Interview: Debra Lyman of PINEAPPLE AND OTHER OPTIONS at Arizona Theatre Matters

Explore the dedication, vulnerability, and artistry that define her career, as well as the enduring passion that fuels her love for the stage.

By: Jun. 09, 2024
Interview: Debra Lyman of PINEAPPLE AND OTHER OPTIONS at Arizona Theatre Matters
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Interview: Debra Lyman of PINEAPPLE AND OTHER OPTIONS at Arizona Theatre Matters
Debra Lyman as Betsy Pennington
in Pineapple and Other Options

In this exclusive interview, award-winning, prolific and much sought-after Phoenix-based actress Debra Lyman opens up about her life in the theater, her dream roles, most treasured performances, and the challenges she's overcome. She also shares her challenge to the wider theatre community to produce more plays with good roles for women of an age, her encouragement to playwrights to write those plays, and her reminder to audiences that vibrant elder women characters are some of the most enriching and entertaining. Explore the dedication, vulnerability, and artistry that define her career, as well as the enduring passion that fuels her love for the stage.

JB: Is there a specific character from literature or history that you dream of playing one day? Why does this role resonate with you. 

DL: Yes. I would like to play one of my heroes, Frances Perkins. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her Secretary of Labor to his all-male Cabinet. She also made history in becoming the very first woman to be appointed to a Presidential Cabinet position. Can you imagine? In the 1930’s. On the heels of the Great Depression and just after women finally gained the right to vote in 1920. She would make, debate, lead the fight to establish Roosevelt’s New Deal programs of Social Security, worker’s compensation insurance, child protection against employment, and protections for immigrants. What I love about her was she started her life’s work, her “mission”, at a very young age, and knew what it was she wanted to do. With determination and facing political, social, sexist obstacles in her way, Frances Perkins forged ahead with a determined half smile, serious look in her eye, and her favored tri-corner hat, and with such selflessness and bravery. I think she epitomized being human and that nothing you want to do is really that difficult. Not really. As she described to others “Doing means digging your nails in and working like a truck horse.”  

Acting requires vulnerability. How do you navigate sharing deeply personal emotions on stage with a live audience? 

On stage I am someone else. A character sharing her or his personal emotions with the audience. As an actor I want to become vulnerable and share that character’s personal emotions with the audience, try to meet the playwright’s expectations and intent of her play, and meet the expectations of the audience. I think this is a goal that every actor has or should have. To seek perfection in the vulnerability of the character’s sharing and reveal of emotions with the audience. If the audience understands, feels something for a moment, a minute, five minutes, on the drive home and into the next morning, then the thrill in creating that mutual understanding and empathy, love, outrage for my character is a great accomplishment as an actor. I also think sharing emotions on stage is much easier as a character in a play, in an artistic format, and why a lot of introverts and “shy” people like me navigate to acting.

Many people see starring in a long running, award winning play as a pinnacle. Is there a lesser-known performance of yours that you hold in equally high regard, and why?

I think I was as proud and terribly enthusiastic about what I could do as an actor when I was given the role of Crystal Meth in a New Works festival. Crystal was disguised as a very sexy, powerful, and engaging narcisistic woman who was going to take over the world militant style. If it had not been for the opportunity and what the director challenged me to do with her, and step outside my comfort zone, I would have never discovered that I could reach beyond the limits I had imposed upon myself. I hold that role and the festival/production in such high regard, and I am very proud of myself in my work as Crystal Meth. 

Have you ever had a moment where you “lost yourself” in a role and the line between character and actor blurred in a surprising way?  

Yes. One of my favorite memories on stage is when my scene partner in our play was reading to me from H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu”. And if you are not familiar with Lovecraft’s writings, he is dark, gothic, science fiction genre, and difficult to read. For me. But my partner was reading to my character and time seemed to stop on stage. The lighting design surrounding us was very dim, and as she read the Lovecraft piece in this contrasting, soothing and lovely voice, her words and recitation became my lullaby of calm and gentle to my character’s demons. I remember feeling alone with her and safe, and peaceful in our space on that stage, and intermixed with that were my personal feelings of fantastical and wonderful.

What is a piece of acting advice (from a teacher, director, etc.) that really changed your approach.

I have been lucky enough to work with a number of teachers, directors, and mentors who have shaped my approach to acting on stage. Before 2005, I think I was very dramatic, too dramatic, and “representational” instead of what I hope I have become as an actor – true, believable, and more “presentational”. I have grown and learned from each of them into my current ability as an actor. My coaches’ and teachers’ lessons, advice and education have become my treasure box for my pursuit and love of acting.

Is there a skill outside of acting that you feel surprisingly enhances your performances on stage? 

In another one of my favorite productions, I played my violin along with a fellow actor who played his violin. It was a power struggle between the two of us in the play and we walked in a circle - each taking up the song more vigorously as we walked and completed the circle. The song was the simple child’s ditty “Three Blind Mice”. This dramatic intermission of a musical duel by our esteemed director brought a heightened and dramatic, beautiful intermission to the play action and it truly enhanced the production and my character’s slow death. I think the use of musical instruments is a great interjection of dramatic pause, comical interlude, or just beautiful music within a straight play. I wish for more opportunities to play my violin on stage or see other actors use musical instruments in straight play productions that I think heightens any performance.

Beyond pure entertainment, what experiences do you hope audiences take away from a performance you’re in?

A charismatic and much-admired director that I had the opportunity to work with asked us (the actors) to consider audiences in the production of our play. He simply stated what we should do for our play and the audience: “Your audience. They may be huge. They may be tiny. It doesn’t matter. Take good care of them and let them in. Don’t insulate yourself from them. If they want to laugh, let them. If they want to sit silently, let them. This is such an extraordinary and unique and special experience. . . just please take care of them.”. This is the experience that I hope that every audience member takes away from a production. I think the statement is so profound and is everything described in that actor/audience communication and exchange.

“The perfect scene partner is …” Finish the sentence. What do you look for in someone to elevate your work?

 …a fellow actor who understands, challenges, and enhances his work, my work, and our work together to bring that unique energy and silent communication between two actors to the production.” It doesn’t happen all the time – “elevation” and the scene can still be well done, but when your perfect scene partner is there with you, and you have this quiet exchange of unity and knowledge and respect of each other, it’s fabulous and creates pure joy and fulfillment that I think is sought by every actor.

The stage has an unique energy. What is the most thrilling or rewarding thing about performing in front of a live theatre audience?

That feeling before and after each performance.  Being on stage and bringing a character to life and shaping and molding the character on stage in front of the audience as each scene moves forward to the conclusion. And listening to the audience whether on stage or backstage waiting to go on. One of my favorite things to do during a performance is to sit backstage and listen to the production and audience reaction, or even its stillness created as they listen and watch. 

What is a common misconception about female stage actors, especially those in our age range, that you would like to dispel?

As a 67-year-old actress seeking auditions for roles of older woman 60 to 80 or quality plays about my generation, I find it more and more difficult to be on stage in primarily straight plays. Plays that do not portray the older female as turning silly, stupid, limping and always wearing curlers after 65. We do not deflate and discombobulate after 65. In my community there are energetic, vital older female actors at age 65, 70, 75, 78, 80 and beyond. And there are also plays that theatres can produce about older and charismatic, vital women who may be challenged but are watchable, entertaining, or provide audience exposure to older generations, and are necessary to our theatre audiences. In the last year I counted only three good plays in my community that had quality roles for older female actresses. But why not produce more plays with inclusion of older women in roles and older people in the story line? Instead the majority of theatres in my community constantly hit “replay” of plays done over and over and are always producing musicals again and again like worn out shoes. My observations and conversations with older women actors reveal a different picture of the older female stage actors and their ability and desire to be on stage. They did not disappear. Acting is not just a “hobby” or a diversion from retirement or aging. It is a true, deeply felt desire, ambition, and love of theatre. For a lot of older actresses, including myself, it has been a life-long pursuit. I admit I have not done anything to change the lack of opportunity and inability to get older female stage actors on stage. And after thinking about my answer here, more can be done to investigate why and/or engage the theatre leaders about producing plays with roles for older female actors. 

The exception to all this is that I played Elizabeth “Betsy” Pennington in Pineapple and Other Options from 2017 to just recently, in a few staged readings, staged play in 2021 to an audio recording this year in a professional studio which will be interpreted on screen by a BIPOC, Deaf Sign Language team. The video will be made available to the public in August for viewing and listening on Arizona Theatre Matters' channel on You Tube.

Betsy has been one of my most challenging and fulfilling roles because of the length of time she has been with me. She has provided opportunities for hundreds of discoveries, laughs, tears, and reveals. I have never had this opportunity to live with a character for this long. She appears in a dream to the main character, Helen, who has been diagnosed with breast cancer, lost her job, and wants to end her life. This was one of the big challenges for me. Betsy as a real person and Betsy as a vision for Helen. Additionally, the play provides the quality of a script and artistic interpretation for not only a role that should be played by a woman 60+ but also provided three other quality roles. I cherished and was empowered as Betsy with her lines/language/prose. An example is Betsy described with such clarity her inherent and learned understanding of the environment and its extension into our lives as humans, and everyday living - That Sycamore and I saw nearly sixty summers together. Her leaves were deep green and in the fall they’d turn rust red and lemon yellow, and then fade. One night I’m finishing up in the kitchen and hear them, after a big whoosh of wind passes through - in the quiet - I hear all the remaining leaves at once hit the ground”.  As I talked about in the previous response, there are fewer opportunities for older female actors to play quality roles, and especially major roles, that contributes to the play and to the audience impressions and take homes. Betsy’s role was exactly that. An exemplary role that thrills and excites the older female actor because of its potential to discover and participate in a production that is artistic, educational and reminds audiences about the older generation and the potential contributions they offer because of their wealth of experience, knowledge, and humor sprinkled in. The kind of role and production that make audiences sit up and forward in their chairs. Betsy was beautiful, smart, real, earthy, old, and experienced. Everyone should have a Betsy in their life. Another one of my favorite lines from Besty that I will leave you with because I love it so and it explains Betsy’s outlook and inspiration to others: “Plant some herbs or write a book or go to the mountains. Lie down on the earth and look at the sky until you remember what sets your soul on fire.”

To see and hear Pineapple and Other Options (forthcoming) and other ATM shows, visit their website, arizonatheatrematters.org.



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