Theater talk with Estelle Parsons

By Wickham Boyle

Estelle Parsons and Teri Keane in Horton Foote’s “The Day Emily Married.”

When I encountered playwright Horton Foote in the lobby of the spiffy, new theater on East 59 St. where Primary Stages are celebrating their double decade with one of Foote’s plays called “The Day Emily Married,” he was most congenial. I introduced myself and told him I was there to interview Estelle Parsons; I said how much I had enjoyed the play and most especially his daughter’s portrayal of Emily.

“Well,” he retorted, a mixture of Southern gentile and elder bluster, “You know Estelle is no slouch herself.”

Yes, I knew that, I replied, but, in fact, I hadn’t been in the presence of Estelle Parsons in full command of her gift, not the glorious way she is now. Many of us remember her as the acerbic Blanche in “Bonnie and Clyde;” the role for which she won her 1967 Academy Award; or as the wacky mother in the TV series “Roseanne.” But Parsons, true to her New England roots, has had a full and nearly unending working career in acting, directing and even being the artistic director for the famed Actor’s Studio.

The Foote play was tough, really unrelentingly sad, and morose, but enthralling and Parsons gave a heart-stopping performance. It is the kind of moment in the theater where you can’t believe the level of craft you are privy to. She was in good company with Biff McGuire, Mr. Foote’s daughter Hallie Foote and Delores Mitchell; all of them breathed life into a slice of heart-wrenching life from the beginning of the last century.

When I sat down with Parsons after the matinee on a rainy Saturday afternoon, I asked her what she thought was the value of doing such a naturalistic play in these modern times.

“This is real theater,” she said. “I believe in things that move people, if the audience isn’t deeply caught up and moved to either laughter or tears then I don’t think it is theater. I know people like spectacle, but I’m interested in moving people. For anyone with half a brain they can see that this play is about the human condition.

“I know it is hard, in fact I was hating doing it. But today I felt different, today I forgot how long it takes to get into the skin of a character and I remembered it, because today I actually got into that skin and it felt so different. It is not evident to the audience; this is the work an actor does. You know it was a fine performance before, but I felt really good today, things were happening.

“Let’s see. It is week 10 with rehearsals and performances. I did a play, ‘The Seven Descents of Myrtle’ and that play took me two years until I felt I had gone inside the character fully. Nobody knows but you, you can do some wonderful acting without anyone knowing, by throwing yourself out three.”

Parsons is an actor known for character work, for following the precepts of the Actor’s Studio and really becoming her characters.

“This character is fascinating. She is a woman who seems to have problems and then she doesn’t have them. She is a character who is sometimes normal and sometimes she is demented. I finally realized today that she stays demented, not in reality at all, for the entire second act. When you do a play seven or eight times a week, you have to let yourself listen to the character’s interior conversation.

“You can’t just trust to luck; you have to really listen to what that character is telling you.

“In theater, the wellspring of the character comes from the doing of it, like a trial by fire, but in front of an audience. Sometimes I think that with a play this intimate that it might be easier to do it in front of a larger audience, which might happen if it does get moved to a Broadway house. When you are in a larger space you can allow your emotions to grow even larger and those expanding emotions give amazing depth.”

While I was watching the play, I was also fascinated by the very advanced age of the audience. It was a matinee, but still I worry about the future of theater in America. Apparently, so does Parsons.

“At this point the theater America is in such a precarious place. We all need to go to good theater; that is what I believe will save it. All of the generations go to what is chic for them, and theater seems to be an older generation’s art form. Don’t forget the prices are so high in theater; it isn’t really where a young person can go on a date and buy two tickets and take someone out anymore.”

When you regard the long list of plays, movies, and television roles that Parsons has amassed, you wonder how one weaves a career of that Magnitude. And when I asked, she answered with her combination of candor and passion.

“Getting work in theater has always been sort of cyclical. Now I have so many things going. I am doing ‘Harold and Maude: The Musical’ at the Paper Mill Playhouse in February, and this play may move, and I am doing a David Hare play at the Hartford Stage this season that Michael Wilson will direct, as well we are trying to do another run of ‘Salome’ on the West coast in some smaller theaters. Acting is very start and stop.

“But I believe if you see that you have a talent, what I call a ‘gift,’ you will always keep working. I have never not worked.”

Parsons, who attended Connecticut College for Women and then Boston Law School, began her career as a political reporter for the ‘Today’ show. She also taught acting at Yale and Columbia and has worked on TV, film and many different theatrical venues. So at 70, when she says she never stops working, she means it.

“I talked with Brian Stokes Mitchell, who agreed with me that if you have a gift there is always stuff to do. I mean, there are times when you aren’t working, but still believe that work will come. People who call themselves actors and can’t ever get work; they do need to get another profession. In this country, unlike many of the Slavic and European countries, you can’t make a living only in the theater, so you have to do TV and movies. People will tell you, ‘Oh I hate my agent’ but you have to make people work for you. Don’t hate him, keep him working in your direction. That is the way to go.”

When asked if she was content with the generally glowing reviews the Foote play had garnered, Parsons said, “I find that there are few reviews that extol women as wonderful artists. They will rather say, she is a character, she’s demented, she’s a sex object. So I am hoping there will be more roles for women that allow the actors to expand to be truly great — an all around talented, gifted woman.

“I have never been interested in specific roles. I have always loved the lifestyle. Now that fades a little because I feel as if my schedule is a little too full.

“I like time off because I also have a life outside of theater. There is some sadness for me now about acting because it used to be that there was a reverence for actors. The staff, stage managers, ushers all behaved as if they respected the actors. I don’t really find the sense of folks working in the theater loving the theater, and I find that discouraging. It is so important to get respect for what you do and at the same time give it.”

I asked Parsons if she had a dream role. She responded with a candor that infuses her acting and all her work in the theater.

“No. I have enough trouble getting through the day. I couldn’t possibly have a dream about something far off. I am just really present. A lot of people really don’t know what they want. I do. When I see what I want, I do it.”

If that is what it takes to bring together so much incredible work, then maybe we all should try to do less dreaming, desiring and wanting of fantasy jobs and take up Parsons dose of being present.

WWW Downtown Express

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