BWW Interview: Judith Ivey Directs Irish Love Tale at North Coast Rep
Actor and director in theater, television and film, Judith Ivey is a recognizable player in multiple roles on and off stage. Perhaps best known for her one-year stint on the TV hit Designing Women, she has appeared on numerous other high profile shows and films on the large screen, including Brighton Beach Memoirs and Devil's Advocate.
Ivey's talents, however, reach far beyond the large and small screen. A presence on stages from New York to Los Angeles, the two-time Tony Award winning actress has appeared at New York's Roundabout Theatre and the Mark Taper Forum in L.A., among many others, and has received the prestigious Lucille Lortel Award for Best Actress for playing the role of Amanda in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. As a stage director, her wide-ranging repertoire includes Two for the Seesaw and Steel Magnolias. Most recently she has appeared on Broadway with Oscar-winning actress Dame Helen Mirren in The Audience.
In October-November Ivey will direct the west coast premiere of Christian O'Reilly's poignant play Chapatti at North Coast Rep (http://www.northcoastrep.org/season/chapatti.html).
EM: You've done straight theatre, TV, film, but nothing musical?
JI: I don't think of myself as a musical person. I haven't done musicals for years. I just don't ever feel comfortable in them. I did musicals at Illinois State University, where I graduated. When I was about to launch myself, I so wanted to go to the Guthrie. At that time had fellowships funded by Anheuser Busch. I auditioned - I sang Miss Adelaide, did a piece from Romeo and Juliet and a piece from Summer and Smoke - and the artistic director took me aside and said (British accent). "Well you're awfully musical comedy." Like that was a blight. I walked away from it because I wanted to be taken seriously. I've hated him for that since then because it ruined it for me. You look up to someone who's the authority in your life at the time.
EM: One person - that's not fair.
JI: I steered clear for a while and of course regretted it because once I became a professional actress people would come to me and say, "Would you do this musical?" And I don't think I ever enjoyed it the way I used to because I never felt qualified. So I finally decided it wasn't for me. I got to direct one musical. They turned Vanities into a musical and I helped create what it was going to be. I really enjoyed that. I love being in the audience for a musical. [Laughs] I'm not that trained a singer and when you're on Broadway with the crème de la crème... I probably would enjoy it if it were a character role where you wouldn't have to be a great singer.
EM: There's always Desiree Armfeldt.
JI: I've played that part, in fact, here at L.A. Opera. A summer production, 2004.
EM: How did that feel?
JI: It felt great.
EM: There you go. When did the theater bug first bite you?
JI: It started in high school, and I'm not sure it bit me. We moved a lot when I was a kid. The last move I had to do before college, there was nothing for me to do as a new kid - all the tryouts were already over - except be in the school play. I thought I'd try that. I ended up getting the part and then being good at it so people encouraged me. I spent the last two years of high school doing speech contests and competitive acting. There was actually a professor at SIU Carbondale who knew my father, who was the president of the community college. When she asked me where I was going to college, I said I'm going to my dad's college. She said, "Oh, no, you're not." [Laughs] She called my dad and said, "Your daughter needs to be in a true acting program. A community college isn't going to give her what she needs." She gave some names of schools in Illinois and I auditioned and got a scholarship. I still didn't think of myself as an actress. I just thought it was how I got to go to college. I graduated and everybody was telling me to try it. So I started in Chicago and I never looked back. Now it's 40 something years later. [Laughs]
EM: You were born in Texas. When you started acting, did you have a Texas accent?
JI: I had a Midwest accent. I had been gone from Texas enough years to get rid of it. We moved to places that didn't encourage that. In Michigan it was almost as if I had moved to a foreign country, I could not understand them and they couldn't understand me. So I homogenized my sound. By the time I started acting I sounded Pretty Midwestern. Although there are a lot of actors from Texas who had great careers and never changed what they sounded like.
EM: But doing the variety of things you've done over the years -
JI: True, you can't do Juliet with a Texas accent, although I've seen some funny small-town productions (Texas accent). "Gallop apace you fiery-footed steeds, towards Fate is logic." [Laughs]
EM: I'm sure that came in handy with The Long Hot Summer.
EM: You've worn just about every hat available to a theater person. Is there any one genre that you've enjoyed the most?
JI: At this point in my life I'm enjoying directing more than acting. Acting is my way of subsidizing my directing habit. I make more money as an actress. I think it evolves in your life. When I moved to California and did TV sitcoms it was really was great because my son was born during that time and my daughter was a little girl, so I could be the mom I wanted to be. I focused on film. I made a lot of movies at that time. That worked with my kids. I could take them with me. I wouldn't be gone that long if I couldn't take them with me. I think what I really enjoyed was based on how it supported my personal life. When we moved back to New York, it became more difficult. I tried to focus more on theater, but that doesn't necessarily mean you're going to get to stay home. I did regional theatre, but a mini-series in Seattle for four months darn near killed me. Every weekend I'd get on a plane and fly back to New York to see my children for 24 hours, then fly back. I hated it.
EM: What were your most cherished experiences?
JI: Oh God, too many. I've been fortunate in all the great things I've had the privilege of doing. To start with the most recent, I so enjoyed doing The Audience playing Margaret Thatcher. It was so challenging. I wasn't sure I could do it.
EM: Why not?
JI: As Dame Helen (Mirren) said to me at one point (British accent), "There's not one spot of her in you, is there?" [Laughs] and I said, "No, I'm having to become a whole other person." Which I love doing. But first of all Thatcher's British - I'm not even of the country - and was known for her affected dialogue, because she wanted to appear to be something she wasn't. There were so many layers playing her that are so not American. [Laughs] I loved being on stage with Mirren. She was just a joy. She couldn't have been more supportive. We shared other personal things. We were both gardeners and went to the orchid show together. It was fun to have that personal exchange. I always wanted to work with Stephen Daldry. Endless blessings in that. It was such an honor to be in that group of actors, those great human beings.
EM: Let's get to Chapatti. We are very honored to have you here.
JI: I'm very honored to be here.
EM: This is your San Diego directing debut, but you've directed on the west coast before.
JI: I directed at the Falcon and Laguna Beach, and a workshop at ACT in San Francisco.
EM: You called David Ellenstein and said you'd like to direct at NCR?
JI: I sent him an email to let him know I'm a director as well as an actor. He sent me Chapatti. I loved it.
EM: Were you familiar with Christopher O'Reilly's work?
JI: Not at all. This was a new introduction. Wonderful writer. After two days of rehearsal we were already so taken with it.
EM: What about the play resonates with you?
JI: It's really nice to have a love story about people in my age range. That's what attracted me right off the bat. I love the humor of it in the midst of some very dramatic serious moments that are aspects of being that age. And the circumstances of these two people, with the man thinking he can no longer go on living, having lost his partner, and the woman in the play feeling trapped in the every day. So they come together and I love that you play back and think what if I hadn't gone, what if I hadn't said yes to that event?
EM: Sliding doors.
EM: Do you find a particular challenge in directing a play with only two characters?
JI: I don't. A lot of the plays I've directed have been that. My strong suit as a director is finding the reality and truth of something. That's really the focus of the play rather than it being high concept. I've worked with a lot of new playwrights where the play that I'm working in is their latest play. I love that. Being involved in bringing this story to life because it's never been done before. Many times those have been two character plays. But it also has to do with stage time. The challenge of this particular play is a lot of it is written in monologue and then moves into dialogue. Monologues can tend to be static, so the challenge for the three of us, actors and director, is how to keep that vibrancy when you have dialogue, to stay in the monologue, not just two people sitting in a chair, telling a story. How do we make this feel like it's happening right now without acting out while you're telling me what you're doing. [Laughs] It's a fine line to walk, a tightrope, but challenging. A lot can happen in 90 minutes. It's kind of a strange connection but having watched the Pope in his speeches talking about mercy...The mercy that's exchanged between these two characters makes for a great story because that's what they're giving each other. It's interesting to explore a story that's exactly your age range. It gives you the opportunity to really examine and analyze where you are, how you relate to the story, how it fits in your own life. It's almost therapeutic to do the play at this point. And the two wonderful actors, Mark Bramhall and Anabella Price - their chemistry is already apparent. They bring their lives into this, and their feelings about being this age.
EM: Is second chances in life a theme that resonates with you?
JI: Yes. I feel fortunate that my career is based on first chances. I don't think I would have stayed in this profession if I had had to keep waiting for my big moment. I'm not that kind of determined soul.
EM: What about second chances in love?
JI: I got married really young and divorced, so I guess I didn't get a second chance there. I feel like Tim (Braine) is my only marriage because this was the right one. [Laughs]
EM: Is there anything you haven't done that you'd still like to do?
JI: I have to say no, everything I've ever wanted I've had the opportunity to do. I feel blessed. I love recording books. There was a period of time, because of the ages of my children, where I availed myself of that. Just in the past couple of weeks I did another book and I thought, I forgot how much I love doing this, I wish this would come back into my life. Why Margaret Thatcher so fascinated me was it was going to be hard and it wasn't something I had done. I look forward to more of that kind of thing.
EM: What have you done that you would like to do again?
JI: I haven't done Shakespeare for a long time. The old lady parts are not numerous, but there are some and I would love the opportunity to get back into that. Brush up my Shakespeare. That would be fun. I also love working on new plays whether I'm directing or acting. I'm hoping the next new play will be working with the playwright in the room as you're developing it. That I find very exciting.
EM: Anything you'd like to add?
JI: I'm very proud of my children. My daughter, Maggie Braine, is 25, soon to be 26, and is trying to be an actress. My son is an accomplished physics student and probably is going on to do a second bachelors in astroscience. Completely different, and both wonderful human beings. I'm very proud of them, how they turned out. I feel blessed that I got to have them. That's all thanks to my wonderful husband Tim Braine, who's just the perfect partner for me, so I never had to consider not doing what I ended up choosing as a profession. He stepped right up to the plate, took over whenever I had to go away. His production company produced a lot of wildlife shows, so when he was always traveling, I could be the reliable one.
EM: That's a big part of a perfect relationship. Being supportive of each other
JI: It is.
Photo credit: Aaron Rumley