Sharon Gless Stars in a World Premiere of Her Own Making

By Judy Samelson
25 Dec 2009

Sharon Gless
Sharon Gless
Photo by Matthew Mitchell

Sharon Gless takes a risk by playing a risk-taker in A Round-Heeled Woman, a true story that she optioned.

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Two-time Emmy Award winner Sharon Gless loves a challenge. From her lauded and laurelled Det. Christine Cagney on the acclaimed series "Cagney & Lacey" to her more recent roles on television — brassy PFLAG mom Debbie Novotny on "Queer as Folk," her spine-chilling, Emmy-nominated guest turn as an obsessed fan on "Nip/Tuck," and her current role as platinum-blonde, chain-smoking Madeline Westen on "Burn Notice" — Gless' fondness for playing flawed women has become something of a signature along with her often heart-rending ability to pierce through the toughness to uncover the vulnerable underbelly of these quirky, independent characters.

Though her major theatrical appearances have been exclusively on London stages (in West End productions of Stephen King's Misery and Neil Simon's Chapter Two), in January Gless takes to the boards stateside, sinking her teeth into yet another fascinating role when she stars as Jane Juska in A Round-Heeled Woman at San Francisco's Theater Artaud. The limited engagement begins previews Jan. 5; it opens Jan. 16 and at press time was scheduled to run through Feb. 7. The new play by Jane Prowse is based on the best-selling book by Juska, a former English teacher who in late 1999 placed an ad in "The New York Review of Books" that read: "Before I turn 67 — next March — I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me." The response from men (aged 32 to 84) was so overwhelming that Juska took a sabbatical from her teaching job to meet — and do more than just talk — with some of them. Her experiences ran the gamut from sad to satisfying and she recounted them with candor and humor in her book "A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance."

Juska entered Sharon Gless' life when Gless' husband, producer Barney Rosenzweig, threw a New York Times article about Juska's adventures on her desk and said, "If you had any balls, you'd go after this." And with typical tenacity, she did, optioning the book as a vehicle for herself. As she was preparing to start rehearsals for her January opening, Gless spoke with Playbill.com about A Round-Heeled Woman, Juska and taking risks.



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Question: You've had a long history with this project, going back seven or eight years?

Sharon Gless: It's been nine years now.

Question: So, you optioned the book initially?

Gless:: I took an option out on the book and I've been continuing to pay all this time. I wish I'd bought it outright, but I kept thinking, "Well, surely, everybody's going to want to see this, either as a series or a movie or a play." I didn't know what form it would take. I just knew it was a story that had to be told.

Question: Initially you envisioned a television series, and at one point, didn't you also try to enlist Rosie O'Donnell to produce it on stage?

Gless: I went to Showtime, which was my network [Gless starred for five seasons on the cable network's "Queer as Folk"], but they weren't interested. I asked Rosie if she would produce it on stage. She was not interested in producing it, but she said, "Sharon, do not let this thing go. I promise you as soon as you let it go, someone is going to grab it so fast. And when you get tired of playing it, I'll step in and play it." [Laughs] So it was her encouragement that kept me holding on to it.

Question: Then you took off in another direction and began investigating the possibility of mounting it as a play in London.

Gless: Barney and I were in Venice a few years ago. And he said, "Let's go to London to see Simon Moore and Jane Prowse. Simon had written and directed Misery and Jane Prowse was his lady who was also a very fine writer. Jane and Simon were not together anymore but they were still very good friends. And we said, "Can we meet you both together at lunch?" So Barney took two copies of [the book] and I asked them, "Are we barking up the wrong tree here or are we crazy in thinking this is something?" They said, "Well let's read it. We'll let you know what we think here in London."

Question: Why London in particular?

Gless: I'm not stunned, but I'm reminded that America's fascination with older women sexually . . . there's not a big calling for it. The reason we were attracted to London is because Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Joan Plowright, Brenda Blethyn — they're still considered very hot and sexy women. And London puts them in movies where they show their sexuality all the time. So London has this respect and sort of awe of older women sexually.

Question: What did Moore and Prowse think?

Gless: Simon wrote immediately and said he loved it but he was too busy. I didn't hear from Jane Prowse for a long time. About six months later I got a call from Jane who said, "Sharon, I'm so sorry. I got married, and I've been around the world on my honeymoon. While I was on my honeymoon I read 'Round-Heeled Woman.' You mustn't let this go. It is fantastic and you also must let me write it." She, in turn, took it to Brian Eastman, who produced Misery. And Brian instantly got it. Instantly. He said, "I love this." It's that different mentality between the Brits and the Americans. So now I've got Brian Eastman. Jane wrote it and Brian Eastman is producing it.

Question: When did San Francisco enter the picture?

Gless: I thought, instantly, "Oh good it's Brian and me and Jane. Yay. We're all going to be in the West End." Brian and I met and he said, "I need to tell you something. This is a very American piece and in this particular case it has to play in America before we put it in the West End." And he started listing cities where he'd like to do it. The first one he said was New York. And I said, "Absolutely not, they'll kill me: 'TV cop live on stage.'" Then he listed Chicago. I said, "No, still too big." It's a very daring piece. When he said San Francisco, I said, "Yes!"

Question: But you did a reading across the pond, didn't you?

Gless: We took it to London to see if we could raise money for it. They do these little Saturday morning readings that are normally 30 people and there were over 200 people there. They filled out questionnaires and, except for one man who thought there was too much sex, everyone loved it. And the Richmond Theatre where we did the reading has now put in money. It's now Brian Eastman Productions and Richmond Theatre Productions. So I thought, "Wow, it really did land." And I trust Brian implicitly. So now we are doing it in San Francisco with Chris Smith who was running the Magic Theatre. He's left the Magic. He flew to London, did the reading with us, and he's going to direct it at the Artaud.

Question: How would you describe Jane Juska?

Gless: Jane's a very courageous woman. She's also brilliant smart. I took her to lunch at 21 and I'm telling you she sat down and started talking to me in 15 syllable words. I said [laughs], "Jane, I don't know what the fuck you just said!" She did something that was wild. Definitely wild. But she's no fool. I think she wanted me to know that "I may have taken out an ad that's considered inappropriate to some people, but I'm not stupid." So she's very, very bright. But there's a naiveté to her that's quite appealing. And I think it's that naiveté that gave her the balls to do this. You know, she says in her book — and I say in the play — that she knew that she could get hurt; she might even be murdered, running off after strange men.

Question: Why, then, do you think she took that risk?

Gless: I went to hear her speak at the 92nd Street Y years and years ago when I first got the option, and someone raised their hand and asked, "Ms. Juska, why did you humiliate yourself like this?" And she looked right at the woman and she said, "I had not been touched in 30 years." And everyone in the room got it. She had nothing to lose and hopefully everything to gain. She didn't want to die without being touched, without being held.

Question: Still, she took a huge leap into the unknown and could have paid the price with her life.

Gless: I think there was no alternative. I think the way she was feeling — she was feeling lonely. She was a teacher. She was very, very strict about and very respectful about being a teacher. She never had relationships with any men — young, old, anybody — during her teaching years. It just wasn't protocol. And she became enamored of Trollope, this famous romance novelist, and that was her sexuality. She says in the play, "that was my sex life." She's pretty honest. I mean, there's nothing I could say that is more ballsy than what she says in her own book. Continued...