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Interview: Stockard Channing on Life in IT'S ONLY A PLAY- 'It Has Been Fortuitous'

Screen Actors Guild Foundation and Broadway World have partnered for filmed Conversations Q&A series to recognize and celebrate the vibrant theatre community in New York City and the union actors who aspire to have a career on the stage and screen. The most recent conversation featured Broadway legend Stockard Channing, moderated by BroadwayWorld's Richard Ridge.

Below, check out what she had to say about her journey with IT'S ONLY A PLAY, which is currently playing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.

How did the play originally come about for you?

Well, actually, last March I got a call from Jack O'Brien and Terrence [McNally]. This play has been in existence for a number of years and re-written over the years. It happened that Matthew [Broderick] and Nathan [Lane] were to be in town on the same day. Saying, 'Can you get here tomorrow? Can we all read through this thing?' I went down to Terrence and Tom's house and we all sat around in the living room and read it. It was hilarious, it was funny. In about a month or two later, they said, 'Do you really think we can pull this together?' and it did, it came together. We went into rehearsal on July 28th. It was just all fortuitous; it has been fortuitous ever since. It's amazing how things sometimes go very well and sometimes great things don't go very well, that's life.

You are flawless in the show. You are hilarious as Virginia, the washed-up substance abusing Hollywood star. What do you love the most about her and playing her?

Well, it has changed a bit over the months we have been doing it. It has evolved, she's still crazy and now I realize why she's crazy, because the ark of it has shifted a little bit. I realize how strong she is to survive the ups and downs of what she has been through. The other day I said to somebody she's a 'shmu' because you knock them down and they bounce right back, at a cost though. I realize that over the time I play her that she's is even crazier than I thought she was, because she was in a terrible situation. She smells it coming by that first bad review and she knows how bad it's going to be. It's this huge opportunity in her life, she's not a kid and she knows how bad the business will be. She knows all of it and she smells this meteorite coming into her life and that is where the comedy is. It's like the more terrified and screwed up she is, the funnier she is.

Working again with director Jack O'Brien... what makes him such a great director? Everybody who I have spoken to adores Jack.

First of all he is a wonderful human being. He is not a bitch, and there are a lot in the business. I remember when I was starting out, I always got turned off by people that I knew were working off a negative vibes. The other thing about Jack is he has this incredible combination of really down to earth mid-western... that's how I am, incredible range of knowledge. Of Oprah, of Shakespeare, this odd mixture of stuff. He's not a snob, he would be entitled to be one because he is so well educated and he is not some sort of goof ball. He'd be entitled to be a goof ball too because he's really funny, he understands humour, he loves to play. So, this combination I have never met anyone who has that to that degree. He's an incredibly hard worker.

He's the smartest man in the room.

He's the smartest man in the room but never plays it, never abuses that.

You are working with one of the finest casts. You opened the show with Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Megan Mullally, F. Murray Abraham, Rupert Grint, Micah Stock and now you are doing it with Martin Short and Katie Finneran. What's like working with all those people on stage?

We all just adjusted to each other. It's like a basketball team, you add a new player where some of them are star players and some of them are great players, but you have to play the game and you have to play it with each other. That's what we have been doing. Nathan's coming back in two weeks, I can't imagine anyone else playing this part because it requirse huge energy and this huge understanding of comedy of that kind of energy to drive a play. Marty's way of doing it, is a completely different way than Nathan's and it still works. It really is team work. It's a true ensemble; it's not a farce completely because it does become a real play at times.

What was it like in the rehearsal room? You don't really have an audience and you really need that audience added into the mix to make it complete...

Absolutely, I have a very close friend and she said to me that she doesn't know anything in the rehearsal room. You just try to learn the moves and the lines for comedy. For drama you can create relationships. You're not open to an audience lying on your back like a puppy with your legs in the air hoping they don't kill you. You know the way you are in comedy. You don't know what the other people are going to laugh at. You try to create a reality, but let's face it; you also in terms of the timing of the thing have to know what they are thinking. We were so stunned by the audiences' sympathy with our plight, because when we realized they've never had to have horrible reviews. They've heard gossip not people writing it in ink, saying you are a piece of dreck. I mean the whole world will read it and they are like stunned and amazed and over your work with them but you really don't know until you get in front of an audience what you've got in the comedy.

What do you remember about the first night you went on stage with an audience?

We all remember it unbelievably clearly. Rehearsing in a comedy like this is not like seven people on a stage rehearsing Shakespeare. You have to get all the pieces to follow into each other. So, you rehearse a little bit of chunk and you go off and run your lines with somebody. And everyone will be rehearsing, but when you put it all together it's like a spinning top. You've got to get it up to speed. When you get it up to speed you don't know if you've got it up to the right speed. There's not a lot of time for a director to deal with individual performances.

Everybody's process is different. Nathan Lane comes in the first day of the rehearsal and is off-book, right?

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Yes, he does.

I think I got my answer.

We all have our different pieces. It's absolutely true. I'm sure he was like tapping his foot and we're all feeling like 'dumb us', but eventually we get on the same page. We were stunned when the audience laughed the way they did. We were stunned, I mean stunned, we were completely amazed as were the producers. This was Terrence, this was Jack and that's when we realized that we probably had a little nugget there.

Channing was recently seen on Broadway in Other Desert Cities directed by Joe Mantello, for which she garnered Tony and Drama Desk nominations. Receiving the Tony Award for A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, she is also Tony-nominated for her roles in Pal Joey, The Lion in Winter, and John Guare's Four Baboons Adoring the Sun, The House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of Separation, for which she also received an Drama League Award, Obie Award and an Olivier nomination for the London Production, and was subsequently nominated for an Academy Award and Golden Globe reprising her role for the 1993 film version.

Other stage credits include the musical version of Two Gentleman of Verona, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Little Foxes, Hapgood (Drama Desk Nomination), Woman in Mind for which she won a Drama Desk Award, The Rink, The Golden Age, They're Playing Our Song and Love Letters which she premiered off-Broadway. Channing's first major television role was in Joan River's The Girl Most Likely To. Since that breakout she has accumulated a total of 13 Emmy nominations and three Emmy Awards, including those for her television roles in "Jack", "The Matthew Shepard Story" and "The West Wing", the latter two also garnered her two SAG Awards. She can currently be seen in a recurring role on "The Good Wife."

Her first leading role on the big screen was in Mike Nichols' The Fortune opposite Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson for which was was nominated for a Golden Globe. Among her other films include Sweet Revenge, The Big Bus, Practical Magic, The First Wives Club, Moll Flanders, Le divorce, Up Close & Personal, Heartburn, Where the Heart Is, Smoke (SAG nomination) and Grease, earning a People's Choice Award for her performance as bad girl Rizzo. Channing received a London Film Critics Circle Award and an AFI Best Actress nomination for The Business of Strangers. Currently Stockard Channing is on Broadway in Terrence McNally's It's Only a Play.

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