Donald Margulies, winner of a Pulitzer for his , was also nominated for the same prestigious award for Collected Stories, a taut two-character drama about a complicated relationship between a renowned short story writer, Ruth Steiner, and Lisa Morrison, a talented graduate student she is mentoring. The relationship deepens beyond mentor/pupil to best friend and confidant. Several years pass and Lisa publishes her own work of fiction…or is it?
Sherry Netherland directs actors Liza de Weerd and Julia Silverman in Collected Stories, opening Friday, October 12th at the Lonny Chapman Theatre in the NoHo Arts District. Silverman recently received critical praise for her role in Group rep's The Paris Letter and de Weerd for her role in Group rep's Wait Until Dark.
Both actresses, who are GRT veterans, recently sat down to discuss the play and its challenges.
When did you first get involved with theater (acting)?
Julia: My parents and grandparents have always gone to the theatre. My grandparents would keep their playbills, and mark notes (Gertrude Lawrence - "wonderful as always"). I think it was in my early teens I started tip-toeing into the world of theatre. In high school, I was lucky to have had an amazing theatre teacher who set high artistic standards. I was hooked.
Liza: I'm one of those people who pretty much came out of the womb knowing what I wanted to do. I’ve been involved in performing as long as I can remember. I think I did my first play around age six.
How do you know each other?
Liza: We met two and a half years ago doing a play called A Shayna Maidel at ICT. Julia played my mother and Larry Eisenberg, one of GRT's co-artistic directors, played my father.
We all had a wonderful experience working together and were looking for something else to collaborate on.
What attracted you to this play; how did this project come about?
Julia: This play has two great roles for women, and it is pretty rare to have such a wonderful role to play as an actress "matures”; so that was very attractive. But also, the material is complex. It's not just about how relationships shift and change between teacher/student, mentor/artist over time - but it's about ideas of art and ownership, that is to say, are all stories ever told collected from all other stories ever told or do we own our own stories? I think it's exciting that the material is provocative.
Liza: As Julia said, I am always drawn to plays with complex, challenging roles for women and this is the epitome of that. It's just two characters, who each transform over a six-year period. Getting to play that many sides of a character in one play is really exciting. That aside, the questions it raises are all topics that I hope will be debated on our audience members' car rides home.
We did a staged reading last year for the company (the Group Repertory in NoHo). It was well received by them, so we were encouraged to move ahead with it as a full production.
What was the most challenging aspect of portraying your character?
Julia: One of the challenges inherent in doing a two-hander, a two person play, is that, well, there are only two of you. No pauses for rest or backstage blather or whatever, it's all on all the time. There is a good amount of physical endurance in acting that isn't normally thought about, and it shouldn't be from the audience’s point of view. But I'm reminded of a story Kevin Kline told of Meryl Streep while they were rehearsing Mother Courage in Central Park. He said he would exhaustedly hail a cab after rehearsal to head home 6 blocks away. She would hop on her bike to pedal home 6 miles south saying, "I have to build up my endurance!" That's a bit what it's like.
Liza: Actors get asked, “How do you memorize all those lines?” The question always makes me smile, because for an actor, although it is our first duty to honor the text and that certainly involves learning the lines verbatim, it has little to do with the actual character work that goes on when working on a play. In this case, however, I suddenly understand why people ask that question! The sheer volume of dialogue in this piece was daunting at first and definitely a challenge. Lines must be learned backwards and forwards so an actor has the freedom to play and explore without worrying what comes next. That process took longer this time than it normally does. That and tracking the transformation of a character over six years makes this play a wonderful challenge.
What surprised you about your character, the play, or something that personally had an effect
Liza: It is very even handed. What Donald Margulies has done so brilliantly is set up a conflict in which I truly believe both sides are justified and can be argued for. I don't feel the play is weighted to favor one character or the other and that is an incredible achievement.
Julia: I completely agree with what Liza said. I can only add, I'm sure I will continue to be surprised by my character as we move into our run of the play. This play delightfully lets you keep digging.
What's up next for you (career-wise)?
Julia: What actor is ever sure about the next project? Although I'll be on “Grey's Anatomy”
Oct. 18th. “General Hospital” the 15th or 16th of October. But I'm looking forward to seeing what new theatre projects may come up.
Liza: Like Julia said, what actor knows? I do have a few irons in the fire, so hopefully I'll have some exciting news soon!
-interviewed by guest interviewer Steve Peterson
The Group Rep’s production of Collected Stories runs October 12 - November 10. Friday and Saturday at 8pm. Sunday at 2pm. There will be Talk-back with the cast and director, Sunday, October 21 after the show. Admission: $22; Seniors/Students: $17; Groups 10+: $15. Ladies Night ½ Price Fridays. Buy tix: www.thegrouprep.com or (818) 763-5990.