain Theatre, and Middendorf is featured in LA STAGE. She almost had to pinch herself with everything happening – creatively and personally. “It was a really exciting yet exhausting time. Calvin (her son) was two, and I was a single mom. Juggling this amazing show and great part along with bills and everything life was throwing at me, it was… challenging and hard. But going through that, I was proud of myself. It’s important to always do what you love, no matter how difficult life may be. It’s something I’ll always remember.”

Sachs shares more. “Playing Maggie required Tracy to dig deep down into some very dark and scary corners of her own psyche where her own demons hide. Her performance was shattering, fragile, heartbreaking. Unforgettable.”

The recognitions Middendorf received in 1999 were no fluke. After the Fall received four Ovation awards, including best production and one of three lead actress awards that year. Middendorf also added a second LA Drama Critics Circle award for her performance. For a play that hadn’t been seen in LA for 24 years, the Fountain and Middendorf reaped the benefits of Miller’s work.

Five years passed before Middendorf returned to the LA stage. During this passage of time, she married Franz Wisner, author of the well-received book Honeymoon with My Brother, and had another child, Oscar. TV roles were plentiful, including Alias, Cold Case, House M.D., Without a Trace and Lost, as well as acting in the movie Mission: Impossible III with Tom Cruise.

Chuma Gault and Tracy in "Miss Julie" at the Fountain Theatre (2007, photos by Ed Krieger)

However, while she was at the Fountain in Miss Julie, adapted and directed by Sachs, based on the original play by August Strindberg, a canceled audition for a play flicked a switch. She felt it was time for another 2,400-mile move.

Going back

During the run of Miss Julie, Middendorf was scheduled to audition for Edward Albee’s The Lady From Dubuque, which was set to open in London, starring Maggie Smith under the direction of Anthony Page (Tony winner for A Doll’s House). But the production team canceled its trip to LA, leaving Middendorf in the lurch. Here’s where the rubber met the road.

“I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to audition for Mr. Page or the play or Mr. Albee, so I flew to NY with my two kids. Yes, it was crazy but this was important.” After booking a hotel room and auditioning, “They paid my flight fee so I could stay a few more days and attend the callbacks.” But the coastal reality hit hard. Two Ovations and LADCC Awards didn’t ultimately sway Page to cast Middendorf. “He didn’t know any of my stage work, never had seen me in anything.” That moment was critical for her. “I wanted to expand my horizons which meant moving back to the East Coast. I didn’t want to be limited.”

"The Pavilion" at Westport Country Playhouse (2008)

Soon an acting gig on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit followed, along with another opportunity to work with Joanne Woodward, who was artistic director at the Westport Country Playhouse. “I had such a wonderful time with Joanne when I performed in The Big Knife. It was a chance to get reacquainted with this fascinating woman. So I was able to do Craig Wright’s The Pavilion (2005-2006 Drama Desk Award nominee for outstanding play).”

Westport, CT, became home for one year with its quaint community, slower pace, dinners on the beach,… but Middendorf and her family realized they wanted to live in the city. To Brooklyn they moved, and they’re still there.

East/West – the active life

Since settling in Brooklyn, Middendorf’s professional resume includes two theater productions. In 2010, she performed at Yale Repertory Theatre in the haunting thriller Battle of Black and Dogs, by the late French playwright Bernard-Marie Koltes. Middendorf reflects on her time there. “It was incredible. I adored working with Robert Woodruff (the director) who has this amazing cult following. And it gave me a chance to work with Andrew Robinson (whom she had performed with in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) now at USC (professor of theatre practice and director of MFA acting).”

Holly Twyford and Tracy in Shakespeare Theatre Company's "Old Times" (2011).

A year later came Harold Pinter’s Old Times at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC. Middendorf wryly says, “It was the shortest commute I’ve ever had. They put me in an apartment three steps from the entrance door.” Expounding on her experience, “This Pinter three-character play is not hugely appealing to everyone. Audiences can be frustrated. Yet the show received good reviews. The director Michael Kahn (also artistic director at the Shakespeare Theatre) was magnificent. We had four weeks of rehearsal to focus on this dense material.” Sophie Gilbert, theater critic with the Washingtonian, wrote, “Middendorf, as Kate, does a remarkable job in expressing the character’s sexuality and the power it gives her over others.”

During this three-year span, Middendorf’s TV credits have included CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Bones, The Mentalist, NCIS, Criminal Minds and she’s especially grateful for Boardwalk Empire. “I play Babbette (the owner of the series’ central nightclub). The pilot was directed by Martin Scorsese. Watching him direct was thrilling.”

Tracy Middendorf in HBO's "Boardwalk Empire"

When it came time for the wardrobe fitting, the initial decision was to put Middendorf in a beautiful dress. She thought otherwise. “When I auditioned for the part, it came across as very masculine. So I told them I saw Babbette in a suit.” Giving the design team pause, Middendorf was told she would be called back. “When I returned later, John Dunn, the extraordinary costume designer, had me meet with a tailor to make a tuxedo. And that’s when they gave me a platinum wig.”

Looking through a different lens

As she reflects  on years past and where she is today, realizations are not far behind. “The ability to do those great parts at the Fountain…. I love that theater, Simon, Stephen…. After working on Old Times, which was in a huge space, I realized I prefer the smaller stage and a smaller audience. The intimacy of it feels comfortable to me. I miss having a place where I can do that type of work. I really appreciate and love the vitality of LA theater which is focused on the work and on the play.”

Looking at the arts with a different lens, Middendorf states, “I’ve begun to change my focus toward directing. I’m more interested in the vision for an entire piece rather than just one role in a piece. That seems like a natural step for me.”

"Break", directed by Tracy Middendorf (2011).

In August 2011, Middendorf directed Louise Rozett’s Break for the FringeNYC. The material dealt with the unexpected effects of the Ground Zero recovery effort on NYC’s firemen and policemen, and their families. How she came to helm this play was happenstance. “I was in the laundry room of our building. There was a woman (Rozett) there and we started talking. She had a Young Adult book coming out. I asked if she had written any plays, as I was looking to direct something. She said she did, and gave me her plays, which were wonderful.”

Not letting a moment such as this one go to waste, Middendorf gathered together some actors and directed a reading that had great response. “We submitted it to the Fringe Festival and it got accepted. Within a month of putting it out there, I wanted to direct a play, and that’s what I was doing. We raised money through Kickstarter to mount the production. It turned out wonderful.  Now Louise is giving me another play to consider directing.”

Giving back

This past summer Middendorf read Three Cups of Tea, Stones into Schools and Half the Sky (the Skirball Cultural Center is currently hosting an exhibit entitled “Women Hold Up Half the Sky” inspired by the Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn tome.) These books dealing with the plight of girls around the world touched Middendorf and made her consider ways she could make a difference in the lives of those “who don’t get an education and suffer a dismal fate.”

Middendorf rattles off a few startling facts: “Of the 104 million children aged 6-11 not in school each year, 60 million are girls; in South Asia, more than 40 percent of girls aged 15-19 from poor households never completed first grade; providing girls one extra year of education beyond the average boosts wages by 10-20 percent; educated girls are less likely to contract HIV; education can foster democracy and women’s political participation.”

“I wanted to help. My friend Laurel Holloman (an actress on The L Word), who is an abstract painter, donated one of her paintings for a charity auction. It made me think. With the digital age, what if I created a website with a gallery of photographs taken by actors, writers, musicians and directors? The limited number of photographs would be signed and sold with the money donated to charities focused on educating girls around the world.”

Her dream is near reality. The launch date for the website – www.shuttertothink.org – is scheduled for March 1, 2012, and its small collection of photography grows weekly.

Parting words

It’s fitting to close this article about the seasoned actress Middendorf with meaningful high praise from Sachs and Levy, who know her well.

“Tracy has this remarkable ability to blend both a ferocious work ethic with the ability to stay utterly alive in the moment,” states Sachs. “She possesses this other-worldly combination of skilled craft and gossamer magic. To work with her again would be a blessing I would cherish.”

Levy adds, “She’s translucent and a true artist. Absolutely one of the most gifted actors I’ve ever worked with. Her emotional well is so deep and so varied, and her moment-to-moment connection so riveting, that it’s impossible, for audiences and actors and as a director, not to be drawn into the world of her truth. Stunning. Truly stunning. She’s rare and a gift to theater.”

Mark Kinsey Stephen writes for LA Stage Times.