By Andrew Gans
05 Jan 2007
After a much-extended run Off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company, the new musical Spring Awakening opened on Broadway in December 2006, winning some of the best reviews of the season to date. When the show arrived at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, the adults roles had been recast with Tony Award winner Stephen Spinella and Drama Desk Award winner Christine Estabrook, whose focused work has only strengthened the already moving work about adolescents lost in a repressive society where the silence of their parents and the other adults in their lives leads to disastrous results. Estabrook, who may best be known for her work on ABC-TV's "Desperate Housewives," is making her Broadway musical debut in the Duncan Sheik-Steve Sater musical, playing an array of adult female characters. Among the roles Estabrook brings a wonderful mix of humor and pathos to are the seemingly well-meaning but misguided mother of Wendla, Frau Bergman; Melchior's slightly more open and caring mother, Frau Gabor; Fraulein Grossenbustenhalter, the piano teacher who inspires Georg's exotic desires; the sinister, plotting schoolteacher, Fraulein Knuppeldick; and Frau Bessell, mother to the ill-fated Moritz. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with the good-natured Estabrook, who sprinkles her conversation with much laughter.
Question: How did the roles in Spring Awakening come about?
Christine Estabrook: I've been in L.A. for the last 15 years, and I've done plays there, but low-budget plays. I don't think you'd call it Off-Broadway Off-Beverly Hills with a good theatre company called the Echo Theatre Company, but with a 99-seat house or a 50-seat house! [Laughs.] Last year I went to Chicago in the spring to do The Clean House. I've always said I wanted to do another show in New York, and [Spring Awakening producer] Tom Hulce called me in Los Angeles, and he said, "I know this is a crazy idea, but is there any way you'd want to do a rock musical?" And I said, "Oh, that's really up my alley, since I've never done a musical!" [Laughs.] "Well, do I have to sing?" [He said], "Oh, no no, no." He told me it wasn't really a rock musical. He played music for me over the phone, and I really liked the music, and he told me that I'd get to play five different women. That was really a selling point as far as wanting some diversity in your work because in Los Angeles I get the same type of roles over and over. I'm either a lawyer although I have become a prosecuting lawyer lately because I guess I've become so jaded [laughs] or the mom or the passive-aggressive neighbor. So this was nice to get to play five different kinds of women.
Q: What was the rehearsal process like for you, joining a cast that had worked together Off-Broadway?
Estabrook: It was kind of intimidating, but I guess because they're all 19 years old, it made me feel a little bit better! [Laughs.] I figured I had age on 'em. [Director] Michael Mayer took Stephen [Spinella] and I aside. . . . He took us to lunch at Orso, and he explained to us that he was going to go in the order of the play, and that the first week we were going to block the whole thing, which is not usually what you do in a play. We were going to block the whole thing and do it technically, so we knew basically what the whole pattern of the movement was because it's kind of complicated. It's very precisional.
So we did that, and he said he wanted to explore the parts, and he wanted us to explore them, but he had to work in this way because he had to get it up on its feet to see what the limitations of the audience being onstage were going to be at the Eugene O'Neill how many chairs they could fit, which chairs they could have for audience [members]. He said it's like solving the Rubik's Cube, so we had to work in this way. It was a different way to work because usually you sit around a table and read the play to each other and the scenes to each other back and forth for about the first week. But we got right up on our feet and started working the play. The weird thing was that we went in order, so we never played the same character twice in a row we kept having to devise the new character. First I had to be Frau Bergman, who is Wendla's mother, and then I had to be Fraulein [Knuppeldick], and then I had to be Fraulein Grossenbustenhalter, the piano teacher. So I never got a running start of any more than a scene with any one of the characters. It was kind of kamikaze creating-a-role.
Estabrook: Well, I knew in my head that I wanted to at least try to have them have a different physicality. . . . I tried to work internally and externally at the same time, but I tried to make it real. The women both of the mothers in this go through a very emotional experience with their kids, but they have two different reactions, but I tried to base them both in truth. They started out kind of similar, and as I learned the different characters, they got further and further away from each other their emotional reaction to what was happening. They grew emotionally in a different way. . . . The two mothers I did that way, but the schoolteacher, Knuppeldick, and Grossenbustenhalter [the piano teacher], I mostly did physically from the outside in, and the mothers I did from the inside out.
Q: Of the characters you're playing, is there one you most enjoy playing or one you like the most?
Estabrook: You know what? I love doing comedy, and I love doing drama, and to do them both together is the best of all worlds. This is a play where I can do both, where I can make the audience go with me because I'm funny, and they can relate to me in the sense that they enjoy it. And, then these women all have a turn, so that you then go, "In their own ways, these are terrible mothers!" [Laughs.] You start with Frau Bergman, and you go, "Oh, she's funny. She's trying to explain sex to her daughter, and she's doing a terrible job of it" because she doesn't want to have to use any of those terms or take her daughter out of the bliss of ignorance about sex. Then you realize later that her daughter gets pregnant, and her mother takes her to have an abortion in 1891 because she can't stand the social stigma of having her daughter be pregnant. You realize the mother just handles everything so badly, even though you like her in the beginning, and then you realize how the things that she was doing that were so funny and quaint actually turned out being very destructive. . . . I think if you can get the audience to relate to somebody, then the message hits home much more so. You realize how vulnerable we all are to being stuck in bad choices.
Q: How do you find acting onstage with audience members on both sides of you?
Estabrook: You know, one of the reasons you like it onstage is [that] there's a lot of room around you. You're not vying for [space for] crossing your legs [like you are] in the audience. It's so funny because some people [onstage] . . . must know I'm in the play [because] I'm wearing a Victorian dress. But it's like I'm on the subway, and they're trying to get their shoulder room, and I feel like turning to them and saying, "You don't understand, I have to be here!" [Laughs.] . . . . So it's kind of funny, [and] once they've realized that there's going to be a lot of getting up and sitting down, [they know] that they have to really be aware of the actors and where they're trying to get to.
Q: Has anyone done anything particularly memorable during the show? Have they tried to talk to you?
Estabrook: No. I think they talk to them beforehand. The only thing that's rough is when they wear a lot of perfume because I'm allergic to perfume. Usually onstage I don't have to worry, but when [someone is] sitting right next to you and you can't leave the stage there's no way to get away from someone who's wearing a lot of perfume. You can see me, I turn upstage, and the audience sees my back because I'm trying to get some air between myself and the perfume because I start choking. I don't sound like a very nice actor, do I? [Laughs.] Stephen [Spinella]'s on the other side of the show, and he doesn't have any audience members sitting next to him. He gets an empty chair, so I'm always ribbing him about that.
Q: What's it like now being in what's turning out to be the hit of the season?
Estabrook: You know, from your mouth . . . you know what I mean? Let me just give you a little anecdote. I happened to be in the pilot of "Desperate Housewives" as the neighbor, and I was killed in the first season, which I didn't know was coming. So after that, you're [always] waiting for the other shoe to drop. But at this point in my career, I wouldn't take a job if I didn't cherish the experience or want that experience. And that's the great part you have different priorities as far as desiring why you want to play something at a certain time. I really wanted to get back onstage with a big audience and with a director and with a writer and with other people in the play who were so committed to theatre theatre actors so I really cherish every day of this. Not to sound too hokey . . . but I do, it's wonderful.
Q: Do you think the show has a message, or what does it say to you?
Estabrook: It's like mistakes are made generationally, and each succeeding generation lives with the preceding generation's hang-ups, and that there's always a spring. There's always a new rebirth that can be comforting because I think we constantly get better as people, and we constantly learn lessons. I remember my mother telling me that the stork brought babies. That didn't seem so far-fetched to me, let me tell ya! [Laughs.] Continued...