Interview with Travesties' Sara Topham

By: May. 21, 2018
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Education Dramaturge Ted Sod sits down with actress Sara Topham to discuss her role in Travesties and her return to Roundabout Theatre Company.

Interview with Travesties' Sara Topham Ted Sod: Where were you born and where did you get your training? Did you have any teachers who had a profound impact on you?

Sara Topham: I was born in Victoria, B.C., in Canada. I had serious ballet training in Victoria with a woman named Sheila MacKinnon, who was truly a great teacher. She used classical ballet to teach theatre; what she was really teaching was storytelling. She is the person who set me on the path of being interested in how to tell a story to a group of people. I also went to the University of Victoria -- it's one of the major Canadian universities - where I pursued a classical acting degree. After graduation, I put my resume together and an audition outfit in my suitcase and moved to Toronto - just like Ruby Keeler in 42ndStreet. I didn't know anyone in Toronto. I don't know what I thought I was doing, but I had an instinct that I had to go away and do something brave - and, at the time, moving to Toronto certainly felt brave. I was very fortunate in Toronto because I was taken into the Stratford Festival Company. I did the conservatory training at Stratford and remained in the company for many seasons, which is how I ended up with you wonderful people at Roundabout. At Stratford, I worked with the late, great Brian Bedford, who I miss terribly. It was he who brought me to New York in 2010 and 2011 to play Gwendolen in his production of The Importance of Being Earnest.

TS: I understand that you played Cecily in a production of Travesties at the McCarter Theatre in 2012. What are the challenges of returning to a role that you've already played?

ST: I think there are more benefits than challenges. I feel confident that I understand how the play works and I know audiences get an enormous amount of pleasure out of it. I think when you are approaching a part again and your brain and heart are attached to things you had done previously, it can be very hard to do something new. But because it's been a long time -- at least it feels like a long time -- I think I'll be able to adapt to new direction. I am sure I will benefit from my mouth remembering instinctually how those glorious words of Stoppard's go. Which also means that, hopefully, I will know the words at a deeper level than I did the first time. Laurence Olivier used to say, "It's not how well you know it, it's how long you've known it."

TS: Will you talk about how the character of Cecily is relevant to you?

ST: I think she is relevant to me because she thinks deeply about things. I'm very interested in Cecily's tenacity in exchanging ideas. I enjoy taking on that part of Cecily's intelligence. There are arguments in the play about what the place of art is in society and what responsibility artists and their work have to the political culture, to society at large, and those subjects are very relevant in our times. Cecily's wrestling with things that artists have wrestled with for decades, but I'm sure she might not be too keen on being compared to an artist because she is, as you know, pursuing other interests. I think her tenacity in getting ahold of an argument and really wanting to follow it through all the way to the end -- that's important and relevant as well. One of the things that I see happening in the world right now is that people think just listening to someone's opposing point of view is tantamount to agreeing with it. People feel obligated to shut down any point of view that doesn't reflect their own thinking. We are losing the capacity to have any kind of exchange of ideas because we're all so busy holding onto and defending our own. Something wonderful about Stoppard's play is that it is just chock-full of opposing ideas. An audience can go from agreeing with one of the characters to agreeing with another character who has an opposing view. I think that's why we go to the theatre. When theatre is at its best, it engages us with both comfortable and uncomfortable ideas.

TS: What do you personally feel the role of theatre is in today's world?

ST: I think when we grow up, we lose the opportunity to feel challenging things in a safe environment, in the way that little kids do when they hear stories read to them that give them different emotional experiences. The theatre is this amazing place where we can, for instance, see a play about a woman who has lost a child and be with that woman and hopefully experience a deep sense of empathy for her. I believe experiencing that in a theatre allows us, in our own lives, to be more compassionate when we encounter someone like that outside the theatre. I think the theatre is a place for us to be with our fellow human beings and wrestle with ideas, with feelings, with experiences. I think that's what our job is as practitioners of acting. We are storytellers.

TS: What kind of stamina does it take to perform in Travesties? It seems to me like playing this twice on one day is going to be exhausting; is that true?

ST: It is. It's not as hard as Noises Off, which I've done; Noises Off is the most exhausting play I've ever been in. Travesties requires mental stamina; it requires Olympic scale concentration. That was my experience before, and I'm sure it will be in Patrick's production as well. You cannot take your eye off the ball for a second because there is so much precision required, so much accuracy. In the case of the Cecily and Henry Carr scene - that scene has got these time slips because Carr is remembering events, and his memory is not very reliable -- he keeps repeating the scene over and over, and he is trying to get to an ending that he likes. So, what happens is, you get to a certain point in the scene, then you go back almost to the beginning and start again, but it's always slightly different. It would be very easy for us to get trapped in a loop, and the audience at Roundabout would end up watching Travesties for six hours!

Interview with Travesties' Sara Topham

TS: When I asked Stoppard what he looks for in actors, he said: "clarity of utterance."

ST: There is no room for sloppiness. The rhythm is so important. I think in all of Stoppard's plays, the words are of supreme importance. The words are God, and you have to get them right, you have to get them inside your being in such way a that they come out with the rhythm that he intended. That way, the words can sing because there is so much music in the play's text. It's almost like there is an internal music to the dialogue, and it requires figuring out what the rhythm is and then not repeating it like a robot. You cannot take anything for granted; you are remitting and rediscovering that rhythm every single day. That's the part that's exhausting mentally, I think.

TS: I'm curious if you think Roundabout's audiences should prepare before seeing Travesties?

ST: I think audiences should never underestimate themselves. I always say this to students who are coming to see Shakespeare: "If you don't understand the play, that's not your fault, that's our fault." Our job as interpretive artists, which is what we actors are, is to lift it up off the two-dimensional page and make it live; hopefully, we will breathe life into it. So, what I think is always required of an audience is that they come to the theatre with their hearts and minds open and a willingness to engage with the play and the production. I would ask audiences to make a bit of an investment in thinking and listening in order to get a huge payoff. Tom Stoppard is just a wonderful writer. He gives the audience all of the information they need to enjoy the play.

TS: What about the historical characters and references?

ST: It's not as if you need to come in knowing everything about Lenin and the Russian Revolution. Yes, there is an extra layer of meaning that you might get if you happen to know a thing or two about the Russian Revolution or you happen to know about Tristan Tzara and Dadaism. This play is really a vaudeville; what Tom Stoppard has written is a vaudeville that has some serious content in it and some ridiculous, absurd, and touching content, too. The writing in Travesties is full of love and conflict. I don't think it's exclusively an intellectual experience by any means.

TS: How does the fact that you played Gwendolen in Brian Bedford's production of The Importance of Being Earnest at Roundabout affect your understanding and work on Cecily in Travesties?

ST: Having spent almost two years of my life in The Importance of Being Earnest is an invaluable asset when working on Travesties! Of course, I was playing Gwendolen, rather than Cecily -- but just having the whole sense of Wilde's rhythms and energy internalized is a wonderful base to work from. I have said before that Stoppard's play is both a Valentine and a decapitation of Earnest The Valentine aspect results in a lot of mirrored rhythms and at times whole lines of text appearing in surprising places; the decapitation aspect comes, of course, with how Stoppard turns those words inside out and yet manages to make the plot unfold in a way we recognize! Both plays are a joy. Very difficult to do, but a joy to play once you find your way through! And I think because most audiences are familiar with Earnest - it can be a lovely roadmap to take with you in your mind as you come on this crazy journey with us.

Interview with Travesties' Sara Topham

Charlotte Parry and Sara Topham in The Importance of Being Earnest

TS: What do you look for from the director when you collaborate on a revival?

ST: Of course, you want to be able to contribute and discover things and perhaps not be told everything up front because it's always better if you get there yourself. I, of course, will have in my being some of the things that I did in the McCarter production, and some of them I will be very fond of and maybe I will have a hard time letting them go -- but with most things, I am sure I'll think, "What we've come up with this time around is better!" I always endeavor to be as open and flexible as possible. I got the sense from both Tom Hollander and Patrick Marber after meeting with them that they're not interested in imposing things on people. I think a reasonable amount of freedom is helpful, given that we are recreating something that already exists. I have no doubt about Patrick giving the cast that. He's a very open, interested, curious person insofar as I know him, and that can only be of benefit in the rehearsal room.

TS: Is there a question you wish I had asked that I didn't?

ST:Not really. You always ask such good questions. Here's something I should have said: I think Travesties is like a giant piñata; you might not get every piece of candy that falls out of it, but you'll get some that you really love and some that you're going to save to eat later.

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