Tony Award Winner Joanna Gleason in Boston for World Premiere of Karam Play
Joanna Gleason originates role in World Premiere of Stephen Karam's Sons of the Prophet, directed by Huntington Theatre Company Artistic Director Peter DuBois at the Wimberly Theatre at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts through May 1, 2011 www.huntingtontheatre.org
Tony Award winner Joanna Gleason is undeniably a Broadway luminary, as evidenced by the three word qualifier placed before her name for her Best Actress performance as the Baker's Wife in Into the Woods in 1987, as well as receiving acclaim for I Love My Wife, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Having moved from California back to the east coast for the latter in 2005, Gleason and husband actor Chris Sarandon now reside in Connecticut which makes doing a show in Boston far more realistic. The actress joins the ensemble of Sons of the Prophet, the new play by Stephen Karam. We met one night after rehearsal for this interview.
BWW: Have you done anything at the Huntington Theatre Company before?
JG: Never. It's quite simply one of the most beautiful plants I've ever worked in, one of the most beautiful theaters and rehearsal spaces and all of that.
BWW: Tell me how you got involved with Sons of the Prophet.
JG: How did I get involved? A year ago, I got a call from my agent, would I like to do a reading - one day's involvement - and I read it and I thought, yeah - I get a million of these offers.
BWW: Had you heard of (Stephen) Karam before?
JG: I had seen Speech & Debate and loved it, and I had heard of Peter DuBois. He had directed something that was a very big hit in New York, Becky Shaw (Note: produced at HTC in April, 2010), and I said, well, these are two names I can trust and I read the piece and I thought this is delicious and I said yes. Also, I was very blue at the time, I was kind of thinking I don't know what opportunities more I will have to do in the theater because the climate has changed and the kind of things that are being done has changed. And also, I'm aging out of a certain, you know...
BWW: Well, you're not going to be asked to do Spiderman, but clearly when you see someone like Vanessa Redgrave (Driving Miss Daisy)...
JG: Yes! Things that you sort of wait around long enough, then you'll do the Jessica Tandy .... So, somewhere between Scoundrels and Miss Daisy, I start to wonder what are the roles and what are my opportunities going to be for doing live theatre. And then this sort of just went "plunk," you know, right when I needed it. I have other projects, I'm a writer, so I have two projects very exciting going on, but that actor thing, that pilot light hadn't really gone out. And you just think...and then this came and I said I want to do this reading and the reading was quite successful. On the basis of that, the Roundabout got excited about it.
BWW: This is a joint production with Roundabout. Will this cast go to Roundabout?
JG: I don't know everybody's availability and I don't know that any of that's been determined.
BWW: Would you be looking at that?
JG: Oh, I'd certainly do it. Anyway, that would be in the fall. But then they said would you come to Boston and it takes a lot for me to leave the house. My husband and I are fantastically happy at our little farm - it's called "Tiny Farm" - and the dog, and we have four grown kids and a grandson, and it's a very nice life for a writer and an actor who commutes to NY when she needs to or he needs to. And I thought, "You know, I will" - I want to come up and see, really, what's here and in this role and the only way to know is to do it.
BWW: Tell me a little bit about the play and what your part in it is.
JG: The play is really quite beautifully structured. It's seven scenes and each one has a title, a theme: 'on friendship,' 'on family,' but there's definitely a plot about a young man that Kelsey Kurz plays and his family, living in eastern PA, in Nazareth. I'm a former Manhattanite, a book packager who has completely fallen from grace in that she's the one who published these books that ended up being misrepresentations, not quite factual. They've been yanked and she took the fall and she's in a little bit of disgrace now. She's moved back to this town where her late husband had family and where her son feels a kind of kinship, but she's estranged from her son. So she's moved back here thinking maybe he'll see the light in my window and maybe the estrangement will end. I'll just plant my little book packaging business right here in Nazareth, PA, which is delusional. She has her own issues. She's, how shall we say, heavily reliant on substances to get her through the day and night. But she's the employer of the young man who's the center of the story. And everybody becomes intertwined, everybody's damaged, everybody's in pain and they all deal with it in different ways.
BWW: Some psychic pain, some physical pain?
JG: Some physical, some psychic, some brought on by age, some by disappointment, some by physical injury, some by trauma. It's also very, very funny. This play is very, very funny. Stephen Karam writes fabulously delicious, distinctive voices and he's written one, particularly for me - I think it's one of the most fun roles I've ever had to play.
BWW: What are your feelings about going back and forth between a play vs. a musical?
JG: Well, I'll tell you, doing a musical eight times a week - some doctor actually said this - it's like being in a car accident every week, because the body, the dancing, the heels, the physical - what you have to put yourself through to sing a show eight times a week, not going out afterward, not getting too hot, not too cold, what you can eat, what you can't eat, how much sleep you can have, not talking on the phone. I mean you have to live sort of like a hothouse flower - well you do when - no, actually this is true now of everybody, because the amplification of the orchestra is so enormous now that the vocal obligation is so enormous, even if you're miked. Also, musicals are being written - and I must say, the last musical I saw that was human scale was The Light in the Piazza because the music was utterly gorgeous. And it was singable and actable. There have been very few since then that aren't about big, belting - everything has to be a showstopper and everything has to be done with these oversized voices that are just trumpets basically and that's not my forte.
BWW: How is it different or more exciting or harder to be in a world premiere?
JG: I've been very lucky in that most of the work I've done, I've originated the role and that's pretty exciting. Because then you know in the Samuel French volume when they say "first produced at" and then there's your name. So, almost everything I've done, I've been the first to do it. So, it's a world premiere? I think that's fantastic! There's a lot of asterisks by my name.
BWW: You have a lot of opportunity to create how you want it to be.
JG: Well, it becomes very collaborative when you're the first. And Stephen and Peter are tremendous that way. It becomes highly collaborative and it's built on your bones. You don't create the role as much as you interpret it, but what you have to bring to it goes into the creating of it.
BWW: You mentioned that you're writing. Are you writing plays or novels?
JG: I'm writing a novel, and I wrote a screenplay, and I wrote a very funny Christmas musical that we did at the Fairfield Theater Company last Christmas which was great fun. I had Kelly O'Hara, Greg Naughton, Chris Sarandon, and Keir Dullea and all of us got together and did this and it was great and a lot of fun. But I don't consider myself a playwright even though I wrote this little play. But I have an editor and I am working on this novel and I'm enjoying the process tremendously. Polar opposite process to being in a roomful of people. It's completely solitary, you find a million ways to procrastinate, all the things that writers say, but I'm loving it.
BWW: Actually, maybe being an actor makes that process a tiny bit easier because you can play all the parts in your own head.
JG: That's exactly right. So, dialogue and character creation becomes easy.
BWW: You did the Sondheim celebration?
JG: Yeah, a year ago. Just exactly a year ago. His birthday's today (3/22). He's a friend and that concert was one of the highlights of my whole career.
BWW: In the Sondheim canon first, is there a role that you might wish you had gotten to play?
JG: I'm gonna wait around and play Mme. Armfeldt one of these days. Probably sooner than later. I love that. I'm pretty happy with the role I played, the Baker's Wife. And of course there's any number of roles in Company when I was younger that would have been fun to do. Desirée would have been fun to do. Actually, Mrs. Lovett would have been fun to do, but I don't...you know, I'll tell you something, there's a difference between being able to do something on stage - many of those roles, I know that I could do - but there's also brilliant casting and I don't know that in some of the roles I'd be brilliant casting, but I'd be terrific casting, do you know what I'm saying? There is something that I've begun to know in the last ten years about what I'm right for and what I would just be good in, but there are roles that you'd be right for and not right for, not more right for than somebody else.
BWW: What's it like when you're in a long-running show and other people are coming in - like the leads in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels changed a couple of times.
JG: Yes, yes, my beloved John Lithgow left and Jonathan Pryce came in, entirely different vibe. Sherie (Rene Scott) left and Rachel York came in for awhile, then Sherie came back. Sara Gettelfinger left and Mylinda Hull came in. It's very difficult - the nights that Greg Jbara was out, his understudies, who were terrific - it was entirely different and so your rhythms are different and the way you partner each other physically is different - supported here, not supported there - and it just becomes a big adjustment because we get spoiled.
BWW: And I imagine you never get enough time to rehearse that part with understudies, but maybe a little bit more when a replacement cast comes in?
JG: Never...yeah, but not that much more. The poor person who comes in has, like, a day and a night - costume changes and lights, one tech rehearsal all the way through. It's very crazy.
BWW: Would you say the favorite musical that you've been in?
JG: Into the Woods - there's just no topping that experience, start to finish.
BWW: You're one of those people who is a triple threat, so do you consider yourself an actor who sings and dances, or a musical performer who acts?
JG: Let's get very clear here, I can dance, I have been choreographed to dance and even made to look fairly good doing it, but I am not a trained dancer. But I've been lucky enough to dance in several shows. I am an actress.
BWW: That came first.
JG: I'm an actor; I'm an actor, actor, actor, actor - who can sing nice. But I'm not a cabaret performer, that's its own special thing. And I'm not that voice for all seasons and I'm also not that hybrid voice of this last couple generations - I'm not that. I'm an actress who sings.
BWW: You acknowledge (the question) how many roles are you going to find like this, and you've already gone in one other direction where you're doing the writing...
JG: And I've been teaching for 25 years, teaching acting all over, at colleges and high schools.
BWW: They call you and you come.
JG: They call me and I come. And I've directed in the theater a tiny bit, and I've directed in television. Actually, it was Diane English of "Love and War" who gave me my first shot directing for camera, so I've done a few television shows. I like to work.
BWW: I would think directing for tv would be more complex than for the stage.
JG: It is.
BWW: Would you consider directing something for...
JG: I've said to Peter, in your smaller space, I'd love to come and direct a show. I really would. Because I love actors and I really love writers. I love playwrights.
BWW: And I imagine for actors to have an actor as the director is like nirvana.
JG: They do like it, from what I've been told.
BWW: Besides the Christmas pageant you mentioned, are you involved much in your community?
JG: Yeah, more and more actually. We did some fundraising for the library there and we've done evenings at the Westport Playhouse, which is near us, and love it there and the Fairfield Theater Company. We love getting into the community. We love the life there, we love the people; we've got very dear friends there. It's great.
BWW: Do you go into New York much to see shows?
JG: Oh, yeah - yeah, yeah, yeah.
BWW: What's the last best thing you saw?
JG: Oh, God, I knew you were gonna ask. See, you had to put the word best in there.
BWW: Just something you liked.
JG: We haven't gone in for a long time. We did go in to see The Merchant of Venice to see Al Pacino, that was great fun. And we had gone in to see Billy Elliot to see Greg Jbara who plays the father - fantastic - and we enjoyed the show. I've missed a whole lot of shows lately because we've been away and we've had this grandchild, so you know we've chosen to stay close to home and the home fires. Oh, well I went to see A Little Night Music - I wanted to see Angela Lansbury who was spectacular and the production was fantastic. I've just missed so many things that I meant to see and didn't get to see.
BWW: Anything else in particular you think that BWW readers really need to know about you?
JG: Oh, for God's sake, I don't know. Let's see, let's just put something to rest. Some kid in a chat room, I was told by a friend of mine, said they saw me bumming cigarettes outside the stage door when I was doing.... I've never smoked in my life! What can I say? I'm a happy girl.
BWW: It's been delightful to talk with you.
JG: Thank you, you too.