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 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.
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 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 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 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 insures 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 over-time 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 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 you 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 call backs, 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 role; 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.
Monika: You were also Hyppolyta, the Amazonian queen who possessed a magical girdle she was given by her father Ares, the god of war in “A Midsummer Night's Dream” by Shakespeare…
Aleshia: Monika, I was indeed in the Globe Theater’s production – but I can’t honestly say I was truly Hyppolyta. Love theater though I do, I’m definitely not a Shakespearean actor. What did I bring to the role? Well, uh, I was tall – and possibly looked fetching in the costume. Other than that? Not much! With all respect for “The Bard”, had my career been dependent on playing Shakespeare there’s little doubt acting for me would have been little more than an avocation.
Madwoman of Chaillot.
Monika: As Madeline Bassett - a young woman to whom Bertie Wooster periodically finds himself threateningly engaged, you played in “Subject to Change” by an English comic writer P. G. Wodehouse…
Aleshia: Ah, now we’ve left Shakespeare behind and crossed into the kind of ‘low’ theater I truly adore. Gosh, how I loved my tour as Madeline Bassett, complete with fat-suit, messy wig, and spirit glue to wrinkle the face. Madeline, to put it bluntly, is a bitch! Oh, but such a funny, engaging bitch is she. I played a similar role in "The Housekeeper", a play originally written for Cloris Leachman. It's a role I played in two separate productions. 
"The Housekeeper" was another dinner theater favorite in its day, along with other gems I had the privilege of traveling with, like "Lady's Night in a Turkish Bath", "Girl in the Freudian Slip", "Peterpat", "Butterflies are Free", Bedroom Farce", "See How They Run", "Fashion", "Love, Sex and the IRS", "God's Favorite", "Barefoot in the Park", "Thurber Carnival", "I Ought To Be In Pictures", "The Sunshine Boys", and "Two by Two". While I was out touring the country for laughs all I could think of was how badly I wanted someone to see me as a 'serious' actress and cast me as Sissy in "Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean".
Monika: How did you find your role of Julie in “Divorce Me, Darling” a musical by Sandy Wilson?
Aleshia: Julie was my first Equity role. I was cast out of New York for a theater in Albuquerque, New Mexico. As an outsider and new union member I was not immediately welcomed into the already close-knit cast. Things only got worse when I severely sprained my ankle during dress rehearsal, forcing the postponement of our opening for two weeks.
Thankfully the role of flirty secretary Julie was tailor made for my acting style. Once we finally opened, my reviews were very good – so good, in fact, that I was offered my second Equity role in that theater’s production of “The Lady Who Cried Fox”. It was during this extended run, by the way, that my third husband divorced me in Las Vegas. He’d grown tired of me placing theater above my marriage to him. Some husbands can be so touchy!
"Come Blow Your Horn", in Shreveport LA.
Monika: As pessimistic, lacking vision Sabina you were saying in “The Skin of our Teeth”: "That's all we do—always beginning again! Over and over again. Always beginning again." and "Don't forget that a few years ago we came through the depression by the skin of our teeth! One more tight squeeze like that and where will we be?" It seems realistic also these days…
Aleshia: Doesn’t it just! One might even say that Thornton Wilder had his finger on something very important about the nature of the world when he created Sabina. The role of Sabina was my first Best Actress award in college and came within a year of my completing gender reassignment. Obviously she remains very important to me for both reasons. Loved her.
It’s because of having Sabina fall into my unseasoned lap that I developed a fascination with Talullah Bankhead, who originated the role. Later, in graduate school, my senior project was to write, direct and star in a one woman show on Ms. Bankhead, “Bless You, Darlin’”. Yep, all thanks to being cast as Sabina my first year in undergraduate school. The success I had with Sabina further won me the role of Countess Aurelia in our college production of “The Madwoman of Chaillot”.
If I may brag, that role won me my second Best Actress Award. Primarily, however, I mention this because these two college role offered me, a neophyte female, strong indication that a career path had been solidified. I can not stress how import such eye-opening opportunities were in developing my sense of self and giving me the required confidence to move forward in life and my chosen career.
Monika: In “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” by Edward Albee, a play about the breakdown of the marriage of a middle-aged couple, Martha and George, you as Martha had to face the situation in which your own experiences must have influenced the way you played that role.
Aleshia: Martha is quite the role, isn’t she? It’s the filmed role of Martha that awakened me to the depth of Elizabeth Taylor’s talent. I find it very interesting that early on Ms. Taylor had achieved great fame, much of it based on her undeniable beauty and personal relationships – all of which arguably masked the star’s inner ability. Then she burst forth with her portrayal of Martha. I’m not always a vocal fan of Edward Albee’s early works, but I consider “Virginia Woolf” a true work of genius. Interestingly enough, as a foot note, 
I once saw a production of Albee’s masterpiece in which the actress playing Martha was still collapsed in a heap at curtain call. No doubt an actor must relate to his material – but someone should have reminded that particular performer that it’s also exceedingly important to maintain control over one’s medium. A director can not treat sensitive actors as though they are docile clumps of clay, granted, but for my money that self-indulgent Martha deserved a swift kick.
Publicity shot for "Not Now, Darling".
Monika: Do you remember your role of Janie McMichels in “Not Now, Darling”, a farce by English playwrights John Chapman and Ray Cooney?
Aleshia: “Remember it”? You bet! Janie McMicheles was my introduction to dinner theater, which in the 60’s and 70’s was offering constant work for actors. It was in the role of Janie that I went on my first tour, opening my eyes to the existence of a world I heretofore had not even suspected.
The show was such a fun, energetic romp and I enjoyed every moment playing my bubble-brained Janie. Chapman and Cooney were truly masterful playwrights for the type characters producers generally hired me to play. The British duo created delicious one-liners for their characters.
Monika: You also played in three other plays: “Big Bad Burlesque”, “Hello From Bertha” and “A Christmas Carol”. Some recollections about them?
Aleshia: It would be memories of Tennessee Williams’ “Bertha” that leaps immediately to the forefront for me. The down-and-out dying prostitute won for me the honor of a New Jersey Best Actress of the Year Award. Guess I’ll always be grateful to Bertha. She was certainly a departure from most of the roles I’d previously been hired to play. Each night during that run, waiting for the curtain to rise, I uttered a little prayer to theater gods for my good fortune. I had been so fortunate to have a director who insisted on giving me free rein, even when during rehearsals the company’s producer had told him to pull back my performance.
During this particular show I felt it was Bertha who had control of me, rather than the other way around. “Big Bad Burlesque” was another of those great, fun romps. It’s another show that I did with several production companies. Recently I received a note from the director of one production, suggesting (in jest, I assume) that we should remount the show for a senior audience. I had to chuckle. I’m not at all sure that at seventy-five I’d receive the same response to my big strip number, walking down individually lighting steps in my black velvet gown. Such a fun show it was, complete with all the famous skits that made early burlesque an American theater staple.
My run in “A Christmas Carol” came about because of my stint on the soap opera, “One Life To Live.” The shows director cast actors with whom he’d worked earlier, and who had then gone on to appear in popular television series. I played the Ghost of Christmas Past. Great fun to shriek and moan around the stage – but far more fun to interact off-stage with actors whose work I greatly admired.
In "Big Bad Burlesque".
Monika: Some people compare life to theatre. Do you agree that life is a theater?
Aleshia: It certainly seems that way, wouldn’t you agree? Were I more Shakespearean I’d immediately launch into some preamble that proves we’re all actors who “strut and fret”, but as I told your earlier, old Will and I have not remained on good speaking terms.
Suffice it to say that the desire to appear on a stage before an audience seems a natural part of human nature but the urge does not by itself mark any person as being uniquely qualified to make a career of it. In theater circles it’s often said that those who do not wish to act are either dead or crazy. Maybe that’s a tad extreme. The young man or woman who is determined to make a career of acting should recognize fully the gamble involved. Glamour – of this they will probably find little. They will probably never make themselves rich. For every player who earns millions per year, there are a hundred who average $2,000 or less. One acts because it’s the most important pull in their life. By the same token, no artist should feel he has necessarily failed because of being without contract on Broadway or in Hollywood. We all have our roles in the theater of life. My hope for us all is that we give intelligent, well-rehearsed and pleasing performances on this, the most import stage.

All the photos: courtesy of Aleshia Brevard.
Done on 23 April 2013

© 2013 - Monika 

Ms Aleshia Brevard has passed to the other side. May she find the happiness and love she gave to others. Thank you for all you have done ...
1 July 2017

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