Drama Desk Panelists Bertie Carvel, Jayne Houdyshell, Kristine Nielsen, and David Hyde Pierce
Drama Desk Panelists Bertie Carvel, Jayne Houdyshell, Kristine Nielsen, and David Hyde Pierce
© David Gordon
Industry members and theater enthusiasts sat side by side at the Drama Desk's Spring Luncheon and Panel Discussion on Friday, March 22 on the 4th floor of the iconic Sardi's. Beneath the caricatured gazes of Broadway legends, Ronald Rand (founder/publisher of The Soul of the American Actor newspaper) led a distinguished panel of four Broadway performers in a discussion of "The Art of Storytelling" where the actors described their firsthand experiences bringing characters to life onstage.

Current Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike castmates Tony Award winner David Hyde Pierce (La Bête) and Drama Desk Award nominee Kristine Nielsen (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson), sat together on one side of Rand while Tony Award nominee Jayne Houdyshell (Dead Accounts) and Olivier Award winner Bertie Carvel, who is currently reprising his West End role as Miss Trunchbull in the Broadway production of Matilda, rounded out the panel on the other side.

Each of the actors discussed how they lend truth to characters that seem far removed from reality. Carvel, who crosses gender lines as the psychopathic Miss Trunchbull in Matilda, described getting past his fear of "artificial" performances. "Art is an artifice," he said. "Artifice is not the enemy…[The story] just has to ring true, not be true." "Storytelling implies activity," he observed, and in his experience, making a story ring true often involves looking at the big picture rather than just focusing on one's own performance. In Matilda, for example, he consciously coordinates his performance with the show's underscore. When the two shift emotional gears in unison, he explained, the story can resonate clearly.

Rand asked Houdyshell how she went about creating Wicked's Madame Morrible within the fantastical world of Oz that appears on onstage. She responded, "As an actor, the principle of pretending is believing." She also remarked that the enormous white wig and 35-pound costume that her character had to wear didn't hurt the process of transformation either. For Houdyshell, props are important tools of storytelling. For her 2011 role as Hattie Walker in Follies, she recalled using a purse that was dated between 1963-71 and, like a time capsule, contained old doctors appointment notes and tags from New York City stores that no longer exist.

<i>Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike</i> castmates David Hyde Pierce and Kristine Nielsen
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike castmates David Hyde Pierce and Kristine Nielsen
© David Gordon
Pierce and Nielsen both spoke of their current experiences bringing often outrageous comedic characters to life in Christopher Durang's Chekhovian sendup, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Nielsen pointed out that what seems absurd onstage might actually be closer to reality than we would think. She's discovered that the audience laughs hardest at the moments when Durang has exposed the greatest amount of pain. She jokingly described her onstage experience as, "Oh my God this hurts so much! Why are they laughing?!"

Pierce observed that these moments of laughter are usually accompanied by a "creeping sense" that they've hit on some truth. He even recalls one performance when a woman in the audience yelled out "That's me!" at the point in the show when Nielsen's character inexplicably hurls a coffee cup across the stage, smashing it into a million pieces. "As absurd as we think behavior is, someone identifies with it," Pierce said.

Concluding with a few questions from the audience, Rand called on a woman who asked the panelists about the times when their stories are cut short — when their shows close while the stories are still inside them, waiting to be told. Pierce fielded this question, recounting his Broadway debut in Beyond Therapy (fittingly, another Christopher Durang play), which closed two weeks after Frank Rich panned it in the New York Times. The woman in the audience asked how he was able to deal with such a crushing blow. His response: "I kept going."