It's tough out there; older actresses have to face it when the parts dry up & decide whether the crushing rejection is worth it or whether it would be nice just to have a life for a change.
C. We are of an age and a demographic when the parts dry up.
A. [laughs] I thought you meant your 'parts'
C. Those, too—take your pick...
A. The parts dry up. Yeah. I was recently reading for Pinter's The Birthday Party, a play I adore; there I was at the callback with J— who's been doing Scrooge—one of the most exhausting parts ever—and he was exhausted. So he wasn't giving me anything—nothing. And it's a part that relies on responding to what the powerful people are doing. The director kept saying There's a sense of menace, Abigail and I'm going There's a dormouse in a teapot. And so I just couldn't get anything going and I could feel the energy just draining out of the room.
The interesting thing was, instead of getting disappointed, I got really pissed off; but I was far enough away from my years of doing this all the time to see the whole pattern of the way it was when I when I was doing it all the time. Especially during my years at the Eureka, because there, we had the agreement with each other that we could say, there's menace...be menacing! Give me something. That's why I wanted to be part of the company—because I could do that—and particularly that company. And I could see the whole thing unfold before me and I went WOW this is what I hated about being an actress—was watching my dream of what the play could be just shrivel and die. My vision of what The Birthday Party could be, but I don't get to have my vision, I have to be guided by the director and felt like asking him what is it you're really after? what is this about for you? I don't know what you want me to be. Everything he said was intelligent and fine, but why are we doing this at an audition? You should be seeing how responsive I am, and then deciding if you want somebody this shape with this color hair.
It was very frustrating and I wound up feeling very relieved that I hadn't been cast—the feeling that I don't want to go through anymore and especially coming out on other end with the feeling this could have been better. I was just incredibly lucky to be in the Eureka Theatre for all those years with those men who really did know what they were doing. So we could tussle and argue and the actors would share their ideas. I only did one thing with Richard Seyd [at Eureka]; I begged him to let me understudy for Cloud Nine—I was desperate for money and he was ignoring me, he would never cast me. This was very early on before we established how we were going to handle all that political stuff. And I was a disaster as an understudy. Worst experience ever, was having to be nearby—I come to the theater and then go out and have a bowl of noodles somewhere—tell them where I was going—then twenty minutes into the show if everyone was still alive and kicking, I go home. This was before cell phones; early '80s.
Smaller theaters that don't have all this pressure on them can be more fun. Right before I joined the Eureka I went up to Northern California, to Yreka and took a job as the Artistic Director of Siskiyou Performing Arts Center for 2 years before I came back to Berkeley and really started my acting career as a career. Here I was directing everything and it was really, really, really fun. When I first got there, they were doing the typical thing that little theaters like that tend to do, which is putting on the worst plays they can find because they think we're nothing, so we should do just crap, we shouldn't try the biggies, but the biggies are in the public domain—you don't have to pay for them, so I said let's do Chekhov, Moliere—things we don't have to pay for, so we did. And it was fantastic.
For our production of The Imaginary Invalid it turned out there was a guy in the community who was a great mask maker and he made real Italian Commedia masks for the last scene. The woman who played the invalid's wife worked for the county and a year after that production, she wound up getting six years in prison for being an embezzler. She was very large and got to wear a dress that revealed almost everything and she was just thrilled to do it. We got to do the craziest stuff and people had the best time. We had to make exits by going out of the outside door to the bathrooms coming around and in through the office window. Stuff like that. To get around to the other side to make the next entrance. I absolutely loved it. That's really theater to me.
In terms of opportunities, I've had a pretty good run in movies, so that's where I'm still getting some work and that's enough. I think for me the dream died around the move of Angels in America from the Eureka to the Mark Taper in L.A. People died, the director was fired, actors were replaced. It was just a terrible time. I went on and did a lot of other things. I went on just for the sake of not giving up, but I think it was really over. I got some interesting movie parts, that was fun and a new place to see what this is all about, but I don't think my heart was in it. All the shows I did in the 90's were just one disappointment after another.
Not that the shows weren't good. I did Serious Money at Berkeley Rep, which was really fun. But I was also facing having to make a living; I had to put a lot more energy into this other work and the potential I had to do it. The balance slipped away from my acting career—so more and more I began to pay attention to this other work and to having more joy in the work I was doing elsewhere. But high point of the acting I did in the 90's was Road. We turned the whole theater into this jungle gym—Margaret Thatcher's effect on the people of the Midlands and England. So it felt like I had gone out with a bang. That felt like my last show but as I look back, it wasn't, I did a lot after but nothing that stands out to me. The great joys of the Eureka were doing lots of shows when I played multiple roles and doing lots of Caryl Churchill—she's such a joy to do—doing lots of new plays with writers around.
C: What does it mean to be in Northern California versus the plasticized Southern California?
A: Most of the work I've done is up here. I did go to LA two or three times. I hate L.A.
C: You didn't feel you had to go where the action was and do whatever was required to make it?
A: No, because I didn't really start my career, actually, until I was 28. I paired up with Margaret R—and the New Shakespeare Company—a woman of Berlin: I have verked viz Max Reinhart! You stink! You stink! You are abominable!
Romeo & Juliet—it was the first thing since college I had auditioned for and when I went to the auditions, R—was sitting there and said, No ve have everything cast, but why don't you come to a rehearsal, so I did, and she was rehearsing Lady Capulet and she said You hold ze book. Oh good. Now I'm the prompter. So I held the book and this woman was rehearsing Lady Capulet and she was reading away and R—was going Ach Gott, you stink, you stink and this young woman just put the book down and stomped on and said You know what, R—I quit! and went to a door at the back of the stage, opened it. Daylight came flooding in and she left, slamming it. And R—looked at me: Vell, all right then, I suppose you are Lady Capulet. Oh wonderful, my opportunity! (I missed a big piece of the puzzle there.) Months later, I'm coming offstage and she's storming down the hall and I say R—,R—, how'd I do, how was that and she said You ver ABOMINABLE! Then I had to go back on and do the rest of the show.
So one of my great moments of triumph was the very first show I did at the Eureka, Emily Mann's Still Life (1981) and R—came. It was a huge hit. We would have a discussion with the audience after and I remember seeing her there and going Hi, how are you and she said That was very good, that was very good. I see you half developed…and she was probably right. But I really miss my tribe. I will never be as at home in the work I do now in advertising. I love the work I do; it has a very familiar feel. A lot of creative people, but it's just not at all the same. I really miss that part of it. There's no people like show people. There's a bonding that goes on. There's so much shared on so many levels.
My father had been an actor very early in his life. He was a dynamo and he was gonna be an actor in New York. He did do small parts on Broadway, but the depression hit and then he became a director and then my parents had this Bohemian life in NY for ten years. Then came the Second World War and he joined the Navy and was stationed in LA in the Communications Corps with Fritz Weaver and Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Bing Crosby. He knew these people the rest of his life and he got the bug. L.A. in the 40's was very different from the hideous monster it's become. All the refugees from Europe, the film directors and so on. He became a big ad guy after being a writer for TV. When my mother died, I was 14 and went to live with him in NY. He still knew all these theater people and they hung around at our place. I was a vulnerable and traumatized teenager. I just found this absolutely negative view of the whole showbiz thing, including being vulnerable in the sense of sleeping on my little bed and along comes some drunken producer guy who tries to crawl into bed with me.
This was all just a big nightmare and I still feel that way even though in the movies I've been in, in small parts, I've met some great very, very accomplished actors I've happened to be in scenes with, people like Francis Coppola, Glenn Close, Jeff Bridges and most recently Will Smith, and have very, very positive views of these, but then when it comes to J. H., a friend who went to L.A. 20 years ago—I happened to reencounter him a couple of years ago. At one point we were talking about our pensions and social security and retirement. I asked him How has it been for you in L.A.? He's been in a whole lot of movies, with some noticeable roles, and lots of commercials. He's done fine. He said I've been in L.A. for 20 years and I've only made a total of two million dollars. It was a disaster my going to L.A. I said All my acting pensions with be about $650 a month and he said Oh, mine will be close to the max $55,000 a year. He just doesn't know what he's going to do! He's used to living on $150,000 a year. Get real. He considers himself a failure.
That's what L.A. does to you at the level of the ordinary working actor. You either have to thread that needle perfectly or have something so spectacular, something they think is spectacular, the flavor of the month. I've never enjoyed being in L.A. I don't like how it feels down there. Don't like anything about it. Anybody in production, anybody in casting can do just fine down there and I know many people who have and who have liked it. But I never wanted it. I was never ambitious. Ambition isn't one of my deals. I want things to be juicy. The whole of success just doesn't…having a very ambitious father and watching that just eat away at him. I just wanted to be with him. I had a really, really good time, despite all the hardships, at the Eureka. And as I was saying about the 90's being the time when I had been doing 4 shows a year…I never have been able to stick my neck out to go after something.
[back to Still Life] This play was made from interviews that Emily [Mann] had done with a Vietnam Vet who had been an amateur photographer as many of them were; she asked if she could see his pictures and they blew her away. He started talking about them as he was showing them to her. He told her about his wife and it was hell on wheels, he had PTSD, and he had a mistress who was older. She asked Can I meet them? She met them and got all this interview material and wove it together into something like a jazz score. We had three chairs for the characters and a projector to show this guy's actual photographs. It was a mindblower. There had been several plays before that about Vietnam, but for this one the vets turned out in huge numbers. Word got around about it that this was the real deal. It was amazing—after every show we would have…if you want to come and talk, we would like to talk to you. It was amazingly powerful and did a lot for them. The vets.
[sighs] That audition the other day—everybody was so nice and sweet. It wasn't that anything icky happened except to me. Where I got to go down memory lane with my head completely out of it and going Aaah, I remember this, I don't like this. It had nothing to do with getting cast or not, it had to do with feeling without any artistic control or input. You guys have a good time. I'll be there to see it. I hope it goes really well. Bye…
[smiles] We could launch into onstage accidents! Those end up being some of your favorite memories—if you handle them well. I tend to handle them well—other people not so well. One of my favorites was when we did Cherry Orchard. We've come back from Paris and we're sitting in the nursery. Lupahin has come in and is about to challenge me and I'm about to say my famous line: If there's one thing in this entire world that means anything to me , it is my Cherry orchard. I stand and my brother is to my side and there's the bookcase there because he later has to address my dear honored bookcase I stood up and I felt something at my waist go snick and I thought that can't be good and have to process around as I'm doing this and I said to my brother If there's something in this world that really means…and I take a step and feel something go rrrrink and now something that is definitely a waist band is somewhere in the vicinity of my thighs. And I look behind me and my whole petticoat is just trailing along. So I stepped out of it and I said Gentlemen and Lupahin was standing there trying to be a 19th Century guy and he just stood up like a fox, it was hilarious, it was all I could do just not to burst out laughing. He was just—That's not a line—I said Something extremely awkward has just happened and B—as my brother, went Oh, I see and went flowing across, picked up the petticoat, rolled it up and threw it into the bookcase. And then I said If there's anything in this world…Then about two minutes later my brother has to turn to the bookcase and go Dear honored bookcase out of which is now falling the petticoat. We managed to get through it and after the show—there were always people at the Eureka who'd always stay—these two women were standing there and they said Oh, Abigail, we so enjoyed that but we did want to ask you, what was the meaning of the petticoat? That was a fabulous moment.
There was another show where this really big guy who was playing a big clunky peasant has his one moment where he plants himself and turns to us and emphatically leans over [arms out for emphasis] and he let out this colossal fart! I think I said Vladimir! Really! He was uncontrollably laughing so he couldn't do his line and we went on without it. With that show, people thought it was intended—how does he do that every night on cue?
Doing Uncle Vanya once I was using this brocade dress and I had brought in this acorn squash. I was using it as a prop. As we went on rehearsing gradually it was turning yellow, and all these different colors. It was beautiful! After one rehearsal, we were moving on to another scene, and I packed it and the dressing gown and some other thing into a little suitcase together. we didn't get back to that scene for a week or two and I brought in the whole suitcase and in the scene I open the suitcase and there was this mold over everything—black, long, hairy mold and it was so perfect for what was happening to her inside and everybody gathered round going This is it, this is it! Oh, this is how it is. This is a rot that is going on inside her. Just that feeling of being…ooooh. It just changed everything for better, I think.
C: That would never have happened without the artistic freedom.
A: Yeah, that's right. And there were many moments like that, that we all still remember and this was so many years ago and the people who were in on that remember everything about creating those shows together...