“The only reason I wanted to be on TV was so someone would hire me to do theatre, but it doesn’t actually work that way,” Aya Cash jokes pointedly of her starring role in FXX’s You’re the Worst. “I spent years in New York auditioning and watching roles get offered to famous people, and when they would turn it down, then I would get my chance.” Despite the recognition she’s received for her role as acerbic Gretchen on the popular comedy, her heart has always been with theatre, which is, in part, what makes her return to the New York stage in The Debate Society’s The Light Years so special. “Playwrights Horizons is where I got my equity card [for The Pain and the Itch], so it has been an artistic home for me. It’s like everything came together.”
The Light Years centers on Steele Mackaye, the designer of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, and a love story that spans 40 years. “It’s sort of an Our Town, but it’s about hope and innovation, and everybody is striving to enter the new,” Cash says. “I think it’s an important play for the time we’re in, because it shows failures as well as people trying to adapt new technology and new ideas.”
Aside from her appreciation for The Debate Society and her passion for live theatre, The Light Years appealed to Cash because the two roles she will play are so different from that of Gretchen. “Adeline is in many ways full of hope, joy, and excitement, and Ruth is someone who has dealt more with the realities of life and struggled more. She is just trying to get by, and her hopes and dreams are much smaller than Adeline’s,” she says of the women, whose stories are set in the 1890s and 1930s. “It’s so exciting to be doing something that is not contemporary, not snarky, not dry in any way!”
Though Cash has previously made her mark on the Off-Broadway stage (Happy Hour, The Other Place, Three Changes), her return marks her first in New York since breaking out on television. “I assume I’m probably going to have a day in theatre where they’re going to be like, ‘We can’t hear you!’ because you get used to making things smaller,’” she says of how being on the small screen for three seasons—soon to be a fourth—has affected her theatre presence. “On the other hand, in terms of my perspective about being onstage, all TV has done is make me love theatre more,” Cash says. “There are moments in film and TV where you get to sort of fly, but the reason I got into acting is the feeling that you get onstage.”
Cash is also expanding her horizons beyond Playwrights. She will add the title of “producer” to her resume when she begins shooting Little Beauties, a film based on the novel written by her mother. “Producing has been really exciting, and I found that I have a lot of opinions,” she says. “It’s not necessarily your job as an actor to make a lot of decisions, so I don’t usually ask myself what I think about certain things. Now I get to ask what I actually want a movie to look, feel, and sound like. It has made me realize that I want to direct at some point.”
The Debate Society’s performers/writers, Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, can certainly relate to that feeling; with The Light Years they have chosen not to act in their own piece for the first time. Of course, this adds extra pressure to Cash as she prepares for the new play, but she’s used to being hard on herself. “I have to remember that you end up hating yourself six out of eight shows a week, and thinking that you screwed it all up and you’re terrible,” she says. “The two shows each week where you feel like you’re flying and you can’t remember what just happened—that is why you do theatre. I’ll be looking forward to those two shows a week.”
Iris Wiener is an entertainment journalist. Her work appears on Playbill.com and in TheaterMania, Long Island Woman and Long Island Herald, among other publications. Follow her on Twitter @Iris_Wiener or visit her at IrisWiener.com.