PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Angela Christian

PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Angela Christian Angela Christian's title character in The Woman in White couldn't be more different than Miss Dorothy, the downwardly-mobile rich girl she created in Broadway's Thoroughly Modern Millie.
Angela Christian
Angela Christian

For one thing, torment is not something the rich, ringlet-haired Dorothy ever knew. But poor Anne Catherick, first seen in the novel by Wilkie Collins and now in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical in London, is a haunted creature who has a desperate message for the leading man.

Actress Christian — whose red hair, porcelain skin and lean, hungry quality suggests a yearning Ophelia (Trevor Nunn, are you listening?) — is one of two American principals in the new Nunn-directed musical in the West End. Jill Paice, the other Yank, plays one of two sisters in peril in the mysterious tale.

PLAYBILL ON-LINE: Without giving too much away, tell me about your character, Anne Catherick, in The Woman in White.
Angela Christian: I feel like I've adopted this poor, wretched, abused girl who's never had anyone to love her or to defend her or to speak for her. She's this small but integral catalyst to all the events in the story. She shows how even those of us who are the most insignificant in the world have the power to get some kind of positive energy going, for change. I consider her archetype to be the herald who calls the hero to his journey.

PBOL: The "hero" is on his way from London to the provinces on business —
AC: He's going to be a drawing master — an art teacher — for two sisters. [Anne's] just escaped from an asylum and her entire journey is about getting to the same mansion that this guy is going to, to save a girl that she doesn't even know. Why would someone go out of their way, after never having been shown that kind of love, to make that kind of journey? It's pretty incredible. Does he trust his instincts in believing her story? Is she a ghost? Is she real? Everyone questions the truth throughout the story.

PBOL: Do you have gorgeous Lloyd Webber things to sing?
AC: They're gorgeous in that I can play their childlike quality as well as explode into sort of animalistic, wild areas in the music. It's very unpredictable, which makes it fun as an actor to sing — it's all sung-though, and the only way she can express this madness is through the variation in the music. It's this monologue on key. PBOL: Are you in white?
AC: [Laughs.] I am in white!

PBOL: Trevor Nunn and Andrew Lloyd Webber are two of the theatre's most successful and powerful players. What was the audition like?
AC: A casting assistant put me on videotape. I was alone in a room with a piano player and her. I was originally put on tape for the ingénue, one of the sisters. When I got the material, I could tell they were looking for something rather sweet and passive and I sort of disagreed with that intention, and really wanted to experiment with presenting my idea for this character. So I tapped into a deeper torment that I knew they would either appreciate or not. But I felt if I was going to be a part of this project, I really wanted them to see me and appreciate what I had to offer in terms of my ideas.

PBOL: And what was their response?
AC: Independently, Trevor saw it, and the producers, and Andrew, and they all came to the same conclusion: What I was bringing to it was infinitely more appropriate for the role of Anne Catherick. When I read the role and knew they were considering me for that I was so pleased that my instincts had led me to something more appropriate. I felt rewarded for taking that chance. I had one more audition in person in the States with Andrew Lloyd Webber and [lyricist] David Zippel. I once again sang the ingénue material, but right after that Andrew came up to me and said, "I think you're going to be perfect for Anne." Then they flew me over to London and that's when I sang her material and everything clicked into place. I felt like a had a compassion for who I was singing in a way that I didn't with the other character.

PBOL: Trevor Nunn is one of the world's most acclaimed directors of Shakespeare. Did you prepare any Shakespeare for him in the audition?
AC: When they told me they were flying me over, I had the music for Anne, and I had my own material that I had chosen, that I thought was thematically appropriate — something in tune with the voice of the character, her psyche. Before I left, I figured, "Trevor Nunn, Royal Shakespeare Company — he's going to want more." She's a very complicated character, so I wanted to present as many facets of that torment as possible. So I prepared about five different Shakespeare monologues, and at the last minute they called an apologized and said I had to have some Shakespeare.

PBOL: Is there a marked difference between the American rehearsal process and the London process?
AC: It's hard to say. I don't know if it's a cultural thing or if it's the practice of a particular director. When we came into the first rehearsal with Trevor, it was very relaxing, it was just the principals. He talked for about four hours about Wilkie Collins and the writing climate of the time and the populism of serialized literature, and Wilkie Collins' association with Charles Dickens. There was no pretense, no talent show. We read through the script as a play, which was very refreshing because we had to completely rely on what we wanted to say rather than how we said it. In that sense, I felt like we were really going to sink into the story, take our time, and not try to frantically put something up. I have experienced that frantic kind of dynamic, which can be a little unsettling because I like to talk about things. I like to express myself if something doesn't feel right. There was a nice collaborative spirit in the room.

PBOL: Were you nervous being one of two American girls in a project?
AC: There was something about the audition experience that made me come in feeling relaxed and at home. I didn't feel like I had more to prove. And they also didn't set up the room that way. When Andrew was there he was always very supportive. I didn't felt like an outsider, an American. Rather, "this is the actor we want for this part."

PBOL: Have you been to London before?
AC: Not until the audition.

PBOL: Are you doing any sightseeing?
AC: I walk around a lot, I go the museums. I love being around the history and the culture and passing a plaque that says, "Charles Darwin had a little room here." When my family was here, we took a day trip to Stonehenge, and people were saying, "Oh, don't go, it's just a bunch of rocks and a highway — it's anticlimactic." But I was happy we went. Just standing there and pondering the mystery of it all, and the effort behind it. I got something from it.

PBOL: You're a New Yorker, but you grew up in Texas.
AC: San Antonio. I haven't been home in about three years. I'm starting to miss it, especially playing someone who is so alone and never had a family — to know that I do have one, I've started to miss it.

PBOL: What sort of exposure to the arts and theatre did you have as a kid?
AC: Growing up in Texas, I didn't have a lot of exposure to "the arts," but the little I did have went a long way. In elementary school, the only thing they did was take us to hear the San Antonio Symphony once a year. They always played "Peter and the Wolf." And every year a lady would come to the school a few days before, play a tape of the piece, tell us the story and explain which instruments belonged to which characters. So when we went to hear it live, we could follow the story. I loved it and went on to learn piano and flute because of it. But besides our yearly field trip to see stuffed bison at the Institute of Texan Cultures, that was it.

But I was always immersed in the essence of art because of my mom. She had — and still has — a beautiful voice, was an incredible artist, and could weave a bedtime story that had you jumping on the bed rather than going to sleep. She did a little theatre, just for fun, and we'd play backstage. She took me to the movies, got me their soundtracks, shared her art supplies — I'll never forget that she let me draw, write and paint on my walls. Kids today who get to see Broadway shows are so lucky, but I'd still wish them the high heart rate of an afternoon in my childhood over one of my matinees any day.

PBOL: Is there Texas barbecue in London? Do you miss Virgil's barbecue in New York?
AC: [Laughs.] I do! And Brother Jimmy's BBQ — best barbecue in New York. Falls off the bone.

PBOL: How long are you contracted in the London run?
AC: It's a year contract, to July 2005.

PBOL: Would you like to create this role in New York?
AC: Yeah! That would be fantastic to bring it home.