Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Interview with Aleshia Brevard: Part 3

Monika: Aleshia, in our previous conversation you stated that your true acting career took place in the theater. How would you compare these two artistic worlds?
Aleshia: Ah, Monika, that is a subject on which I could easily drone on for hours, one on which someone could write a book – and indeed many have. Accomplished actors still argue over whether performance styles must differ markedly between stage and film. I tend to agree with those artists who argue successful acting for film is more self-contained. The film is the more intimate medium. Obviously, on stage, the play’s ideas are projected into a three-dimensional space peopled with actors whose goal is to reach and move the theater audience. This requires a project of both voice and manner. Even with a long run of the play, the actors must speak their lines as though they had just thought of them, the “illusion of the first time.” I would further contribute that theater appeals to feelings first and to intellect second.
One thing for sure, in theater “the play’s the thing”. Whatever may be the surface differences in acting on the stage, and in radio, television, and the cinema, the player must remember that the basic principles for all four mediums are the same. The actor must create images. The images must be active. They can be active only when the actor feels the vital stir of creativity. He must characterize his art in order to make it warmly human and he must employ some kind of ‘style’. The superficial methods may differ, but actors are all members of the same craft.
As I’ve said in our previous interviews, my time in theater was the highlight of my professional career. During my later years as a professor of theater at East Tennessee State University, I continually stressed to students that the playhouse exists for an audience and that it is not only the privilege but also the obligation of the actor to please that audience.

Publicity shot for 2nd tour of "The Owl
and the Pussycat".

Monika: You played the lead role of Joanna Markham in “Move Over Ms. Markham” by Ray Cooney, a famous English playwright. The play shows complications that arise when different sets of lovers meet in the bedroom of the Markhams' supposedly empty flat. What was the most challenging feature of that character?
Aleshia: Gosh, Monika, you certainly do your homework before these interviews, I’ll give you that. And, yes, I did indeed play the title character, Joanna Markham, in six (or was it seven?) different productions, the majority of those shows going on six to eight-month tours. I loved Joanna. She gave me a lot of work.
Without getting too involved in motivation for the title role, I’ll shoot from the hip and say that (for me) the key to playing Joanna Markham was empathy. Mrs. Markham gets herself tangled in a farcical web of deceits, always with the purest of intentions. The humor lies in her bewilderment. With my gender history that was something with which I could definitely identify. I’m being rather a tongue in cheek with that statement, but now that I think of it – there’s also a lot of truth lurking just below the surface.
Another element in portraying Joanna Markham hinged on my innate love for comedy and farce. This British bedroom farce felt tailor-made for my theater style.
Monika: You mentioned “The Gingerbread Lady”, a dark drama about Evy Meara, a cabaret singer whose career, marriage, and health all have been destroyed by alcohol. You played that role yourself - an overly vain woman who fears the loss of her looks, living with the devoted but anxious teenaged daughter and a worthless ex-lover. It seems like the summary of the lives of many women …
Aleshia: A quick side-note on my turn as Evy Meara, one of my favorite all-time roles, is my mother’s comment after a performance that she fully understood “just how much that role cost Aleshia.” Mother was right. Every night I left a small piece of my soul on stage.
Reviews were very good during the run of “The Gingerbread Lady” but my greatest compliment came from the theater owner. His wife was an alcoholic. The theater owner commented to our director that he could not bear to watch the show, saying that my portrayal hit just too close to home. I was extremely flattered, naturally, but Evy’s struggle as a recovering alcoholic was not the character trait on which I was hanging my performance. Evy Meara is also at loose ends because of a painful break-up with her lover. Six nights a week, and for two matinees, I pulled the scab off the memories of my lost relationship with Hank, my first (and perhaps only) love. That was what my mother saw in my performance. God, I LOVE Neil Simon for his genius in creating Evy Meara. I also LOVE the theater owner for insisting I play Evy… considering that initially, the director had not wanted to cast me.

Shot for "Seven Year Itch".

Monika: You played in “The Seven Year Itch”, a romantic three-act play, which was made famous after the production of the movie with Marilyn Monroe standing on a subway grate as her white dress is blown by a passing train. The titular phrase refers to declining interest in a monogamous relationship after seven years of marriage. Any memories about this role?
Aleshia: “The Girl Upstairs”, the description of the role in “The Seven Year Itch”, is another character I played in several different touring productions. I adored her – even if my interpretation was much more Judy Holiday than Marilyn Monroe. During those years playing vapid blonds, even if I was a red-head, was my professional forte. One of the lovely aspects of “Itch” is that it’s predominately a two-character vehicle.
I preferred being on tour with a small cast. With “Itch” my fondest memories and lasting friendships developed from working closely with my various leading men. Months together on the road ensure that actors either bond closely or end up at each other’s throats. It’s disastrous for a show when the cast is at odds.
Sad to say, I’ve had that unfortunate experience also. The first business of acting is the making of an image. Pantomime is the bodily movement, the “stage business” of the actor. In “Itch” the image of “The Girl Upstairs” is written to be strong and undeniable; her magnetism is the hook on which the plot is hung. Her bodily movement is designed to stimulate the imagination of the spectator. Little wonder, I suppose that this role was one to which I kept returning at any given opportunity.
Monika: As Truvy, the beauty salon owner, you took part in “Steel Magnolias”- a comedy-drama play about a group of Southern women in northwest Louisiana. It is said that the title suggests that "female characters are as delicate as magnolias but as tough as steel". Would you agree?
Aleshia: I would wholeheartedly agree. I’m a Southern “belle”, remember? I believe it’s very true that Southern women work overtime at intentionally cultivating an image of the delicate magnolia, while they remain steel to their very core. I think it could be argued, of course, that said steel core is true of women the world over. Another footnote: The producers of the repertory troupe for whom I ended up doing “Steel Magnolias” took me to see the original off-Broadway production in New York.
As we left the theater I was asked which role I wanted to play. There was no hesitation in my reply. I did a little jig on the sidewalks of New York. As much as I’d admired all the ‘steel magnolias’ in the play, it was Truvy with whom I’d most identified. I was very excited by the prospects of appearing in the upcoming repertory production. Not all shows live up to their potential, however, and it’s unfortunate that once in production our particular cast never quite jelled as a cohesive force. Too many prima donnas on one stage, I suppose.
After the dress rehearsal, the night before opening, I brazenly asked our director, “Are we supposed to be doing a comedy or a tragedy?” He thought I was joking. I wasn’t. Seemingly our all-female cast could never become of one mind as to a prevailing tone for the play.

Maxine "Night of the Iguana".

Monika: As ex-wife Beverly, you played in “The Shadow Box” a play about three patients: Joe, Brian, and Felicity that are living with their families as they have reached the end of their treatment and have agreed to be part of a psychological scheme where they live within the hospital grounds and have interviews with a psychiatrist. Do you recollect any anecdotes about this particular role or play?
Aleshia: Ah, Monika, another of my favorite roles. I feel so fortunate to have had Beverly fall into my lap. This production was directed by the first cousin of the play’s author, 1977 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner, Michael Christopher. Your insight into these roles, bye the bye, continues to amaze me! At its core, this play deals with what none of us really enjoy talking about: death… even if we know that it is the unavoidable conclusion of our own life as we are only passing shadows in a shadow box.
Beverly is “a superb, provocative, flamboyant, moving and pathetic character”. Fortunately, that’s how one critic reviewed me, even if major credit also belongs to the playwright and to our director. Beverly is indeed the one character that creates balance in the play. But if she is in some way the central character of the play, it is because she is the only one to bring the humorous moments of relief necessary to carry the whole affair to its end without getting the audience tired or too depressed. It’s a show-stopping role. Is there any wonder I loved this role and this play? Beverly was one of my all-time critical successes.
Monika: You also played Maxine Faulk in “Night of the Iguana”, a stage play written by Tennessee Williams, with a film adaptation - the Academy Award-winning 1964 film. How your Maxine was different from that of Ava Gardner?
Aleshia: First and foremost, perhaps, because I ‘ain’t no Ava Gardner’. Smart remarks aside, the role of Maxine was originated on stage by Bette Davis -- and I'd like to think my approach fell somewhere in between Bette and Ava, I’d like to think, would lie my approach to the role.
I am a great, great devotee of Tennessee Williams and the fascinating women he created. I’ve played quite a few. I also taught a course on the plays of Tennessee Williams at East Tennessee State University. I love the man's women! My Maxine was a gritty, decidedly loose woman, attempting to use her sexuality as a panacea for emotional pains. I saw Maxine as a trapped animal: a woman on the prowl while being tethered by an invisible chain. The sensual tone of my characterization was intended to create a physical stir in the audience. I’d like to think my approach was a success.

Emily Green "Ruthless! The Musical.

Monika: What was your role in “Ruthless! The Musical” - an all-female musical that spoofs Broadway musicals and movies such as “The Bad Seed” and “All About Eve”?
Aleshia: I had a year run with this highly praised Equity production in Chicago. Oh, how I hated every bloody moment! It was not the highlight of my career, to say the least. Sour grapes on my part, I suppose. I’d auditioned, with multiple callbacks, for the lead role of Sylvia St. Croix. I thought for sure the prize role was mine. Nope. At the last possible moment, I lost Sylvia and was offered the role of reporter Emily Green, a sadly underwritten character with one (supposedly) funny line. I understudied the actor playing Sylvia St. Croix.
I’d never been an understudy before; will never understudy again. My every gesture and line was supposed to mirror the actor who was playing Sylvia. Damn! I’d always been taught that there are no small roles; only small actors. The lesson must not have taken with me. I was definitely stuck in a small, unrewarding role during my too long year with “Ruthless! The Musical”. It was a successful, fun show – but not an experience I enjoyed.


All the photos: courtesy of Aleshia Brevard.
© 2013 - Monika Kowalska

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