"I was a lot older than most people when I finally made it out to L.A.," said Calista Flockhart, who was 30 years old before landing her first West Coast job in the 1996 film The Birdcage. "I don't know how it happened. It wasn't intentional — it just worked out that way."
Before her big television break on the hit series Ally McBeal, Flockhart was a regular in the New York theater scene. She performed in a number of small off-Broadway productions as well as Broadway mountings of The Three Sisters and The Glass Menagerie, in which she played Laura opposite the late stage legend Julie Harris. Deprived of her home on the New York stage, she has found L.A. Theatre Works as a place to get what she calls a "quick fix of the theater" while managing her family's busy Los Angeles schedule.
As a nonprofit media arts organization, L.A. Theatre Works gathers some of Hollywood's greatest talent to record classic plays for public radio. Performed in front of live audiences, the experience poses an interesting challenge to its performers. Flockhart is now a veteran of L.A. Theatre Works, having previously performed in recordings of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull and Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House. She will begin performances in Sharr White's recent Broadway drama The Other Place on Thursday, March 13. Flockhart takes on the lead role of Juliana Smithton, a successful neurologist whose own cognitive abilities fall under increased scrutiny as the play unfolds. The stage-turned-television-star spoke with TheaterMania about the unique L.A. Theatre Works experience while sharing some of her son's onstage favorites and revealing the classic role that would inspire a Broadway return.
This is your third time doing an L.A. Theatre Works play. What is it that keeps you coming back?
It's an opportunity to work on a great play, and it's an opportunity to work with some great actors and great directors. And for me, it's a quick fix. I go in on Monday and I'm finished on Sunday. I did A Doll's House, which was so much fun. I never have had the opportunity to do the actual play, so you sort of get a little quick fix of the theater. It's very satisfying.
What is the rehearsal process like?
On Monday [and] Tuesday we'll rehearse all day, and then Wednesday night, we do a tech and Thursday night we're in front of an audience. You're really learning a lot while you're performing it in front of an audience, which is nerve-racking and terrifying and also really exciting. It kind of takes the pressure off as well because you're holding a script. I think the audiences that come to see these plays are aware of what the process is and [that's why they] come to see it. Sometimes you'll see an actor jumping up and down acting all crazy because they need to be out of breath when they're doing the next monologue. I think it's really fun for an audience.
Is the way you relate to the audience at L.A. Theatre Works different than when you do a traditional play?
It is really different in some ways and in a way it sort of feels the same. The only thing that I find a little disconcerting and weird at first is you can't look at the person you're talking to because if you move your head you are not in the mic. It's amazing how you just kind of accept it and get used to it. When I first did a play there, I didn't know if the audience would become involved in an emotional way, but they do. It's just like being a kid and getting read a story. You can close your eyes and listen, and if it's a great play — and L.A. Theatre Works always does amazing plays — it just takes you.
Is there any particular way you prepare for these plays?
What I really focus on is the character. I don't hold back emotionally because it reads on the radio if you're faking it or if you're really emotional about a scene — if that's what's called for. I just try to dig as deep as I can in the short time that we have. There's something freeing about it. You can take risks because you haven't had that much time. You can let yourself go.
Do you try to pass on your love of theater to your son?
I do. I take him to every play I can. He's seen The Lion King three times, Mary Poppins twice, we saw Oliver! in London, we saw Stomp, which he loved a lot — and War Horse he loved. There was one play he did not like and that was South Pacific. I loved South Pacific and he was like, eh…no. [laughs]
Would you ever consider returning to your Broadway/off-Broadway roots?
Absolutely I would…eventually that's where I want to be for sure. I miss the theater a lot. That's why I do L.A. Theatre Works. I do it for two reasons: for my personal selfish reasons and because it's a good cause. I think it's really important to preserve this dramatic literature. It reaches millions of homes, it's used in middle schools and high schools, and I think it's just a wonderful way to get theater to people.
What is the play that could lure you back to Broadway?
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I really want to play [Martha] one day. Wild horses would have to keep me back.