Final Bow: Shalita Grant and Kristine Nielsen Bid Adieu to Broadway's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
The 2013 Tony Award nominees share memories of their journey from New Jersey to Manhattan.
Every show ends sometime (unless you're Phantom), so before the cast takes their final bow, there are a few things we want to know.
When Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike premiered at New Jersey's McCarter Theatre Center under Nicholas Martin's direction, few people expected that the Chekovian comedy would later move to Broadway, let alone win the 2013 Tony Award for Best Play. Its six-member cast meshed stage veterans (David Hyde Pierce, Kristine Nielsen, Sigourney Weaver) and newbies (Billy Magnussen, Shalita Grant, Genevieve Angelson) to create an experience at once hilarious and heartbreaking. Pierce, Nielsen, Magnussen, and Grant were all honored with copious award nominations. Their memorable performances in Durang's first Tony winner truly put these actors on the map.
For 25-year-old Grant, her sudden Broadway debut was a life-changing experience. For Nielsen, it was yet another example of lightning in a bottle. In the Q&A below, the ladies discuss why it really is an honor to be nominated, how expensive it is to be a Tony nominee, and the importance of not sending people barbecue recipes.
1. What is your favorite line that you delivered?
Shalita Grant: "We're out of coffee, but I can make you bullion." It's ridiculous. I love that line.
Kristine Nielsen: "Masha, you've won," in the fight scene. There's so much hidden between the sisters in that section. My jealousy, my love, is all in that one line. That is the one that always straightens me out — it focuses me and brings me to my sister.
2. Everyone loves inside jokes.
a. What's the best one from your show?
SG: The cups. Sometimes the cups don't exactly break because they're not all uniform. One of the cups the other day put a dent in the wall. When I come on stage, sometimes David [Hyde Pierce] and Kristine are cracking up.
KN: It's the coffee. They make these mugs and they're all slightly different. There are times when I hurl them and its sounds like a bowling ball. And the sound is suddenly a war zone. It just sets us off.
b. Since there probably is one, what is the punch line of your cast's most unprintable inside joke?
SG: We don't really have one, even with all the sex stuff. We're all pretty much on stage at the same time. I'm sorry!
3. Every show experiences technical difficulties. What was the worst technical difficulty you experienced during your show and how was it handled?
KN: It only happened in Princeton — "Here Comes the Sun" didn't come on.
4. What's the most "interesting" present someone gave you at the stage door?
SG: One guy sent me a request for my autograph and sent me a barbecue recipe as a thank you. How does he know I like barbecue? What if I was vegan? Don't go sending people barbecue recipes.
5. Who is the coolest person that came to see your show? (You can't say family!)
SG: Joan Rivers. She's awesome. We're the same height. And I got to use her line from Fashion Police. We got a picture together and I was like, "Bitch stole my look," and she made as much of a surprised face as she can. Her aura said she was surprised. Her face barely moved.
KN: For me, personally, Carol Burnett. She came back and waited for me and she didn't leave. I was just so touched.
6. How would you describe the whirlwind of awards season to an outsider?
SG: It's so weird. When I hear people say that awards don't mean anything, I'm always like "Shut up." It's awesome that you're a part of it and now I understand what they mean by it. I was f**king stoked to be a Tony nominee. I felt so different. I was so proud of myself and happy that people liked my work to highlight me along with these incredible people. But there's a lot of work that happens — everything seems so important. It became this big buildup to the night and then a week later, I was just like, "What was that all about? What happened?" I'm still me and I still have to brush my teeth and take a shower. None of that changed. It just means that people know who you are now. I understand the danger of getting caught in the hype. It's quite dangerous. You start thinking about yourself in the third person.
KN: It was most expensive. It became all these parties and pictures. What do you mean I have to buy another dress? I was with Sigourney, who was like, "That dress can only last three months." As a middle-aged woman, don't even ask a designer to donate a dress, and it'll feel like the biggest rejection. It's strangely like your birthday and nobody wants to help you. That was a shock to me. I didn't want to get a publicist, because that's not my life. To get one for a month and a half? It probably takes some stress off, but the stress is what's fun. I do think they've become a little piled on. They're all at the same time now. I guess that's good, but you get so tired.
7. How familiar were you with Christopher Durang as a person and a playwright before you started?
SG: I met his work first, when I was in high school. Then, when I was at Juilliard, he came to see a lot of the shows, and tailored a monologue for me. We were pretty familiar with each other before we did the reading. He was thinking that [Cassandra] would be probably an African-American woman in her fifties, but he had me and the work that I created [in the very first reading] in mind. When Lincoln Center got on board, they looked at a lot of different women and Chris e-mailed me and was like, "Can you come in and do it?" I came in and did it and left with the role.
KN: I feel like I'm very simpatico with Chris. It's sometimes hard because you want to hear his laugh. You always want to please him. What I've come to know in the last few shows I've done of his is that I have to take my time. And now he trusts me to know that all that stuff is not going to be there [in the finished product]. He wants you to get there. In this show, he's done more than he's ever done in adjusting the play. He did little trims, which he never does. He cared a lot. It wasn't about the comedy so much as [to make it] simpler and truer.
8. Describe what it's like to do the show on a thrust stage like at the Mitzi E. Newhouse versus a typical proscenium like at the John Golden.
KN: [In a thrust], not everybody sees the same story. They're seeing it at different angles. Jokes were harder to land. On Broadway, it's just a larger house, so that stadium-like energy is coming back to you and feeds the comedy.
9. Shalita, what's the best piece of advice your older costars gave you?
As a young black woman, there are a lot of stereotypes that you have to get through for people to see you as a person. I'm hyper-aware of how I think I'm coming across. I don't give myself the permission to actually be who I am, because I am always aware that maybe someone could take this to mean [something] because I'm a black woman, when I'm really just a regular person. At the McCarter, I had hit a point where I was a little bit frustrated with something, and I think I had withdrawn a little bit and was trying to figure something out. I came back in and was like, "I want to apologize," and Sigourney looked at me and said, "You're allowed a range of emotion. Don't apologize. You don't always have to be one way." It makes me cry thinking about it.
10. Kristine, what's the best piece of advice you gave your newbie costars?
Tell the story and listen on stage. It's a slightly different world now. People get ahead of themselves now. I said, "Breathe and listen and stay in the moment. Don't get ahead of yourself. Enjoy this." I've been lucky. I've had a couple of plays and productions that I've cherished, and this is one of them. You really hit it with something you'll hold for the rest of your life.