Interview: Sharon Lawrence Always Zealously Involved In Taking Her SHOT

Skylight Theatre Company begins its 2021 season April 24, 2021; with Robin Gerber’s THE SHOT starring the incomparable Sharon Lawrence.

By: Apr. 20, 2021

Interview: Sharon Lawrence Always Zealously Involved In Taking Her SHOT

Skylight Theatre Company begins its 2021 season of Skylight LIVE April 24, 2021; with Robin Gerber's THE SHOT starring the incomparable Sharon Lawrence. This behind-the-scenes story of The Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham is directed by Michelle Joyner and produced by SPARKS Theatricals.

Sharon managed to squeeze some time for my queries between filming Rebel and her many social justice commitments.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Sharon!

Were you aware of Katharine Graham before reading the script of THE SHOT?

Yes. I did not know about the domestic abuse, but my degree is in journalism and my father was a journalist. I knew that she was an important figure in that world, because the history around The Washington Post was so storied and regarded. I think my image of her was that she was part of a society or social fabric that was real rarified air, which is true, but she also had a journalist's heart and mind. That was something I became more aware of as I explored her.

What books in your research of her do you recommend?

Her autobiography Personal History is certainly one of the best. It's an inside look at how she thought about things but, she chose not to include some of those more difficult aspects of her marriage. This play is based on the playwright Robin Gerber's very well-researched book called Katharine Graham, The Leadership Journey of an American Icon. Robin has always had a real focus on female leadership and the qualities that are inherent and emerge through adversity. That's why she was so interested in Katharine, and how she became such an unexpected but effective leader.

Would you list the qualities of Ms. Graham that you would include in a Facebook profile?

Resilient, honest, analytical. She emerged from a family and an era full of contradictions, giving her energy to explore and reveal the truth about power and people.

Interview: Sharon Lawrence Always Zealously Involved In Taking Her SHOT How would you describe THE SHOT in a three-line pitch?

In the midst of the most traumatic moments, a woman of privilege has the courage to face the truth about her life, and to claim the power her honesty provides.

Would you take us through the process of shooting THE SHOT? Did you rehearse first on Zoom?

This is Robin's first play, and it was a true endorsement that its incubation was at the Ojai Playwrights Conference in 2017. We were a great trio as we went through the week-long development there and it was well received which was encouraging to us, but next steps which include managing schedules and life is always part of the process. Because Robin is a doer and a former Union lobbyist who is driven by justice and equity; director/dramaturge Michelle Joyner is a renaissance woman as an artist and teacher; and I have been working for women's advocate for over 20 years in "Women In Film" and "WeForShe" - we felt compelled to continue. I am a member of Wilshire Ebell for the oldest women's club west of the Mississippi, and we offered it as a reading for their Women's History Month programming. Our first public performance should have been on March 15, 2020, but that was the weekend when the pandemic shut down our world.

Although the team had no idea when live theatre would come back, we knew that Katharine Graham's domestic abuse story was more relevant now than ever, according to statistics from DV groups. It seemed we had to do this. Additionally, the executive directors at Center Stage Theater in Santa Barbara offered to record it with a 2 DSLR camera setup. So, it's not a normal Zoom reading, just recorded from the camera inside a laptop. The process included rehearsing on Zoom, a whole new medium, and confidence to invite strangers, albeit we were COVID conscience, into my home for this marathon session to record the reading. This recorded version needed to be stripped back a bit and we found, through Michelle's dramaturg expertise and Robin's ability to refine, and my willingness to dive deep into the harrowing hairpin turns of such trauma that this truncated version has its own elegance. It will be interesting to see when we do a live performance in a theatre, what the full piece can and cannot do without.

Interview: Sharon Lawrence Always Zealously Involved In Taking Her SHOT Telling a first person account to a live audience feels very different than into the lens of a camera, but the rehearsals were with the team on Zoom. I'm now used to telling this story alone, not just as a solo performer would be on the stage, but as the ONLY person in the room. The director, along with producers Laurie Bernhard and Teri Ball would watch on screen, but it was just me on screen on my laptop in the room until we set up the two cameras to capture it with two angles and a higher video quality. The locked-off lens became my scene partner, and it both challenged and taught us which angle to use because the play is an internal journey. There's a balance that we're all seeking to strike as we get more sophisticated in both recording and in watching plays on Zoom. We had a great team to explore all of that. There were challenges that day - one of the hottest on record in L.A., in addition to forgoing air-conditioning due to the noise the mic would pick up, in the midst of a camera rehearsal, a power outage at Michelle's home on the East coast, caused an unpredictable delay. Cell phone communication allowed us to communicate and agree to take a break until her power was restored. After the delay, we did a full take of the 50-minute play - that run felt great and the production team commented on how it was the best one yet. Unfortunately, during that earlier delay, I decided to turn the cameras off to save the data cards during the unpredictable duration of that power outage but... after the 15-minute delay and snack break, I neglected to turn them back on to capture that pristine take.... Ughhhh! Thank goodness for gracious partners who allowed me to regroup so we could do it again this time in the even more oppressive heat! Tech faux pas aside, at least we memorialized my first two-show day!

You have a history with Skylight Theatre. What was your first collaboration for Skylight? Hosting ALIMENTO in 2016?

Yes, I've enjoyed working with them before, done readings there with other writers like Shem Bitterman and I've known Gary Grossman for years. He's the producing artistic director of Skylight Theatre Company. We met in 1994 during The Matrix Theatre production of THE SEAGULL directed by the legendary Milton Katselas. Skylight believes in the power of the artist to create change, and I have seen that with their programming over the years. Because they encourage and support socially relevant plays like THE SHOT, it was an obvious fit to launch their 2021 season as a benefit for the non-profit group, "Violence Intervention Program." ALIMENTO is another one of Skylight's outreach programs, partnered with Art Division, to feed the underserved and homeless. This season Skylight will partner with others like "Intimate Partner Violence" in STAND UP/SPEAK OUT - expressing the power of spoken word against violence: April 28, 2021 7pm (PDT) and with "Housing Works" for RELEASED? NOT FREE - showing the stranglehold that prisons have on America, expressed with multi-generational voices: May 23, 2021 5pm (PDT). Donations benefit each of these non-profits.

Interview: Sharon Lawrence Always Zealously Involved In Taking Her SHOT Have you worked on any SPARKS Theatrical productions before? Or is THE SHOT your first?

This is the first time that I've worked with them.

I had the pleasure of seeing you in A KID LIKE JAKE at the Carrie Hamilton Theatre at The Pasadena Playhouse and online in THE GAZE: NO HOMO. What criteria do you look for in accepting an acting role?

It's not just the roles which guide my choices, it's the auspices. I don't mean it has to be fancy. I mean it does need to feel like a team that I want to spend time with because that is as much of the experience as the obvious artistic quantifiers. I was so honored to join IAMA Theatre Company as a member and loved exploring the story of a gender non-conforming child in JAKE with that group. And for THE GAZE: NO HOMO, it is always a privilege to work with galvanizing talent, like Larry Powell who wrote, produced and directed it which we created as a digiplay in the early days of the pandemic - the last two weeks in June 2020. That was my first Zoom creation and what gave me the confidence to try THE SHOT in that format. Because it is so intricate and creative and relevant, it was distributed by CTGLA in February 2021, and I am very proud of it. I will say yes to anything Larry asks me to do. I first saw him an actor in Lucas Hnath's THE CHRISTIANS at the Taper and then in THE LEGEND OF GEORGIA MCBRIDE at the Geffen, and his range is thrilling to me. As a Black theatre artist, his perspective is vital, thrilling, poetic and honest; and shifted the way I see our industry and the world.

These projects, including THE SHOT, are so important in this moment

that we're in. The human condition is always changing. Who has the power and how they use it is one of the most ancient stories in the world. Evolution is not easy. Katherine experienced struggle, too.

You majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. When did you decide you wanted to act?

Interview: Sharon Lawrence Always Zealously Involved In Taking Her SHOT I was born this way. The gene pool that I came from is the reason. My father's family are storytellers, and he did theatre at Northwestern when he was there getting his journalism degree. When I was a child, I saw him in THE FANTASTICKS and I just knew the character of Luisa was me. I was probably five years old, but I thought this character was expressing how I felt. My parents had met in choir and I think that I got so much from them, nature and nurture came together. We all valued performance and communicating through music and stories. I got my degree in journalism because I didn't think I could act for a living, and I sure wasn't drawn to the camera, it was the stage. But the qualities that are required to do well in both are the same. Two of the most important qualities are tenacity and curiosity. If you don't have those inherently, these professions won't suit you.

When I began to do summer stock, while I was getting my degree, I realized the most important thing that was reflected back to me, and it's important for anybody who is considering this as a profession, is unsolicited, unbiased comments of support and encouragement. That's what made me think I'd give it a shot for five years in New York. And that unsolicited, unbiased reflection back is something that's so important to people deciding on a career in this business, so I make sure to express that encouragement to others when I can.

Your first professional theatrical role was in CABARET on Broadway in 1987. What did you remember of your very first night on a Broadway stage?

I think that my first professional roles were in summer stock. I was paid to do my job, to develop, and I want to encourage others starting out to use that as a stepping stone. I did ZORBA with Anthony Quinn before I did CABARET, and that was a big deal because he was the first "star" I worked with and that's a whole different level. I watched the way he inhabited the character. At 70 years old, the energy that he maintained and offered was very important for me to observe, and Joel Grey happened to have directed that.

Interview: Sharon Lawrence Always Zealously Involved In Taking Her SHOT The most thrilling and memorable thing to me about the opening night of CABERET on Broadway was that my parents were there, and they came to the party afterwards. We had done the tour six to eight months prior to that, so I wasn't nervous, but it was a reward for years of waiting tables.

Looking back, which was a bigger thrill to you: hearing you landed the part in CABARET? Or hearing of your first Emmy nomination in 1993?

Oh, I think that they were so equal. When I auditioned for CABARET, I remember spending money I didn't have on a cheap corset for a costume. I wanted to do everything I could to look the part, like they did in the movie. I got the call while waiting tables at Curtain Up at Manhattan Plaza. I used the pay phone in the back to check my answering service, and that's how I got the news. I celebrated with my fellow employees and friends there. My Emmy nomination news came at around 5am from my manager. Of course, I couldn't fall back asleep. WhenI went to work that day on a film I was shooting, it felt like a surreal thing. I was thrilled that so many of us from the show were nominated and that it felt like such an ensemble for this show to continue its journey of high regard.

You were Velma Kelly in CHICAGO on Broadway in 2000. Are you open for another musical role?

Oh, yes! I had kind of a heartbreak (we all did) when Reprise cancelled GRAND HOTEL. I was looking forward to playing Grushinskaya, the ageing ballerina. I would love to play Mame, but there are so many musicals I'd say yes to. Actually, I'm not a big planner. I tend to focus most on what's right in front of me, and what I'm excited about now is this role on the series Rebel. It was a wonderful surprise because it's such a juicy role, and to work with Katey Segal, Andy Garcia, and John Corbett, was thrilling. It's run by a woman, Krista Vernoff and my decades of working with "Women in Film" and "WeforShe" has given a nice historical satisfaction of seeing how far we've come since I became involved twenty years ago. How many more women are behind the lens, behind the stories, and making the decisions. The perspectives from hard fought are very satisfying to watch.

What's in the near future for Sharon Lawrence? Rebel? More virtual plays?

Interview: Sharon Lawrence Always Zealously Involved In Taking Her SHOT Yes, the recurring role on Rebel, beginning in episode 3 this Thursday at 10pm/9pm central time on ABC, streaming on Hulu. I'm working as a series regular now on a new project called Joe Pickett, starring Michael Dorman based on the best-selling novel series for Paramount TV. It will be airing for a nine-month exclusive run on Spectrum. Nothing specifically planned for virtual plays right now, but definitely more plays!

Thank you again, Sharon! And a very belated thanks for posing my Dreamgirls doll at the Ford Theatre's Dreamgirls singalong in 2007. I look forward to seeing you take your SHOT.

Thanks, Gil! That singalong is a great memory too!

For reservations for the on demand viewing of THE SHOT through May 2, 2021; log onto Minimum donation of $10 benefits the Violence Intervention Program and Skylight Theatre Company. A post-performance chat which will be live following the 5pm April 24th performance.