She’s a hometown girl, and she’s back performing on the Metheny Stage at Studio Theatre as Edie and Edith in Studio Theatre’s production of Grey Gardens. In this transcript of their phone interview, Barbara Walsh talks with Joel about preparing to play the characters, and her NYC career, but first Joel asked what it’s like to perform in her home town.
Barbara: It’s quite a treat really. Interesting enough, my past is appearing before me.
Often, they’ll show up unbeknownst to me. At the first preview, a woman named Mrs. Slevin came. I don’t think I’ve seen her since I was 8 or 10. She looks exactly the same. She lived up the street – at the corner of Melrose and Brookville Road – and I lived on the opposite corner – on Melrose Road and Connecticut Avenue. I had 13 of my high school girl friends come from Visitation in that same weekend, early on.
Joel: Has your family seen the show?
Barbara: Everyone in my family has seen the show except a brother who is coming tomorrow [December 20th], and I have one sister from Tacoma, WA, who won’t get a chance to see it. I have 7 siblings. I gave them fair warning, and the DVD of the Grey Gardens documentary, so they knew what they would be seeing. They knew it was going to be a little odd – that it wasn’t going to be Camelot or Hairspray. They all really loved it, and were very supportive. I have smart siblings, and it’s a smart show. I think these women (Edie and Edith) were very bright and very witty, and I think my family appreciated that.
Joel: When did you first get the “theatre bug,”?
Barbara: I was in an all-girls Catholic High School called Visitation, and St. John’s Military Academy – where my brothers went actually, right here in Georgetown. They had a theatre program called “Mask and Wig,” and they would invite girls from catholic high schools and public schools to audition, because they needed girls in their shows.
My friend, Michelle Maloney from Visitation – she and I liked to sing and we were pals – and I auditioned for Hello Dolly. She got Dolly Levi, and I got the chorus. That was the beginning.
It was during that time when I was in high school, I was coming out of my shell and being the class clown, and was able to imitate all my classmates. I continued to do more shows for “Mask and Wig,” and then went to Montgomery College in Rockville, where I was deeply involved in the theatre and drama department for a couple of years, and then I did dinner theatre at The Harlequin Theatre. I call that my ground work. The “bug” didn’t stop once it took.
Joel: You have such a gorgeous voice. Where did you receive your vocal training?
Barbara: Thank you! My vocal teacher has always been Margaret Riddleberger. She is located in Silver Spring, and she used to go up to NYC. I started studying with her when I was working at the Harlequin Theatre. I was rehearsing Fiona in Brigadoon during the day, and Aldonza in Man of La Mancha at night, I needed some help with my upper register – I was having some breaks – and everyone said to go to “Mizzar.” When I went to NYC when I was 25, in 1980, she was going back and forth for many, many years, and every Friday, I had a voice lesson with her. She’s 84 now. She doesn’t go up to NYC anymore, but I’ve seen her a couple of times. I still learn from her, and she has the most amazing technique. She hasn’t seen this show yet, but it will be great when she does. She’s an amazing woman!
Joel: How difficult is it to try to put your own stamp on roles that other actresses have created – playing Joanne in the revival of Company, which was created by Elaine Stritch, and Edie/Edith in Grey Gardens, created by Christine Ebersole?
Barbara: Honestly, I don’t think about it. I didn’t see Elaine do Joanne [in Company]. We are so completely different, so that took the burden off me. I believe these women who create these roles and put their own “stamp” on them – that’s fantastic – but once the role is out there, others are going to respond in different ways. When I am performing the role, I don’t think about it. Elaine saw me do Joanne in Company, and she couldn’t have been kinder and more generous to me. She was so sweet, and I’ll never forget that. I didn’t see Christine (Ebersole) do the role in Grey Gardens. I saw Maureen Moore do it.
And she was brilliant. I am sure Christine was astonishing. It’s not something I think about. It’s my role now…
Joel: How would you describe your interpretation of Edie and Edith, and how much of the real Barbara Walsh is in the way you play these characters?
Barbara: I think at heart, these two women are entertainers. You see that in the documentary, and you see that in the storytelling in both acts. And, that’s something that I am. I have always been – partially – an entertainer, someone who needs an audience and likes an audience. I don’t, Thank G-d, have the dysfunction they have.
Joel: So, is your house clean?
Barbara: I am very, very neat! I haven’t seen my performance, so I can’t judge. I don’t read reviews, and so all I can tell you is how I feel – what the sensation is.
Back to the “women” – they are wonderfully different from each other, and part of the beauty and the challenge of this job is that it asks everything of me. I consider myself a versatile actor and versatile singer, and it calls on me to use all of that, and I love all of that, but it is completely exhausting! I love the ride of it. When I am performing this role, I feel like I’ve been somewhere, and when I am deeply connected to it, that’s a really good thing.
Edith in the first act is a narcissist, and her daughter, unfortunately, has the burden of that narcissism. Little Edie is like a wounded bird. What they have in common is the male dominance in their lives, and they are both damaged people because of that, and because of their entitlement in the aristocratic world. They are very complex. It’s not an easy thing to figure out, but there are a lot of layers, and they are wonderfully contradictory – and I love that about them. During the second act, when she is singing “Around the World,” and she is doing her rants – she’s saying, “I can’t stand my mother, I got to get out of here, and I’m going crazy,” and then she says, “If you do anything to my mother, I’m going to shove you under the bed!” It goes back and forth, and her whole struggle is her struggle between leaving and staying, and loving and hating her mother. It’s just human.
Joel: Why don’t you read reviews?
Barbara: It intercepts the ride. It’s an intrusion of the experience.
Joel: If you got rave reviews, would that make a difference?
Barbara: Absolutely. Once you get to the moment that they wrote about and how beautiful and brilliant you were… I would feel very happy, but I wouldn’t read them. We have all been disappointed before. Once you have been brutalized, and as you get older, one adopts that.
Joel: Have there been times when you took Edie and Edith home with you, instead of leaving them in the theatre?
Barbara: Never. There have been times at the curtain call when – you know – that last scene is so trying emotionally – and sometime I feel she is still there with me. But you know what? I get into my dressing room, and I take the clothes off, and it’s over [Big laugh!].
Joel: When did director Serge Seiden call you about performing the roles of Edith and Edie, and where were you when you received the call that you were being offered the role?
Barbara: My friend Isabel Keating (who was nominated for a Tony playing Judy Garland in The Boy From Oz), who knows Serge Seiden, and has worked in many productions at Studio Theatre, called me and said, “Listen – my friend Serge is looking for someone to play the lead in Grey Gardens in the fall, and he asked me who I would think of… and Barbara Walsh was the first person I named.” Serge said, “I just saw her as Desiree in A Little Night Music at Center Stage in Baltimore.” So, Serge loved me in that, and then I had an audition in NYC for it, and they asked me and I said, “Yes! I would love do it in my hometown.”
And, that was last May, I think. I then arrived in Denver for a wedding, and they wanted to train me down there for a callback, and I couldn’t do it, because I was doing something at The Zipper in NYC, and it was too much of a time crunch. Once that was over on my birthday June 3rd, they brought me down and I saw the facility, and sang a little and read a little, and 2 days later they called me and offered it to me.
Joel: What is the most difficult scene for you to perform?
Barbara: That’s a tricky question The most vocally demanding thing is to alternate in “Around The World.” It’s not an acting thing – it’s a vocal technique thing – when I sing something soft and then I have to scream and then do soft again. That technically is very challenging. I have great technique, and hopefully, no one knows the negotiation that is going on. Honestly, at this stage, it’s not difficult anymore.
I was always overwhelmed from day one of rehearsal about the amount of material I had to learn, and how I was going to do it. And then I was overwhelmed by the physical and vocal stamina I was going to need. Remember, we don’t have microphones. It’s like Hamlet – The Musical, because what is required is not only these accents, but you are talking about two different characters that are completely theatrical, who are speaking and singing – all different kinds of singing, and without a microphone. It took me some time to pace where I can pull back, so I wouldn’t burn out. I wouldn’t say that it’s easy now, but I am wearing it with more ease.
Joel: I listen to your Barbara Streisand Forbidden Broadway “Somewhere” rendition whenever I need a lift. What are your two favorite skits of all time?
Barbara: My favorite skit is “The Streisand.” Gerard Alessandrini wrote it for me, because he knew I did Streisand, and the other one that’s a favorite of mine is “I’m Spinning Down The Drain” (takeoff of “Singin’ In The Rain”).
Joel: Your performance in Falsettos as Trina touched me so much when I saw you perform it in NYC. I will always remember your mesmerizing renditions of “I’m Breaking Down” and “Trina’s Song.” Falsettos brought hope to many of my friends who were ill with AIDS. What was the Falsettos experience like for you?
Barbara: It was extraordinary professionally and personally. I still have people who see me on the street in NYC and tell me that “Your performance in Falsettos changed my life, or affected my mother, or made my day, or whatever.” All kinds of people. It’s an astonishing thing. It’s still very dear to me. I was blessed and very fortunate to go through it. I was luckier than most because I was in the Graciella Danielle production at Hartford Stage, and that was completely different – different actors and a different feeling, equally as moving as the James Lapine production in NYC. I will never forget that moment in Hartford with the AIDS Quilts. It was a beautiful time, and it wasn’t bad getting a nomination for a Tony. It was astonishing playing this year in A Little Night Music with Josh Kaplan, who played my son. He also played my son in Falsettos.
Joel: Is there a role you would like to play that you haven’t played yet?
Barbara: I would love to do some plays. Roles I would love to play are Madame Arkadina in The Seagull, Margaret in The Light in The Piazza and Lizzie in 110 In The Shade. More importantly, I’d like to originate something. For women my age, today the stories are not about middle aged women – they are always about youngsters. I feel actors get better as they get older, and writers and composers should seize on that.
Joel: What do you want DC audiences to take with them when they leave Grey Gardens?
Barbara: Just the humanity of these women. They see the dysfunction. They see the extreme behavior. They see the madness. I love these women. I think they were smart.
They were witty as can be. They were fascinating character studies. And, underneath, they were damaged and very human. So, if they walk away having any empathy for these women, then I feel like I have done a pretty good job.