Judith Chapman is well known to viewers of daytime drama, having had prominent roles in six different soap operas over the past four decades, including Natalie Hughes on As the World Turns , Ginny Blake Webber on General Hospital, and her current stint as Gloria Fisher Bardwell on The Young and the Restless. This month, Chapman is returning to the stage as legendary film and stage star Vivien Leigh in Rick Foster’s solo drama, Vivien, at L.A.’s Rogue Machine Theater. TheaterMania recently spoke to Chapman about the play and her TV work.
THEATERMANIA: You previously played Vivien Leigh in the L.A. production of the play Orson’s Shadow about 10 years ago. Have you always been fascinated with her?
JUDITH CHAPMAN: I actually saw her on stage in Tovarich in New York when I was a girl. We were living in London at the time, and stopping in New York on our way home, and thank god, my parents had the good sense to get those tickets!
TM: How did this play happen for you?
JC: I had really wanted to do a play with some of my Young and the Restless castmates, but the logistics got too difficult, so I decided to do something just for me. So I went to find a play about Vivien, since I had been so fascinated with her, and I found two. When I read this one, I immediately loved the way Rick weaves so much of Vivien’s work — Shakespeare, Antigone, Scarlett O’Hara, Blanche Dubois — through her life. She always said “I live through my roles.”
TM: Can you explain the structure of the play for us?
JC: We meet Vivien shortly before her death. Edward Albee has asked her to play Agnes in A Delicate Balance, and she goes into an empty theater for a read-through of the play. When she realizes she’s on her own, she begins to remember all of her past, starting from 1937 when she was first working with Laurence Olivier. The play mixes monologues and what I call flights of fancy as it goes through a lot of her roles, her mental breakdown, her affair with Peter Finch. She’s really at a point where she’s trying to make peace with her own life.
TM: What’s one of the things that most attracts you to Vivien?
JC: She was a woman trying to find her own way in a male-dominated society. One of things she talks about is how is how she always felt she took a back seat to Olivier.
TM: Did you watch a lot of her films to prepare for this play?
JC: The marvel of the Internet is that I didn’t have to watch entire films, but I could look at certain scenes on YouTube. I watched some of Anna Karenina a few days ago, and if you knew where she was in her own life then, you could tell she was a little stressed out. And, of course, in her big moment in Ship of Fools, she’s really talking about Olivier, although they were long divorced. So it’s been very interesting to research her life and her work in this way.
TM: She suffered a great deal from mental illness — is it going to be really tough to tap into that part of the role every night?
JC: I am digging so deep into wells that haven’t been tapped for a while as an actress that it’s been a real challenge. There have been times in the past year when I was working on this play that I thought I should just put it away in a drawer and move on. But in another 10 years, I want to say I did it. And Vivien never gave up — she was ready to play Agnes even though she was so sick — so why should I give up? I really think she is an inspiration for all of us.
TM: Would you consider Gloria, your character on Y&R, an inspiration?
JC: Gloria is a complete train wreck, but what I do love about her is that no matter how ill-advised her choices are, the mountain always opens for her before she slams into the mountain. She is such a survivor. And to be able to play a middle-aged character who loves and embraces her sensuality is a wonderful gift.
TM: Gloria is definitely a glamour gal. How about you?
JC: I am not; I just play one on TV. I love digging in my garden, mountain climbing, being athletic, and Gloria’s too busy having her hair dyed a different color to do any of those things.
TM: If you could write Gloria’s next act on the show, what would it be?
She should be in charge of Jabot, the cosmetics company founded by her late husband, John Abbott. She really did love him and she really still wants to be part of his empire. Gloria deserves that. I keep repeating that, but it seems nobody’s listening.