DIVA TALK: Chatting with [title of show]'s Susan Blackwell Plus News of Peters, Shindle and Murney

By Andrew Gans
25 Jul 2008

Susan Blackwell in Speech & Debate
photo by Joan Marcus
Question: That's amazing that you're doing both. I wonder if there's any other actor on Broadway that works nine-to-five and is doing eight shows a week.
Blackwell: Andrew, if there is, I want to know who they are and I would love to have dinner with them. I really would! … I just did a play at Roundabout called Speech & Debate, which I had a wonderful time doing. This was the most amazing experience working on this play. The Roundabout was amazing, the cast was amazing, Jason Moore, the director, was amazing, and the playwright is amazing. He is this fellow named Stephen Karam. I think it was the first or second day of rehearsal, and Stephen wasn't at rehearsal yet. About three hours into rehearsal, he walked in, and he had on a blue Oxford and black pants and black tennis shoes. I walked up to him, and I said, "You just came from an office, didn't you?" I just recognized the uniform. And he said, "Yeah." I said, "Where do you work?" And he said, "I work at a law office 30 hours a week." And I said, "I work at an executive search firm 30 hours a week." He is this phenomenally talented playwright, this extraordinary person who I've totally grown to love, but something that completely brought us together was the fact that through the entire run of Speech & Debate — and we kept getting extended, so we ran for six months at the Roundabout — I did both. I did my day job during the day, and I did my play at night. You get tired, but I am extremely well organized, I'm extremely structured. It helps that I don't drink or smoke, so I'm never hung over, and you can totally do it. It's totally doable. It's not for everybody, but it's totally doable.

Question: I would think the performing at night probably gives you a boost of energy that carries through the next day.
Blackwell: Absolutely. It's actually kind of grounding, too, because I get up and go to my day job, and there it is expected of me and I expect of myself that I am punctual, I am efficient, I have strong attention to detail, I'm good at my job, but it's also very normalizing. It's very grounding, and then at night you go and do the show, and people stand up and they clap for you and you sign autographs at the stage door. People at the stage door say, "I have a day job! I'm dying inside!" And I'm like, "Hey, Brother! Hey, Sister!" It's so fun to see those people that are still doing it, too, and they carve time out of their day and out of their busy schedule to write and do a play. It feels like a very New York experience to be pursuing your art and also paying your rent.

Question: How would you describe the feeling of playing yourself in the show?
Blackwell: I'll tell you, when I was younger, I marveled at people who could go onstage and be themselves with ease and grace. Someone that comes to mind is Janeane Garofalo. I remember watching Janeane Garofalo doing her standup and I thought, "It's crafted and it's well written, but that's a lot of her." To have the self-possession to be able to stand onstage and be yourself seemed very far away from me. I was a character actress who wanted to have a dialect, I wanted to have a hunchback, I wanted to have crazy false teeth. I wanted to sort of disappear, and I took a lot of pride in being able to do that. … I got in a lot of trouble when I was a younger person because I always wanted to play men's roles. I just wanted to do things that were far away from myself. As I have aged — and also, frankly, as I have had a lot of therapy and gotten to know myself better and become much, much more comfortable with myself — I've become much more comfortable playing myself. Now it's just a pleasure to get to go onstage and be myself. The other thing is, I'm actually quite an introverted person, and I'm a very shy person around people that I don't know. Doing this play has been an interesting experience because the way that I behave in the play is a distillation of the way that I behave when I am around people that I am extremely comfortable with and that I trust implicitly. What audiences are seeing is a version of me that really I had only shared previously with my husband and my closest friends. Doing that on a nightly basis over an extended period of time has made me braver to be myself on a more consistent basis with people that I don't know. It's been therapeutic in a way because I feel like I can be more myself more of the time, and that has been an enormous gift. To know that people will be, for the most part, accepting of that and actually that people embrace that. Previously, I had just thought I was an extremely acquired taste. [Laughs.] And, I'm sure, for many people, I probably still am, but maybe I'm not as much of an acquired taste as I had previously thought.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for your character or for you?
Blackwell: That's a good question. There are so many moments that are so pleasurable in our show. It's always a pleasure to come onstage near the end of the show when the majority of the work is done and the hard parts have been accomplished. The stressful performance parts have been completed, and there's a moment when I get to sit down onstage with Jeff and Hunter and we get to sit and watch Heidi Blickenstaff sing "A Way Back to Then." To sit on a Broadway stage with my best friends watching this amazingly talented woman sing this beautiful song that Jeff Bowen wrote and listen to Larry Pressgrove play the piano, and just to sit quietly and breathe and watch, that is probably one of the greatest experiences that a person can have. They should set up a fantasy camp where you just get to be me in that moment and just get to sit. I feel pretty lucky to be me in that moment.

Question: How does it feel doing a show in a Broadway house versus the Vineyard?
Blackwell: I know there was a lot of speculation from various people in various camps about how the show would play in a Broadway house, and I had my own fears and vampires about how the show would play in a Broadway house. I have to say, I think it plays beautifully.

Question: I actually liked it better on Broadway.
Blackwell: Word, Andrew. First of all, I think it's the best version of the show that we've done. I have to say I am so proud of Hunter Bell, Jeff Bowen and Michael Berresse for the work that they have put into crafting the show as it is on Broadway. I think it's very strong the work that they've done. I think it completes the themes, the questions and the conversations that we started from the first time we did this in a 50-seat house about the nature of Broadway and what Broadway is. I think that the themes of this show were always destined to be answered in a Broadway theatre, but just in terms of how the show plays in that Broadway house, I think it plays beautifully. Granted, I haven't seen the show, I haven't sat in the balcony and watched the show, but I feel close to the audience. I feel that the way the show has been staged by Michael Berresse feels very intimate. I don't think it seems puny or inappropriate to have it play in that theatre. I think it feels just right.

Question: I agree with you. It really seemed to fit in that space well.
Blackwell: I'm happy to hear you say that because I don't watch the show. But, from being onstage — even for the people in the last row of the balcony, I feel like, "I'm talkin' to you, dude! I see you. And, I'm talkin' to you over there, too!" And it feels appropriate.

Susan Blackwell with [tos] co-stars Heidi Blickenstaff, Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen
photo by Joan Marcus
Question: I know you have your day job and [title of show], but do you have any other theatre projects in the works?
Blackwell: Right now, I'm just basking in the glory of this, which is fantastic. Actually, Hunter Bell and Larry Pressgrove and I were supposed to go up to the O'Neill Center this August to workshop a piece that we're writing. I'm extremely interested in storytelling with music. I just love the direct address to the audience. I love autobiographical material. We've had a lot of pleasure doing pieces, primarily for benefits, where we've done these autobiographical storytelling pieces with music. So, we were meant to go up to the O'Neill this summer and workshop that, but I think we're going to have to wait until next summer to do that, so that's cookin'. And, I have a secret fantasy dream that I'm going to put out in the world through this interview, which is, I would really love to share some of that stuff and do some of that storytelling on "This American Life" on NPR, hosted by Ira Glass. I think that would be a good match. So that's something I'm going to "secret," like Oprah told me to. [Laughs.] Actually, I think that a little bit further down the line I'm going to do a play with Stephen Karam, who wrote Speech & Debate at the Roundabout. I think that we're destined to do another play together, so those are three things that I am quietly working on in the background.

Question: Were there actors or singers or performers that have influenced you?
Blackwell: That's a good question. Do you have a minute? [Laughs.] Where to begin? Well, I love John Cameron Mitchell, as you know. I don't know this person, but she's sort of been a little bit of a beacon for me, Allison Janney. I grew up in Ohio near the Janneys. Allison's mom, Macy, and I were deeply involved in an amazing student arts organization called The Muse Machine. When I was in high school, I was the first recipient of the Muse Machine's Macy Janney award because I had spent so many hours volunteering and participating in Muse Machine events. Then I learned about the existence of Macy's daughter Allison, and I have been obsessed with her talent and work ever since. For years I have thought: "If there is a place in this world for Allison Janney, maybe there's a place in this world for a weirdo like me." The very thought of Allison Janney has gotten me through some big doubtful times. She's been a lighthouse to me. And, I've never even met her!

You know who has been enormously influential, both in his work and also in his interviews, is Ricky Gervais. Ricky Gervais is a complete original. He's got timing unlike anybody else I've ever seen, and anybody that has unique comedic timing, I sort of carry them in a backpack with me. Eddie Izzard is somebody like that. But Ricky Gervais, the way that it appears that he makes his work and lives his life, has been actually quite influential. I also want to say, there's an artist and a writer and teacher named Lynda Barry, who has been enormously influential. Hunter Bell and I studied writing with Lynda Barry, and she actually is the person who taught us the concept of "Die Vampire, Die!" She is what I call an excellent weirdo. Anyone who has any interest in writing or just being an artist, I would recommend that they Google "Lynda Barry," read anything that she has written. She just wrote an excellent book on writing. Or, go take a class with her. She is extraordinary.

Question: I take it she knows about the show. . .
Blackwell: Hunter and I sent her a letter and included a copy of the CD because we hoped that she would like it and approve of it. When you take her class, at the end of the class she says, "I learned this from my teacher, Marilyn, now you take it and you teach it to people." We really hoped that she would approve of and be honored by the fact that we took concepts that she taught us and shared them with the world. But we were nervous and scared that she might be like, "Wait a minute! What are you doing with my material?" She sent us the most amazing email, and she was so enthusiastic and so excited. She lives on a farm in the middle of nowhere in Wisconsin, and we're hoping that one day she will come and see the show on Broadway — for her, but also for us, because we totally worship at her feet, and we would love it if she would come and see it. . . She's such an extraordinary person and has an approach to writing that is so delicious and so unique. She's just a remarkable human being.

Question: I hope you all get a good run with [title of show].
Blackwell: I hope we do, too. Time will tell. Even if it closed next week — I hope it doesn't. I hope it has a healthy run. Even if it did close next week, it has been such an extraordinary adventure that I just feel like I will forever be changed by this experience in a very positive way. . . .

Now that we're talking, I'm thinking of all of these other cool gifts that we got on opening night that I didn't tell you about! Joanna Gleason sent us all stakes to kill vampires with and balls of garlic and roundtrip tickets to come and visit her and her husband Chris Sarandon at their house. Isn't that nice? Oh, my God, Sutton Foster sent me the most beautiful bouquet of flowers, and I thought, "Oh, my God, Sutton Foster sent me flowers!" I couldn't believe it! And, I thought, "Wow, I really do feel like part of it all now." It was something. These things are not lost on me, Andrew. I can't even tell you. It's not always like this. Most of the time, it's not like this. I'm just trying to drink it all in.

([title of show] plays the Lyceum Theatre, located in Manhattan at 149 West 45th Street; call (212) 239-6200 for tickets or visit www.telecharge.com.)

Two-time Tony Award winner Bernadette Peters will make a guest appearance on the season premiere of the hit ABC series "Grey's Anatomy." TVGuide.com reports that Mariette Hartley and Kathy Baker will also make appearances on the Sept. 25 premiere episode. The three women will play friends who all require care at Seattle Grace Hospital. The two-hour season premiere will also see the return of Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Denny Duquette. "Grey's Anatomy" airs Thursdays on ABC-TV at 9 PM ET; check local listings.

Kate Shindle
Say Something: A Spoken Word Salon, an evening featuring spoken word performances from a mix of writers and actors, will be presented Aug. 15 at the Laurie Beechman Theatre. The 6 PM performance at the West 42nd Street venue will boast the talents of Hunter Bell, Susan Blackwell, Phil Geoffrey Bond, Paul Cavalconte, Donna Lynne Champlin, Christine Lavin, Carl Kissin, Christine Pedi and Kate Shindle. The artists, according to press notes, will offer "new work as well as excerpts from some of their favorite texts." The Laurie Beechman Theatre is located within the West Bank Cafe at 407 West 42nd Street at Ninth Avenue. There is a $10 cover charge as well as a $15 food-beverage minimum. For reservations call (212) 695-6909.

Julia Murney
The Fourth Annual Broadway Cabaret Festival, created by Scott Siegel, will be presented at Town Hall in Manhattan Oct. 17-19. The Festival will kick off Oct. 17 at 8 PM with A Tribute to Lerner & Loewe. Those currently scheduled to perform the work of the famed songwriters include Brent Barrett, Jim Caruso, Alexander Gemignani, Celia Keean-Bolger, Sarah Jane McMahon, Euan Morton, Julia Murney, Daniel Reichard and Max von Essen. The second evening of the Festival, Oct. 18 at 8 PM, is titled Colm Wilkinson Broadway & Beyond. Wilkinson, who created the role of Jean Valjean in both the London and Broadway productions of Les Misérables, will perform such theatre tunes as "Music of the Night," "Bring Him Home," "The Impossible Dream," "Hello Young Lovers" and "Some Enchanted Evening" as well as Irish classics and popular standards. He will be joined onstage by Les Miserables' Susan Gillmor, and the twosome will be backed by a nine-piece orchestra led by music director Steve Hunter. The Festival will conclude Oct. 19 at 3 PM with Broadway Originals. The afternoon, according to Town Hall, will feature a "dazzling array of performers reprising songs they introduced either in the original Broadway production or revival." Currently scheduled to perform are Lucie Arnaz, Stephen Mo Hanan, Karen Morrow and Pam Myers; additional performers will be announced. Tickets, priced $50 and $55, are available by calling (212) 307-4100 or by visiting www.ticketmaster.com. Town Hall is located in Manhattan at 123 West 43rd Street. For more information go to www.the-townhall-nyc.org.

Mary Testa, who currently stars in the Tony-nominated musical Xanadu, will perform her new cabaret act at the Barrington Theatre Company's Stage 2/VFW Hall July 31-Aug. 3. Testa will be backed by orchestrator/musical director Michael Starobin on piano. Show times are July 31-Aug. 2 at 8 PM and Aug. 3 at 3 PM. Sleepless Variations, according to press notes, "tells a tale of one woman's sleepless night of fears, fantasies and dreams, expressed through cycle of songs by composers as varied as Jimi Hendrix, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Björk." Stage 2/VFW Hall is located at 36 Linden Street in Pittsfield, MA. For tickets, priced $15-$30, call (413) 236-8888 or visit www.barringtonstageco.org.

A host of Broadway favorites — including Tony Award winners Laura Benanti, Cady Huffman and John Lloyd Young — will perform at an upcoming concert to benefit the Ross School's theatre programs. The Aug. 18 event will be held at the Ross School's Upper Campus in East Hampton, NY. Among those also scheduled to lend their voices to the evening are three-time Tony nominee Kelli O'Hara, Movin' Out Tony nominee Michael Cavanaugh and Rent Tony nominee Daphne Rubin-Vega. Show time is 8 PM. The Theater @Ross evening will also include cocktails and hors d'oeuvres. Doors open at 6:30 PM. The Ross School's Upper Campus is located at 18 Goodfriend Drive in East Hampton, NY. For more information and details on VIP packages, call Diana Aceti at (631) 907-5112 or e-mail daceti@ross.org.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.