BWW Interview: Everybody's Ayana Workman on Life, Death and Why You Really Can't Take it With You
Everybody, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, is a play about life. And death. But mostly life.
The work, which kicks off the Shakespeare Theatre Company's 2019/20 season is based on the medieval morality play Everyman and, through a personified Death, follows the journey of one "Everybody" -- a dead ringer for any audience member -- as they meet five "Somebodies" -- Friendship, Kinship, Stuff, Beauty, Cousinship -- who join "Everybody" on their quest to find the meaning of life before they die.
If animating the inanimate and breaking the fourth wall wasn't enough to make Everybody a reflection of real life, the play infuses a bit of reality's true unpredictability by casting the play via lottery system. Each night a lottery ball selects which characters the actors will play, resulting in 120 casting permutations. The chances of having the same exact configuration of actors and roles for two performances is approximately 27 percent, the chances of an actor playing the same role twice in a row is only 4 percent, and the chances of one actor not playing one of the changing roles at all during the entire run is 0.0003 percent.
Ayana Workman (STC Free For All Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet) joins the production in one of the to-be-cast "Somebody" or "Everybody" roles. Broadway World caught up with Ayana to talk process, life and death, and why you can't really take it with you.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Everybody tackles some deep and twisting themes. What drew you to this work?
I read Everybody a year ago when it was first produced in New York City. I thought it was amazing. I really enjoyed how [Obie Award-winner and MacArthur "Genius" Grant recipient Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (An Octoroon, Gloria)] was able to talk about what it means to live through this concept of what would happen if you were visited by this thing called "death." What does [a personified] death reveals tell you about the life you lived?
How did you approach a workflow with such uncertainty and possibility like the one the lottery system creates?
As an actor, I also loved the lottery system where every actor plays a new part every night. It's super exciting, super scary and super smart. But my first thought was "how are we going to do this?" The load on the actor and the [complicated] staging--what will that be like? How will I learn all these lines?
What I really wanted to know was how Brandon was going to investigate all these concepts about life? Through the journey of [the "Everybody" character] they meet the concept of Friendship, Cousinship and Stuff personified as people. I was very excited to explore what that may mean and how it could look. How do I embody an inanimate idea like stuff?
That requires us, in rehearsal, not to do a lot of character work, but a lot of looking at our [personal] vessel -- me as Ayana -- and what [something like Stuff or Cousinship] looks like through that lens. I think having a diverse cast makes it really resonate because through each body these universal concepts mean something completely different.
Before the lottery each night, your fate is unclear. What goes through your mind?
It's like nothing I've done before! I have never had such an amazing opportunity to be able to play a character, but also have my castmates and friends and peers play the same character at the same time. It's so bizarre and vulnerable!
But for me, in doing that work, I start with myself and build. Especially when I'm playing Everybody. The text and the concept [for that character] is very openly about who you are [as an actor.]
How does the cast create a safe space to be able to be that vulnerable in front of one another?
We call it a brave space, not a safe space. It's a space where we can feel brave enough to not only share who we are, but to really speak to how we feel. If we're feeling a certain way, whether positive or scared or confused, we have a space where we can be ourselves and explore what the work is asking of us.
We recently had a conversation about the idea of going through each character, no matter who you draw, and asking yourself what it'd be like if another actor was playing that role. You have to be brave enough to ask that question.
With so many actors bringing parts of themselves into this brave space, is there a lot of improv?
So we can't rehearse every single [lottery outcome.] There's a chance that someone will draw a character they've never played before! Some nights I'll know my lines and where I'm supposed to be on stage, but nothing else. In that way it's kind of like improv.
Which "Somebody" is your greatest challenge? Which is your greatest joy?
This is a running joke in rehearsal where, if we're really doing the lottery, I've only played two characters. I either chose Everybody, who is on a quest to death, or Stuff, who is the personification of capitalism.
When I first read "Stuff," it was one of my favorite scenes. I won't give too much away, but we've found a way to give the most non-human character the most human moment with Everybody. It hits super close to home because [the dialogue] is so true in tackling the sum of existence and the fact that when you die, you're stuff doesn't come with you.
The "Everybody" character has the most lines, and I always feel like "oh, here we go" when I draw that character. Everybody is very much you [as an actor,] but in a way that's so specific it's universal, which is a marker for great theatre. I've never played a character that has no descriptor. It's just you. You're Everybody.
This play is about morality. As an actor, what has this play taught you?
To trust myself. This is a huge process of letting go, of trusting myself and the director and the process. It's quite daunting. If you're playing a Somebody you're memorizing the whole play. You can get bogged down by the lines and I do have moments wondering if I can do this. But I know I have the ability and the training and the experience to get through these things. It's just about trusting myself and trusting the greater story.
How does Everybody factor into the larger zeitgeist?
I think in terms of how painful and insane this world is right now, how divided we are right now and how much hurt, we all are Everybody. This play becomes a moment where you sit for 90 minutes and you watch a story about what it means to be a human being on this planet. It's really painful, but it's really funny. It is a dark comedy. It's such an amazing tool to realize things about life. It's just hilarious. You're gonna laugh or cry.
How is this work different from Romeo & Juliet or Hamlet, both of which you also did with Shakespeare Theatre Company?
I love STC. They were my second show as a professional actor three years ago. Everyone has so much respect and excitement for every play that's going on. It's quite a large staff, but you feel like it's an intimate family. Working towards a common goal of producing a play and telling a story. It's such a lovely community. Every time I come back I feel very welcomed.
And this is a bold statement, but working on Brandon's work is not very different than working on Shakespeare. I love the rhythm and poetry of Shakespeare and I feel like Brandon has a very similar way about [his writing.] The text can mean one thing, but there's so much beneath it like Shakespeare. Brandon writes very long speeches and I feel less intimidated by them because I've worked so much on Shakespeare. It's been like returning home.
As for character, I adored playing Juliet and Ophelia. But so many of her choices and journeys are based on and a reaction to a patriarchal society. This play is very much free of that. For me as Ayana it's been a very cool experience to really play myself, not just a love interest, which I like doing, but it's been cool not just reacting to men doing crazy things!
"Everybody" runs October 15 through November 17, 2019 at the Lansburgh Theatre (450 7 th Street NW).