BWW Interview: Laila Robins Talks THE APPLE FAMILY PLAYS at the Public
Actress Laila Robins has seen Broadway, the big screen and the small screen. But lately she has poured her soul onto the off-Broadway stage and into her character 'Marian Apple Platt', a role she originated in 2010 as part of The Apple Family Plays: Scenes from Life in the Country.
Written and directed by Tony winner Richard Nelson, the series is currently in rep at The Public Theater. Nelson's play cycle includes That Hopey Changey Thing, Sweet and Sad and Sorry and will culminate in the world premiere of his fourth and final play -- Regular Singing. The production, like its predecessors, will open on the day it is set: November 22, the 50th Anniversary of JFK's assassination.
BroadwayWorld recently spoke with Robins about the challenges and joys of revisiting 'Marian' afresh and being part of the fictional, liberal Apple family of Rhinebeck, New York, whose actors have become like a family of their own.
So, how was the opening for That Hopey Changey Thing?
It was great. The audience was just so warm. I don't know if they were repeat attendees or new people, but it was really satisfying. It was very nice to feel their energy. And every night's a little different. These plays are very complex, and the audience plays a big part in it. Richard Nelson even says as much in one of his plays that the audience is like another character -- it has a personality as well.
You're doing this for the second time, so what's it like revisiting the plays? Are you learning new things about your character?
You know, when [Richard] wrote Hopey Changey, he hadn't written the other three, and it's interesting to go back. We feel kind of like naïve children who know nothing about what's going to happen to them because some major things happen to some of these characters in the next few plays. Like, in the first play I mention my daughter very casually, and later some major things happen to her. So to go back and see how unknowing I was as a mother about my daughter's state of mind -- we're like little, innocent lambs rolling it back.
In the first play we're a family that love each other, but we haven't been getting together very often, and then by the fourth play, most of us are sort of living in Rhinebeck by then and wanting our brother to come to Rhinebeck, so our relationships get deeper and deeper and deeper and more relaxed and more intense. So it's almost like we have to remember what to forget. [Laughs]. When you go back to the first play, you have to go, 'There are certain things I'm not telling my brother or my sister.' You always have to do a checklist in your head: Which play is this, what do I know and what do I not know?
Have you and the rest of the cast become like a family as you've been playing a family together?
Absolutely. I feel very close to Maryann Plunkett and Jay O. Sanders. And we have two new people this year -- Stephen Kunken has replaced Shuler Hensley and Sally Murphy has replaced J. Smith-Cameron -- but they have fit in so beautifully. I'm astounded at their ability to learn. Sally has learned four plays. I can't even imagine. She's got seven hours of play in her head that she hasn't performed yet.
And I do feel really close to them. We're quite a loving family, you know. We do have our occasional kurfuffles, but we all respect each other so much and trust each other so much. And this material is such that the cues are so tight and there's so many cut-offs, and [Richard] has written in such a naturalistic way. We're so attached to the material now and we're so in tune with each other. And Richard's major thing with us is listen, listen, listen to each other. And it keeps us really super connected, so that if something happens we can help each other out.
I love being in this group, and it's been such a gift for me as an actor to have this kind of company and meeting each other over the last three years and just growing and deepening. It shows you how long you can really study a play. Three years down the line, we've performed these plays, and there's still things that we're discovering. So when the writing is good, I think there's just a depth that we really get to sink our tone into now.
With Richard writing these as you go along, have you and the other actors been part of the creating process?
What we tend to do is a read-through of the new play -- whatever he's written. And then we have a three-day workshop where we talk about it and our concerns. And as we have gotten deeper into the years of plays, more and more he listens to us as people who know those characters very well. And we will say, 'You know, I can say that, but can I say it like this?' or 'Maybe I wouldn't go that far, but I would say this." And he really listens to us and puts those things into the plays. After that, he does a bunch of changes, and then he says, because he's also directing and writing, he'll say, 'Now the script is set. And if the writer wants to come in and ask you to change something, you get to have veto power.' And of course, usually he's right about a change, but he goes to us quite a bit, especially later in the years, to see if something fits, if something feels right.
That's interesting because it sounds like he's very specific but also very open to input.
Absolutely, he's very open and a wonderful director. Very gentle, very understanding of process. Doesn't push too fast. Allows us to really find our way. Gives notes in a very positive way, not like 'Don't do this' or 'Don't do that' but more like 'Think of it this way' or 'Think of it that way.' He's one of the best directors I've ever worked with, and I think his writing is just amazing. The writing sneaks up on you. It's very naturalistic, so you're just watching the family talk to each other, and then it's usually a thing that wallops you as an audience member emotionally. He knows how to build to something really beautifully.
Do you have a deep connection with your own character? Are you like Marian? Are you different from her?
You know, it's funny, Jon Devries who plays Uncle Benjamin just said the other day, 'I love it when I'm in that room, on the stage with you guys, and it feels like there's no difference between you and the character.' In many ways, we've really married our personalities to these characters. And I would say there are differences, and of course given circumstances are different, but we do bring a lot of ourselves to it, even our quirks.
Like Richard says, with the new people, we are not just slotting them in like replacements. They are bringing their own personalities to it, and we're changing as a group because they're different. It keeps morphing, keeps changing in a really organic way.
And also the audience is part of that dynamic as well. Their personality sort of plays into what we're doing. Sometimes the audience wants to pull it into more of a sitcom-y kind of comedy, and we usually have to fight them because that's not where Richard wants to go, so in some ways we have to control them a little bit. [Laughs].
It sounds like the plays are very fluid and very connected to the emotion and the tone of the room, so I can definitely see how the audience's reaction would completely change the feel of the whole thing.
Yeah, Richard wants the audience to feel as if they were dropping in on people talking -- that they aren't watching a play, that they're not seeing something that's outside of themselves. Like literally they are in a room with us and just listening to people talk.
Which is what people love to do anyway. When you're at a restaurant you're listening to everyone around you. At least that's what I do, I don't know about you. [Laughs.]
Oh my god, you sound like the character Jane! She has a line about that -- 'When I'm out at a restaurant, I love to eavesdrop on people when they don't care that you're overhearing them.' Literally, you just said a line out of the play. [Laughs]
So with the premiere of Regular Singing coming up, how does it feel finally finishing out the cycle and looking forward to that?
You know, Oskar Eustis basically said, 'I wish these guys would come and do a play every year -- just keep going.' I know that when I get to the last performance of the final play it's going to be very emotional. Chekov plays are very similar in a way. In some ways nothing happens, yet big things happen. And so Richard's writing is very close to Chekov in that way. I just think the whole cycle is such a huge, incredible piece of writing. It's a real accomplishment for Richard and to all of us who have been a part of it and stayed a part of it.
We have been rehearsing the fourth play, but the fourth play has been changing a lot. More than some of the other plays. And we've had a really complex rehearsal process. For example, today we're working on the fourth play but we're performing the first play at night. Tomorrow, we're going to work on the second play and do the first play at night, because we're opening the second play next Wednesday. So there's this thing of trying to get all four of these plays up in the air. So, the challenge of the fourth play is that we have the distraction of the other plays as well. Then again, by the fourth play, we know so much who we are that perhaps slipping into that play will be somewhat easier. I'm really excited to have people see it and see what they think.
Also, a lot of my training is in classical theatre; I've done a lot of classical plays in New York and also at the Guthrie and here and there across the country. And that has a certain style to it, a certain technique to it. This has really taught me a lot about naturalism and keeping things very specific and very small, and in some ways it's helped me with my film and television work. I just finished doing a pilot for HBO called The Money that David Milch wrote; it's a new thing with Brendan Gleeson. And I really think part of the reason I got it is because, as I call it, I've gone to "The Apple Family School of Acting". [Laughs.]
Plus, the plays are so current. They're reflecting within the family what's going on politically and socially today. And there's something very immediate about that that's different from doing classical work.
And you know, going back to these plays, we were wondering, 'Are they going to feel dated?' But they don't, because different things have different resonances. This first play was written during the election three years ago. And we were like, 'It's going to be old news.' But we mention Obamacare, and it just has a totally different resonance than it did three years ago. So, certain things take a back seat and other things take a front seat, but the plays still resonate.
In fact, we literally get rewrites the day of the opening because our opening night is the day the play takes place. So, for example, we did the second play on the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. We came in that morning and Richard gave us lines because he'd been watching TV and watching the ceremonies, and he gave us lines for that night for the opening.
That's so cool, I love that. It's kind of like television writing in a way. You're writing it right before you film it.
It's very spontaneous. I think it's great -- just don't give me too many new lines. [Laughs.] I'm not a very quick study. But it's really fun. It's really satisfying.
So as you approach the end of these plays, is there anything I haven't touched on that you'd like to talk about?
You know what else I love about these plays -- there's something about being middle-aged and dealing with your mortality and maybe taking care of your parents or relatives that are older. It's a subject matter that's not often dealt with. And there's something very satisfying as someone middle-aged to feel yourself reflected on the stage in some way. That's really profound. And it's been such a treat to have that place to go to express those feelings.
It's almost as if Richard sometimes writes things we're all going through as individuals and puts it in the play as if it were a place for us to work out those feelings. And I've really appreciated that. There are some tragic things that happen to my character in the play, and there's a tragedy that happened in my own personal life that I feel like I get to work out through saying the words. And I know that other actors feel that way, too.
Like acting therapy.
In a way, yeah, in a way.
The Public Theater opened the return engagement of That Hopey Changey Thing, the first play in the tetralogy, The Apple Family Plays: Scenes from Life in the Country, on October 22. The first three plays will run in repertory through Sunday, December 15 and culminate in the world premiere of the fourth and final play, Regular Singing, which opens on November 22. For more information, visit www.publictheater.org.