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BWW Interviews: Stage & Screen Star Judith Ivey

For Women’s History Month this year, BroadwayWorld presents conversations with renowned female performers who have also made their mark in another field. The opener of this three-part series features Judith Ivey, who, two decades into a distinguished acting career, began directing plays.

Having it all is the holy grail for working women, and one woman working in the theater who could claim to have it all is Judith Ivey. Not only because she’s had a successful career and raised a family, but also because of the all-encompassing nature of her career: She’s costarred in movies (The Devil’s Advocate, Compromising Positions), been on hit TV shows (Designing Women, Will & Grace) and earned Tonys, Drama Desk Awards and an Obie, among many other accolades, as a stage actress. Ivey’s professional “all” extends to directing. She directed her first play in 1993, and has now become an accomplished and in-demand stage director. In the past 3½ years alone, she’s directed five shows in New York, including last summer’s Vanities, A New Musical at Second Stage.

Currently, Ivey’s back as an actress. She stars as Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, which opens Wednesday at Roundabout’s off-Broadway Laura Pels Theatre. The production of the Tennessee Williams classic, directed by Gordon Edelstein, first ran at Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theatre last spring, and will move on to the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in September.

Earlier this season Ivey appeared at the Cherry Lane Theatre in The Lady With All the Answers, a solo show that came to New York after a 2008 production at Chicago’s Northlight Theatre, for which Ivey was nominated for a Jeff Award. Over the years she’s been recognized by nearly all awards organizations, garnering Drama League and Lucille Lortel Award nominations for her solo performance in Cherry Lane’s Women on Fire, a 1998 Emmy nomination for the TV movie What the Deaf Man Heard, an Outer Critics Circle nom for Lincoln Center Theater’s A Fair Country and multiple nominations for Tonys, Drama Desk Awards and Drama-Logue Awards. She received the Tony in 1983 for her breakout role in Steaming and in ’85 for Hurlyburly, and won Drama Desk Awards for both performances as well.

The El Paso native, 58, has also been inducted into the Texas Film Hall of Fame and received the Texas Medal of Arts Award. At her home state’s Alley Theatre, Ivey has played Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and directed Steel Magnolias. Her off-Broadway directing credits include Fugue, The Butcher of Baraboo, Southern Comforts and Yeardley Smith’s More.

In her dressing room last Tuesday, Ivey—who has a 20-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son with her husband, TV producer Tim Braine—spoke with BWW about playing one of the stage’s most famous mothers. She also discussed some of her other roles and her directorial work in our interview, which took place as Ivey got ready (curled her hair) for a preview performance of The Glass Menagerie.

How did this Glass Menagerie come about? Did you initiate it, or somebody else?
Gordon Edelstein, who is the artistic director of Long Wharf, asked me to do it a year ago. I’ve always wanted to play this part, so it was...yes! I had never worked with him; I knew him socially because our daughters were in the same school.

What have you discovered about Amanda while playing her?
I always believed that she was a survivor and not a victim. But I think what I added to the equation that became very clear to me, that made her more of a survivor rather than a victim, is the love for her kids. She’s always played as if the narcissism runs the show, that the narcissism takes focus, and that’s why you can either be a victim—that you’ve lost everything—or you’re a monster—that you’re demanding everything. There really was no focus on the kids except for self-congratulations or self-pity: “You’re never doing what I what you to do.”

You said that Amanda is a survivor. After 30-plus years in this business, do you feel like a survivor?
Absolutely. Because I have a lot of friends my age, if not a little older, and the work has not continued to come. Just when I think, “Wow, guess I’m never going to make another movie,” then I get a movie. I purposely am staying away from any television that shoots in L.A. because my son is in high school here and I don’t want to miss him—I don’t want to live out there and visit him—so I don’t even consider those projects, I don’t go up for them. But the theater work is always there.

Do you serve as a mentor to young actresses, like Keira Keeley (who plays Laura in Menagerie)?
Yeah. I’ve got it in ink [reaches for a paper towel on which someone wrote her a note and reads it aloud]: “You are the coolest. Thank you for sharing that story with me.” Sunday, we were back here talking about being an understudy, and the young woman who’s Keira’s understudy was feeling like, [dejected] “I’m just an understudy.” So I started telling her my understudy story. The first big understudy job I had took me to my first Broadway show, Bedroom Farce. [Producer] Robert Whitehead—he’s just my favorite, ever, and had it not been for him, it probably wouldn’t have happened—he made [director] Sir Peter Hall come see my understudy rehearsal. It was to replace an English actress. In Great Britain [where the production originated], understudies are just not thought of as a potential star waiting in the wings, the way it is here. So Sir Peter Hall thought he was nuts for saying it, but Robert Whitehead had seen me in rehearsal and liked me. And I got the job when the British actress left. It couldn’t be more magical.

What other advice would you offer young actors?
Lots of times I speak to students while they’re still in school—they haven’t launched into the big, bad world of show business yet. I always say that unwittingly, the smartest thing I ever did was, I was afraid of New York, so I started in Chicago. I went to college with a lot of the core group of Steppenwolf, and that’s what they did. They didn’t run off to L.A. or New York, so the odds are with you. There’s more parts and less competition. There’s more opportunity. And I worked with many actors from New York who were brought in that I probably wouldn’t have gotten to work with if I’d come to New York, ’cause I wouldn’t have ever been in a production. And I got all my union cards, and I made money and had a great life. So I always suggest to them that when you’re just beginning, you don’t need to be in New York or L.A. You can start somewhere else and work your way there.

How does the New York theater scene feel different to you from when you were starting out?
Well, of course, you have the whole excitement of being young. I was about 27 when I came here, so you have a different perspective than when you’re an old broad like I am now! The unfortunate thing [for today’s actors] was I could come and be discovered on Broadway; it’s really hard to do that now. ’Cause they just put movie stars and TV stars in [plays]. Someone the age of Scarlet Johansson—can she be discovered anymore? I don’t know if that would happen, ’cause it’s shifted so that the focus is on money. The focus has always been there, but it wasn’t so expensive to produce a show that you couldn’t give opportunities to the next generation. Do you have to have an Oscar nomination to work on stage? The irony being it requires some very different skills, as many people have proven.

When did you first get the itch to direct?
A friend asked me to direct him, so in a way I never had “the itch.” It started when they told me I could do anything I want at the Westport Playhouse during the winter. This was long before Paul and Joanne took it over. Stephen Stout, he said, “I want you to direct me. What would you like to direct?” “Well, what would you like to act?” And we did Two for the Seesaw.
Several years later—at that point I was living in L.A.—another guy friend [Kevin Flynn], a stand-up comedian who had written a one-person show about his family called The Kitchen Table, asked me if I would direct his piece. It went to the Aspen Comedy Festival, [where] he was a big hit.
The third [opportunity to direct] was, a friend of mine had written a play and I’d done readings of it as an actress, and I felt I was a little too old for it. Then yet another friend ran a theater up in New Rochelle [Fleetwood Stage]—I did Love Letters there—and he said, “Anytime you want to work here...” So I said, “Would you let me direct?” And he said yeah, sure. So I went to my friend who wrote the play that I loved... That was Soccer Moms, which we eventually revived and did here in the city at the Snapple Theater [as Secrets of a Soccer Mom].
So, it was really friends soliciting me and encouraging me. After Soccer Moms, I think, was where I finally felt, Why don’t you try and pursue this? And work started to begat work. This year, I started soliciting theaters, saying if ever you’re looking for a director... I now have another job lined up, and had to turn down another one because it was the same slot in the season.

What’s the next show you’re going to direct?
A beautiful play called Carapace, which is going to be done at the ALLIANCE THEATRE in Atlanta in January and February of next year. A young man who’s finishing his MFA in playwriting at Ohio won the Kendeda prize at the Alliance—if you win, you get a production, and you get a reading here in New York and a workshop if need be—and it just so happens that’s when they got my email. Carapace is about a recovering alcoholic who’s trying to make right with his 23-year-old daughter and just gets it wrong again and again. It’s funny in a lot of places, but in the end it’s terribly tragic.

What was the directing project you had to turn down?
It’s one I’ve been carrying around, called Becky’s New Car, by Steven Dietz. I just love it! But they’re not going to do it, so maybe in another year... It’s a comedy about a woman who starts having an affair that just kind of comes out of nowhere. Her marriage is sort of good, her grown son has moved back home, and it ends up they’re all connected—the son is dating the daughter of the man she took on [as a lover]. She just let it get, like, out of control, and finally she goes: Why am I doing this? It’s a little serious in that sense, but for the most part it’s a comedy.
I have [directing] interests in other places. A friend of mine wrote a novel that was chosen one of the top 10 novels by the New York Times last year. It’s called A Short History of Women, and after I read it—I’d met her doing a reading of one of her plays, when she was trying to be a playwright—I called her up and said, “This is a play. Why don’t you adapt it?” And she’s started. So I’m working on that with her, and we’re trying to get that up on its feet. We’ve had meetings with several people.

Has being a director affected you as an actor?
Definitely. I think I’ve always been a cooperative actress—to my knowledge, I’ve never been difficult to work with—but now I’ve changed certain habits that I became aware of by working with people [as a director] and [seeing] the way actors would respond. And I’d think: I’m never going to do that again. The actor you love to work with is the one who says “Okay!” There’s not a big, long diatribe of why they can’t do it when they’ve never even tried it. A lot of the times, actors can be defensive that way. At the suggestion of something that seems radical to them, they can rear up, and there’ll be a conversation about why that’s impossible to do. And then finally they’ll come around, and talk themselves into it, and try it and love it. I realized I have done that on occasion. So that was a huge difference, that that was no longer going to happen when I’m acting. I was going to try it, and if it doesn’t work, then we can talk about it—or just say it didn’t work, let’s move on to the next thing. I think I’ve always been a pretty adventurous actress. Those are the actors you most love to work with as a director: where they will take it on, go with it, see what happens—and after, analyze it and figure out whether to keep it or not.
I probably have a clearer path as an actor now, because when you walk onto the other side [to directing], where your job is to guide everybody, then What is the best path? is my job. That, and hiring really smart people. If you’ve got all the smart people there, all I need to do is help you find our path. So, I think I have a clearer way of doing that when I’m acting because of putting on the director’s hat.
The challenge of directing is a lot more interesting to me, because there’s more mystery. I have less experience, so there’s the intrigue of Can I do that? I never would have thought I could direct a musical, and directing Vanities, I got that to a place no one imagined it could be. That kind of surprised me. I guess I just lived in fear of failing, just ’cause I’m not of the musical world really.

More and more women directors, including yourself, have been helming high-profile productions, though their numbers still lag far behind men. How do you view the situation?
I’m sort of of the mind of Maria Aitken, when the New York Times did a piece on female directors. She said, “I just want to quit talking about this!” That was my sentiment: If we’re really going to progress, then it should reach a point where we don’t need to genderize it, period.

Are we at that point?
I don’t really know. Now we have the first female Academy Award-winning director. That’s a big deal, for a woman to be given the Academy Award as a director. There’s just a handful of women who even get to direct a movie, so that could really revolutionize things. That [The Hurt Locker] was an incredible movie, and the fact that it was subject matter that we never would associate with the feminine side and she told the story so brilliantly, that’s a huge [mimes getting over a hill]. Now we can move on, one would hope.

Have you noticed an increase in plays by women?
The majority of my work is with female playwrights. A lot of it is, we need to support each other…whenever there’s a possibility of just cheering each other on. I guess that’s why I embrace so many plays written by women: I like telling those stories. I feel like that’s what I can tell best at this point. I couldn’t make a movie about the Iraq war; that would not interest me in the least, nor would I do it well. The thing I’ve learned with directing is you generate your own work. Actors can go to auditions and show how they would do it; it’s very hard for a director to show how you would do it. You really just build up a body of work and people start to trust it. And then you’re the one who reaches out and solicits and suggests: Here’s a piece I’d like to do, and so on. So that’s certainly a way to open the doors for young female writers. Then again, I’m gonna contradict myself: If you want to take the genderizing away, it [the sex of the playwright] shouldn’t matter. You just pick what you want to tell, what story you’re interested in.
The theater’s always been, certainly in my lifetime, far less sexist than movies and television. I always had to deal with whether or not I was pretty enough when I was young. I never had to deal with that in the theater; I was thought of as attractive. TV, of course you’re that much closer, and I think there’s more of a stereotype of what you’re supposed to look like.

What do you prefer about doing movies and TV rather than theater...other than the money?
Other than? Oh, nothing! I’m a theater snob—I love that first. But I feel really fortunate, because not too many people get to [move between stage and screen] like that.
If I’m really honest with myself, they’ve all taught me and built up what I do now as an actress. Had I never done any film or half-hour sitcoms, I would be a different stage actress than I am now. If I hadn’t gone back to the stage constantly even though I could be hired in film and television for the period of time where I really thrived in it, I don’t think I would have been as good at that, because they all feed and build. The subtlety one can have in film is really valuable to learn if you’re from the stage first. That’s a helpful tool, and I’m not sure I would have ever understood it if I hadn’t been given the opportunity to go make a movie, go look at yourself, go [at the thought of seeing her face large and close-up on screen] “Oh, my God!” and then start correcting and teaching yourself. I think I always intellectually understood it, so I translated rather quickly, which is why I got to do [many] films in a short span of time.
You definitely make more money doing television and film, but the actual experience of doing it, I prefer being on the stage. Because I love the audience, and I miss them [when shooting a movie]. Part of the reason I enjoyed half-hour sitcoms so much was there was an audience, and you could get that immediate laughter, even if you had to play to a camera. At least that was there. I’ve done a lot of comedy in film, and it’s so frustrating when everyone has to [covers her mouth as if to suppress a laugh]—you know there’s a laugh there, and nobody laughs.

You’ve performed two solo biographical plays: The Lady With All the Answers, about Ann Landers, and Dirty Tricks, about Martha Mitchell. Did they feel like similar experiences?
They were very different because in Dirty Tricks, I never engaged the audience—unless they could be a specific person at that moment. For instance, she spoke to the press often, so I might address the audience as if they were part of the press corps. But there was, in essence, always a fourth wall. Ann Landers was completely interactive. Which was fun and scary, and a completely different animal. And, of course, two very different women. Ann Landers—or Eppie Lederer [Landers’ real name]—was really just tortured over something that everybody goes through, where Martha Mitchell was in a very specific torturous place. Not too many people become political hostages of the U.S. government.

What did Ann Landers and Martha Mitchell have in common?
Oh, I think they were both very strong women. Ann Landers was really liked and revered. Martha Mitchell, they totally slammed her and poisoned the public against her. We didn’t know until James McCord [admitted] yes, we did do that to her, she was telling the truth. And that was why it was so heinous, especially since it was her own husband [who did it].

Do you plan to do more one-woman shows about real people?
Well, if the script’s good enough... I’ve had other scripts sent to me about real-life women and they weren’t playable, they weren’t actable. They were travelogues, I call ’em. They just went through this journey of somebody’s life, and there’s no real theatricality, so the onus would be on me to breathe some life into it. I just look for a good story, it doesn’t matter what the format is. The Glass Menagerie is a great story. Everybody relates to it, everybody can identify with probably every character.

Photos, from top: Ivey in the role of Amanda Wingfield; Keira Keeley and Judith Ivey as daughter and mother in The Glass Menagerie; (from left) Deborah Sonnenberg, Caralyn Kozlowski and Nancy Ringham in Secrets of a Soccer Mom, directed by Ivey in 2008; Lauren Kennedy, Sarah Stiles and Anneliese van Der Pol, as directed by Ivey in Vanities, A New Musical; director Ivey with cast members Penny Fuller and Larry Keith on opening night of Southern Comforts in 2006; right, as a series regular during the 1992-93 season of Designing Women, with (from left) Jan Hooks, Annie Potts, Alice Ghostley, Dixie Carter and Meshach Taylor; Ivey portraying advice columnist Ann Landers in The Lady With All the Answers. [Glass Menagerie photos by Joan Marcus; Soccer Mom and Ann Landers photos by Carol Rosegg; Southern Comforts photo by Ben Strothmann]

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