Harriet Harris Takes the Town
The Tony Award-winning actress talks about co-starring in the Paper Mill Playhouse's On the Town and the Roundabout Theatre Company's Present Laughter.
THEATERMANIA: Madame Dilly is obviously a fun character. In fact, this is the second time you've played her in recent years. Why do it again?
HARRIET HARRIS: It's a delightful role to get to do. It's always nice to be a comic villain -- although she's not so much a villain as a desperate woman that has to maintain a hold on her student because times are hard and she needs an income.
TM: Did you have memorable singing or acting teachers in your life who you use for this role?
HH: I don't draw on anyone, but I have had many memorable teachers. I had a lot of charmingly inconsistent teachers and I've had teachers who are very sweet and supportive when I'm in the room, but I wonder what they say when I leave. They're sort of like a shrink -- are they really going to say, "you're so boring, and your problems are nothing" while you're with them? No they're not. A teacher isn't going to say that you're completely without potential. Madame Dilly can't either, because she has to keep her students, but that conflict of what a teacher has to offer and what she can elicit is age-old. I like the idea that she's teaching a young modern student a dying art. She's asking Ivy to sing in a way that people don't sing anymore and approach her art in a way that people don't anymore. Still, there's nobody I know I would say deserves the amount of ridicule Madame Dilly does.
TM: She does drink a lot, doesn't she?
HH: She's forced to drink, because there's no way she could get through these lessons. I think she's getting worse and worse and worse students. A friend of mine is a teacher here in New York, and she always says that if she's got students in a Broadway show, she's just flooded with students, but if there's nobody that's made it into a cast for a while, then it's different. I think Madame Dilly does recognize that Ivy has got so much going for her that she could be something. Well, if only she could sing, she could get a job.
TM: As an actor, is there a particular challenge to playing drunk?
HH: I think you just try different things, and like anything else, you see what seems true and funny as opposed to true and sad. But no, I don't think it's very hard. The challenge is playing sober.
TM: Is this your first time working at Paper Mill?
HH: Yes it is, and it's so pretty out there. And the theater is massive; it's bigger than the Marquis. But the brook is pretty, the reception rooms for the audience are lovely, and the staff seems to be wonderful. I'm having a great time.
TM: In January, you're returning to Broadway in Noel Coward's Present Laughter. Have you ever done this show -- or any Coward -- before?
HARRIET: No, I haven't. But I think it will be wonderfully entertaining. I've worked at the Roundabout a number of times and I have very close friends in the show. I've always wanted to work with Victor Garber. I've never gotten to do that, and I think he'll be pretty fabulous in this role. Lisa Banes is one of my best friends; I'm crazy about Brooks Ashmanskas, and I've worked with Richard Poe a number of times. One reason I've never done this show -- or even seen it -- is that I'm generally not that interested in plays about the theater. I just think why would anyone want to see this? But then I did Noises Off this summer and it was wonderful and so much fun to do -- and that's why you want to do theater!