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BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Alexandra Silber

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Alexandra Silber
Alexandra Silber

Today's subject, Alexandra Silber, is known on both sides of the pond as a versatile, killer performer. This international dynamo is currently living her theatre life onstage at Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) as Guenevere in Camelot. The production has been extended and now runs through July 8th in STC's Sidney Harman Hall space.

Trained at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Alexandra has been seen in on Broadway in Fiddler on the Roof as Tzeitel and Master Class opposite Tyne Daly. Off-Broadway credits include the world premiere of Arlington as Sara Jane and Hello Again as Young Wife. Select regional credits include Carousel at Reprise Theatre, Master Class at Kennedy Center, Love Story at Walnut Street Theatre (US premiere), and the world premiere of Murder on the Orient Express at McCarter Theatre Center.

Her professional debut on the West End was The Women in White in the role of Laura Fairlie. Other West End credits include Kiss Me, Kate for the BBC Proms at Royal Albert Hall as Lilli Vanessi/Kate, Carousel as Julie Jordan, and Fiddler on the Roof as Hodel.

Her many concert and opera appearances include Amalia in She Loves Me at Caramoor, Song of Norway at Carnegie Hall, Dum Dee Tweedle (world premiere) at Royal Albert Hall with The John Wilson Orchestra and Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and I Am Harvey Milk at Disney Hall (Los Angeles).

You may have also seen her on television on the 57th Grammy Awards, Kiss Me, Kate (BBC), Elementary, The Mysteries of Laura, 1408, or all three branches of Law & Order.

Ms. Silber was also a 2014 Grammy nominee for her portrayal of Maria in the first-ever full symphonic recording of West Side Story, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. Other awards and accolades include the UK's TMA Award for Best Performance in a Musical for Carousel, an Outer Critics Circle Nomination for Arlington, and a Drama League Award for Hello Again.

Her debut novel After Anatevka and her memoir White Hot Grief Parade are both published by Pegasus Books.

I always enjoy Alexandra's performances and Camelot is no exception. Her vocal rendition of " I Loved You Once in Silence" might be the best I've ever heard. Come find out "What the Simple Folk Do" and check out Camelot at STC featuring a true world talent Alexandra Silber.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Alexandra Silber
Alexandra Silber in The Woman in White on London's West End. This was her first professional job at age 21. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Was there a particular show that you saw as a child that made you say "I want to become a performer"?

I did a community theatre production when I was twelve- it was Carousel and I played Billy and Julie's daughter Louise. That experience was incredibly important to my development as a human being, as well as my trajectory as a professional artist. I knew then that telling stories was not what I wanted, but absolutely had to do with my life.

On Broadway, I saw the original cast of Ragtime in the fall of 1998 and it was the most cathartic, overwhelming, alchemical theatrical experience I've still ever had. I had the honor of meeting Judy Kaye [the original Emma Goldman] in the lobby during BC/EFA collections, and years later, she remembered me as we rehearsed for a concert at Carnegie Hall. That anecdote is fleshed out in my memoir as one of the most important memories of my life thus far.

Did you perform in school productions?

My first memory on stage was as a butterfly in a ballet recital. My first memory of being in a play was in third grade as (prepare yourself) MISS HANNIGAN!!... I was 8. It was most likely an inappropriately accurate, gin- soaked carbon-copy of Carol Burnett's performance from the film down to the most infinitesimal vocal inflection, but still... I was hooked.

High school highlights included some illustrious cast mates at the incredible Interlochen Center for the Arts in Northern Michigan. I happened to be there at a remarkable time, and played Amalia Balash in She Loves Me AND Lucy in Snoopy: The Musical both opposite Michael Arden; I also did Merrily We Roll Along starring Ben Walker. Other favorites included Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker and Rosalind in As You Like It. High school was not messing around! As well as Arden and Walker, I was there cutting my teeth with the likes of now-professionals the illustrious Nick Westrate, Tony-nominated designer Dane Laffrey, Alex Michaels (now famous drag performer from RuPaul's Drag Race Season 9, Alexis Michelle), Broadway performer Nick Mayo, Broadway producer Kevin Emrick, and [Theater J] Artistic Director Adam Immerwahr. This is just a slice- and that was just the theatre department! It was quite a time to be young and developing.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Alexandra Silber
Alexandra Silber at center with the cast of Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of Camelot. Photo by Scott Suchman.

What is it about STC's production of Camelot that makes it relevant to today's audiences?

Hope. Hope for a better tomorrow based on the ideals of our past.

At Camelot's core is a humble, human king; a leader, and a fallible man who is trying to make the world a better place through logic and compassion. He doesn't always win. He ultimately fails. But his endeavor to do so is honest and genuine. I think that's really why it's universal.

Accompanying him along the way is the woman [Guenevere] who inspires him and gives him this platform to talk through the thinking that he's been taught how to do by the world's best parent, if you will: Merlyn, the man that represents all of his virtues and all of his ideals in human form. Ultimately what's sort of incredible is that the two people that he loves most dearly [Lancelot and Guenevere] are the people that, through no malice, betray him.

When the musical came out in the early 1960s, the world was changing rapidly, and I think the reason it resonated so deeply with the Kennedy administration was that JFK in many ways represented the King Arthur I just described: this young man and his wife endeavoring to make the world better in new a vital ways.

I think that right now we don't look at King Arthur's ideals with sentimentality or wistfulness; we look at that with a sense of great urgency and outrage. And I think that is a very powerful environment (particularly in our nation's capital) in which to present this musical again. So I think there's something really crucial to be said there. Not to be overtly political, but perhaps covertly: the whole concept of King Arthur, of right vs. might, of doing everything possible to fight back against barbarism and hatred, is so antithetical to our current president and his administration. And I think that there's something really powerful about just presenting that as a possible alternative.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Alexandra Silber
Alexandra Silber in Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of Camelot. Photo by Scott Suchman.

You've performed in many classic musicals. Kiss Me Kate, Carousel, and Fiddler on the Roof are just a few examples. What was it about Camelot that made it so attractive to you?

Guenevere herself.

What I really love about Guenevere is that she has the capacity to be portrayed as a fully-drawn human: flawed, loving, petty, hilarious, loyal, disloyal-nuanced. I don't know that it is all there in the source material, or even in the re-conceived book our company has brought forth. But I endeavor to fill her moments- spoken, sun and silent with complex humanity. One of the things that T.H. White says about her is that Guenevere was "simply herself." She was all of these things; she was a "real person."

She truly has an incredible loyalty to Arthur. She respects him; she admires him. And, he is the father of her mind and her intellectual awakening as a woman, queen, and leader. But, they lack this very important part of being a human being and being a woman, which has to do with the physical experience and the fullness-and almost the spirituality-of sex that she experiences with the incredibly God-oriented Lancelot. Their relationship is not just based in the carnal, but in the Divine. So, I think that's why she is a person to be admired: that, though the conventions of morality judge her, actually what she's done is chosen to have a full life. While it's still morally dubious, her actions are no less morally grey than her male counterparts- Arthur's Inaction is as destructive as her actions, and likewise Lancelot. It is interesting that we judge her most harshly, even today.

You've premiered a bunch of new works. What is the best thing about premiering a new theatrical work in front of an audience?

In my experience, there is absolutely nothing that can compare to being present at the birth of a new work. I think the most profound experience I had with that was Arlington by Polly Pen and Victor Lodato- a solo (with a pianist/vocalist played brilliantly by Ben Moss) piece, told in direct-address about a woman waiting for her husband to return from fighting in a war that I debuted at Inner Voices in 2012, that went on to a fully realized production in 2014 at the Vineyard. It was one of the most challenging, confrontational, exhilarating experiences of my life in any arena. To be inside the creative crucible at the birth of a new work that felt so relevant, contemporary and important, crafting it daily with the creators, was the absolute honor of my life.

The world we live in deserves, craves, and needs new stories. Sometimes difficult, sometimes hopeful, stories.

You've written two books, a novel called After Anatevka and a memoir called White Hot Grief Parade. Did you find it hard writing in two separate genres or did both books come easy for you?

This is a question I get often, and the "multiple-genres" aspect of my writing seems to really baffle the writing community more than the theatre community, and I suspect I know why. As an actor, we are often tasked to swim, play and create within the confines of different genres-that is, in many ways, the glory of it. One day you are Lady MacBeth speaking Shakespeare and ruining Scotland, the next day you are in a French farce, a piece of physical theatre, a devised avant-garde piece, or singing your face off center stage in a musical. All of these require a range of skills, a range of "voices" and a dexterous internal capacity in order to create a believable reality for the audience. I don't view writing any differently, in fact, the challenge is a liberating thrill.

Further, in many ways, these two particular books are cousins.

When I played Hodel in London from 2006-08, I had recently lost my own "Papa" to a long battle with cancer. Every day for 2-and-a-half years, I spoke Hodel's final words "Papa, God alone knows when we shall see each other again..." Each time as Hodel said goodbye, so did I. She helped guide me to adulthood.

I was so deeply haunted by Hodel's courage, faith, and fierce intellect, ignited by her true love for the Socialist university student, Perchik. Hodel boarded the train to join Perchik in a Siberian prison and we never hear from her again...I needed to know what happened to her, and in many ways, needed to ensure my own capacity to endure by completing her story. In that way, the Hodel in my novel and I are one and the same.

There are also many crossover characters to further flesh out this point: Perchik is in many ways modeled after my father, Hodel a mix of my mother (in regards to her marriage with Perchik) and myself (her idealism and philosophies on Judaism and human endurance). Gershom (Perchik's uncle) is modeled after my paternal grandfather, there is a "Rabbi Syme" in each book- one a fictionalized nod to the real Rabbi Syme who appears in White Hot Grief Parade).

Ultimately, we are the only "clay"- the only resource we have when creating. Of course the works are related.

After Camelot, where can we see you perform next?

I'll be singing Dina in Trouble in Tahiti opposite Nathan Gunn at Tanglewood July 12.

Special thanks to Shakespeare Theatre Company's publicist Amy "The Always Grand Duchess" Killion for her assistance in coordinating this interview.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.

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