Talking with Colleen Werthmann, part 1

colleen werthmann in suitcaseFans of downtown theater have had ample opportunity to see the talents of Colleen Werthmann. From her work with Elevator Repair Service, to her solo shows, to recent work with The Civilians, she has been a dynamic presence onstage. Currently appearing in Suitcase at Soho Rep, Culturebot managed to have a little email chat with her about her life in the theater.(Photo © David Gochfeld)

Tell me a little about SUITCASE. What’s the show about? What’s your role?

SUITCASE is Melissa James Gibson’s new play. It’s the story of two women, Sallie and Jen, who can’t finish their dissertations, and they’re all messed up about it. They’ve essentially barricaded themselves inside their apartments to “work” but what the really do is yak on the phone, engage in various acts of nostalgic voyeurism, and play with language. Each of the women have a boyfriend (Sallie has Lyle, and Jen has Karl). The men are each very frustrated with the difficulty of communicating on a real level with their gals. The majority of the play takes place over the phone and over Jen and Sallie’s intercoms. The men try to gain physical and emotional access to their gals but kind of can’t and don’t, and the women defend their (head/work) spaces with an opaque ferocity. The language of the play is very particular and unique. It’s written with very special line breaks, almost like a poem, and concentrates on word choices, punning, and stuff like that. I kind of think of this play as the one that would result if Julia Kristeva wrote A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. Abject men, fickle, messed up women, all in love, more than with each other, with the sound of words and how they reverberate.

Melissa wrote the play [sic], which was a big hit at Soho Rep in 2001. It won a bunch of OBIES and was one of the most successful runs ever there. SUITCASE has some similarities to [sic] in that Christina Kirk, my fellow actor, was also in it, and the production team has the same set designer (Louisa Thompson) and same director (Daniel Aukin). It has a similar bi-level set, the same characters in their mid to late 30s who are teetering between success and failure, and who are ensnared in slightly competitive, ambiguous relationships with each other. It’s kind of a comedy of manners, in that there are effervescent, silly conversations and little epigrams sprinkled throughout, but there’s also a painful, sad core to it which I find very moving and frightening. I think it’s emotionally riskier and more mature than [sic], and also more formally ambitious. It’s also a lot more technical.

How did you end up doing it?

Daniel Aukin (the director, who is also the Artistic Director at Soho Rep) asked me to do a one day workshop of it a little over a year ago. Then he and Melissa asked me if I would be interested in doing a one-week workshop of it last March. I had seen [sic]and thought it was really cool and new and exciting. It also stayed with me emotionally for a long time. I knew that if they did a full production of it, I wanted to do it. Actually, I had a very different conception of the character at the time. Back then I thought Jen was kind of like a bitchy, charismatic, fun villain, a slacker queen. The Jen I’ve made with Daniel and Melissa’s this time around is much more inwardly dark and weird, much more bristly and prickly and messed up, more compulsive. I don’t know if people who see the show would perceive my character that way, but that’s what I would say the growth process has been: trying less to be “winning and cool” and trying more to be a hermitty grad student who is living deeply inside her mind. I like what I’ve made this time around a lot more than my first conception of the character. Or, rather, I’m more proud of it, because it’s been a lot more difficult than I ever imagined, emotionally and technically.

Another show you were in, The Ladies, is currently running. Tell us about your work on that show.

THE LADIES is a brilliant play by Anne Washburn, directed by Annie Kauffman. It concerns the playwright’s and director’s inquiry into the lives of four (in)famous dictators’ wives: Madame Mao, Elena Ceauçescu,Eva Peron and Imelda Marcos. Anne and Annie taped the conversations they
had while working on the play’s research and dramaturgy, so there’s a kind of double helix of history and autobiography at work. It’s a mixture of literally verbatim Anne & Annie transcripts (with some tweaks, and I won’t say where), and scenes, either actual events or fantasies, of the four dictators’ wives. I played Anne Washburn in it for about a year and a half. I did the original workshops, at Dixon Place, and out at Jenny’s mom’s house on Long Island, which involved a lot of improvisation on the actors’ parts — more than any play I’ve ever worked on, and which was really fun and rewarding, if occasionally baffling. Then I did the run at HERE and up at the NYTW lab at Dartmouth College this past summer. In the fall I was doing RECENT TRAGIC EVENTS at Playwrights Horizons, and by then I knew that both SUITCASE and THE LADIES were coming up soon. And of course, the plays conflicted with each other schedule-wise, and I decided to do SUITCASE because I felt I had kind of completed my mission with THE LADIES. So now Jenny Dundas is playing Anne. Bizarrely, Jenny is Anne’s cousin in real life! So the helix got an extra twist.

Are you working on any other projects with The Civilians? What’s on the horizon?

I’m not really working on anything right now with The Civilians. As far as the Civilians’ horizon, Steve (the artistic director of THE CIVILIANS) and Michael Friedman (his main collaborator, a lyricist-composer) are working also on a number of readings and workshops of PARIS COMMUNE, which was shown last year at the Mazer. This coming fall at PS 122 they’re doing a full version of a show they developed during a month’s residency at The Public last August and September. It’s called NOBODY’S LUNCH and it concerns people’s political and religious beliefs. I sat in on a few early presentations/rehearsals last summer, before starting RECENT TRAGIC EVENTS, and I totally loved it. I don’t know if they’re going to bring any more people in but I hope I can work on it.

For me on the horizon, this spring, I have an offer to do a play at New York Theatre Workshop, a new play by Kia Corthron called LIGHT RAISE THE ROOF, which concerns a group of homeless people in New York City who live underground — some people call them “the mole people” or “tunnel people”. Michael Garcés is directing it, who directed RECENT TRAGIC EVENTS at Playwrights Horizons, so I am really looking forward to working with him again. The play is quite brutal. Its syntax is dense and intense. I have a few different characters. I think it’s a very worthwhile and interesting play because it’s unrelenting, but also very sympathetic to the interconnected issues which keep people down and out: some voluntary, some beyond their control. It’s an extraordinarily refreshing corrective to the played-out trope of the wise, profound homeless man (with strategically missing tooth, of course) that we see in WAY too many TV shows and movies. I’m also just going on auditions for TV pilots (yikes) and various other theater things and movies. SUITCASE just got invited to La Jolla for the summer, which is a thrilling prospect, so I hope that will work out.

Before you worked with The Civilians you worked with ERS. Any favorite moments with them?

I still work with ERS, but these days mostly as a costume designer. I did a skit in one of the benefits a couple years ago. I’ve been the main costume designer for the company almost since we started. In college and during summers, I had done quite a bit of wardrobe mistressing, and even did some small costume design jobs on friends’ projects, so it was already something in which I had an interest, if I was gonna do tech stuff. When we started ERS, people would just kind of approximate out of their own wardrobes, and John had a couple of lab coats. After a while I thought, “We can do better than this. I can do better than this”, so I offered to do costumes for SPINE CHECK. That show was kind of a cross between a weather forecast and a film noir. It was really fun. We actually did it at Soho Rep in the summer, in 1993, over July 4th weekend, before those guys had air conditioning. That was a very valuable lesson, albeit learned way too late, in trying to dress actors for the actual working environment as well as their characters. Anyway, I really enjoyed it, and I designed LANGUAGE INSTRUCTION, and McGURK after that. Then, uh… Carson (Kreitzer) did SHUT UP I TELL YOU, we both did CAB LEGS together, then I did TOTAL FICTIONAL LIE, she did HIGHWAY TO TOMORROW, and I did ROOM TONE.

But yeah, I’ve had many favorite moments with ERS. We’ve made shows virtually nonstop together for over ten years. The people in Elevator Repair Service are like my New York family, even if we don’t necessarily see each other that much away from the work. We have a long and deep history with each other, in many ways — a few unsavory, but mostly savory. heehee

Some of my favorite moments are: tangoing with a door on our backs in SPINE CHECK… From McGurk, the mop sandwich, Steve Rattazzi telling the little skirt-wearing jar, “You look like 50 bucks”, and the bottle-breaking scene… “Society” shuffling from side to side in MARX BROTHERS ON HORSEBACK SALAD, and the “tea party”. Many of James Hannaham’s characters: the Hasidic transvestite prostitute in McGURK, the “Burrito maker” from CAB LEGS, the Jamaican landlord from SHUT UP I TELL YOU, and the “Chorus of Asian Women” in HIGHWAY TO TOMORROW. Leo as Werner in CAB LEGS. Rinne’s bloody frenzy in HIGHWAY. Susie’s portrayal of “Mom” in CAB LEGS. Skullie (the plastic skull on a broom) from SHUT UP I TELL YOU. The thermos, aka Dionysus, in HIGHWAY TO TOMORROW. Rinne and Scott’s work in CAB LEGS — heartbreaking and perfect. And the “Hermann” dance (where Steve comes out in the Lone Ranger mask) and everybody does that groovy 60s hullabaloo. The “counting scene” from LANGUAGE INSTRUCTION. Kathy’s eerie child in ROOM TONE, Rinne and Susie’s piano lessons, too… the way Jon Feinberg did the monologue at the beginning of that show, in the audience in pitch blackness, was so incredibly beautiful.

It’s funny, because MANY MORE of the things I love the most from ERS shows are not things I did. My favorite shows, actually, are CAB LEGS, SHUT UP I TELL YOU, and ROOM TONE, none of which I was ever in. It’s probably because I didn’t participate in the incredibly challenging, difficult, sometimes even crazymaking rehearsal process of building those shows, so I can enjoy them more purely. I’m proud of the shows I’ve done, but it’s more because of the fondness for certain moments, and knowing how much we went through in terms of sheer amount of material and agonizing decisions and discussions, than it is a kind of unalloyed joy, which is what I feel when I see the ones for which I did the clothes but wasn’t there every day.

Random rebuttal: A lot of people have this image of ERS as these preciously overeducated people who just slap a bunch of inside jokes onstage, and then do a kooky dance to some foreign music. That hurts a lot. I believe in John’s vision, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. A lot of people think that we’re overly influenced by the Wooster Group — that our work is too similar to theirs, yada yada. I can see why, but I wonder why people get so upset about it. We are definitely influenced by the Wooster Group in the way we build our shows over a long time, and in the way we select source material, but I consider our work much more fun. Less glamorous, WAY less self-serious. We also value junk and found things, found objects, castoffs in a more overt way. We treat things as less sacred, though our shows aren’t really punk or aggro, like Radiohole or Collapsible Giraffe. I find it completely hilarious that the Wooster Group’s doing a show which, among other themes, concerns Jerzy Grotowski’s “Poor Theater” — they had Prada suits for HOUSE LIGHTS! Even if they were donated, that gives you a sense of TWG’s access to wealth, prestige, and glamour, whereas we shop everywhere, but we buy on 14th Street. Not at Diesel, either. We’re talking Odd Job Lot, Dee and Dee.

But back to the whole “what our deal is”: Our process is much more thoughtful and sensitive than “Let’s just be esoteric and everyone will love it”. There’s definitely always a tension between what we know onstage and what the audience knows, but what we are aiming for is something kind of mysterious, and magical. I think Melissa Gibson aims for that in her work too — to concentrate on other things besides plot and characters, and to get you the audience to savor certain experiential things which ordinarily don’t get much stage time.

There was one time when a plastic stacking chair broke during a performance of the first showing of Language Instruction when Bradley Glenn, who was playing Jerry Lawler, just very casually walked offstage, almost in a trance, and brought another one. You could feel the audience freaking out. It had been a total accident, but then everyone thought it was this brilliant confluence of destruction and preparedness. It’s total luck we had an extra one back there. John really likes accidents and that was an awesome one.

In TOTAL FICTIONAL LIE, when we were on tour in Berlin, we opened the Berliner Festwoche that year. During that first really long Tai-Chi-inflected dance to the Eddie Harris music, when a bunch of us separately emerged from behind the screen, shoving Cheetos into our mouths, that felt thrilling and rebellious. Just being there was so exciting for me — it was my first tour as a company member. Those guys had been all over the place with CAB LEGS but I didn’t go then. So it was a real trip to be treated like King and Queen ArtStars, and have three dozen journalists at our press conference. It showed me just how much more valued theater and theater artists are in Europe than here. It makes me sad to think about it now, but at the time it felt very validating.

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