BWW Interview: Barbara Walsh of ANGELS IN AMERICA at Actors Theatre Of Louisville
Barbara Walsh in Angels in America. Photo courtesy Actors Theatre of Louisville.
The legendary Tony Nominee Barbara Walsh took time to sit and chat about her latest project (Angels in America) and her vast career. Our conversation is below:
Taylor Clemons: Okay! So I thought it would be fun to start with a few rapid fire questions just for curiosity's sake. Feel free to pass, either or, or expand. Some are a bit kookier than others.
Barbara Walsh: Okay! Go for it!
TC: Dogs or Cats?
TC: Beer or Wine?
BW: Neither. It used to be wine, but no more.
TC: Sondheim or Webber?
TC: "Angels in America" Part 1 or Part 2?
BW: You can't have one without the other.
TC: Fair enough. Coffee or Tea?
TC: Plays or Musicals?
TC: Broadway or Off-Broadway?
TC: Awesome! So now getting into the more in depth questions. What is it like being back here at Actors Theatre of Louisville after almost 30 years?
BW: Thirty years exactly. It's great. I was here doing a musical revue called Tomfoolery a review of all of Tom Lehrer's hilarious parodies and satires, political mostly. I had a ball and I had a great cast. The housing was different so I don't recall seeing where I used to live, it was like a mile away from the theater, this is a different housing which is much more convenient, which is fantastic! I remember the theater because we were playing in the original space, so everything is familiar about the backstage area and the bathrooms. I was just like "Oh yeah. It's thirty years later that's right". The Sealbach Hotel, is where we used to go for drinks after the show, so every time I pass the Sealbach, I just go "Aw Tomfoolery". It's lovely, it's lovely being here again.
TC: It's just so special that Louisville has a place like this.
BW: Yeah, definitely.
TC: What exactly about Angels in America brought you back? What made you want to do it?
BW: I'll be honest with you, I knew I had an audition for it, but I had been away earlier in the year in Amsterdam for seven weeks doing a premiere opera, and my husband joined me and it was great, but being away for that amount of time, I knew this would be three months away from home, so that just made me think "Oh I love Angels, but I just can't go away so soon after I've been gone". So I told my husband, Jack Cummings, and he said "You're going to turn down an audition for Angels in America? Are you insane? You have to go in." Then I just went "YOU'RE RIGHT! What was I thinking?" So then the wheel spun and I booked it, so I was very happy to book it, and so so happy he pushed me in this direction, because it's just such a beautiful experience to enjoy and collaborate with these actors and this director on this extraordinary masterwork, and the writing, which you know as actors, we need jobs, and you take a job sometimes and it's not very good craft, and that's really frustrating, but you need your health weeks, etc., but here it's like a total gift and we're savoring all of it. While I long to be home with my husband and dog in New York City, the time is going by so fast because we're all so challenged by these two pieces. They're very difficult and complex in more than one way. Time is just flying and before you know it, this will be in the past and that makes me really sad actually, when you look at it like that.
TC: I know it feels like you guys just opened, and now you're already a week in.
BW: I know, I know it really is going so fast. My husband will be here on the 1st, and he's coming to see them in order on that day, Sunday where we do Millennium then Perestroika, and I think they really need to be together back to back.
TC: Yes that's one thing that I'm really looking forward to because I want to try and do the whole marathon experience.
BW: Yes all in one day, I think there are a few days where we're doing it all back to back.
TC: I feel like afterwards you should get a t-shirt if you did both, because you come out of that huge emotional roller coaster.
BW: It really is.
TC: Did you have any connections to the show before?
BW: I had seen it! I had seen Millennium when I was doing Blood Brothers on Broadway, and we were in previews, they were in previews, in 93' and I was just blown away by it. I have much more of a deeper understanding of it now, because I'm older and wiser and more politically aware, and just smarter about play writing, and the skill of crafting these two mammoth pieces. You know, I didn't see Perestroika, but It wasn't like I was unsatisfied, in 1993 when I was watching Millennium, I was inspired and blown away by it when I was doing Blood Brothers, but that's enough conversation.
TC: Yeah I remember it was strange that they opened almost a year apart didn't they?
BW: Yeah, I did Falsettos from 1992 - 1993, and I went right into Blood Brothers, and it was in that 93', fall I think when I saw Millennium.
TC: Now a more serious question, with the current political climate do you think Angels in America has new found or unforeseen relevance?
BW: I think it's more relevant than it was then. I think it broke ground the way Falsettos did for a musical regarding AIDS, and it has so many other ideas: political, betrayal. Family, love, death, spirituality, racism, homophobia. I mean it runs the gamut of everything in a really concise way. Actually, if you think about it, because it's operatic in scope as we know, and I sort of marvel at the architecture of each piece every time I'm doing it, because I've done new work a lot, you know when it's not working, but it is working! He's [Tony Kushner] gone beyond. As far as relevance goes, we are so fractured as a country and frayed around the edges, you just don't know what's going to happen, and I think the bottom line is including and healing. To me it's really a play about healing, instead of a play about AIDS. I don't think it's about that, it's really Prior's story, and it's really the quartet's story of the two couples, but again, it so resonates beyond those two things, so in the bigger picture, including right now is extraordinarily important, and politically and spiritually in every area, and healing you know? We are hurting. All of us as a nation and the thing that Tony says and the Bolshevik says it at the top of Perestroika, and the angel says it to Prior, no, Prior says it to the angel, "I have to move, I have to move. We have to go forward and not just stay still". It's just, it- I don't know how to articulate it. I feel like no one can sit back. You cannot sit back in your life as an individual and as a society, but you have to be ready for it. The Bolshevik says "Have you a new skin? If you don't have a new skin, then we dare not go forward." Then Hannah at the end in the epilogue echos that. You can't live in the world without an idea of the world, you can't wait for a theory, but you have to have a theory, and then you act, and that's how we've moved forward in history. It's progress, it's about progress. So it's not a short answer.
TC: No no, I love hearing your thoughts.
BW: It's impossible to be a short answer.
TC: And piggybacking on that, I personally had heard of Angels in America, and I knew it had a lot to do with the AIDS epidemic, and I knew it took place in the 80's, but other than that I went into the show in a very fresh way. I was taken aback. I had been watching the news earlier, and then I was watching the play, and it seems history is repeating itself. This debuted in the early 90's, and takes place in the 80's, but it feels very contemporary, like it could've been taking place today. A lot of the different aspects are just crazy.
BW: It is, it really is.
TC: It's almost frightening.
BW: Because his [Tony Kushner] themes are massive, and they reach far beyond just the illness, where the illness is the focus, but the response to the illness: Reagan thank you for nothing. You know? We're still in that frame of mind politically.
TC: In the whole of Angels in America you play six characters?
BW: Five, I play five. I play the rabbi in Millennium, then I'm Henry giving Roy his diagnosis, then I'm Hannah and Ethel Rosenberg. Then the fifth character is the Bolshevik, I call him "bolshie", at the top of Perestroika. So it's five characters, three men, and two women. Which is a whole new challenge.
TC: It's wonderful. I loved it. I would've been fine with you playing all the parts! Out of all those characters, do you have one that you maybe favor or one that's more challenging to you?
BW: Yes, Hannah. Hannah I prefer, because she has a full arc. She has a full arc as in she's not as full in Millennium as she is in Perestroika, but they need each other, and you see the scope and architecture of her journey, and that is more satisfying than popping in as a rabbi here, and a doctor over here. While that's great it's just challenging and it's all about wigs and costume changes, and the technical aspect of it is very challenging, but Hannah is a beautiful beautiful role from where she begins to where she ends. I love that she's... she's going through something. She's a tough cookie, she's not your typical Mormon mother. She says, "Salt Lake is tough, it's baked dry, it's abundant energy, and not much intelligence." I mean what a brilliant line. You know Tony [Kushner], every time I hear something new, and that one is certainly not new, it's new to my ear, but sometimes I just hear them again, these lines, and the text just resonates at a deeper level. Whether it's just his poetry or whatever. Back to Hannah, she to accept her son's homosexuality, she moves to New York! She's an active woman. She's decided, "Well I'm gonna go fix this, and I'm gonna go pull the car off of my son, I will save my son", whatever that means. Completely clueless as to having the tools to deal with it. However, she morphs and really comes to a place of understanding through Prior. We have a beautiful scene in Perestroika that is all about understanding each other, and not making assumptions, and not judging people before we've even spent time with a person. It's a little section of 2 or 3 lines, but to me it's EVERYTHING about what we do as human beings. So flippantly, and I love how she learns from him ,and he learns from her. It's not sentimental, it could certainly go that way, but we are not playing that. I think that's my favorite scene. Then at the end, in the epilogue, you see it's five years later, and she's quite savvy and politically aware. Maybe she's a lesbian? Maybe she's not? She is sexually alive, and she now has good taste in clothing. Her hair is better. She is evolved and more sophisticated, and that is a tremendous thing to see. I love a change in a character, and I also love playing different characters, because I've always fancied myself versatile, not a lot of people know that, but clearly some people see that and say, "We'll just throw a wig on her and she can do anything". It's an amazing job.
TC: Like you mentioned, the writing is just a testament. It says so much by saying so little, and that's just the best kind of writing.
BW: It is.
TC: I don't want things explained to me, but I want things that are potent and have meaning and girth and weight behind them.
BW: I mean Tony's [Kushner} verbose in his characters. Louis in particular is verbose, but to me there's not any excess. These are big plays, so there is a lot of writing, but everything has purpose, or it's setting something up, or it's connecting to. He drops these little jewels and you go, "Oh my lord, that was from?" and then you get chills. Yeah it's syx synce, which is remarkable.
TC: That's really why it works so well, because there is nothing extra. Nothing you feel like you could go without.
BW: Yes, you're getting from everything.
TC: It moves so quickly.
BW: It does.
TC: Even though it's so long, it's a giant beast of a thing-
BW: It is a beast.
TC: -it is so fast. Why do you think it's so important for people to come see THIS production, right now, in THIS moment in time?
BW: Because it's beautiful. I think it's visually beautiful. I think Meredith [McDonough] is amazing, I love her taste, her aesthetic, her designers. I'm married to a director, so I think overall, and I think about the departments, and the caliber is high on every level. To me that's so important when all of the departments are as high a caliber in the work. It's important for Louisville, and Kentucky, a red state, to come to church! At ATL [Actors Theatre of Louisville]. I think it's extraordinarily bold, for the theatre, as I told Les [Waters], on opening night and Meredith too. It's ambitious, to put their money and their souls behind these two plays. The audiences stand every night. Also, we feel that they are wrapped. I think they're sitting up, I think they're hearing everything. There's a lot to unpack, but I think they're going along with artistry, and they're going along with the information, and I think they're following the characters. The characters, all of them, everyone is so lost, except for Belize really, who I think is the moral and grounded, mature adult in the room, and just so wise. He's so wise it makes me weep when I think of some of the things he says. I think that these plays are important anytime, and I can't imagine that they will ever be dated really. However, we are in a red state. So yeah.
TC: Being in a red state, whether or not it was conscious, I think choosing to do it makes a really big statement.
BW: It's very bold, and that's what I mean. I give them kudos for taking that challenge and just brilliantly articulating these plays. Without any superficiality or anything. To me the whole thing is just really honestly approached, and I'm very moved by that.
TC: As we talked about before, Part One is currently running, and I wanted to know if there were any sneak peaks you could give us about Part Two?
BW: I will just say that the characters go forward. Millennium ends with somewhat of a cliffhanger. Stay tuned. I don't really think you can separate them out. Like if you see Perestroika one night, having not seen Millennium, you're going to get information that will make you go, "Oh?". I don't know if it will be unfulfilling, and I don't remember back in 93', or whenever Perestroika opened, I don't remember how soon after Millennium opened, but I don't know why I didn't go to it, or what was happening, or if I? I have no memory of that. I did see the HBO miniseries, which was interesting. I totally forget what your question was?
TC: Just if there were any surprises or anything in Part Two that people should look forward to?
BW: They should just come see it! Surprises? I would just say it's a beautiful journey that every last character has. Every character has a beautiful beautiful journey, and I think it's important to see Perestroika. Not because all of Hannah's stuff is mostly in there. I think the epilogue is astonishing. That is something where, as a community of theatre-makers, theatre audiences, become one thing, and I think that only happens because of the entirety of both works together. So yeah. Come for the epilogue! Also, don't miss anything before it!
TC: So going back, what got you into theatre, and what advice would you give to young people who want to get into theatre? Performing more specifically.
BW: Well I always sang. I was always very shy, I was one of eight children, growing up in a D.C. suburb, and I wasn't a good student very much, but in sophomore year of high school I took a class called "Man and His Arts", and I was asked to recite the prologue of "The Canterbury Tales" in old English. I got an "A", my first "A" ever, and I thought "Gee, there's something to this." So I auditioned for high school musicals where I could put my singing somewhere. I just sort of became, well, out of my shell. I started smoking, I got in trouble with the Nuns, etc., but I was sort of finding my element. I could mimic all of my classmates, and they made me do imitations of everybody, then I'd be late for class, and I would get in such trouble, but I was cool. Then college was just a two year community college really, and I'd say my grad work was three years of dinner theater and just waiting tables, and playing amazing roles in a dinner theater. Aldonza and Fiona and all these musicals primarily. I did some plays in college as well, then I moved to New York when I was 25 and I just pounded the pavement, I went to chorus calls, and I payed my dues, and I waited tables. Then six years later I had an agent, and a Hirshfeld in the New York Times with an article, and some off broadway work, and some broadway work, but again, just hang in there. If it's what you love and you know it's driving you, and you feel one with it, then keep doing it. If there are other things that you do... I don't do anything else. The umbrella of showbiz has a lot of different things. I do plays and musicals, and I feel like the instrument is wound somewhat similarly. I've done some television, very little film. I would like more experience in both of those areas. Hopefully it's not too late for that. Stick with it, and don't study other actors, study human beings, and always remember when you're auditioning, only you are doing what you are doing in that room. No one else is gonna do what you're gonna do. To me that's powerful. As opposed to being in a frightening, horrible environment, the audition experience; being judged or whatever. Just be well prepared and yet open for adjustment and you'll be fine. If you have any talent at all.
TC: When you were starting out, did you have anyone that you looked up to, or any kind of idols? Actors or even mentors and teachers?
BW: I did some backstage work when I was young in my late teens at a theatre called the Homestead Hotel in Hot Springs, VA, and Ronnie Claire Edwards from The Waltons. She did a play called, well it was Gaslight, they play version that I can't remember the title. She and I became buddies, and I just watched her every freakin' night. It was so incredible, and I was just so inspired by her, so that when I went to my first year of college, I had someone direct me in the play of that. Who else? I don't know, to say there's one person is just, it's not possible. You draw from everything. Everything you see, and so many performances have been extraordinary. I think of The Chairs on broadway with Geraldine McEwan and Richard Briars, they were amazing. Yes, I've been inspired by many. My husband is a director and he inspires me. He's really gifted. He's a visionary really, he has original thought, original idea, and I'm often inspired by the work he brings to the stage.
TC: After Angels in America concludes do you have anything new or exciting coming up?
TC: Anything you might want to do? Now's your chance to put it tout into the world.
BW: No, no. I haven't even talked to my agent about what's next. Yeah. I have nothing. Nothing on the docket. I hope that changes in the next few weeks. My goodness it will be mid-October when I get back it's frightening, but yeah I'm sure there will be activity when I'm home, as there usually is after being away for awhile, so that's that really. That's all I got.
TC: Well thank you so much for taking the time to chat! It was so nice to meet you.
BW: You too!
*Please note the play is listed as age 16 and up due to the intense themes and full frontal male nudity.
Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches Now - October 10, 2017
Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika Now - October 14, 2017
Actors Theatre of Louisville
316 W. Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202
Tickets: (502) 584-1205