The Helen Hayes Awards: Celebrating DC's Finest
For eighteen years, The Helen Hayes Awards has drawn the Washington, DC theater community together in order to reward the season's best. The list of attendees this year included prominent DC artists, established Broadway actors, and well-known stars of the stage and screen. Before the ceremony on May 6, I had the opportunity to chat with nominee Judith Light, presenter Lynn Redgrave, and the son of Helen Hayes and Charles MacArthur, James MacArthur.
Best known for her work on the popular sitcom, Who's The Boss?, Ms. Light is also an established stage actor. She is the recipient of the 2001 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Lead Actress, Non-Resident Production, for her portrayal of Dr. Vivian Bearing in the drama, W;t.
Ms. Light is a 2002 Helen Hayes Award nominee for Outstanding Lead Actress, Resident Play, for her performance in Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. She was most recently seen in Athol Fugard's Sorrows and Rejoicing at Second Stage Theatre in New York City.
TL: How does it feel to be nominated for a second year in a row?
JL: It feels fabulous. I am very honored. I think it's quite incredible. I really love the Washington theater community and I adore Michael Kahn (Artistic Director of The Shakespeare Theatre), so it's really a heart thing for me.
TL: Hedda Gabler is such an amazing role. How did it feel to tackle that one? Were you daunted in any way?
JL: Yes, it was extremely daunting but I had a lot of support. Michael is really extraordinary. When he had seen me do W;t, we all went out to dinner afterwards. He said to Herb (Hamsher, Ms. Light's manager), "I want to do something with her." He called two weeks later and suggested Hedda and I said, "Oh no," and Herb said, "Oh yes!" and Michael said, "Oh yes!". Michael had done it before and he wanted that challenge again and I felt honored that he was willing to include me. It was totally a synergy between us that created that portrayal. It is very rare that I can say that about getting that kind of help and encouragement and talent from the director.
TL: You have played two very strong women in a row, Vivian Bearing and Hedda Gabler. Is this a new trend for you?
JL: I hope so! (laughs) I am hoping it will rub off in my personal life. Not the part of Hedda that we don't love, but the strength and the understanding of the psychology of both of those women in particular, who shut themselves off in a lot of ways. Vivian Bearing, the character in W;t, took the road where she understood that it was the progress from her head to her heart that was really important. Unfortunately, Hedda never came to that. She came to a different end, but I do enjoy playing those kinds of parts. I think they are extremely important for myself, personally. I also think audiences are really interested in them.
TL: Will we see you performing back in the DC area again?
JL: Perhaps at some point. I hope so!
While preparing for the role of Joanne in the Washington production of Stephen Sondheim's Company, Lynn Redgrave took some time off to act as a presenter for the 2002 Helen Hayes Awards. A former Helen Hayes Award nominee for her original play, Shakespeare for My Father, Ms. Redgrave has had an illustrious career, which include films such as Georgy Girl, Shine, and Gods and Monsters, for which she won the 1999 Golden Globe Award.
Ms. Redgrave is also a respected teacher, author, and director and will be seen in the upcoming David Cronenberg film, Spider.
TL: With the Sondheim Celebration upon us, it is such an exciting time for Washington theatre. What is it like to be a part of that?
LR: It's fabulous to be a part of it. I think it is the most fantastic undertaking. I am really honored to be in Company and to be part of this really mind-blowing experience.
TL: The role of Joanne is so tied to Elaine Stritch's portrayal. Do you plan to take a different road with this part?
LR: Well, sure. Elaine Stritch is not anybody to be imitated. She is an absolute force of nature and a completely individual performer, so one would be foolish if one were just to try to do Elaine. What would be the point of that? You can't do Elaine as well as Elaine can do Elaine. I never saw Company but I've listened to her, I went to Elaine Stritch At Liberty, and absolutely loved the way I imagined she played Joanne, based on the two songs that she did. I absolutely have to find my own way and I hope I am finding it. I hope it will be interesting to those who have seen it before and to those who haven't.
TL: You have had such a distinguished, yet varied career. Do you have a preference among theatre, television or film?
LR: I think the stage is my absolute home. I love doing film, but I think the theatre is really it for the performer.
As the son of actress Helen Hayes and playwright Charles MacArthur, it was only natural that James MacArthur would gravitate to a career in the arts. Why did he choose acting instead of writing? Mr. MacArthur's answer to that question is simple. "It's because I couldn't write!"
Mr. MacArthur first appeared on Broadway in Arthur Laurents' Invitation To A March, but is best known for his role as Detective Dan Williams on the TV series, Hawaii Five-O. He also serves on the Helen Hayes Awards Board of Directors.
TL: The Helen Hayes Awards are always so exciting. How were the awards established?
JM: The awards got started eighteen years ago. It was Bonnie Nelson Schwartz who got it going. It was really a community effort and there were all kinds of corporate help. The federal government did not help. Not that we were opposed to it, but it was a thing that just took off and it has become an established fact of life in Washington and it has done wonderful things.
TL: What kind of impact do you think the Helen Hayes organization as a whole has had on the Washington theater community?
JM: I would think it is the dissemination of information - going into classrooms and bringing theatre to the schools. We have certainly helped people get to the theaters in many different ways. Washington is a wonderful theatregoing community. It's so alive. In New York, there aren't as many plays being produced as there used to be. Washington is a fertile place for new plays.
TL: Do you have a special place in your heart for straight plays?
JM: Well, I am of an age where I come from a different background. In my day people talked to each other instead of kicking each other or engaging in sex before conversation. Plays used to be a lot different. Everything has been telescoped now by television. Even Hawaii Five-O, which is not that old, contained a lot more conversation than some of the modern cop shows - but theatre is a place where people need to speak to each other.
TL: You have had a well-known acting career. Have you thought about coming back to DC to tread on the boards?
JM: In fact, I came back for a reading of one of my father's plays, The Twentieth Century. Ken Ludwig and I cut it down. The number of characters in it is one of the major factors keeping it from being produced much because it's just too expensive to put on the boards. We have been working to cut down the number of characters without hurting the play. I think to that end, Ken has made a good start. We had a successful reading with about a hundred people and we are hoping to get that on. The play is still a very good play, so we are hoping to get a production going in Washington or a regional theater somewhere.
For me, I would like to play in Front Page because I played the younger character years ago. I've been sort of being daddy for a while. Now my son is sixteen and going away to school, so now I have some freedom to do some other things. I am through with coaching baseball, soccer, and carpools. I am ready for the theatre! (laughs)
TL: I recently read your mother's autobiography. Simply put, she was a class act. What do you think her opinion of present day theatre would be?
JM: If I came from a different time, she came from a much different time. (laughs) She was no prude, but I think she probably felt as I do, that the pendulum swung a little bit too far in one direction. Maybe it will start swinging back one of these days. There is such a thing as decorum and civilization. It's just a different world now, but good drama is good drama.