BWW Interview: Michelle Pawk Discusses New Role in 17 ORCHARD POINT
Tony-Award winning actress Michelle Pawk (Hairspray, Hollywood Arms, Crazy for You) is returning to the stage this spring in the world premiere of 17 Orchard Point, an off-Broadway play co-written by Anton Dudley and Stephanie DiMaggio (DiMaggio also co-stars in the play with Pawk). Opening night is scheduled for this Sunday, May 4th, and the show is set to close on May 24th.
Pawk took the time to chat with BroadwayWorld just after her first weekend of preview performances and told us a bit more about the play, as well as her impressive performance career and her current job as a professor at Wagner College.
Tell us about your character in 17 Orchard Point.
Obviously she's a working class mother of three, from Cleveland. So, I'm from outside of Pittsburg, so I kind of understand that ethic and how hard it can be. I sort of get it a little bit. But I think this woman always fancies herself being larger than Cleveland and meant for greater thing. So when the opportunity arose, I think she got out of there. I think she got out of there for many reasons, including some bad memories she wanted to run from. But she's a blast because she's larger than life. She's obviously a big drinker.
You won a Tony award for your performance in Hollywood Arms as Louise. Did your experience playing this character, also an alcoholic, help you with this role?
In a way, there are similarities between the two women. The pain, which is why I think they drank. Life didn't turn out the way the fantasized it to. So they drank to keep numb a little bit. Both of them are sort of party girls, though from very different time periods. I think they very much saw themselves as teens in a sort of way. Whether they really are is a different question, but both of them have children. I never really thought about it, isn't that funny? I think both of them did the best they could with parenting as all parents do.
How has winning a Tony award changed your career?
Well, the main thing that comes with that is that little prefix now that is front of my name every time, which is an honor. It's a real honor to be recognized by my peers for the work that I've done. It's an honor. It's provided me with some more opportunities, I think, in the business. I've been really lucky in my career to float between doing musical theatre and plays without music. Maybe that helped with that a bit. There's sometimes a stigma with musical theatre performers; people don't think you'll be as good of an actress. But I think it's the opposite really. I think it's actually harder.
What is it like acting alongside Stephanie DiMaggio, as she is also one of the playwrights?
You know, it's funny. When we first started, I think it was harder for her to take off her writer act because she spent a few years developing this story with Antone. So it was years of collaborating and I think it was difficult for her to divorce herself from the writer's duty and analyzing something as you're in the middle of it. And once she figured that out, it didn't take her very long, she's obviously very smart and a very good actress. So she was able to kind of let go of that and be immersed in the middle of it. It's funny, you meet various people in your life in projects that you know will stay in your life, and she will be one of those for me. We have a beautiful connection, so I kind of cherish her. It's really nice. It makes it easy, and obviously there are places you go in that play that need a lot of trust. And obviously we have it. And it's been a lot of fun, too. She's a blast. She, Anton, and Stella they've done a really great job.
Is it different for you to be working with just one other person on stage as opposed to a large ensemble of other actors?
Not so much, except that neither of us ever leaves the stage. So that's intense. It's an intense hour and a half. Other than that, it's no different than doing anything else. But it's just a ride for an hour and a half.
What is it like working with director Stella Powell-Jones?
She is amazing. I actually am a little bit in love. This is going to sound terrible, but when you're the oldest person in the room, I always feel like, 'oh I hope she's going to call them as she sees them and not wait for my approval,' and, oh my god she's been an amazing collaborator. She's smart and intuitive. She's been a blessing to me.
How does creating your own character compare with reinventing a character in a revival or as a replacement?
The process for me is not any different. It's funny, I teach now, I teach at Wagner College, and I tell this to my students. Don't go watching what other people are doing because you've been influenced by their performances. When you're doing a revival (my students do a lot of revivals), you have to go back to the text. Go back and see what the writer has given you. And then you do a lot of research about the time period and what was happening in the world at that time, what was happening in the country, what was happening in that city. That helps. So, I don't find the process to be different. I think the expectations from other people are somewhat different. Sometimes they come with other things in their head but otherwise it wouldn't feel like mine if I only watched YouTube clips of someone else.
Speaking of revivals, you played Fraulein Kost in the 1997 revival of Cabaret alongside Alan Cumming. How do you feel about the current revival? It must be kind of eerie knowing how similar the production is to when you did the show.
I haven't seen it yet, but of course I will! I'm so happy they're doing it again; it was such a special production. The weird thing about it, this is going to sound crazy, but when I realized they were doing that I was like holy cow! They're reviving a revival I was in! I can't wait to see it. And of course Alan's still in it.
You're currently a professor at Wagner College. What's the most rewarding thing about teaching?
I'm in my fourth year there. I really haven't been there all that long. It's actually been amazing on many levels. I've still been able to work professionally while I've been there. I've been very lucky that that's worked out. Teaching has really helped work as an actor, which is great. It's really reinforced a lot of things I knew I did, but now I have to talk about them in a different way. It's very exciting to go back into my own process and realize, oh yeah I really do that! That's been great. But really, the best thing about the job is the kids. I love those kids. There's a special kind of student that goes to that school. They're smart, they're concerned with the world and their place in it, and they're concerned about others, and that's very inspiring to me. It's not just about acting and technique. Watching them be fearless and watching them walk with it has been as rewarding as it has been to be on stage for me. I didn't know it would be that way, but it's been great.
Is there a certain piece of advice or story about your experiences in the theatre business that you tell your students?
This is advice that my dad gave me when I was a sophomore in college. I went to a small liberal arts school first and then I ended up transferring. But at the end of your sophomore year, you had to declare a major, and my dad gave me the best piece of advice ever. He said, "What do you love to do more than anything in the world?" And at that time I said, "Well, I like to be on stage more than anything in the world. And he said, "Then that's what you should do as your career." We should do the thing that we love. We should spend the most time in our day on our passions, whether it be a painting or even house painting, working...it should be something you love to do. We spend too much of our lives doing things we don't love to do. Life is short. Don't waste it. We all have to remember it from time to time. We have to keep it in check, and remember what's really important.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
I have a couple little directing projects that might happen but nothing's really definite. I'm directing something at Wagner next year, that I'm very excited about doing. With theatre, there's always lots of little things going on and then suddenly there's a big thing.
What do you want prospective audiences to know about 17 Orchard Point?
The play is really good. I've been very inspired by the writing. It's been magical because this developmental process of a new piece and the preview period is often when a project goes awry. It's often when a project has taken a bad turn. But I think the changes that we've made are spot on, and it's been a really great collaboration. The play is one of those odd, fantastic mixes of being really funny and then really dark very quickly. I think there's a story in there with a universal quality everyone can relate to. Everyone's got parents somewhere, and everyone's got a secret. I tell you what's been fun about this play: we've only been in previews for a few days and you'd be surprised at the people at stage doors who can't wait to tell us about their secrets. I found out things about my family that were like, what? What? Everyone's got them.
Lydia (Michele Pawk) lives by her motto, "leave your baggage at the door, or it will end up on your face." A decade after fleeing Cleveland for one long night out in Vegas, leaving the family's apartment building under the management of her daughter Vera (Stephanie DiMaggio), Lydia returns to find a lifetime of "baggage" waiting for her inside. With a daughter fueled by faith, a mother driven by delusion, and a family secret that sounds the bell between them, 17 Orchard Point is a firecracker of a dark comedy about two generations of women battling to claim their home and history.
The world premiere of 17 Orchard Point began performances on Friday, April 25 for a limited four-week Off-Broadway run at The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues) through May 24. Written by Anton Dudley (Substitution, Getting Home) & Stephanie DiMaggio, and directed by Stella Powell-Jones, 17 Orchard Point will have its official opening night on Sunday, May 4 at 7pm. Tickets for 17 Orchard Point are $45 and can be arranged online at www.telecharge.com or 212.239.6200 or at the Theatre Row Box Office located at 410 West 42nd Street. For more information, please visit www.17OrchardPoint.com.