Photo by Sara Stathas
You’ve just finished acting in Noises Off at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. You’re directing at Renaissance Theaterworks this year, and in Madison, Las Vegas and Utah. You spend a lot of time with actors. Do they drive you crazy sometimes?
Actors have egos. They also have vulnerabilities. And to put yourself out there in front of people and reveal something can make you quite vulnerable. Actors deal with that vulnerability sometimes by putting on a big veneer, a big defensive quality. There are some people who can take up a lot of psychological space in a room and need to be reassured a lot. I find that really a waste of time and kind of selfish to the process. That kind of thing gets tiresome.
Your husband is actor Jonathan Smoots, who’s also a director. What’s that like?
He directed me in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That’s how we met. And our relationship really was built on work. He directed me, we acted together, and that was so much of our common ground. Then we got married and we reached a point when we weren’t working together so much anymore, and that’s when we had to kind of look back and say, ‘What are we really basing this relationship on?’ But he’s got a good eye and a good ear. I’ve directed him a number of times. I love directing him.
Why? Do you like pushing him around?
I don’t like pushing anybody around when I’m directing them!
What was your most difficult acting role?
I was really surprised last year when we did The Diary of Anne Frank of how hard that was. I was playing Mrs. Frank, and the play doesn’t end well, you know – and everyone knows it. But it sucker-punched me in a way. I mean, I loved doing it, but it was brutal. Oftentimes, when you’re doing an emotional play, you come off at the end and say, “Oh, I’ve purged all that, I feel great now.” Not that play. It was cumulative. Every day, it was harder and harder and harder. The scope of that emotion was so huge.
Let’s talk about directing.
The first thing I directed at The Rep was called I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady From Rwanda, this amazing little play. Then this directing thing started to happen. It’s good that I started directing. If I hadn’t, I would be stuck right now, because the number of acting roles has diminished so much for women over 50.
Can theater change the world?
Yeah, in a subtle way. The theater is struggling to find its place in this [world of] endless entertainment options [and] short attention spans. But it’s not dying. It’s still about people in the audience being able to say, “I feel just like that sometimes.” Or, “I have never thought about that before.” Or, “I’ve been having an absolutely horrible month and now I’m seeing something that’s making me release an emotion of joy or sorrow or rage.” I don’t think there are very many places in our society, with the exception of sporting events, where we fully express our emotions.
Playwright Edward Albee has an unflattering opinion of actors and directors. He doesn’t consider either to be creative.
I couldn’t disagree more. Here’s the thing: When I work as an actor, I just feel like I’m doing my job, trying to be as honest as I can be. But when I work as a director and I watch actors work, I feel what they do is miraculous. I am constantly amazed and humbled by the alchemy that happens in the room. I don’t think that we’re just instruments. There’s something else that happens there.
Do you watch TV?
I am a real sucker for shows like “Top Chef” and “Project Runway.” They are a complete escape. I also love “The Good Wife.” I’m trying to get into “Breaking Bad.” And tonight, I’m going to watch an episode of “Orange Is the New Black.” I think there’s some darn fine television now.
When you and your husband go to parties, do you put people on by using your skills as actors?
No. One of my biggest pet peeves as an actor is if someone says to me, “Oh, we can’t believe anything that you say because you’re an actor.” Like my job is to lie, when I believe the exact opposite. My job as an actor is to tell the truth in whatever the given circumstances are. I don’t think of it as lying. That drives me crazy. Same reason that I don’t know many actors that dress up for Halloween.