PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Jane Alexander

PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Jane Alexander Jane Alexander, now starring as Mme. Ranevsky in the McCarter Theatre production of Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, is no stranger to success as an actress. She has been nominated for seven Tony Awards, winning Tony's best supporting actress honor in 1968 for her Broadway debut in Howard Sackler's The Great White Hope. A five-time Emmy nominee, Alexander took home that award for the show "Playing for Time," which also starred Vanessa Redgrave. She has been nominated for no less than four Oscars for her work, in "The Great White Hope," "All the President's Men," "Kramer Vs. Kramer," and "Testament." Having worked early on as a company member in Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage, Alexander returned to the nation's capital in 1993 after being nominated by President Clinton as the sixth chair of the National Endowment of the Arts. During her challenging four-year term there, Alexander was inducted to the Theatre Hall of Fame in 1995. Alexander has since returned to theatre where she made her first post-NEA appearance in Honour, earning her seventh Tony nomination.
Jane Alexander in The Cherry Orchard.
Jane Alexander in The Cherry Orchard. (Photo by Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Jane Alexander, now starring as Mme. Ranevsky in the McCarter Theatre production of Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, is no stranger to success as an actress. She has been nominated for seven Tony Awards, winning Tony's best supporting actress honor in 1968 for her Broadway debut in Howard Sackler's The Great White Hope. A five-time Emmy nominee, Alexander took home that award for the show "Playing for Time," which also starred Vanessa Redgrave. She has been nominated for no less than four Oscars for her work, in "The Great White Hope," "All the President's Men," "Kramer Vs. Kramer," and "Testament." Having worked early on as a company member in Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage, Alexander returned to the nation's capital in 1993 after being nominated by President Clinton as the sixth chair of the National Endowment of the Arts. During her challenging four-year term there, Alexander was inducted to the Theatre Hall of Fame in 1995. Alexander has since returned to theatre where she made her first post-NEA appearance in Honour, earning her seventh Tony nomination.

Playbill On-Line: Just saying hello makes it clear you are enthused about doing Cherry Orchard. Is there anything in particular that drew you to it?
Jane Alexander: I did this play more than 35 years ago at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., but I had always wanted to do Ranevsky in Cherry Orchard. Now I can, so that's great. I feel that I'm coming to this role at the right time, with a lot of life experience behind me.

PBOL: So the timing is right in your career?
JA: Well, I know what's going on and pretty much how she's feeling. It comes down to having an appreciation for what's happening. I'll tell you one thing though, it's really interesting to be playing it in Princeton, New Jersey, where you're losing the farms to development, because it's so germane to what's happening in Chekhov's play with the loss of the cherry orchard. Of course, it's happening all across the country.

PBOL: After working in Washington, you must have a much broader view of these things.
JA: It's such a joy to be back in the world of theatre. Politics is really a rough game to play. It's all about compromise and that's what politics is, certainly. The theatre is still pretty pure, it's result-oriented and collaborative. I find that a joy to come back to. Of course, the theatre that I aspired to when I was growing up is gone, and the Broadway theatre for a dramatic actress like me is gone. There are very few opportunities left. This is the first year when we didn't have a new play running [on Broadway] for a period of some months. It's all about revivals now and I think that Broadway can sustain only one or two a season. It was heading that way for a long time, but it's pretty much solidified. The way business is done on Broadway now, the [way of] the independent producer looks pretty much gone.

PBOL: Do you still feel a certain optimism about theatre, despite these changes?
JA: Well, there are plenty of theaters across country which comprise, collectively, our national theatre and that's why I'm here at the McCarter. I always wanted to do this, so I'm glad to be here doing a great Chekhov play. PBOL: Do you think you might ever consider bringing your theatrical and administrative talents together and becoming a producer?
JA: Me? Oh no, no way. I could not possibly. But I would like to see more public sector money and I feel that would make it possible to nurture new productions all across the country. Broadway is fed by productions from the outside, so we need to nurture the creative in order to have any real impact.

PBOL: At this point in your career, is there anyone with whom you would love to work, but haven't?
JA: Oh, I admired Kim Stanley so much as young actress. She performed in New York and on television and in movies, and I always dreamed I might perform with her. Of course, she doesn't do so much any more. But I just loved the way she acted. Every time she did a role, it was memorable. She played Sara in Touch of the Poet at the Helen Hayes [1958] with Eric Portman, and her work as Masha in The Three Sisters [1964] was so brilliant -- it reverberated with me very deeply.

PBOL: Is there one early credit on your resume that you removed once you had other work under your belt?
JA: It's not that I didn't like everything, but there are things that I wish I had done. For instance, I wish I had maybe gone to the Yale School or Carnegie or Northwestern. I don't begrudge my liberal arts education but at the same time, I wish I had more training and opportunities to meet my fellow actors at a young age.

PBOL: What sort of alternate influence do you think that kind of exposure might have had on your career?
JA: I would have grown up with a generation of actors whom I had known in school. As it was, or is, the only actors I know are the ones I've worked with in one way or the other. There's a kind of confidence and skill that you develop at a very early age and I came in a little shaky. I know all actors come in a little like that anyway, but if I had more of a coterie of friends from acting school, I think it would have felt easier for me. I would have already had the training that I felt I needed and that took years to catch up on.

PBOL: Even so, you made a significant contribution to many other careers through your work at the NEA, even if it was only by way of raising public awareness.
JA: Perhaps, but I would have loved to have pushed it politically rather than having had to fight the barbarians at the gate. We have some very good schools of drama, but we don't have theaters in the United States that are connected to their own training program from beginning to end like some European countries. That was the problem, we never had enough time or funds -- and certainly not what I felt the arts needed, to sustain a redirection and rejuvenation in this country. And it's only public money that can act as the catalyst for that change because no individual or independent corporation has the amount of money necessary to build or sustain that kind of effort.