BWW Interview: Deborah Hazlett on Channeling Compassion in SWEAT at Everyman Theatre
The Baltimore debut of Lynn Nottage's gripping play, Sweat, is currently playing at the Everyman Theatre through November 25th. To get an inside look at this production, BroadwayWorld sat down with Resident Company Member Deborah Hazlett to talk about her role as Tracey in this revelatory and emotionally gripping show.
BWW: How did you prepare for this role?
Well, I went to Reading. I did some research online before that--just looking up what Lynn Nottage, the brilliant playwright did--what her experience had been and why she went to Reading. A few articles mentioned that she had spent time at Mike's Tavern in Reading, so my husband and I went up there on a Saturday after rehearsal. It was really, really fascinating. The bartender there, his name is Eric, and of course, he has met Lynn.
It's very rare that, especially with a contemporary play, that it's got an actual place in mind. I don't want to speak for Lynn that she completely wrote this play about this bar, but the feel of Reading and this bar where she had spent time...it was very interesting because he (the bartender) talked very personally about his life. The funniest thing for me was within about three minutes of my sitting down at the bar he asked me if I was doing the play Sweat and I intentionally didn't...I was not planning to say anything. He said, "What brings you to Reading if you're not around here?' and I said, "My family is from Pennsylvania...well, western Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh. I'm just trying to get a feel for this area, see what's here." and he said, "Well it's really different since Dana's not here anymore." And I said, "Oh what's Dana?" And he looked at me, and he said, "Are you doing the play Sweat?" and I looked at my husband and said, "Um, yeah?" And he said, "Well anybody that doesn't know what Dana is, isn't from around here." It's one of the big factories that went down. It was very interesting.
Eric was very kind and talked a lot about what Lynn's writing about, how you can't get a good-paying job in Reading. I went downtown to Penn, my character talks it about in her monologue about what downtown used to be, and it's all shut down. And then you can drive through the neighborhoods, and you can see where the big steel executives would have lived--these beautiful sorts of mansions on the hill. Some of them are bed and breakfasts now, and the poverty in the neighborhoods is pretty remarkable. And then just across the bridge in West Reading, there's a boom going on: farmer's market, places to have brunch. Two blocks up the street from Mike's Tavern is the plant that shut down and Eric said, "Yeah they used to walk down here after their shifts." So that part of that research was pretty wonderful.
I also have my eyes open to what's going on in the country, and I think that Lynn was very prescient about the struggles that we (even then) were facing and are continuing to face. So that's some of what I did. I think it's a fine play, and I think the research mostly helps me have access to what that experience might be like when I haven't had it. In that particular way--it's not that I haven't struggled financially, or struggled in my life, but in that particular way if that makes sense.
BWW: After you had that immersive experience in Reading, how did you infuse that into Tracey's character?
What I wanted to find for Tracey was my compassion for her. Vinny (the director) always teases me in a loving way; he says, "You always advocate for your characters." And I do!
Even on opening night people had some pretty harsh things to say to me. Lovely things to say about the work, that's not it, but about Tracey. And I say, "Yeah, but I can't think that, because Tracey doesn't think that!" I actually think that Lynn has written a fairly balanced play about what is revealed when the cracks in the surface begin to open up. I actually don't feel there are any horrible villains or heroes. I think there are people who are really struggling, and the violence is tricky for me because I sure can get angry and jump up and down and get red in the face, but violence is not one of my experiences in that way. But I did look at some of those videos from Charlottesville's race riots and the faces on those people--they were just so angry. And I do know that it's my responsibility to play that role. I can't soften her. I have to honor the journey that Lynn has written for this character. Even if it can be uncomfortable.
I think what Reading helped bring to me was a sense of compassion for people who are truly struggling, rather than a judgment about how they behave. It's tricky. I always play tough characters. I play these characters where people say, "Oh my god I hated your character." But there are things I can bring to each role, even for Tracey, like times when I've been really afraid that I can't pay my bills. Or if I've been really anxious that the system that I've relied on is being disrupted. We've all been through that--whether it's in your family or your work. The feelings that go with that, the experience that goes with it, I think can be shared in a pretty profound way, person-to-person. Fear of loss, fear of friendship ending, losing all your security. So, there are things that you know in your own life that you can bring, I believe, to the heart of a character without having to have the same reaction or specific life experience that your character has had. I mean, I know about heartbreak. I know about the loss of loved ones. So those things are accessible.
BWW: How is the character you play, Tracey, similar/different than who you are in real life?
I think she loves hard. I think she plays hard. I don't play as hard as Tracy! But I believe she loves with great intensity, and I believe she has a strong sense of loyalty. I do too. Where we differ is that I hope when systems are disrupted, I continue to come from compassion. But I think she loves hard, she plays hard, she fights hard. She's funny. She loves to laugh. She loves to be irreverent; doesn't much care what people think about her. And those are fun qualities; they're fun to play. She's a lot more free-spirited in that way. But I like her gumption and I like her sense of fun--though you only see it very briefly in this show.
BWW: How did you manage the intensity of this role?
Everyone has their own way managing what they're dealing with. And some people like to do it privately. Some people do it more collectively. I've got 25 years into this work at this point and people ask me a lot, "Do you take your work home with you?" And I've said this before, but this is the thing that makes the most sense to me. Your body takes a physiological journey in these plays. You feel the anger. You feel the fear. You feel the grief, and you come offstage and you say to your body, "Well we were just acting," and your body says, "Well I didn't know that." There's a lot of really important technical things to do. Like when you're moving into fight work; when you're moving into the scene. Unlike in real life where your breath will quicken, you intentionally slow your breath. The fight choreography is very specific and the person getting hit does all the work of getting hit; the person hitting doesn't really do the hitting. So, it's a real skill. You slow it down in your body, not in your actions, which is kind of hard to explain.
I like fight choreography. I think it's good fun. This fight choreography in Sweat, however, is not good fun. I'd like to fight with a broadsword. Or do a pretend hunt, you know, something like that. But this one is tough. Megan (fellow Everyman Resident Company actor in Sweat) and I talk about feeling quite sick to our stomachs when we come into the dressing room. There's not a lot to do, except breathe, and love the people you love and stay kind and remember that it's important to tell the story because this is happening in our country. And so, I remember that it's valuable and it's important. And if people can suffer it, then I can bear witness to it.
I'm really not the one suffering by the way. I'm on a stage with actors that I love, getting a paycheck. So, it just takes some breath and some real knowing about the value of the work and I think that's probably the best way that I manage it.
BWW: There is a scene in Sweat where you have a conversation with Oscar (Alejandro Ruiz) that is particularly difficult to watch. What was the process like working on that scene, and others that could make audiences uncomfortable?
Yeah, that's a tough scene. Vinny and I worked really hard on that scene because all of a sudden Tracey goes kind of lyrical, right, I'm like whoa. And taking a trip down memory lane does not serve that moment of the play. So how do you activate that? What is it that I want from Oscar? Why am I saying this now?
Vinny and I worked really hard, first of all, not to soften it. Nobody wants to see Tracey feel sorry for herself. We don't want to watch people feel sorry for themselves onstage; it's up to the audience to feel sorry for us, not for us to feel sorry for ourselves. And Tracey's a fighter. I think that sense of loss in her comes through as righteous indignation--rather than a soft memory of her grandfather. And with Oscar, if racism is not ingrained in someone, racism that they're not even aware of. She even says, "I'm not racist," several times in the scene. The beauty of that writing is Tracey believes that. But we can see her as a racist. And that is, if I get it right, that's the scary part. It's uncomfortable to play it, but that's the scary part. That people will truly say, "I'm not a bigot. I just don't see why they're coming over here and taking our jobs." And actually believe it. So that was the balance: trying to figure out how to activate that scene and get Oscar to understand why he's so wrong and why I'm so right.
It's okay if people don't like Tracey. My goal is for them to have some understanding of where she's coming from, and I think that's the most that I can hope for. The racism is very difficult, very uncomfortable. But people who don't think they're racist who are? That's a pretty powerful thing to witness. Lynn spent a lot of time in Reading, trying to understand what was happening there. She looked for the poorest city of its size in the country, picked it out, and went there. Spent some time with the director, who ended up directing it there. And I think she's written a balanced play. I just don't think it's easy.
BWW: What do you hope audiences get out of seeing Sweat?
I hope that they are bearing witness to how his piece of theater can help them understand the weight and depth of the problems that we're facing. That it's not simple, and there aren't simple answers. People are suffering. People in the Rust Belt are suffering, and it doesn't help to label them as one thing or another. It's important to try to understand the root of the suffering. To come from compassion and love and to extend a hand. And I think you'll see in this play when you're not able to do that...what can happen, but also at the very end of the play there's a tiny moment of possibility.
Even when we can't control the chaos around us, we do have a choice about how we behave. And right now, there is a lot of chaos in my opinion. So, I can either become like the people I take issue with--full of rage and hate--or I can stay in my compassion. And I hope something about this play can help people not only find compassion for people they don't always feel it for but also understand the depth of the injury, the depth of the fear, the depth of the loss.
I hope...I hope.
Sweat, by Lynn Nottage, directed by Vincent M. Lancisi, is playing through November 25 at Everyman Theatre, 315 West Fayette Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. Tickets $10-$65 at http://everymantheatre.org/sweat or 410-752-2208. Adult language, smoking, drinking, graphic violence.