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Interview with Mary Catherine Garrison

Lend Me a Tenor

By Beth Herstein

Mary Catherine Garrison and Justin Bartha
The current Broadway revival Lend Me A Tenor is a show full of luminaries in a season full of star-studded productions. At the helm as director is recent Oscar-nominee Stanley Tucci, and the leads are Emmy winners Tony Shalhoub ("Monk") and Anthony LaPaglia ("Without a Trace"). All three men have significant stage credentials. LaPaglia appeared both on and off Broadway in the 1980s and 1990s, winning a Drama Desk nomination and a Theater World Award for his Broadway debut in the 1995 revival of The Rose Tattoo and capturing both the Drama Desk and Tony Awards for 1997's A View from the Bridge. Shalhoub also performed regularly on and off Broadway during the 1980s and 1990s, received a Tony nomination for his work in 1992's Conversations with My Father and returned to Off-Broadway's Second Stage Theater in 2007, during a break from "Monk," to star opposite Patrician Heaton in The Scene. Tucci himself is no stranger to the theater, with six Broadway appearances prior to his Tony-nominated turn as Frankie in Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune in 2002.

They are joined by an exceptionally accomplished cast, including veterans such as Jan Maxwell and, in his Broadway debut, newcomer Justin Bartha (The Hangover). Another theater veteran is New Orleans native Mary Catherine Garrison. Garrison debuted in 2000 in the Roundabout production of The Man Who Came to Dinner. She worked steadily and had even greater success after her breakout role as a cheerleader in the surprise musical comedy hit Debbie Does Dallas in 2002. In addition to acting, Garrison, who started out planning to study art, paints, sews fabulous sweaters, and designs handmade dolls and glasses.

As busy as she is with all these activities, Garrison took out the time to chat with me by phone—between a rehearsal for and preview performance of Tenor. She has a lively, engaging intelligence and the time flew by. Graciously, she called the next day to finish our conversation.

Beth Herstein:  You were born in Mississippi and grew up primarily in the New Orleans area.

Mary Catherine Garrison:  We moved around a lot. I lived in eight different places from the time I was eleven, but it was all in the deep south. We settled for the longest period of time in New Orleans, and that's where I spent my formative years. That's the place I claim as my home.

BH:  You've said that you were the lone artist in your family, growing up, but that your family was fully supportive of you.

MCG:  I'm the result of really good parenting. Literally everything I wanted to explore they made sure it happened. NOCCA [the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts] was a really hard thing for them to swing, in terms of where we lived and getting me there, but they did it. I'm grateful for that every day because it changed my life ... What [NOCCA] did for me, I tried to put into words before and I was woefully inadequate ... The arts are so important and so vital, and so many kids there are getting the chance to find out who they are, to find their life's work. It's so touching.

BH:  After you got your MFA at the University of California at San Diego, you came to New York to do The Man Who Came to Dinner on Broadway in 2000. What was the experience like for you?

MCG:  It was ideal. I was around 24 at the time. I was a reader for the audition in LA and then I got the part. They flew me out. A girlfriend of mine's father had bought her a condo in the city so I stayed with her, hopped on the subway to work every day. It took me six seconds to get there. I was getting paid. I remember thinking, "I wonder why everyone thinks New York is so hard? It could not be easier." I've since learned of course that it can be challenging, but I had a really fortuitous beginning. That's probably why I've been able to stick it out when times are tough, because I've had so much joy too.

BH:  You were in Horton Foote's The Last of the Thorntons with Hallie Foote and Estelle Parsons at the Signature Theatre in December 2000.

MCG:  I also did another play of his called The Prisoner's Song [in 2002 at Ensemble Studio]. He was such a gentle, pure artist, such a lovely person. I'm so grateful that I got the chance to work with him not once but twice. I even got to act with him. The cast of The Last of the Thorntons included a lot of older actors. One of the actors fell and broke her hip during the run of the show and they recast it. The woman they recast fell and broke her hip. So one night Horton took over and went on in her part and read the script. She had been playing my grandmother, so he was my grandfather in that instance. I pushed him on stage in a wheelchair. The audience just loved it, it was such a thrill.

BH:  That's a great story.

MCG:  Oh, I loved [working with him].

BH:  Later in 2002, Debbie Does Dallas gave you a lot of positive attention.

MCG:  It wound up opening a lot of doors for me. I never thought of myself as a comic actress either. I always felt that I had to struggle with landing punch lines. Now it's primarily what I do. Debbie was the beginning of a lot of that.

BH:  You were also in one of my favorites, Assassins, in 2004.

MCG:  That was another really positive experience. I'm lucky, most of my experiences have been very positive. When you have a really solid play underneath you the amount of work you have to do is so little. It sort of happens for you. But I'm not a singer and I had to struggle, singing a Sondheim song right back to him. That was a little terrifying, but I got through it.

BH:  In 2006 you were in the Pulitzer Prize winner Rabbit Hole with Cynthia Nixon, Tyne Daly, John Slattery and John Gallagher Jr. That was such a fine piece and such a great ensemble.

MCG:  Cynthia and John had all the emotional work. I was sort of the comic relief in that I guess. It was an honor-slash-pleasure to do that play. Kind of like the play I'm doing now. You left fuller than you were when you came in. It didn't take from you, it sort of gave. You got on every night and did it, and it fed you. The people came together, the rehearsal process was joyful and positive. It was one of my favorite experiences that I ever had.

BH:  You did a lot of press when you were in Accent on Youth; it was your first lead role on Broadway. Can you talk about the pressure of being one of the people who has to carry the show versus being part of an ensemble?

MCG:  That was the first time I ever felt that in my professional life. That was tough. The play was a little challenging because it was slightly dated, and there were scenes that really worked but it was harder to work through some parts of it ... I learned to nap between shows, and to be quiet between shows and on my day off. It was exhausting. Eight shows a week is hard anyway, but when the pressure is on you to make sense of the story you feel it ... But I was so grateful for the experience. Daniel Sullivan, who also directed Rabbit Hole, directed it, and I trust him implicitly. I love working with him and we have a great working relationship. David Hyde Pierce was so supportive. He's such a loving gentleman. So I felt very safe and supportive the whole time. It was a big step for me.

BH:  In a New York Magazine interview you did around that time, you said you'd returned to New York after some disappointments in California. Can you elaborate?

MCG:  I met my husband during Rabbit Hole. When Rabbit Hole finished, I went out to LA to get some work and we went out there together. I was more focused on my personal life than my professional stuff. I didn't get the work that I thought I would. Every actor in the universe talks about this, but I got really disillusioned with having to prove myself all over again every time I walked into an audition room. I also felt vulnerable and insecure, and I wanted to quit and do something else. I wasn't happy and that was a sign to me that something was wrong. Then I got Top Girls and that brought me back to New York. I think I'm just better in New York than in Los Angeles. What I do, what I'm comfortable with, is better suited to New York than LA. I'm lucky, I get to work. So I am grateful and I'll stay where the work is.

BH:  Is that when you returned to your art and started your blog?

MCG:  Way before I started acting, I always painted and drawn and made things. When I wasn't getting acting work in LA I needed to express myself somehow. I wound up making all these drawings and paintings and clothing and rag dolls and selling them online [on her website]. I started a blog [] in connection with that, and wrote about cooking and painting and making things. It opened up a whole other part of me, a second life that had nothing to do with acting, that was just mine. I've also started an illustrated novel, which is going to take me forever, and a children's book. I'm at the beginning stages of both of them. But knowing that I have them there on the back burner—I think as long as I'm making something—a dress, food, a play—I'm good.

BH:  Because it's so early in previews I haven't gotten to see Lend Me a Tenor yet. But just reading about it it's obvious that it's shamelessly fun and silly show.

MCG:  That's exactly what it is.

BH:  What can you say about your character?

Brooke Adams, Mary Catherine Garrison, Tony Shalhoub and Jay Klaitz
MCG:  I play Maggie Saunders. I'm the daughter of Tony Shalhoub's character. He runs the opera company. Maggie and Justin Bartha's character are in love but my Maggie has put off their engagement because she wants to have wild experiences before she's married. Basically there is mistaken identity and hilarity ensues. It's pretty silly but the audiences have been really enthusiastic. It's been very nice.

BH:  When I was reading about it, it made me think of Noises Off. I saw the revival not long after September 11 and it really offered people something to laugh hard about when they really needed that release.

MCG:  Given where a lot of people are at financially, and with this war, there is a real important place for silliness and door slamming and pratfalls. I was actually looking at the audience last night, at all these faces. It was one of the sweetest things I've ever seen. Everyone was just wide-eyed, smiling, bursting into laughter. It's a real honor to be able to give that, see people so happy that they leap to their feet at the end. There's this crazy eighty-second curtain call where we redo the play to this really frenetic music. The audience gets really fired up about it, and it's wonderful. You leave here on top of the world. As much as they might enjoy it, it's a thousand times more fun for us to be the ones who get to give this to them.

BH:  What has it been like preparing to do farce?

MCG:  I also saw Noises Off when the revival was on Broadway. It still is the funniest thing I've ever seen, so I was really looking forward to being in a farce myself. I was aware of the challenges—it has to be choreographed, much like a dance would be. All the door slams and things like that. It was a real challenge technically to get all that accomplished.

BH:  How did it come together?

MCG:  [In rehearsal] we did the same jokes over and over again, for the same people in the same room, and it's just not funny anymore after 16,000 times seeing it. We had our invited dress, and it went fine. But something happened the next night for our first preview, and everything just beautifully snapped together. Everything we'd ever worked on fell into place. It was one of the most exciting nights I've ever had on stage. It just rolled by and the audience loved it. Every time we've done it since, it's been just so joyful and one of the most fun jobs I've ever had.

BH:  It sounds like the cast has a great rapport, which I'm sure helps with that as well.

MCG:  Everybody is so good in their own unique, specific way. I have such a huge amount of respect for all of them. It's fun and inspiring to watch everybody let themselves go, go as far as they can, and be so good at it. Tony Shalhoub is one of the best actors I've ever seen. Every scene I have with him is so stimulating and thrilling.

BH:  How does that carry over into the process of working with him?

MCG:  He's kind of like a little boy in that he'll try absolutely anything. If for some reason I'm not getting a big enough laugh somewhere I'll go to him and tell him. We'll sort of hash it out, and he'll suggest that I do it a second faster or adjust my performance some other way. He's usually right.

BH:  It's an amazing ensemble in general.

MCG:  It really is sort of a dream cast ... I've heard all these jokes a hundred times, but I'm still on stage riveted to that monitor, laughing out loud at these people. They're just so good at what they do. Justin Bartha hasn't done a play since high school and you absolutely would never know it. He's extraordinary, just wonderful in his part.

BH:  How does it enhance your performance to work with such a great cast?

MCG:  You expect a little more of yourself. It raises the bar during the rehearsal and performance process. You feel very free. You can completely submit to the scenes, go wherever you need to go. Everybody's always finding new things in the work and the laughs keep getting bigger.

We also really tickle each other too. There are a few of us, and I have to include myself, that aren't the strongest in terms of holding it together on stage. There is this one moment which always tends to crack us up and last night, all but a couple of us fell apart. Of course the audience loves that kind of thing, when it's genuine. [laughter] It's just dreamy.

BH:  What is it like being directed by Stanley Tucci? He's such an accomplished actor, and of course he's done such a beautiful job directing movies like Big Night.

MCG:  I just told him today, "You can do anything!" He's an actor so he knows where we're coming from. He understands that everybody's got their process. He's instantly very patient and very giving. We all have so much respect for him. He's got a great sense of timing, and he knows what's funny. Also, we felt very believed in and trusted the whole time. I can't tell you how valuable that is as an actor. He's so confident in us that we didn't spend a lot of energy worrying that we couldn't do it. We were going to do it. Some moments were harder to find than others, but he never seemed worried. Also, given what he's been through recently in his life [losing his wife to cancer last year], he was really looking to have a fun time. He did a couple of movies and came right into this. He wanted to laugh, to work with people he likes, with no drama. That's the atmosphere he has created. We all have fun and we all go out after, and we joke around together. He's said a couple times how much he enjoys coming to work. We all feel that way, and it's wonderful to be a part of that. It's been a creative experience for all of us, but especially for him. He's stretching all these new muscles and he's brilliant at it. I'd work for him again in a second.

BH:  The show involves several people—Stanley Tucci, Tony Shalhoub, Brooke Adams [Shalhoub's wife] and Anthony LaPaglia—who are friends and frequent collaborators. How has that impacted the dynamic? How easy was it for everyone else to snap into the ensemble?

MCG:  Stanley and Tony have a bit of a shorthand in their relationship. They have a real comfort level that made it more comfortable for everyone in the room. Also, Brooke and Tony have been together for over 20 years now. Brooke knew Stanley before, and Stanley and Anthony have known each other for a long time. Jennifer Laura Thompson and I separately worked for the producers before. Stanley also worked with them on Frankie and Johnny. So it wasn't a completely unfamiliar group of people right away. Plays are hard. Sight unseen, usually, you walk into this really intense four-month long familial relationship with people you might or might not like. To have a little context for everybody was a nice place for us to start.

BH:  In your interviews for Accent on Youth you talked about loving this time period. Here you are again!

MCG:  That was the Golden Age of Broadway and there are a lot of plays that were written during that time. This one of course was written in the eighties but set in the thirties. Obviously you've got a real flavor for the time period but it has more of a modern sensibility than Accent on Youth had. In a way, we're more free in this show. We didn't have to do a ton of period research for it. But I still get such a kick out of the aesthetic, the costumes, the music. The set, which John Lee Beatty designed, is so good. I'm just a kid in a candy store, I can't get enough of it. Obviously I romanticize it, but it seems it would have been so interesting to be a young person in the twenties and thirties, when things were so rapidly and aggressively changing. It's so exciting to think about—the cars and freedom and night life and jazz. Sexuality. Things were just shifting. There was such style. Hats and gloves, men wore suits.

BH:  Is this an open ended run?

MCG:  Our contracts are through August. Obviously all of that depends on ticket sales. We're having such a wonderful time together, we're hoping we get to do it that long. This is the kind of job that you hope for.

Photos: Joan Marcus

Lend Me a Tenor at the Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue). For performance and ticket information, visit

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