Dana Ivey on Loving Language, Social Media, and The School for Scandal
When one looks at the extensive theatrical résumé of Dana Ivey, one can see the kind of work she gravitates toward. Alongside Miss Daisy in Alfred Uhry's Driving Miss Daisy, roles by Noël Coward, George Bernard Shaw, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan are prominent, her love of language and period dramas informing her choices of work. They've led her to multiple Tony nominations, and she enjoys these roles because they are "difficult to do."
Now, Ivey is back onstage, appearing in Red Bull Theater's production of Sheridan's iconic comedy The School for Scandal at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. As Mrs. Candour, she only appears in three scenes, but she gets to "say some fabulous, fun lines." And to her, that's like music.
What was it that interested you in The School for Scandal?
I just love period plays and the language. I did [Sheridan's]The Rivals at Lincoln Center several years ago. I thought it would be fun to work on. Everybody's read it, and everybody's heard of it, but very few people have [seen it]. What interests me about older plays, some people call it "museum theater," is the fact that human nature never changes. For all of the [difficult] language, all it's doing is showing us people in relationships doing things that we all have done or might think of doing. I think it's exciting to see people in another time that we might feel separated from and realize we're not so different from them at all.
Is it difficult to memorize a play like this, where the dialogue is full of tongue twisters?
It's kind of like music, learning to say these lines exactly as Sheridan wrote them, with the right emphasis. My mother was a speech therapist and a drama coach, so I got a lot of corrections as I was coming along. But I love language. I love the way that it expresses ideas. It is difficult to do, and it requires people who can handle the language and the style. Working to make that story clearer has been our major intent.
[Director Marc Vietor] has cut it very, very well. There's a lot in this play from back then, comment[ary] that was political at the time, topical references, and we just have no idea what people are talking about. It's a very complicated story and set of relationships that you have to keep clear in your head. So he's cut the play to flow and tell the story well. He did this play, I believe, when he was in school, so it's been living in his consciousness for quite a long time. He loves this play and knows it inside out, upside down, and backwards.
Do you have a research process when you do a play like this?
Not really. When I did The Rivals, I read a wonderful biography of Sheridan. That was only ten or eleven years ago. Before this production started rehearsals, I read a book that a friend in England recommend to me, called Mrs. Jordan's Profession, about the very famous actress Dora Johnson, who played Lady Teazle and worked for Sheridan at his theater. It was thrilling to read this biography because it was all this period and all of the stuff that Sheridan was dealing with. It set my mind in the period.
You're big into social media, which many people of your generation are not. Why and how did you decide to connect in the digital age?
I was going to take a big trip to the deserts of Jordan and see Petra. I said, "I think I'll set up a Twitter account." I think the first Tweet I had was a picture of me in Wadi Rum. I was very slow getting started, but I just started doing more and more. Last year, I did A Little Night Music and the young people in the cast were fiends for social media. They showed me Instagram, so I got on Instagram. They were my guides.
I do a lot of theater stuff and a lot of environmental and animal stuff, so it's a tripartite way of sending messages out. I figure if I send something out there and somebody reads it and gets it in their head that that's something to think about…it's just a way of getting the word out for something I believe in. I haven't been to any of the fabulous places since I got started on Instagram, but I'm going to Scotland again this June, so maybe I'll do a few [posts] from there.
You've had such a varied career. Do you have any dream plays that you'd love to be in?
Oh, in the past I would have said Saint Joan and Antony and Cleopatra. But I'm too old for those now. I never got to play those parts. There's nothing now I'm particularly longing to do. I'm very lucky; I've played a lot of wonderful [roles]. This is a great part because I'm only on in three scenes. I can go on, say some fabulous, fun lines, but not have to carry the show.
What's the best piece of advice you have for someone who wants a career with as much longevity as yours?
I say try and find another line of work. [laughs] It's so hard. It's fun, and it's glorious. It takes enormous discipline and hard work, and even then it doesn't always pay off. If you don't have a real fire in your belly, a real passion for it, it kind of eats you alive. If this is the only thing you really want to do, apply yourself with every ounce of your being. Never stop learning.