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What's New on the Rialto

Interview with Donna Lynne Champlin: The Taming of the Shrew
By Beth Herstein

Janet McTeer and Donna Lynne Champlin
Donna Lynne Champlin may be on a break from the highly acclaimed television show "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" in which she plays Paula, a paralegal and sidekick to the main character Rebecca, but she's not taking a summer vacation. Instead, Champlin is using this opportunity to return to New York and to the stage. Through June 26 she'll be appearing as Hortensio in Shakespeare in the Park's all-female production of The Taming of the Shrew. Phyllida Lloyd, who helmed highly acclaimed all-female productions of Julius Caesar and Henry IV at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, directs a cast that also includes Janet McTeer, Cush Jumbo, LaTanya Richardson Jackson and Judy Gold, among others. Recently, while she was on a break between that day's rehearsal and the first preview of the run that night, she spoke with me about her recent work, her family and Talkin' Broadway.

Beth Herstein:  How's the show going?

Donna Lynne Champlin:  It's great. We had a whole week of tech last week and our first preview is tonight. During the preview period we generally rehearse from twelve to five each day. I think we're in a great place. Now, we're going to learn from the audience how to continue moving with the show. My favorite part of the run is previews. We get real people out there and we get to hear real reactions.

BH:  How do previews impact the shape of a show?

DLC:  It's very much a back and forth process. You see what works, you see what doesn't work. Something that works in the room just doesn't work when you add the audience. And some things we don't think are funny are hilarious. Our audiences are so important to us so we can keep learning and keep making the show clearer and as entertaining as possible.

BH:  Can you give an example of how the audience might impact this production?

DLC:  We're doing a revised version of The Taming of the Shrew. There are no plot points missing, but there are things cut for length, repetitive things that Phyllida Lloyd our director is sure that the audience is going to be able to follow. Though of course we may find that, wait, that is confusing—we thought that we as actors could get by without having the text, but we may need to have it. On the other hand, the audience may get something without explanation and Phyllida may decide to cut it and keep the story moving.

BH:  What is it like working with her?

DLC:  I love Phyllida. First of all, she's probably the kindest woman on the planet. I can't imagine anyone on the planet not loving Phyllida Lloyd. And, she's a very calm person. She's also British so she's got that very soothing way about her. It puts everyone at ease.

BH:  I saw her all-female productions of Julius Caesar and Henry IV at St. Ann's Warehouse. It's an exciting way to revisit these classics.

DLC:  It's really great. We have Phyllida, our director, and then we have Ann Yee, who works with Phyllida a lot, as our movement director, and of course our whole production is women. There's a different kind of energy when it's all women sitting around the table discussing the script. We have such a great collection of extremely smart very different personalities in our cast. You've got LaTanya Jackson and you've got Judy Gold. Not only are all these women incredibly intelligent and incredibly talented, they've all got different types of personalities.

BH:  How collaborative is the environment?

DLC:  Everyone gets the chance to voice their opinion. No idea is considered bad. We have thrown a lot of stuff at the wall during this process, and we see what sticks. It's a communal process, more so than any show I've ever done. I'm not sure whether it's because of Phyllida, or because we're all women, or because it's The Taming of the Shrew. Probably a combination of all of it. [Of course,] there are tons of men who have that same philosophy. But, women are more natural nurturers, and it's been an interesting process to have everyone come from the place of, "How can I help you?"

I will say, also, that Janet McTeer and Cush Jumbo as our leads, our captains of the ship, just couldn't be more generous, kind, wonderful people. That also contributes to the ensemble spirit of what we're doing here.

BH:  They are both such great actors. I've been fortunate enough to see both of them perform on stage, and they're such forces on the stage.

DLC:  I'm a little bummed actually, now that we're at the Park, because I used to watch their scenes. I just loved to watch them work together.

BH:  How does the fact that this is an all-female version impact the narrative or the story?

DLC:  In Shakespeare's time, women weren't allowed to be in his plays. So they were written to be performed by a unified gender company. Of course there's going to be an element of feminism just because we happen to be all women. You throw in the fact that we're going to be doing The Taming of the Shrew, which is considered a misogynistic play. So women are doing a play about taming women. In the original productions, it was all men doing a play about taming women.

We have been very conscious of making sure that because we are women we don't lean too hard into archetypes. It's one thing for a man to play a stereotype of a dirty old man. As women, there's the danger of it looking like a woman making fun of a man. So our task is a little more multi-layered. We don't want it to come off as a bunch of women saying, "Men suck!" We are actors who happen to be women who are playing men who are fleshed out characters. That's been very much in the forefront of our minds. We will make the obvious choice when it calls for it and it's funny. But it's up to us not to make that choice if it comes off the wrong way.

The play itself is obviously part of the canon. When a classic work is performed, people tend to bring their expectations to the play based on what they already have seen. How do you keep it fresh?

DLC:  When you do a revival of anything you face that challenge. Just because it's Shakespeare—and I mean this with all due respect—it doesn't make it ultra-special. You have to relax, take the pressure off, and look at it as just—a play. Your question going in always depends on the director. Are we doing a revival like South Pacific, which skewed closer to the original production? Or, are we going to do something like when we did Sweeney Todd on Broadway, taking a popular musical and doing it in a completely different way? A lot of the way we approach things as actors depends on the decisions that were made before any of us were in the picture. Phyllida had a few very specific ideas of what she wanted to do by putting us into this world and this time period.

BH:  What time period is it set?

DLC:  I don't want to give anything away. People are going to come and take away whatever they take away from it. My answer may not be the same as yours.

BH:  I read an interview you did about your work in The Qualms, the Bruce Norris play. I was so interested to read about what wearing a fat suit taught you about attitudes toward women and weight.

DLC:  That was at Playwrights Horizons a year ago, literally a week before we went to L.A. to start shooting "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend." It was a really interesting experience. I have been thin in my life, but I've never been thin enough. In this business—more so in TV and movies than in theater—if you're over a size two you're considered fat. I'm Irish, from country stock. I could push a plow. I'll never be a size two. So when they asked if I would put on a fat suit, I thought, "Oh, my God that's fantastic. I don't have to pretend anything." And then a male actor in the show—whom I love, by the way—came up to me, very concerned, and said, "Are you sure you want to do this?" I said, "Why would I not want a costume that would help me act better?" He said, "You know, people might think that is you." He really felt it would damage my career. I said, "Dude, people already think I'm fat—even though I'm not, I'm just a healthy size fourteen, but in this business I've always been the fat girl, so who gives a shit."

A lot of people came to the show and they didn't realize I was padded. I think they were concerned for my health or something. People would recognize me out in the lobby after the show and see that I was thinner. The look on their faces would either be anger because they felt deceived, or relief. So many people I didn't know invested so much into what wasn't their business. Society feels so free to judge and make decisions about people who are overweight or heavier than they think someone should be. It was an incredibly liberating experience for me, and I was also thrilled to represent the big ladies.

BH:  It reminds me of the way men used to be treated when they'd play a gay character.

DLC:  I totally agree with you. That occurred to me at some point during the run. It is a taboo in society that is still allowed. Playing gay men, gay women—they're all still there, but there has been progress. People still do it, but you're not supposed to. But with weight, people feel free to judge.

I'm on Twitter now because of the show, and I can't tell you how many people tweet me degrading things about my size. They don't have a bumper sticker for us yet, but we need one.

I will say that the majority of things people say about me and the show on Twitter are wonderful. There are a lot of people who love the show, and they are amazing fans. But there's a much higher percentage than I would have imagined from complete strangers—who clearly are in a lot of pain, and I try to find it in me to be compassionate.

BH:  I've seen a few episodes of "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," and it's very inventive. What's it like being on the show?

DLC:  I love that they dip into the New York theater pool of talent. Not that L.A.'s musical theater talent pool isn't fantastic, it's just that usually that's the pool they dip into for TV and film. We just have to dig in our heels and say, "If we really wanted TV and film roles, we'd have moved to L.A. We have Broadway and Off-Broadway and, we're good. It's just so fantastic that they opened up the auditions to include New York actors. Then to get cast, I thought, "How did that happen?"

BH:  Part of my affection for shows like "Law & Order" is that they provide TV roles for New York theater actors.

DLC:  Yes, and until recently "The Good Wife."

BH:  Speaking of "The Good Wife," I loved Cush Jumbo in that show.

DLC:  As theater is generally at night and I have a small child, I normally don't watch that much television. But my mom is a rabid "Good Wife" fan. So, when she found out I was in this show with Cush Jumbo her brain exploded.

BH:  Your son is five?

DLC:  He'll be five in July.

BH:  Do you live in California now, or in New York?

DLC:  We decided to bring the whole family out there for the show, and I'm so glad that we did. Originally we were only supposed to do thirteen episodes, and we were supposed to go from August to Christmas. Then we got a plus five and we were out there until the end of February. My son really loves L.A. He started pre-school and he has a lot of friends there now, and he's going to start kindergarten. We're all here for the summer but we'll leave the middle of July and go back to L.A. I don't know how many shows we're slated for, but I assume it will be at least thirteen.

We made all our decisions based on what's best for our son, and we decided it was best for him to be with both his mommy and daddy, even if it was in a different location. As he gets older, and he builds more social networks and gets more friends, we'll check in with him and find out what he wants.

BH:  Your husband is an actor also.

DLC:  He is! His name is Andrew Arrow. He actually sings on the "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" theme song. He's breaking into that coast, going on a lot of auditions and doing a lot of work. He's amazing. I lucked out. He's the real deal.

BH:  I know you don't have much time before your performance tonight. Is there anything you want to add?

DLC:  No, except that I've always loved Talkin' Broadway. I love the site. I remember being aware of Talkin' Broadway when I was doing the musical 3hree in Philadelphia, with Hal Prince. I was still really new to the internet, and I thought it was such a marvelous thing that there could be such a forum for people to talk about theater. I'm so happy to see Talkin' Broadway going strong. It has a place in my heart.

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