Light-on-her-feet Karen Ziemba won the Best Featured Actress Tony Award for her work in Susan Stroman and John Weidman's dance musical Contact, and has distinguished herself as a formidable musical theatre actress in a range of musical styles, jumping over the years from A Chorus Line to 42nd Street to Steel Pier (Tony nomination) to Chicago to Never Gonna Dance (Tony nomination) to Curtains (Tony nomination) to Off-Broadway's And the World Goes 'Round (for which she won a Drama Desk Award) and I Do! I Do! and more. This fall, the Michigan native has slipped off her dance shoes and strapped on a Brooklyn accent for the non-singing role of matriarch Kate Jerome in Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound, playing in repertory at The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. The week after opening Beach Sept. 22 and Bound Sept. 24, Ziemba shared some thoughts (via email) about her West Coast experience in plays that are generally recognized as Simon's masterpieces.
When playing Kate, a woman who runs her home and family during hard times (historical and personal), do you take inspiration from tough women you have known?
Karen Ziemba: I believe every woman has a soft and tough side to them. Some bury their soft side. Kate Jerome is one of those. She needs to keep in control and feels responsible for everyone who lives in her home. Running a household and protecting and caring for her family is her No. 1 priority. I am inspired by the original actresses who played these roles on Broadway, the gifted Elizabeth Franz and Linda Lavin, but also from characters Neil Simon wrote in his other plays: notably the Grandmother in Lost in Yonkers, created by Irene Worth. I get inspiration from actresses Barbara Stanwyck, Patricia Neal, Brenda Fricker, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren...all who on stage and screen exude warmth and earthiness but also intelligence and strength. They stand up to anyone, and protect themselves and those they love. Sometimes it may hurt, but they survive and move ahead.
|photo by Henry DiRocco|
Are you a researcher? Did you read about the 1930s and '40s to prepare for these plays, or do you simply trust the Simon text?
KZ: I trust Neil Simon's text, however, my in-laws grew up during the Depression and my own parents remember the sacrifices that were made. My mother told childhood stories about listening to shows on the radio — it was a family event, very much like the radio show in Broadway Bound. During the late Depression and during WWII, she was an avid movie and "news reel" fan and shared and introduced them to me when I was growing up. Our cast members told stories that had been passed down from older family members. Much was shared about being immigrants from Eastern Europe during that period and the communities that were established in New York City and its boroughs. Since the ages of our cast members are so diverse, there was a lot to divulge and question. The plays are both funny and poignant. Kate, on the surface, seems like a woman without a sense of humor. She doesn't get the joke. Is that a challenge, or is there "funny" in Kate?
KZ: It takes a lot to get a smile out of Kate Jerome. Even when she's about to burst at the seams with joy, she keeps herself in check; however, when she opens her mouth to speak, she's funny — she can't help it. Her humor comes from honest, truthful, even tragic situations. Neil Simon lived it, wrote it down with deft precision and care, and gave the gift of delicious dialogue to Kate and all of the characters in these plays.
|photo by Henry DiRocco|
Were you able to talk to Neil Simon about Kate and get some perspective about her; she is said to be based on his mother.
KZ: I met Neil Simon, briefly, years ago when I was beginning my career. I have not had the privilege of speaking to him about this character. I don't know anything about his mother, but I can imagine she was a strong-willed woman, to say the least.
What's more exhausting: Performing in two Simon masterpieces back to back in rep or doing Steel Pier or Chicago nightly?
KZ: Rigorous dancing and singing eight times a week in a musical takes its toll, physically. Having music underneath the movement and dialogue helps carry me seamlessly from spoken scene to song. The show gets into your entire being rhythmically. A vocal and body warm-up are imperative. With a totally spoken story, the pre-show requirements are the same, but different. In these plays, both casts speak in a Brooklyn/New York dialect. The dialogue is fast, the movement quick. I have many exits and entrances, and an almost endless amount of props to deal with in both plays. Concentration and listening is key, whether I'm in a scene or waiting offstage; staying with the play is so important. Playing the same woman in both plays, but, 12 years apart, has its challenges. After WWII, in Broadway Bound, her sons are young adults, she's caring for a live-in parent, she's survived a 33-year marriage. Her outer "trappings" — like her house and possessions — are familiar, but her emotional life has changed. Performing in Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound in rep is so satisfying for the mind and body, physically and artistically. I couldn't ask for a better or more fulfilling daily work out.
(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)