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A Conversation: Olympia Dukakis and Charlayne Woodard

The actresses are in plays in which one scarcely speaks (Dukakis in 'Vigil') and the other (Woodard in 'The Night Watcher') never stops.

November 13, 2011|By Karen Wada, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Actresses Charlayne Woodard, left, and Olympia Dukakis.
Actresses Charlayne Woodard, left, and Olympia Dukakis. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)

In her solo show "The Night Watcher," Charlayne Woodard talks for nearly two hours, sharing stories about her heartfelt relationships with other people's children.

In "Vigil," Morris Panych's 1995 dark comedy, Olympia Dukakis utters but 12 lines during her nearly two hours onstage as an elderly recluse visited by a loquacious loser.

Dukakis, a supporting actress Oscar winner for "Moonstruck," and Woodard, a Tony nominee for "Ain't Misbehavin'," sat down with The Times in a downtown rehearsal room recently to discuss their plays, both of which are being presented by the Center Theatre Group. ("Vigil," which also stars Marco Barricelli, runs through Dec. 18 at the Mark Taper Forum. "The Night Watcher," directed by Daniel Sullivan, opens Nov. 20 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.) Even though they had never met before, the veteran performers had plenty to say when it came to acting, audiences and the challenges of speaking — or not — for a whole show. Here are excerpts from the conversation:

Tell us about your plays.

Woodard: I call myself a storyteller. I come from storytellers. I write from my life. "The Night Watcher" [which premiered in Seattle in 2008 and ran off-Broadway] is my fourth solo play. The first was from birth to 11. The second from 12 to 18. The third was about coming to New York from drama school and starting off in the business. This one is about me, right now. I live in L.A. My husband and I have no children. We love that. We suffer from it because people say, "You're selfish —"

Dukakis: People say that? It's none of their business.

CW: — but I've been a godmother 13 times. I have nieces and nephews. I introduce myself to these kids in their infancy so I'm a part of their life…. They end up sharing things with me they don't share with their parents. My play is about that. And that there's another way to have children. My play is really about "Attention must be paid." There's a new kind of kid because of technology. We were served the world in little teaspoons. Nowadays, kids have it coming at them like crazy. There is a new village that has to help them through this… Aunties and uncles, we have a place.

OD: I play a woman who has rejected and moved away from life. She lives in the top floor of her little house with the relics of her history hanging from the walls. She's immured herself, built walls around herself. The door opens and this man comes in and she's terrified. You learn he's her nephew and is responding to a letter she sent saying she is dying and would he come. He, of course, has an agenda…. These two unlikely people, in the course of the evening, accept each other, acknowledge each other and permit the other to affect them.

Why take on a role with 12 lines?

OD: Carey Perloff at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco came up with this play. I liked it. What cinched it was Marco was going to be in it. And I thought, "I've never done this before.'… It turned out to be much harder than I expected because I am a language person. I enjoy language — language is used to persuade, to incite, to move. So here I am without it. [Onstage, Dukakis' face and body speak for her.] Sometimes I overdo it and Morris has to pull me back. [Panych directed Dukakis in 'Vigil' at ACT last year and is directing the L.A. production.] I'm still learning and exploring....

How hard is it to perform alone?

CW: It's tough, this solo work. I wasn't going to do it again because it usually takes me about a month to recuperate, it is so physically, emotionally and psychologically challenging. I prefer to work in other people's plays because nothing is as challenging for me as coming to work every night and my scene partner — the audience — changes. It's like a free-fall.

OD: I do a one-woman show, "Rose" by Martin Sherman, about a survivor of the 20th century and the Holocaust. I did it first at the National [in London in 1999] and then in New York. It changed me as an actress. I'd never been on a stage alone for two hours talking directly to the audience. Seventy-four pages. (It ended up 67.) Memorizing it was only the first problem. [Dukakis recounts the role's other challenges; later, she muses on an actor's relationship with the audience.] You can tell when they get silent. When they laugh. You can tell when they are restless.

CW: I can tell when they drop in. First of all, I start my plays with the need to tell the story. It's in the writing. "What makes this night different from all the rest?" "I got a phone call."

OD: But they're strangers.

CW: But I see them. I have what I call anchors. Right away, I look for the eyes that don't leave me. When I find that one, good, we are sharing the story. Then I move to the next one.

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