Talking with Colleen Werthmann, part 2
As an actor do you prefer working collaboratively or on pre-written roles?
I like doing both, but for very different reasons. Doing collaborative work, for me, is more about the overall thing — it’s less about creating an awesome character than it is about making something that works. I don’t think I’ve ever made a really great character within ERS, except for maybe Rita, the suburban hiphop girl in TOTAL FICTIONAL LIE who relentlessly promotes her line of accessories. I enjoyed playing Elayne Boosler in LANGUAGE INSTRUCTION, even though I didn’t really play her like you would in a normal biographical play. Mostly I enjoyed wearing the satin jumpsuit and big wig, and I did a mean, minimalist version of her standup routine. I wish I had been less concerned back then with being pretty or divaish, and more able to just go all the way into freaky. I tended to put myself into this role of femme fatale too often. For me collaborative work feels actually not that much different than working on a pre-written play, because I usually am working with such intelligent, cooperative people when I do regular plays. I’m never shy about piping up, either, and I have confidence in my ideas, probably a lot more than actors who never work on more collaborative-type theater. In mainstream theater, I think there’s a much more service-oriented participation expected of the actor: to really do whatever the playwright and director say. Sometimes in mainstream theater the writers or directors wanna hear stuff like “This sentence is hard to say out loud” or “I feel like I’m making that point one time too many in this monologue”. I might ask more unusual questions than that, but I also can provoke sometimes much more valuable results. I tend to free-associate a lot more and make bigger-level statements like “I just feel like I’m not doing my character as awesomely as possible” or “I’ve been onstage sitting here for like 20 minutes doing nothing. Why am I even here? How can I make my presence worthwhile, even if I’m just stuck behind somebody else’s conversation?” Things that people who take the formal structure of “regular plays” for granted wouldn’t necessarily ask. I will overstep the traditional boundaries, hopefully in a helpful way, and to worthwhile effect.
What do you think about downtown vs. commercial theater? What are the Pros & Cons of each?
To be fair, the only mainstreamish theater I’ve done is not-for-profit theater, like BLUE SURGE at the Public, RECENT TRAGIC EVENTS at Playwrights Horizons. Near as I can tell, the differences are that the environment is fancier and the bigger the theater, the more people work there. Downtown is fun because you know that the kind of person for which the show’s intended is gonna come and see it. In the bigger spaces, you wind up being part of a cultural consumption — more people are subscribing to the reputation of the institution, not because they wanna see your play in particular. The subscriber crowds are not dumb — on the contrary, they’re incredibly tough and savvy. Downtowners have this stereotype of these bluehaired ladies coming in from New Jersey like Linda Richman from Coffee Tawk, blabbing about musicals, but actually, they’ve seen three times as much theater as you or I have, and they don’t miss a thing.
What about TV & Film?
Seriously, the best reason to do TV and film at the pee-wee level — which is all I’ve done, really; I’ve never had a recurring or regular role on a series, or been in an even slightly well-known movie — is that you get phone calls and emails from people you haven’t talked to in a million years, friends you haven’t seen from high school, and all that.
I love doing TV and film because it lasts. You can hold it in your hand afterwards, and analyze all the bad choices you made and how weird they did your lips, over and over again.
And of course theater is exciting, it’s live, it’s ephemeral, and it can change and morph over time along with the chemistry of the audience.
I’ve often equated the techncial demands between TV/film and theater to the difference between diving and lap-swimming, or camp (the summer kind, not the aesthetic kind) and school. In diving, you have to kind of go through a short moment in your mind beforehand. You step up and try to execute perfectly. You get a few tries. With lap swimming, the gains you make are in endurance and strength. Camp is exciting, the locale is special, and you forge intense friendships that usually fade rather quickly. School is nourishing and you grow and learn more from it; it’s more real.
You’ve done solo shows …is that something that still interests you?
Making solo shows has definitely been the most terrifying, rewarding, and exhausting aspect of my career so far. I can’t say I’m dying to do another one right now, because I don’t have a hold of an idea that’s satisfying to me. I definitely don’t wanna go through the nightmares and disappointments of doing my own work again without having a story or a theme I can’t live without doing.
I’m still bitter about having my shows rejected from Aspen by people I don’t respect, and being told by curators, “Why would anyone care about this? You’re a white woman.” And being told that a show I did — the theme of which was economic disenfranchisement — was not political enough. Or too conventional, or not theatrical enough, and not showy enough, and not whatever enough, or too whatever. Ya know what? Lotsa people enjoyed the shit out of my shows, but I will have to build up my defenses again before I submit myself to another excruciating process of development, production, self-promotion, judgment, etc. I feel like I kind of got too much out of my system. I did 3 solo shows in like, 7 years. Maybe that doesn’t sound like much, but it was for me. I burned out. I haven’t done one now for about 4 years. I kind of miss it, but I don’t know what the next thing is yet. It’s going to have to be an obsession that can carry me through the emotional hell again. I would love to get an idea soon. It feels sad to have no good ideas. Maybe I just need a toughass director and a toughass dramaturg and somebody with money to produce it, so I don’t have to schlep 2 gigantic shopping bags, a folding chair, and a guitar from the Lower East Side to Midtown on foot when I’m broke, only to be told that my show has no spine and that its structure is amorphous. Sorry to sound like a baby if I do, but it really is quite debilitating, as probably everyone who’s reading this already knows.
Everyone from a theater background who makes a solo show, it seems to me, tries to straddle the line between making something very personal and true, and making something that people will respond to in the marketplace. I’m not talking about the art-world or gallery-based kinds of installation-y solo shows, because I don’t really have anything to do with that world. I wanted my work to be as well-regarded and important and meaningful and successful as Danny Hoch’s, or Sarah Jones’, and while people have enjoyed my work, it’s never resonated in that kind of way. Which doesn’t mean it’s without value, but if I try to achieve those goals, and have failed to achieve what I hoped to achieve, failing, then maybe I should just suck it up and realize that I’m just not as talented a solo performer as they are. So it takes a kind of double courage — in other words, to not only persevere in light of failing my own hopes and expectations, but putting stuff out there that EVERYBODY says “Enhh, she’s okay but she’s not as good.”
What was the most challenging thing you’ve done onstage?
Emotionally, RECENT TRAGIC EVENTS was very painful for a number of reasons. I was one of the people who did not wanna think or talk about September 11th after it happened. I had a couple months of thinking about it all the time and then I was done. So to go back inside that seabed of grief in and out, in and out all the time was hard, and not very fun. It was a bigtime reality check for me to do a play with a beautiful famous actress who basically walked into her role. On the vanity tip, I’ve never felt uglier AND more invisible at the same time. But I also realized, Hey, I’m kind of a virtuoso in this role, after I mastered the technical aspects of this one very difficult scene which involved me playing a card/drinking game as two characters at once, while engaging in an intense philosophical debate. That felt good. It didn’t make it much easier though. I had a lot of issues of pride/humiliation, grief/gratitude, and hope/disappointment with that play.
SUITCASE is like a highwire, emotionally and technically too. There’s a lot about the themes of the play — these hypermental, hyperverbal people living in isolation, in tiny, shitty apartments, teetering between success and failure, and in kind of ambiguous relationships, which resonate quite deeply with me. I got very depressed the first few weeks we started in on this rehearsal process. Then I kind of came back up to the surface and reconnected with the effervescence of the language. As our mastery got better, the show became lots more fun to do. It’s been hard, though, for me to feel like I’m kicking ass, which may actually be quite medicinal for me.
Mostly though, the hardest moments don’t happen onstage — they happen in rehearsal. I’m not a good rehearser. I tend to be spastic and anxious about my ideas and present them in fruity ways if I’m feeling vulnerable, or I get into experimental-theater mode and start free-associating, and kind of losing my cred if I get too “out there”. I love performing, and executing a play every night, but I’m quite hard on myself in rehearsal.
When I was in BLUE SURGE by Rebecca Gilman, there used to be this little piece of business that we wound up cutting from the show during previews because I just could not get it right.
The play was about cops and hookers in a poor, small town in the Midwest. The scene in question involed Sandy (Rachel Miner) and Curt (Joe Murphy) getting to know each other at this bar where mt character had just started working. I’d just realized that he’s one of the cops who busted the massage parlor where Sandy and I used to work. After I storm off, I come on a few minutes later and kind of bust up their momenet of intimacy by getting on a stepstool behind the bar, pulling down my pants, and mooning them. I was supposed to go smack! smack! on my ass with each hand while bent over, and I would consistently mess one hand up so that it didn’t make a noise. I was always kind of scared that I would fall, and more than that, it made me cringe and I hated it. I’m glad they cut it, even if it means I was inept. I wonder if the script version now has it the old way or the new way?
What are the things you look for when you take on projects?
Is this juicy to me? Can I have fun? Will I grow? Is it wise for me to do this now? Do I like these people? Can I learn from this? Do I need to do this? Is it something I can be proud of in the future?
Where do you see yourself in 5/10 years?
Working with people I respect, having an awful lot of fun, going back and forth between TV, movies, and theater. Being busy. Making my living as an actor, doing exciting, challenging, worthwhile, and important things. Being happy.
Who do you really want to work with that you haven’t yet?
In no particular order: Phil Hoffman, Christine Baranski, Joe Mantello, John Kelly, William Ivey Long, Gabriel Berry, Tony Walton, Jim Findlay, Laurie Anderson, Frances McDormand, David Straithairn, Larry Pine, Allison Janney, Richard Linklater, Kristen Johnson, Mike Albo, Mike Iveson, Kiki & Herb, Lea deLaria, Sandra Bernhard, Judy Davis, John Ortiz, Paul Anderson, Holly Hughes, Lisa Kron, David Rakoff, um… I think this list could be thousands of people long, because the more I think, the more I can list, because there’s so much I want to do.