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Spotlighting 'What Everywoman Knows' : Long-touring one-woman stage production has a 15-year history

November 12, 1989|ROBERT KOEHLER

Tulis McCall knows women's history: "I think the big changes happened with the Industrial Revolution, when men left home, left women out and made money. When the industry was at home, everything was shared."

Tulis knows acting: "Every actor should perform for children, because that's an audience that wastes no time letting you know how they feel."

Tulis knows touring: "I've toured for the past 15 years in 40 states, from meetings of the National Organization for Women to Girl Scout conventions."

Tulis knows . . . lights? During a problematic shot for a photo session at the West Coast Ensemble in Hollywood, the current home of her long-touring one-woman play, "What Everywoman Knows," she helped out the photographer with some instructions to the tech booth. "Bring up lights eight and 11," she said quickly.

Bo Jackson may know hockey, but Tulis McCall isn't far behind.

"Joanna was very impressed with my, ahem, technical expertise," McCall, 39, said of her director, Joanna Kerns. "But when you're quickly moving a show around from one place to another, you better have your lighting down or else you may not have a show."

What appears to be just another solo actress turn in a small Hollywood theater actually has an unusual history. Appropriately enough for a play that tells the stories of indomitable, pre-modern American women, the life of "What Everywoman Knows" is a case of an independent theater person chucking the typical show-business career ladder for a different course.

"My big motivation for doing this was really easy: I hate auditioning," she said, as if this was the obvious weapon to combat the actor's universal bete noir . But how does one begin to tell the history of American women?

"It was like what happens to a lot of writers. An image popped into my mind. There she was, a woman draped in a shawl and sitting in a chair. This was my character, Everywoman. And then, I knew she wasn't quite human but sort of a visitor from another planet, able to see all. And her voice could instantly blend every regional dialect."

Everywoman would become the evening's hostess, the ingratiating, down-home guide through the stories. "She's a nicer version of me. I was born complaining, so doing her is a real exercise."

The biggest stretch would be to choose which women to stage, "because there were so many of them. Touring this for many years now, I've gone through several, and the nature of it could let me do this show forever if I wanted. It also lets me change the show, while keeping its basic character."

The changes continue. On opening weekend, McCall was performing presidential candidate Victoria Woodhull, abortion rights activist Margaret Sanger, the notorious Calamity Jane and emancipationist Sojourner Truth. The following week, McCall rewrote parts of Calamity's scene, added a section with the colonial religious freedom fighter, Anne Hutchinson, and rearranged the order of the scenes.

Keep in mind that McCall has lived with her play, changes and all, for some 15 years. One night, she might play for a convention of feminist historians; the next, to a crowd of hundreds of schoolboys. Along the way, parents and administrators at private schools would object to the work's rather liberated slant. Or a group might not get the point, which is that women are strong enough on their own two feet, without losing their sense of humor. Or teen-age girls in the audience would ply McCall for dating advice ("It was OK, since the show was making them think about what they wanted"). Like Calamity Jane in her touring days, McCall has been a self-employed performer, having a relationship with her play.

So it's surprising to hear her taking these new, rather sudden changes in stride. This is partly because Kerns and producer Dan Lauria suggested them, and McCall fully admits she wouldn't be 3,000 miles from her New York home without Lauria's support.

It's been a case of old friends reunited, for McCall and Lauria knew each other in the '70s, when both were at the University of Connecticut. Lauria, who produced another recently lauded solo theater piece, "A Bronx Tale," and plays the father on the television series, "The Wonder Years," wanted to bring McCall out to Los Angeles last year, but the money couldn't be raised until summer. "He hangs curtains, paints wall; he's not your typical producer," the actress-writer said. "Dan says that there's no reason to make money unless he can get your friends work.

"Then I have Joanna giving me endless questions to go home and chew on. These women are new to her, and her excitement about them is energizing."

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