a communion with audiences

An angel keeps watch over the set of Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams, playing at Deep Dish Theater Company at University Mall in Chapel Hill NC, running through September 19.
(Problems viewing? Watch it here.)

Read Derrick Ivey’s comments about creating the statue.

Word to the wise: Reserve Your Tickets. Last weekend’s shows sold out. As of this post, tickets are currently available for the closing week of shows, Wed-Sat Sept 16-19.

I play Alma Winemiller, the preacher’s daughter of Tennessee Williams’ fictional southern town, Glorious Hill, Mississippi. Set in 1916, the play is more than just a love story between Alma and John, the boy next door whom she has pined after her entire life.

Regrettably, audiences don’t get to enjoy the secret whisperings of the playwright in his finer stage directions, such as Mr. Williams’ mysterious hint on Page 8:

“Her true nature is still hidden even from herself.”

But I won’t spoil the surprise of the play’s ultimate revelations.

All the plays I do are dear to me. In the theater, you share such a profound communion with casts and audiences that it’s hard to go on living without it for long — no matter how much you swear you want your life and clean laundry back when a show closes.

But this play of all plays yet in my career is my Mount Everest. I have yearned to play this role for sixteen years. I first encountered it in college at the North Carolina School of the Arts, where my entire class was assigned the play as a scene study.

It was our sophomore year, or Studio II, as we called it, and it was also the fateful year after which the “sophomore slaughter” would take place, an unofficial but well-known practice of cutting half the class by year’s end. Anxiety abounded.

We broke the play down into the major scenes between the lead characters, creating a studious little army of ten Johns and ten Almas. At the time we were all too competitive and self-conscious to see the myriad possibilities of the roles in the hands of so many different actors. We were all vying to be the best, rather than to allow ourselves to just be truthful.

It’s sad, but I look back on those school days with terror, remembering how dangerous it was to risk making the wrong choice in a scene, when the entire point of the training was to learn to let yourself be in the moment and take risks. I was so awkward with my partner, a Yankee. Didn’t trust him one bit. The guy wore a Harvard t-shirt even though he’d never been to Harvard. To a small-town Jackson County girl, it was all very intimidating.

But it was also the year I learned the most important acting lesson of all: You are only as good as your partner.

And knowing that, you do everything you can to be the best actor you can be for that guy. You open up. You give and you receive. You take a bullet for him if you have to, because he is all you have up there, period.

One thing hasn’t changed much since school: the pressure from critics, the public, and even peers that there is only one right way to approach “classic” material. If you’re given the words of a great playwright, the greatest danger is your desire to please everybody. You know you’ll open yourself up to criticism if you dare to step away from the kind of Tennessee Williams heroine people expect to see.

And yet, that is exactly the kind of courage the greatest writing demands of you. Williams didn’t write for wusses.

One audience member asked us at a talk back which characters in Williams’ plays were the most difficult. My guess would be Blanche Dubois or Stanley Kowalski, but not because they are actually more difficult on paper than any other character he wrote. They are the hardest because the American imagination is glued to two particular performances enshrined in celluloid for all time, those of the great Ms. Vivian Leigh and Mr. Marlon Brando.

Of course we are fortunate to have that film. It’s hard to top. But to play those roles in live theater today, you must first overcome an audience’s reluctance to accept that There Is No Stanley Kowalski, and There Is No Blanche Dubois.

Stanley and Blanche are only characters written by a man, partial blueprints offered up years ago by a writer, to be fleshed out by new souls and ultimately completed by audiences in communion with them in a brand-new moment.

Witness Little Green Pig‘s recent production of A Streetcar Named Desire, which had zombies in it. Zombies! And they were indeed awesome to behold.

Watching it, I felt I was in the midst of a broad-armed gesture declaring, Ms. Leigh Is Not In the Building! Mr. Brando Is Not Here Either! This is Our Production, And Not Anyone Else’s Production! You Will Come Along With Us, Or You Won’t! Our Invitation Is Open and The Choice Is Yours!

I remember and appreciate that production as a call-to-arms to local artists about finding the courage to present your own ideas about a play.

No, there are no zombies in my current play — except the few who leave the theater disappointed that they’ve seen my performance in 2009 as Alma Winemiller, and not that of the great Geraldine Page, who made the role famous in, oh, 1952.

But after seeing that Little Green Pig production, I am ever-armed against the zombies.


4 Responses to a communion with audiences

  1. Jeff says:

    Beautiful Video and Katja the entry was wonderful. Thanks for sharing that. Your courage shows in all you do.

  2. Katja says:

    Thanks, Jeff. It’s such an honor to have the part — and so much more so, the devoted audiences who want to see our cast do it!

  3. Tamara says:

    So glad that you are blogging, Katja. Can’t wait to see what comes next.
    I spend a lot of time thinking about how plays are different than movies and how to really maximize on those differences in the theatre. What can we do that only works on stage? Why would people choose to see a play rather than watch TV? I’m sure the answer is based in the live-action-experience and the chemical reaction that occurs with the audience and the artists connect. I don’t know, I’m still trying to sort it out.

  4. Katja says:

    Thanks, Tamara. I’m glad you’re reading the new blog! Those who seek out live plays are up for adventure. They’re after something they can’t find anywhere else, but it’s a challenge to get newbies to take the plunge. What can I say? “Theater: You’ve Gotta Be There!”

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