Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
We need a fun musical now and D.C.’s Arena Stage is delivering just that with a rollicking production of Anything Goes, featuring classic Cole Porter songs. Lisa Helmi Johanson plays Hope Harcourt, a debutante who is about to get married, but meeting someone else on board a cruise ships changes all that. In an interview with Woman Around Town’s Charlene Giannetti Lisa talks about her career, how she’s managed to amass a collection of musical instruments, and how Arena’s production of Anything Goes has been updated with a multi-cultural cast that will resonate with audiences in the nation’s capital. Lisa is playing Hope at a time when we need just that.
Virginia-based actress Dorea Schmidt is a familiar stage presence to Washington, D.C. audiences, seen around town at Shakespeare Theatre Company, Round House, Woolly Mammoth and others. This month, she returns to Arena Stage playing two characters, Sally and Flora, in the upcoming world premiere of Sovereignty. Dorea has appeared previously at Arena Stage in Oliver! and Fiddler on the Roof, all three directed by Arena’s Artistic Director Molly Smith.
Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Sovereignty, shares the story of Sarah Ridge Polson (played by Kyla García), a young Cherokee lawyer fighting to restore her Nation’s jurisdiction who must confront the ever-present ghosts of her grandfathers. With shadows stretching from 1830s Cherokee Nation (now present-day Georgia) and Andrew Jackson’s White House to the Cherokee Nation in present-day Oklahoma, Sovereignty asks: how far would you go to protect your people and your nation?
Sovereignty is the fourth commission of Arena’s Power Plays initiative and is part of the Women’s Voices Theatre Festival. The majority of theaters in the U.S. have never produced a play by a Native playwright, creating great excitement for Nagle’s play. Dorea is thrilled to be part of the cast for this groundbreaking event. She took time from rehearsals to answer our My Career Choice questionnaire.
Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
Attending the National Theatre Institute. While I had wanted to be an actor before I went, going there turned my tiny flame into a bonfire. The experience changed me and confirmed this was what I wanted to do.
What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
I love so many aspects- meeting interesting people, cultivating my imagination, being a part of the impact that stories can have— but probably what I love most is how much I get to learn. I love the conversations we have in the rehearsal room or after seeing a show. I love that I’m always being challenged to think about other people’s perspectives, history, cultures, politics and my own life. I’m a very curious person and being in theater, there’s always something that blows my mind and makes me eager to know more.
What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
I studied theater at a liberal arts college, but the program was pretty small and I left hungry to fill in the gaps. There are so many areas I want to work on, and new ones cropping up all the time, so I’m always on the hunt for training programs. Other than the National Theatre Institute, I also did an intensive at the National Theatre Conservatory. Most recently, I studied with William Esper at his studio in NYC which was AMAZING. I learned so much; I wish I could go back every week and work with him.
Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
I’ve been very lucky to have an incredibly supportive husband and base of encouraging friends and family, as well as many mentors along the way. My first mentor was a teacher in college who opened my eyes to Chekhov and the Moscow Art Theatre and eventually advised me in an independent class where I studied them to my heart’s content. I also had a bunch of amazing teachers at NTI and I’ve met many wonderful people here in DC who have opened many doors for me. Arena Stage’s Artistic Director Molly Smith is my mentor now- she always makes time to talk with me about where I’m at, what I’m wrestling with or want to learn. She challenges me in my work and life and I am so grateful for her.
Kyla García (Sarah Polson) and Dorea Schmidt (Sarah Bird Northrup/Flora) in Sovereignty (Photo by Tony Powell)
Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
I love being home and I’ve definitely had moments of wishing I had a 9-5 job so my schedule would be more predictable and fit with my family’s. But ultimately, I keep coming back to how much I love being in theater and wouldn’t want a life without it. I love acting so much- the craft itself, the conversations that come out of the stories I get to tell, the changes it makes in me, the people I get to meet and work with. There’s nothing else that I’d rather do.
When did your career reach a tipping point?
I’m not quite sure how to answer that- I’m not sure if it has- haha! I do feel very grateful, though, for the opportunities I’ve been given in this city. I’ve gotten to work with lots of great theaters and on many different types of productions – from musicals to plays to premiering new works. I’ve gotten to return to theaters and have built relationships with so many artists; it makes it really fun to be cast in a show and already know/have worked with some of the people involved. It’s always been a dream of mine to be a member of an ensemble, and I feel in a way like I have that now working in DC; it’s just that the ensemble is a lot bigger than I imagined.
Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
I think an ongoing challenge is to keep punching out the box that others (and even me) put myself in. Although I think it’s a more open city than some others, it’s still easy in DC to get pegged as one thing and then that’s what your career ends up being. For instance, it’s easy to get locked into musicals or plays, and once you’ve done a bunch of one it’s hard to be seen for the other. For me, I want to stretch and surprise others, but mostly myself. We are all so complex and I find that even a character that I feel most different from, I can usually find a connection with, so I never want to limit myself. I never want to be comfortable. I like having to go after something that feels scary and like it will take effort. So, it requires a constant vigilance and fight on my part to say no to certain projects. I have a vision journal of projects I want to do and artists that inspire me in this way, so I look back to that when I’m feeling discouraged or I need an extra kick of passion.
What single skill has proven to be most useful?
Tenacity. In life, and on stage. Staying fiercely committed to my standards for myself and my goals. And to the journey of it all – not getting swept away by comparing myself to others or expectations of where I “should” be in the rehearsal process or in my career. But rather staying grounded and clear in what I want and feel called to. It also is invaluable in rehearsal and allows me to try new things and play around.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
It’s hard to answer that because I don’t really think of accomplishments so much as experiences. And which experiences I’m most grateful for/have had a significant effect on my life. For me, each of those experiences is like a new chapter of my story. So, in that light, I’d say working on Sovereignty is my latest chapter title. I’ve been deeply moved as we’ve been studying the Cherokee people and inspired by the lives, beliefs, and perspectives of so many other Native men and women I’ve been introduced to – both past and present. I’m seeing our history, our world, my place in our world in such a new way because of them. I knew at our first Sovereignty workshop last January that I had to be a part of this project, and I’m so grateful that I am. It’s been life changing for sure and I’m cherishing every moment.
Any advice for others entering your profession?
Constantly check in with yourself to hear what you want and need. There will be stretches of no “work,” so how do you make opportunities for yourself, how do you feed your soul and fan your passion? Everyone has their own path – and no other actor can really tell you how to get where you want to be. Above all, I’m working on embracing life as a journey. I’ve known people who were on Broadway for years and then had no work for years after that, and the other way around, too! You never “arrive” because we’re always moving and growing, so enjoy the ride; and if you’re not enjoying it, ask yourself what can you do to change it.
Lydia Diamond’s Smart People deals with all the “isms” – racism, careerism, chauvinism, conformism, conservatism, elitism, materialism, multiculturalism, etc. All those “isms” affect our attitudes and beliefs. The play, needless to say, is thought-provoking, causing the actors and, of course, audience members to think, react, and, yes, squirm a little as what unfolds on stage provokes self-examination. “There is a lot of anxiety in the country and the city right now,” says Sue Jin Song, who plays a psychologist, Ginny Yang. “I think this play is topical and can inspire great debate and, hopefully, introspection. We need to find a way to dialogue about these issues to move forward as a country.”
While the “smart” in the title refers to the intellect of the four main characters – besides a psychologist, they include an actress, a doctor, and a neurobiologist – these professionals at times come across as pretentious. “They are smart, as in bright, but definitely have shades of arrogance,” says Lorene Chesley, who plays the actress, Valerie. Sue Jin observes that each person is accustomed to being the smartest person in the room. “So what happens when you are met with another person who is just as smart and opinionated?” she asks.
Sue Jin Song
Spirited conversations happen, even fireworks, between the four who are friends, even lovers. “I love that this play is funny, smart, and brave,” says Sue Jin. “I love that theater gives us a safe place to allow for difficult conversations.” Diamond set the play during the 2008 presidential election, but it will be presented at Arena Stage in the aftermath of the 2016 election. “People wanted to believe that with Barack Obama’s election we were now a post-racial country,” says Sue Jin. “Well, not so fast.”
Each actress connects with her character. “Valerie believes in her craft one thousand percent and she believes in herself, that she can do anything you throw her way,” says Lorene. The downside is that “she says reckless things and takes things way too personally at times.” Valerie believes her MFA from Harvard will jump start her career. “She gets pigeonholed in the roles she goes out for, and is not respected for her MFA training,” says Lorene. “I have experienced the same thing. When I first got out of grad school I just knew I could do anything, but I immediately got sent out for roles that are my `type.’ It’s like I have done all this training to widen and expand my horizons and then Bam! Back to playing whatever I classically look like. I know how to navigate and play the game now that I’ve been in the business for years.”
Like Valerie, Ginny has worked hard to succeed in her profession. “Even her weaknesses or faults just make her more human and interesting to me,” Sue Jin says. “She is facing her life choices and the impact that those choices have on her clients and on her work. But the higher you climb, the further you have to fall.” Ginny is aware of being an Asian-American woman in an institution and country that is still dominated by white men. “She navigates that system, but at what cost?” asks Sue Jin. Like Lorene, Sue Jin says she has often found herself typecast. “As an Asian actress, I have turned down work and auditions for certain roles and projects,” she says.
Both women are fans of Lydia Diamond and also wanted to work with Seema Sueko, who directs. The production, they say, will not disappoint, involving the audience immediately in the action. “[It opens] with a bang!” says Sue Jin. “Hold on and grab your seatbelts.”
Adds Lorene: “With the political climate we’re in, race, love, all of these topics that are unveiled throughout this play, it’s imperative to open the line of communication so then we can move forward with real change.“ She hopes that Smart People will encourage people “to discuss these important topics… and to LISTEN to one another.”
Top photo by Tony Powell Left to right: Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston, Gregory Perri as Brian White, Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore and Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang
Smart People Written by Lydia Diamond Directed by Seema Sueko Arena Stage 1101 Sixth Street SW 202-554-9066 April 14 through May 21, 2017
You are a political refugee. We don’t turn back people like you, people in danger.
Theater audiences don’t usually burst into applause in the middle of a scene. But these aren’t usual times, and the line above, from Lillian Hellman’s 1941 Watch on the Rhine, certainly struck a nerve with those attending an opening night performance at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Hellman’s 76 year-old play may be about a different time in history, but the themes seem eerily fitting today.
The Fichandler Stage
Family matriarch, Fanny Farrelly (Marsha Mason), and her son, David (Thomas Keegan), live outside the nation’s capital, in a mansion watched over by two servants, Anise (Helen Hedman), and Joseph (Addison Switzer). Also in the house are two guests – Count Teck De Brancovis (J Anthony Crane) and his wife, Marthe (Natalia Payne). In the round Fichandler Stage, the gazebo-like living room designed by Todd Rosenthal is upscale yet warm and comfortable, a setting that reflects the inhabitants.
The household is preparing for a visit by Sara (Lisa Bruneau), Fanny’s daughter and David’s sister, who has been in Europe for 20 years. Sara arrives with her husband, Kurt Müller (a visceral performance by Andrew Long), and their three children, Joshua (Ethan Miller), Babette (Lucy Breedlove), and Bodo (Tyler Bowman).
Ethan Miller, Helen Hedman, Lise Bruneau, Andrew Long, and Lucy Breedlove
Fanny and David greet Sara warmly. Fanny not only is thrilled to have her daughter home, but excited to meet her grandchildren. She’s soon showering them with presents. David and Sara reminisce about their times growing up in the mansion. But their lives have taken far different paths. While Fanny and David have been living in a safe “bubble,” Sara and her family have been on the front lines in Germany, watching with horror the destruction wrought by Hitler. “The world has changed and some of the people in it are dangerous,” Sara says. “It’s time you knew that.” Kurt has not worked as an engineer since 1933 and instead risks his life fighting the rise of fascism. And that fight has followed him to America. He receives word that his compatriots in Germany are in trouble and he needs to return, along with the suitcase of money contributed by supporters of the cause, to help free them.
Like so many Americans during that time, Fanny and David fail to grasp the full import of what is happening in Europe. Seeing the danger through Sara’s and Kurt’s eyes brings things into focus. They fully support Kurt’s efforts, as evidenced by David’s declaration quoted above.
J Anthony Crane and Natalia Payne
The fly in the ointment is the count. De Brancovis is a desperate man. His marriage is ending (Marthe has fallen in love with David), and after spending nights gambling at the German embassy, he’s in serious debt. When he discovers Kurt’s identity and what’s in the suitcase, he sees an opportunity to repay the Farrelly’s hospitality with blackmail. He asks for what’s in the suitcase, as well as money from the Farrellys, to keep quiet. That demand will set into motion events that threaten everyone with deadly consequences.
Marsha Mason (photo byTony Powell)
Mason, once a high profile presence in 1970 romantic comedies, has talked about the difficulties older actresses face landing film roles. Her recent appearances on the small screen include guest spots on CBS’s The Good Wife and Madame Secretary, and Grace and Frankie on Netflix. She’s the high profile star in this production. Don’t miss the chance to see this professional at the top of her game. She commands attention, showing the many facets of Fanny’s personality as she morphs from the perfect hostess and caring mother into someone who is more flint than fluff, ready to protect those she loves and make a moral stand. “Well, we’ve been shaken out of the magnolias,” she says, the full impact of the situation hitting home.
Andrew Long and Thomas Keegan
Director Jackie Maxwell brings her magic touch to an excellent supporting cast. Long’s performance is riveting. While Kurt loves his wife and children, standing up against fascism is a battle he fights for them. Long balances both sides of Kurt’s character, gentle with his wife and children one moment, lashing out against the count in another. As brave as Kurt is, it’s Bruneau’s Sara who stands out as the courageous one. Once Kurt leaves on his rescue mission, however, she laments what her life will be like without him. The three young actors, playing characters who have had to grow up much too soon, also display maturity beyond their years. These are three young people to watch.
Keegan’s David is the ballast steadying the family. Without his unconditional love and support, Kurt and Sara might have been left to fend for themselves. Besides turning in a strong performance, Keegan serves as the play’s fight captain, staging a scene that is both exciting and startling.
Crane’s evil count brings to mind other villains, mostly from films, who were never true believers but supported fascism for their own selfish reasons. These many years later, Hellman’s play still resonates.
Photos by C. Stanley Photography
Watch on the Rhine Fichandler Stage Arena Stage 1101 Sixth Street, SW Through March 5, 2017