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BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Deb Gottesman and Claire Schoonover

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Deb Gottesman and Claire Schoonover
L-R Deb Gottesman and Claire Schoonover

Today's subjects Deb Gottesman and Claire Schoonover are currently living their theatre lives onstage at Keegan Theatre playing two very resourceful and cutthroat senior citizens in the DC area premiere of David Lindsay-Abaire's Ripcord. The production runs through July 6th.

Many of you probably know Deb Gottesman as the Co-Founder and Co-Director of my favorite arts education institution The Theatre Lab School of the Dramatic Arts. What you might not know is that Deb is also an accomplished actress having worked at many of our area theatres including Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Arena Stage, Theatre Alliance and WSC Avant Bard. Her last stage appearance was at Keegan Theatre's production of A Man of No Importance.

Claire Schoonover is making her Keegan Theatre debut in Ripcord. Other area credits include productions at Folger Theatre, Olney Theatre Center, Annapolis Shakespeare Company, and Brave Spirits Theatre.

She can currently be seen on the Amazon Prime series Thespian.

After being a part of Theatre Lab's Honors Conservatory program and having Deb as an instructor, read on for Claire's thoughts on what it is like performing onstage with her in Ripcord.

Deb and Claire are two examples of how to live your theatre life to the max. Check out Ripcord at Keegan Theatre and see for yourselves why these two ladies deserve all the accolades possible.

How did you get interested in performing?

D- I was always writing plays and performing when I was in elementary school, and I guess I would say I was a theatre kid in high school. But it wasn't the initial professional path I pursued. I studied psychology and worked in a treatment center for emotionally disturbed kids and adolescents for a couple of years. I guess I was always drawn to the study of the human condition, but it took me a while to decide that I wanted to do that through theatre.

C- My family moved a lot. One move took me to Bryn Hafren High School for Girls in Barry S.Wales, a new school with a spectacular Drama department. Miss Clark was the young dynamic drama teacher. She cast me as The Chrysalis in The Insect Play. I loved it they played a harp when I emerged and I thought it was heaven! We moved the following year and she told my Mother "Never let her stop performing." I've tried to find her and thank her but sadly no luck.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Deb Gottesman and Claire Schoonover
Isayas Theodros and Claire Schoonover in Solomon and Marion.
This was Claire's final Theatre Lab Honors Conservatory project.
Photo courtesy of the artist.

Where did you receive your theatrical training?

D- I got my MFA in acting from Catholic University in the early 90s.

C- I graduated from the Theatre Labs Honors program in 2014. I graduated with an Mfa in Classical Acting from STC and George Washington University's ACA in 2017

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Deb Gottesman and Claire Schoonover
L-R Claire Schoonover and Deb Gottesman in the Keegan Theatre production of Ripcord.
Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Can you please tell us a little something about the character you play in Ripcord?

D- I play Abby, a resident in a senior living facility who does not want to share her room with anyone, let alone the chatterbox whom she finds herself paired with at the beginning of the play. I guess most people would describe Abby as cantankerous or "the mean one" in this play. But I kind of love her. She's a person who has been disappointed in her life and has isolated herself in order to avoid further heartbreak. I think that's pretty understandable. The play is, in many ways, about how she is reawakened and reconnected to life through her relationship with the woman she perceives as her nemesis.

C- Marilyn is an eternal optimist, despite many difficulties and a rocky and abusive marriage she copes by always looking on the bright side of life. She is fascinated with people and is unapologetic as she inserts her well meaning curiosity into others lives, much to Abby's chagrin. Marilyn has a cheerful exterior but under that is a steely competitive will, it's her way of finding meaning in life, her family is her rock but her bet making is her way of thrill seeking and making life more bearable.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Deb Gottesman and Claire Schoonover
Nancy Robinette and Deb Gottesman in the 2000 Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company production of David Lindsay Abaire's Wonder of the World.
Photo courtesy of the artist.

After reading Ripcord for the first time what were your initial thoughts about the overall script?

D- I'm pretty familiar with the playwright's work, which colored my initial perceptions. I had the good fortune to be in the premiere of David Lindsay Abaire's Wonder of the World at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company twenty years ago. And that was a wild romp (as were all of his early plays)-a hilarious, really "out there" comedy. But I also know that he went on to write some of the best dramas of our generation, including Rabbit Hole and Good People. So, when I read Ripcord, I thought-how strange, he's totally gone back to his roots and written this truly whack comedy. But in act two, it actually becomes a pretty deep play about loneliness and redemption. So, in the end, I feel like it's a play that only David Lindsay Abaire could write, and I really love it. It's also an incredible challenge to work on because the audience isn't always prepared for what's coming.

C- Thought #1 was how on earth are they going to stage the sky diving scene? Thought # 2 was this is some funny stuff! Also there is real pathos here, and I want in!

Claire- You were part of The Theatre Lab's Honors Acting Conservatory. Deb is a co-founder of the Theatre Lab and one of the conservatory's instructors. Do you feel any extra pressure being onstage with your former instructor? How much did training at The Theatre Lab help you in preparing to play in Ripcord?

Regarding feeling pressure working with a former instructor I experienced just the opposite, not because I don't respect Debs skills, she is an amazing actress with experience way beyond mine, but my lack of fear or pressure is a testimony to the The Theatre Labs culture which nurtures a non-competitive but rigorous environment. I always felt the availability to do well was in my hands and they were there to guide the way not force anything on me.

Deb embodies this philosophy she has no ego and emits zero us and them vibe, she is curious, generous and collaborative both on and off stage. Because of my training at the Theatre Lab we have enjoyed frank conversations about the play, our roles, and acting that are not usually available to me in other shows with difference cast dynamics.

Deb continues to teach me as I watch her. She is a master at breaking down the architecture of a joke in the script and then delivering it with aplomb. I learn from her during every performance.

Deb- If I'm not mistaken the last full run of a show you were in was A Man of No Importance in 2010. What was it about Ripcord that brought you back?

I love acting, but it can be hard to fit into my Theatre Lab life, where I direct and teach a lot at night. This opportunity was a perfect fit-I love the daring, creative spirit of Keegan Theatre and, as I said, I'm a huge fan of the playwright. And it just happened to fall between directing gigs. It's been a really joyful experience, and, as always, being on stage gives me a lot of new things to bring back to the classroom. It's also been really fantastic to get to work with Claire. She's a terrific actor who wowed us when she was in the Honors Conservatory, and it's so much fun to get to play with her on stage. She really knows how to connect and be spontaneous in rehearsals and performance.

There have been cases where performers have traded roles during the run of a show. If given the opportunity would you be interested in playing each other's roles in Ripcord?

D- It is funny you mention that. Claire and I both think that each of us is a more natural fit for the role the other person is playing. I tend to play the eternal optimist or the goofy striver, so Abby's closed-down nature is really new to me. And Claire says she is often cast in roles that call for someone who is arch and patrician, so Marilyn's non-stop gregariousness was not familiar territory for her. But I love that we are playing against type in this piece. It's definitely brought out new things in my work.

C- We talk about this often! And imagine what it would be like, after the initial auditions we even said we thought we'd be better suited type wise to be in the opposite role. But now that the show has its legs it would be hard to imagine anyone else as Abby. That said the short answer is YES I'D LOVE TO.

After Ripcord closes, do you have any other shows lined up?

D- I'm directing the premiere of a new musical, written by my Theatre Lab Co-Director Buzz Mauro and award-winning playwright Norman Allen, called Alix in Wonderland: A Gender Journey Down the Rabbit Hole. It uses Alice in Wonderland as the looking glass through which to view the experience of a gender non-binary teen. I'm really excited to premiere this piece with an extraordinary cast of teenagers July 18-July 20 at The Theatre Lab.

C- I am leaving for a few months to go to Spain to take care of my parents who live there. Before I go I am finishing up filming season two of Thespian on Amazon Prime. I play Clara Pemble.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.



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