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Brit Wit

Lynda Sturner interviews the brilliant Kathleen Chalfant, soon to bring Wit to the London stage.

By New York City
Kathleen Chalfant with Walter Charlesin the New York production of Wit
Kathleen Chalfant with Walter Charles
in the New York production of Wit
Kathleen Chalfant originated the role of Dr. Vivian Bearing in Wit at the Long Wharf Theater, and recreated it in New York at MCC (Manhattan Class Company) in a production which later transferred to the Union Square Theatre, where it is still running (through April 9). Her performance brought her major awards from the Drama Desk, the Drama League, and the Outer Critics Circle, plus an Obie. Now, Chalfant is preparing to open in Wit at the Vaudeville Theatre in London on April 3 (previews begin March 27). This production of Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about a brilliant professor of literature succumbing to ovarian cancer is directed by Leigh Silverman, recreating the direction of the late Derek Anson Jones.

Though Chalfant is best known for her work in Wit and in Tony Kushner's Angels in America, her diverse credits also include appearances on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and in regional productions of Racing Demon, M. Butterfly, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, and Endgame, in addition to her film and television work. This interview took place last month while Chalfant was appearing in Wit at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.

TM: When did you know you wanted to be an actress?

CHALFANT: When I was 7 years old... My grandmother, who lived with us, used to take me to the movies every Saturday, and I used to come back home and act out all the parts in the movies in the backyard. It is always what I wanted to do...although there were times when I've forgotten and done something else.

TM: Did your family encourage you?

CHALFANT: I think my parents had a complicated relationship to my wanting to act. We didn't have any money, so they didn't think it was a realistic goal. I found out later that my father had been very proud of me, and my mother too--though they died the year I was 40, which was 15 years ago, so they missed some of the more exciting parts. But my brother encouraged me. He was always interested and involved in the performing arts; more opera and ballet than theater, though his first job after he left college was to work in a theater in Sacramento as a stage manager.

TM: Did you study acting in college?

CHALFANT: No, I went to Stanford. I fully intended to study acting, because that's what I wanted to do. My high school drama teacher had just put on a production of Hedda Gabler for me so I could play Hedda, and that was fine--except I was only 17, so I was a little hazy on the concept. Stanford had a very good drama department, but I had fallen in love with someone. At 17, that was very important, and my boyfriend didn't approve of the theater. He wanted me to be an intellectual! So, in an odd kind of a way, I went to college for him--but it was good, because I ended up in the classics department. I got a degree in classical Greek, had some of the most wonderful teachers you could ever have. And I met Henry, who is now my husband.

TM: Did it occur to you when you were studying classical Greek that acting seemed a little far away?

CHALFANT: It was very peculiar. All the time I was at Stanford, I never set foot in the theater, though I was part of a play-reading group that was organized by one of our professors. Also, it was the early sixties and the students were making lots of experimental movies, so I was also in those. I graduated a little early, in December of what would have been my senior year, and I was supposed to start grad school in January. But Henry and I went to Mexico together over Christmas break, and I said to him, "I don't really want to go to grad school when I get back." Henry said, "What do you want to do?" I said, "Well, I've always wanted to be an actor (I'm sure I said actress)." And he said, "Why don't you do that," which was a revolutionary concept. It had never occurred to me that I could change my mind, do something other than what I was supposed to do. So I went back to school and quit. I moved to San Francisco, got a job in a publishing firm as a proofreader, and started studying acting with someone named Larry Bedini.


Chalfant as Dr. Vivian Bearing in Wit
Chalfant as Dr. Vivian Bearing in Wit
TM: You connected, and it seemed right?

CHALFANT: Yeah. They did plays too; it was a school attached to a theater. The first play was an old chestnut called The Curious Savage, in which I played the nurse. Near the end of that season, I played the female lead in Night Must Fall, and Larry Bedini played the guy. My brother, who had always been extremely supportive and came to everything, said it wasunwatchable. But I had a good time, anyway. By then, Henry and I were married, and I was pregnant. So we moved to Europe, where I had my baby, David in 1968. Around Christmas of 1969, we moved to Rome, where we lived for two years. I studied acting there--in Italian!--with a wonderful teacher named Alessandro Fersen. He looked like Stanislavski.

TM: Were you fluent in Italian when you went over there?

CHALFANT: No, but studying acting in Italian helped a lot! When we came back to this country in 1971, Henry and I were a little nervous about raising a child in the city, so we moved to Woodstock, NY. And that's where our daughter, Lucy, was born--during the third week of rehearsals for a production of Major Barbara in which I was playing Barbara.

TM: You rehearsed, had a baby, and then opened?

CHALFANT: Yes.

TM: Was that hard?

CHALFANT: No, but about six months later, I collapsed! Then, on the day of my 28th birthday, I interviewed with [acting teacher] Wynn Handman in New York. He accepted me--I don't know why--on the basis of an interview. So I began to study with Wynn. Then I started to get funny jobs; I got some part in A Woman of No Importance, in a production way Off-Off-Broadway. Then I met an avant-garde playwright named Steven Shea, who eventually stopped being a playwright and became a surgeon. I was in a play of his that was being done at the old Playwrights Horizons when it was at the Y on 8th Avenue, and that's how I met Bob Moss. After the Y closed, Bob moved the company to 42nd Street, and I went there to help him; I was Bob's assistant and person-of-all-work at 42nd St for the first season of Playwrights Horizons. At the end of the summer of 1975, somebody who'd been a stage manager there went to work at what was then the Century Theatre. A musical called Dance With Me was playing there--some original songs, but mostly '50s rock-and-roll. They needed a mid-season replacement, and somehow I got the job, though I can neither sing nor dance. Joel Zwick and Stu Silver--who went on to be big in Hollywood--were the writers. Dance With Me was Peter Riegert's Broadway debut, too. But it was not good, this show.

TM: Did you get audiences?

CHALFANT: We sort of got audiences. The guys who produced it owned the Howard Johnson's on 46th Street. The show was run so close to the bone that the union had to make an arrangement that we could cash our paychecks on Thursday nights at the Howard Johnson's cash register, because if we didn't, they bounced. This was my Broadway debut--and I was not to return to Broadway for many years. But I kept working.


Helen Stenborg and Kathleen Chalfant inthe New York production of Wit
Helen Stenborg and Kathleen Chalfant in
the New York production of Wit
TM: Did you ever say "no" to scripts?

CHALFANT: I did, and I do. But, more often, scripts have said "no" to me!

TM: Do you like to talk about acting as a process?

CHALFANT: Yes, but I'm not very articulate about it, especially as I grow older. It becomes more and more mysterious. One of the things that not enough attention is paid to, oddly, is the text itself. The character and the emotion and the music of a well written play lies in the text. As an actor, your job is to find the playwright's voice, not bend it to your own voice. The bias in America is that, if you get the emotional truth of a play, you don't need to be quite so rigorous about the text. I think that's a pity. It's terrible when you lose the subtlety of language. That's part of the beauty of the experience.

TM: Wit goes to such dark places. Is it ever hard to go there?

CHALFANT: It was hard in rehearsals, but the playing of it is quite different. This is a play about a deeply deluded person who is given grace at the end of her life. That's a great thing. It's triumphant because of where the journey ends. I don't know how I'd feel if the play ended somewhere else. I feel a certain exhilaration in the work. But it's different to see it than to play it--just like, in some ways, it's easier to be the sick person than the caregiver. What the play does is turn the audience into caregivers. And it provides catharsis. You know how, when someone is terribly ill for a long time and they finally die, there's this incredible confusion of feelings, usually dominated by relief. You don't grieve immediately, in the way you think you're supposed to. People can feel unequivocally for Vivian because they haven't had to care for her all this time. Lots of people have said that the play enabled them, for the first time, to cry for people they've lost.

TM: What happens when someone close to you dies while you're performing in a play like this?

CHALFANT: Two people have died while I was involved with Wit. Derek just died [Derek Anson Jones, the play's original director], and my brother died in between the Long Wharf and New York productions. I learned about dying from him--I learned how to play the play, really. To act in a play that so captures the audience is a remarkable experience. I don't know whether even Angels in America touched people so immediately.

TM: Tell me about the rehearsal period of Angels in America.

CHALFANT: Another amazing gift in my life. Tony Kushner chose me, and I was part of the very first reading of the very first version that was done in New York, in the fall of '98. I was late to the reading. Tony handed me this script and said, "Would you play the rabbi, the doctor, and the mother?" I said, "Sure." For the next four or five years, part of the each year was devoted to working on Angels in America. Ellen McLaughlin, Stephen Spinella, and I somehow survived all the ups and downs, but there was a fair amount of blood on the sands in Angels; a couple of wonderful actors, for whom the parts had originally been written, didn't survive that process.

TM: What was your experience of the opening of "Millennium Approaches," the first half of the play?

CHALFANT: It was like all the opening nights in all the novels and movies about opening on Broadway. The audience exploded into applause as soon as the curtain went down. Tony didn't actually see the play that night; he had been walking the streets. But then he came back and--as I remember--there was a great call for the author, so he went up on stage. The next morning, we were all collected from our houses in these vast, black limousines and taken to The New Yorker for a photo shoot.


TM: You've been in two plays that have had a major impact on American culture. Did you have any idea that they would make such an impression when you were rehearsing them?

CHALFANT: No. I knew that they were wonderful plays, but it would have been hard to predict their position as cultural icons. I had no idea. The impact of Wit in particular is a great surprise, because it's become very important in medical education. You wouldn't have thought so; on the surface, it seems to be quite critical of the medical profession. But we do presentations for hospitals, doctors, medical students, and people from hospices. We read the whole play, then we break into discussion groups.

TM: What kind of questions do they ask?

CHALFANT: Oh, God! Every possible question. I guess every great play speaks personally to each member of the audience. The doctors are concerned about the play because they don't want to think of it as an accurate picture of medical practices. I think there was a time when doctors were very popular figures in the culture, and now--for a variety of reasons--they're perceived as the enemy somehow. That's an important problem to be addressed, and maybe that's one of the reasons why Wit is catching the attention of medical professionals, particularly educators. They see that this problem exists, and they can use the play as a teaching tool.

TM: In London, you're working with director Leigh Silverman, who has done the play before. Does that mean there will be no surprises?

CHALFANT: I think there are always surprises.

TM: Are you the only American in the cast?

CHALFANT: Yes.

TM: How long will the show run in London?

CHALFANT: I've agreed to stay until July 29, because I think the time will come soon when I will have done the play long enough. And I'd like to grow my hair back. I'm tired of being bald!

TM: What was it like when you first shaved your head?

CHALFANT: It was really scary. Really scary. For a long time, I wore a wig, and then I just stopped: partly because it's a huge bother, but partly because somebody told me that the picture of me bald was very helpful to people who had lost their hair to chemotherapy. It seemed a small act of solidarity.

TM: When you're in a long run, how do you keep it fresh?

CHALFANT: The audience. The play is a conversation with them, so you have a new interlocutor every time. It's a little bit like keeping a party going.

TM: Are there parts that you really want to play?

CHALFANT: Yes. Because I started in an odd way and did mostly new plays in New York, I haven't done most of the great roles--and I'm too old for many of them now. But I would like to do The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull, The Winter's Tale, The Glass Menagerie. Those are the ones that spring to mind. I'd like to do lots more Shakespeare, because I've actually done only one Shakespearean play in public.

TM: Yet you've had such breadth in your career. Do you look at it that way?

CHALFANT: Over the last couple of years, I've realized that I finally know how to do something. Because I didn't come to acting in the traditional way, I always felt underprepared and undereducated for the profession.

TM: The traditional way being...?

CHALFANT: Going to graduate school and working on the classic literature for a long time. Having a concentrated period of training. I always thought I kind of snuck in through the back door; I felt vaguely like an amateur among people who really knew what they were doing. But now I have a sense of being a member of the profession. And that's a nice feeling.


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