BWW Interview: It's No TINY BEAUTIFUL THING for Nia Vardalos - Whether Acting Or Writing, Theatre Or Movies
Actress/writer Nia Vardalos will be bringing her latest theatrical creation TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS to The Pasadena Playhouse beginning April 10, 2019. In her stage adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's New York Times best-seller (co-conceived with Thomas Kail and Marshall Hayman), Nia reprises the lead role of Sugar, an online advice columnist by happenstance. Nia managed a few spare moments of her crazy, busy schedule to answer a few of my inquisitive inquiries on Sugar and My Big Fat Greek Wedding's Toula.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Nia!
What cosmic forces originally made you pick up Cheryl Strayed's New York Times best-seller Tiny Beautiful Things?
Years ago, Thomas Kail and I became friends when he directed me in 24 HOUR PLAYS on Broadway. He'd read my book Instant Mom, and we began to discuss adapting a piece of material for stage and what that process might be like. We agreed to keep our eyes open for something to work on together.
When Tommy was in rehearsals for HAMILTON, I went to visit him at the rehearsal space and he told me about a book his pal Marshall Heyman had given him, Tiny Beautiful Things. Tommy gave me the book. I read it, and it entirely ripped me open like that zipper on your now-too-tight, high school jeans. I had no idea I was carrying so much grief.
Were you also familiar with Cheryl's best seller Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail?
I had read it and loved Cheryl's writing and story. But this book was an entirely different approach to storytelling because Tiny Beautiful Things is an epistolary exchange. What struck me over and over is that the letters are written by real people. Their vulnerability, and Cheryl Strayed's candor, empathy and wisdom were overwhelming for me to absorb.
Have you tweaked or changed any of the script from your Public Theatre productions in 2016 and/or 2017 for this Pasadena Playhouse run?
Yes, I rewrote constantly during the first run's previews, then took notes as I got to perform eight shows a week in the run. We had an offer to publish after that run, so I began to tweak the script. Then, I was grateful to have the opportunity of the Fall 2017 run because I could try out the scripted changes again in the previews. Primarily, I added some comedy within the opening to let the audience know it was okay to laugh.
After that run, I tweaked again before Samuel French published the play in 2018.
Any Public Theatre audience reactions took you by surprise?
Every show surprises me. The laughter. The gasps of grief. The tears. All of it felt cathartic and necessary. Perhaps the audience currently feels as I do: often in a state of anxiety, weary of politics, wary of power, and in daily shock at the seeming loss of humanity in society.
There is something about Cheryl Strayed's advice that is soothing and calming because she makes sense. All our daily conundrums are put into words, and we watch a group of people communicate... and begin to heal.
How long was TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS' gestation period before being produced at The Public Theatre?
We began reaching out to Cheryl Strayed in the early Fall of 2013. I began writing by Thanksgiving and several workshops later, we were on stage at the Public in the Fall of 2016.
Did you always envision yourself playing the role of Sugar, the advice columnist?
I didn't see myself as Sugar until I sat down with Cheryl for the first time. She has a calm way of seeing you, really hearing you. As we discussed what drew me to her material, I quietly realized within myself that I was terrified to take on such a beloved book, so very outside my comfort zone, and that perhaps, this was exactly why I should do it. At that exact moment, Cheryl asked me if I would like to play Sugar, and I surprised myself when I responded, "Yes, please."
Are you the person your friends turn to for advice?
Do you think Toula Portokalos would ever contact Sugar for advice?
Yes. Sugar's advice is for everyone.
Under what circumstances do you think Toula and Sugar could interact in person? (i.e., working out on cardio machines, sharing a cafe mocha, standing in line at the DMV)
Your big hit movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding was originally a theatre piece...
The screenplay came first, the stage play came second.
I had always worked on stage. I am classically trained and made a living doing plays, Shakespeare, musicals and, of course, waitressing.
I learned how to write material while employed as an actor in the casts of The Second City in Toronto and Chicago, but when I moved to Los Angeles, could not get a job on camera. My agent told me I was "not pretty enough to be a leading lady," and "not fat enough to be a character actress." And the fact that I looked ethnic, but wasn't a visible minority (such as Hispanic or Asian) meant to her that I wasn't castable.
She said my being Greek was a problem.
In an attempt to give myself a job playing a Greek cousin, I wrote the screenplay of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but quickly realized I could not get it read by any studio because my agent had dumped me. So I jumped on stage and performed it as a solo show as a way of finding a creative outlet in Los Angeles.
So while the screenplay of My Big Fat Greek Wedding came first, and the play came second; I learned then, that the theater has always been my home and where I must go often to feel content.
Theatre's your safe place to try your ideas out.
A few years before we developed TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS, I was in COMPANY, directed by Gary Griffin. I had signed up to play Jenny to keep my voice in shape, and also to see if I could still figure my way through a Sondheim harmony.
There is something soothing I feel in a theater. I love the feeling of something fun beginning when I walk into a new backstage space.
This questions reminds me of how amazing the actors were during previews of TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS. I would make changes each day. Tommy would direct us, we'd eat dinner, and within a few hours, have a show with the new lines. Yes, mistakes happen, but a long pause or a flubbed line is a bond within a cast and laughed at later over drinks. I never get mad at anyone for going up on a line. It's happened to me, and it will happen to us all again. That's why live theater is so great. The challenge, the focus, the energy and the concentration it requires is entirely exhilarating.
In a perfect world, would you rather be writing all the time? Would you be acting? Or a combination of?
I am an actor, first and foremost. I wish I could get cast in something I didn't write so I could go back to creating a role from someone else's vision. That's my next goal.
Whatever their beautiful hearts feel is okay with me. As Cheryl Strayed says, "We are all Sugar."
Thank you again, Nia! I look forward to seeing what advice of Sugar I can put to use.