Interview: In a Rare Solo Stage Appearance, Harriet Harris Takes on Eleanor Roosevelt
Harris stars in Mark St. Germain's Eleanor at Barrington Stage Company.
As one of the leading ladies of the American theater, it's only fitting that Tony Award winner Harriet Harris has made her return to the stage this summer portraying two very different ladies: first, the witty Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, which recently closed at Berkshire Theatre Company, and now, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in Mark St. Germain's Eleanor, running at Barrington Stage Company through August 7.
TheaterMania recently spoke with Harris about the play and its legendary subject, being back on the live stage, what she learned from the pandemic, and possibly returning to television.
Eleanor is the second live play you did this summer. Tell me what it's been like being back in front of audiences after nearly 18 months.
It's really terrific. There is the line in Eleanor, "this was my favorite spot," and the first time I read it aloud on a stage, I started to cry. Because I realized this is where I want to be. As actors, so much of our lives and imagination are invested in making theater. When you're on the stage, you feel like you belong there and, as actors, I believe we always strive to deserve to belong on the stage. And I am so grateful the audiences are really coming back. Unfortunately, we can't talk to them after the show, because of the social distancing rules.
Do you feel like you learned anything from the pandemic?
I guess for me, like many people, it led to thinking more about what you want to do, what you want from life, what you can live without. But I am not one of the people who has the luxury of turning down jobs. And, to be honest, I always learn something from even the "bad" shows. I also realized that so much of my social life is connected to theater. It was interesting to be California for part of the pandemic with no work. That period showed me how little I want to retire. I don't want just to sit around and organize my sock drawer over and over.
You have had some prior experience with this play – and with playing Eleanor (on the TV series Atlantic Crossing). What have you decided you admire most about her?
She utilized so much of her energy and drive to do good for other people. A lot of other First Ladies only had one pet project, but she cared about so many things! And on top of all that, she had this amazing line of communication with the public — from being on radio and TV to writing newspaper articles and hundreds of personal letters. She was a privileged young woman, so none of these things were expected from her, yet she took advantage of her position to do them.
I believe this is your first experience with a solo show! Is it something you're enjoying – or are you missing being with a cast onstage?
When I was a young actress, Dario Fo's wife wanted me to do her solo shows, and I though that's not the theatrical experience I want. As a rule, I want to be with other people on a stage. But here, because of the team, I never felt alone. If we could all work together, I would love to do this play again!
Speaking of the team, you're being directed by your friend Henry Stram, who we know as a brilliant actor. What is that like?
HH: Henry is amazing director. I am so lucky to have known him from the first day of Juilliard – we truly bonded on our very first day there – and to then be able to watch him grow over the years to become this amazing theater artist. I hope he wants to direct more because he is smart and creative and generous. Everyone felt greatly appreciated by him. I love Mark's play and how he delves into the subject, but I think because of Henry, this production is so beautiful and cohesive.
So, it seems certain there is going to be a reboot of the TV series Frasier. I don't see how it could be the same without Bebe Glaser? Have you spoken to Kelsey Grammar about appearing on it?
There has been no discussion yet. And the show had so many brilliant characters I doubt they've even thought about Bebe. But I always had fun on the show, so of course I would do it – especially just to see the rest of cast if they also come back. I don't have anything planned after this show, so if the timing makes sense and they ask, I hope it could happen.