BWW Exclusive: Preview of INSIDE ACT: HOW TEN ACTORS MADE IT AND HOW YOU CAN TOO- with Debra Monk!
Why do some actors make it and others don't? Ken Womble sets out to find the answer to this question, one that has fascinated and tormented him for years, in his new book, INSIDE ACT: How Ten Actors Made it and How You Can Too (Hansen Publishing Group, 373 pages, $24.99). To celebrate the release, BroadwayWorld will be featuring chapter previews from the new book. Today, hear from Debra Monk!
INSIDE ACT: How Ten Actors Made it and How You Can Too identifies what sets successful actors apart. For Womble it's about the inner choices, the inside acts of working actors acts that have propelled them to thriving careers in one of the most competitive professions on the planet.
She has starred on Broadway in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Curtains (Drama Desk Award, Tony nomination), Chicago, Reckless, Thou Shalt Not; Ah, Wilderness!, Steel Pier (Tony nomination), Company; Picnic (Tony nomination), Redwood Curtain (Tony Award), Nick and Nora, and Pump Boys and Dinettes (Coauthor, Tony Nomination).
She won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series for her portrayal of Katie Sipowicz on NYPD Blue.
Debra Monk: Whatever is Necessary
[The following is an excerpt from the Debra Monk chapter in Ken Womble's INSIDE ACT: How Ten Actors Made It-And How You Can Too.]
Ken Womble: It sounds like the Actors' Theatre of Louisville really created some breakthroughs for you?
Debra Monk: Totally. I met Jon Jory, who's an incredible director, and a great mentor of mine, and a great teacher. He was the first one to really believe in me as an actress and kept casting me in these parts that I would never get in New York at that time because I wasn't known at all. So it was a great place to meet other actors, other directors, other great playwrights, and people who were just starting out. I remember John Turturro was just starting out. Oh, my God! Kathy Bates was there.
KW: Has it also been your training ground?
DM: I have to say I was really well trained when I left SMU [Southern Methodist University]. What they gave me at Louisville was a chance to use that training, a chance to do it. I was a brand new actor, so I needed to fail, to learn how to have courage, to learn how to try a scene and for it not to work-you know what I mean? I think it takes years and years and years of doing it, over and over and over until you start to really start to feel confident about what you can do.
KW: I don't think a lot of actors would've done what you did by spending your own money and going down to Louisville to audition. Was that a big act of faith?
DM: It was an act of desperation. I didn't know what else to do. I couldn't get an agent. I was on Broadway for a year [in Pump Boys and Dinettes]! I just decided to take a chance and to go there. It really was just not knowing what to do and going "Well, how am I going to do this?"
What I've learned about this business is never to have unrealistic expectations about what will happen next. You just have to do your best work and be open to what you might have to do to get that next job, meaning you might have to audition even though you don't want to audition, or you might have to go meet somebody.
I mean the expectation is if I do this enough they will know what I can do, and they will just offer me a job.
Well that isn't always true, you know? It's certainly not true in television and movies where the producers get younger and younger, so they don't really know who you are.
Nothing has ever come that easy. I've had to work really hard for everything, and I've had to bide my time for everything. But not like, bam, because I did that show, it equaled all this stuff. It never was like that for me.
KW: Why do you think that has been the case?
DM: I have no idea. I mean I've won Emmys, I've won a Tony, I've done all these things, and it still doesn't necessarily equate that you are going to get the next part.
I was at the Actors Theatre of Louisville for three seasons and I thought, I can stay in Actors Theatre of Louisville heaven for the rest of my life and just do all these wonderful plays. But if I really want to do New York, I've got to go back and face New York.
So I decided to go back.
And one of the first weeks I was back, a wonderful guy named Mark Hardwick, who was a cocreator of Pump Boys, called me up and was working on this music from Lawrence Welk, which we loved by the way. And I play the drums, so he said, "Deb, can we come over and play some of this funny Lawrence Welk music?"
And meanwhile I got a call, because of Pump Boys, to come and sing at a benefit. And I thought, "Oh God, I don't want to sing by myself." And I called back and said, "You know, we're working on some of this really funny music, can we bring the group with us, there's four of us?" And we were working on this rendition of Exodus, and we did it at this benefit and people laughed hysterically. And so we thought "Oh, my God, we're on to something."
So, immediately we started working on this. And we decided they were four kind of band nerds from high school who everybody thought were going to be really successful and then, cut to after high school, and none of them made it. One became a mailman, one became a housewife, one became a secretary, and they are getting together for a ten-year reunion, and they're going to honor their music teacher.
And that was the basis of Oil City Symphony. It was a really sweet, lovely, funny show and it ran for a year Off Broadway [winning a Drama Desk and an Outer Critic's Circle Award for best Off Broadway musical].
And now I'm back doing another musical and I thought, "I'll never be able to be an actress here. I'm just going to be doing these shows that I write, that's all I can do."
KW: You appeared in Lanford Wilson's Redwood Curtain on Broadway in 1993. Tell me about that.
DM: There was a repertory theatre in New York, Circle Rep Company, and I always wanted to work rep, but I could not get an audition because they had their company. And I found out from someone that they had a lab, the Circle Rep Lab, another group of actors who could do readings.
So I auditioned for the Lab, and I got into it and was asked to do a reading of Prelude to a Kiss; I played Mary-Louise Parker's mom. And they said to me, "You're just too young to play that part" [in a full production].
And I said, "Oh, that's too bad, but you know I could wear a wig." And I got cast in it.
And we did it Off Broadway at Circle Rep and then we moved to Broadway and that became my first Broadway play. But the only way I got that was to audition for the Lab.
Lanford Wilson saw me in Prelude to a Kiss, and afterwards I got sent a copy of Redwood Curtain with a letter from Lanford saying, "I wrote this play with you in mind; read it, and let me know what you think." He wrote a play for me! And I won a Tony for it.
And like I said, I just auditioned for the Lab! If I hadn't, he would never have written a play for me. So it was a very, very, very, very special experience.
Jon Jory: Artistic Director and Playwright
Ken Womble: Debra has been a working actor for over thirty years and she continues to work at a high level: over a dozen Broadway plays, many regional theatre plays, and lots of film and television. What else do you see in her as a person and a performer that's kept her going for long?
Jon Jory: Well, she obviously has star quality which has been most visible at the highest level on the Broadway musical stage. It's a quality that, when demanded, takes over and says ,"this is mine now." And that's necessary to playing large roles in highly visible situations.
And the second thing about that quality is it doesn't seem forced. She just takes over. We read about this in many professions, particularly in moments of crisis, and I think nothing is more a moment of crisis than a big number on the musical stage.
She doesn't demand more than what would be her share of the time in a rehearsal process. I work with a lot of actors who take waaaay more than the amount of time I can give them. Some actors will be pulling me aside; they have one scene in the play and you would think that they were playing King Lear. Debra doesn't do that. When she needs help she asks for it-but she asks for help, she doesn't ask for attention.
Steven Unger: Agent at Gage Group
Ken Womble: Steven, what are some of her best qualities as a performer?
Steven Unger: I think her dedication, her commitment. In Curtains which ran a year on Broadway she was a great coleader. She and David Hyde Pierce were the two stars above the title and Debra was there to help the show, to promote the show and people in the cast turned to her for things. I think that's a tribute to her personality, to her commitment to the show.
Debra goes into every job two hundred percent. She does her homework and she comes prepared and there's no diva attitude. Debra's just there to do the work, to have fun, and to entertain.
She's approachable. I've watched her sit and sign autographs. I've watched her on the 104 bus going uptown talking to people who just saw her in a show or a movie. I think that we all know there are stars out there who are very unapproachable, who close their doors, who just jump in their car, and Deb is not that way at all.
Ken Womble interviews actors Debra Monk, Eric Ladin, Krysta Rodriguez, Tony Yazbeck, James Earl, Gary Beach, John Tartaglia, Robert Clohessy, Jose Llana and Richard Portnow about their inside acts, the important choices of their acting careers. The interviews explore the intriguing journeys that have led these actors to successful careers, and to Tony, Emmy and Screen Actors Guild Awards, the most prestigious acting awards in theater and television.
Actor interviews are followed by interviews with two of each actor's success team, the agents, managers, directors and coaches who know them well. Womble then identifies the actor's most frequently used actions, skills and beliefs the keys to each actor's success.
INSIDE ACT is available as a paperback and as an ebook. Each actor chapter is also available as individual ebooks. Click here to purchase now!
From This Author Ken Womble