Thanks to the nominees who responded to this year’s spotlight feature, to the theater companies who helped us gather responses and photos and especially to Linda Levy Grossman and the Helen Hayes Awards for their support of our project. For the complete list of nominees, go to The Helen Hayes Awards.
For easier reading, we abbreviated the original questions. To read the actual questions, click here. For our salute to the Producers, click here.
Our featured nominees are:
Keith Alan Baker, Christopher Cazenove, Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey, Ed Dixon, Timothy Douglas, Jessica Dukes, Tina Fabrique, Phillip Fletcher, Harriett D. Foy, Matthew Gardiner, Edward Gero, (in Part 2) Karla Hamilton, Marva Hicks, Bill Irwin, Tim Jerome, Dan Kazemi, Irakli Kavsadze, Susan Kellerman, Motti Lerner, Erik Liberman, Eric Lucas & Kerry Lucas, Robert McClure, William Foster McDaniel, Monique L. Midgette, Donna Migliaccio, Lawrence B. Munsey, Matthew M. Nielson, Kate Eastwood Norris, Guy Paul, (in Part 3) Mary Beth Peil, Salma Qarnain, Reggie Ray, Lawrence Redmond, Kelli Sawyer, Serge Seiden, Sekou (tha Misfit), Shirley Serotsky, Howard Shalwitz, J. Fred Shiffman, Bobby Smith, Andrew Sonntag, Alexander Strain, Eddie Sugarman, Regina Marie Williams, Dana Yeaton, Christopher Youstra
- Keith Alan Baker, Outstanding Director
- Reefer Madness: The Musical, Studio Theatre 2ndStage
- (No photo available. Shown here: Bobby Smith and Channez McQuay)
Why this play?
It was a hilarious musical of the cult movie classic
Why was this play a perfect fit for your company?
It is irreverent and has a whacked comedic style.
Of all the elements you juggled while mounting the production, which was the most challenging?
Achieving the right balance of the comic style.
What about this production makes you most proud?
The production design and the ensemble performances.
- Prof. Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, Kennedy Center
Henry Higgins is a self-centered mysogenist bully whose passion is language , particularly the English language . He is a volatile and passionate man as far as intellectual pursuits are concerned, but he has the emotional age of a five year old! Much of his behavior towards the other characters , particularly towards Eliza , is appalling. His redeeming feature, perhaps ,is that he is, generally speaking , humourful. As Shaw says “He is so entirely frank and devoid of malice that he remains likeable even in his least reasonable moments ” .
You ask me how I connected to Higgins and I don’t know how to answer that. I am an instinctive actor rather than an intellectual one. It is a wonderfully written piece . The clues to the character are all there, not only in the text , but in the stage directions ( particularly in “Pygmalion” which we used constantly in rehearsal as our bed rock ).
I played the part for a year in the UK and we were extremely well received . During rehearsals in New York we were concerned that American audiences would find it hard to hear the nuances of the accents, so we were surprised and pleased that not only are we understood , but that the show has been received with even more vocal enthusiasm than it was in the UK .
I have many moments in the show that I love but I suppose my very favorite moment is when I get to my final number ” I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face ” . It’s the most wonderful piece of writing and the first time we see Higgins connecting with his emotions ; it is also the moment when I can say to myself ” You’ve climbed the mountain yet again without making too many mistakes ; you deserve that glass of wine waiting for you in your dressing room! ”
Not surprisingly I haven’t seen very much theatre of late , but I did catch a matinee of a wonderful new translation by Robert Bly of Peer Gynt at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis , a few weeks back . Mark Rylance was excellent as Peer Gynt , and the whole production directed by Tim Carroll was immensely inventive and engaging .
We are on the road till 22nd June ; I have nothing lined up for after that except a holiday in a cottage in Corsica!
- Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey, Outstanding Lead Actress
- Gabby in References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot
Well she has a great name. 😉 and is intensely alive in her dreams. We meet her full of doubt…alone. Still we know she is a fierce woman. She conjures people, animals, elements and planetary bodies….she counts them as her friends…sometimes enemies….always companions. She’s earthy, sexy, bold and wise. I love her very much.
In response to one of Rorschach’s blog questions asking which of the characters would win in an ultimate deathmatch (I love Rorschach), the playwright Jose Rivera responded that it would be Gabby. awww yeah. But really, who else could….she is fighting for life and love. She is fighting to maintain faith. and though we understand that she is facing the most formidable enemy… the shadow of death and war that have eclipsed the hearts of both her and her husband…we want to believe….like she does…that it is possible and necessary to leave the desert and find a way back to fertile soil.
Well almost the entire play is in her mind (possibly)…so that helps….I listened to the words. and understood how she talked to the moon. and looked across our cracked wood desert to her husband coming in from the darkness, and her cat crawling out into coyote wild unknowns. I watched as her young neighbor climbed back over to his side of the fence; and her friend the moon said his final goodbye. It was all there. All the actors, designers, Shirley [Serostsky, Director]..had brought to life Gabriela’s most intimate landscape. So I had it easy….i just had to listen and be in the world around me. and I understood her doubt…her questioning. The ground had shifted underneath her feet. Her sky had been blown apart.
Not a what…as much as a who surprised me. life is beautiful this way.
Benito’s final entrance. without a doubt. at the end we circle back and can begin again….maybe.
And also the top….walking onstage in darkness (semi-darkness on matinee days) while Scott took his lunar position on top of the refrigerator and the audience hushed awaiting…laying down on my back in the stillness of their hush and watching the stars in the shattered sky turn on….”fly me to the moon” begins to croon.
Performances in The Unmentionables and Solas Nua’s Made in China were fantastic…brave and fun. Andrew Price and Clay Steakley, as the brothers Dukes and Bones in Inkwell’s Underground, were something to behold …“We two is brothers till the lord calls us home.”
Wrapping up the incredible Stunning experience….stunning-stay no doubt. and looking forward to being home for awhile…having more time to develop some work with friends…play.
- Ed Dixon, Outstanding Supporting Actor
- Brother Bob in Saving Aimee, Signature Theatre
Brother Bob is the epitome of the back stabbing, duplicitous, bigoted, mean spirited Christian. I patterned him on Jerry Falwell and I must confess that I considered it some kind of personal acknowledgement that he passed while I was playing him. It even trumped that glorious day when I awoke to find Jimmy Swaggart busted for prostitution.
My father was a revival minister in Oklahoma in the 1950’s. I lead the singing in tents all over the country while i was growing up. I have known, understood and loathed Jerry Falwell all my life. It was a piece of cake. Delicious Schaddenfreude cake.
I was overcome with physical attributes of my father that I hadn’t expected. Stance, posture, vocalizations and the like. And surprising things set off reactions in me, like the smell of a King James Bible when opened, the curious texture of the over-thin paper, and the gold leaf on the sides of the binding.
Brother Bob had a confrontation with Aimee in her office that was very enjoyable. He was so full of himself that it was great fun to feel that rush of energy as he felt he had trumped her. However, I also enjoyed the moment at the end when it was revealed that he frequented a house of ill repute where he was known only as “spanky.” The largeness of the humiliation was as overwhelming as the previous exultation.
I was lucky enough to be invited to the dress rehearsal of LUCIA at the Met. Mary Zimmerman’s new production was gorgeous and I got to spend some time with Natalie Dessay in her dressing room afterward. I was also fortunate enough to get to hear Barbara Cook run through her 80th Birthday program for the Philharmonic… in her LIVING ROOM. That was unbelievable.
I’m currently doing the beautiful revival of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE at Studio 54, and I hope to reprise my role of Old Max in HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS when it returns in the fall. Am also writing a theatrical memoir, SECRETS OF A LIFE ON… AND OFF STAGE, which is being published in an on-line blog.
Timothy Douglas, Outstanding Director
Insurrection: Holding History, Theater Alliance
Why this play?
I’ve been with INSURRECTION since its workshop production at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and since then I have directed productions in New Zealand and the Berkshire Theatre Festival. This play truly marks the beginning of my professional directing career. I love this play, and will direct it anywhere, anytime.
Most difficult scene
When we first land on the plantation. Even as ‘fun’ as this production is to put together, it’s always a devastating day at rehearsal when the chains go on for the first time.
How completely African-American Jeremy Brown became during the process.
The Production Number.
If you could work with anyone in the theatre, living or dead, who would it be and why?
Ethel Merman … I still can’t quite grasp the reality of that voice coming out of a human, and would love to experience it up close and personal.
Just opened the world premiere of Charles Randolph-Wright’s THE NIGHT IS A CHILD for Milwaukee Rep, and next is Robert O’Hara’s GOOD BREEDING for ACT in San Francisco
Jessica Dukes, Outstanding Lead Actress
Delia, The Girl and Missie May in Spunk, Tribute Productions and African Continuum Theatre Company
Woman 1 is the ensemble title. The show is made up of an ensemble of people to play the various roles throughout the piece. My characters were Delia, a Washerwoman who cleans houses for a living. A hard working woman who owns her own house. She takes great pride and joy in it. She planted the trees, plants, and flowers on the outside while overcoming the physical and mental abuse on the inside. She has been tormented by her husband Sikes (Shane Taylor) for the past 15 years and is at the end of her rope. As the town watches but doesn’t say a word she struggles and overcomes as her husband’s own torments end up killing him in the end.
The Girl: a working woman out to lunch who gets harassed by two Harlem pimps. But the fast talking down to business girl is way out of their league. With her earrings poppin’ and her heels flappin’ she was a fun flapper of a character.
Missie May: A devoted country house wife in love with her husband Joe (Shane Taylor). She is the perfect housewife. Cooks huge meals, cleans, and makes sure her husband is treated like a king. He deserves everything in the world and she stops at nothing to give it to him. As Joe is focused on a new man in town with gold all on him, Missie figures out a way to get the gold for Joe, not realizing that sleeping with the man in order to get the gold would be the death of her and Joe’s love. She stays with a broken Joe after and waits on him hand and foot until the birth of their baby brings them back to the loving couple they once were.
Delia and Missie May lived two different places for me. I think that I connected to Delia’s quiet strength. She can hold so much and take so much. She was a superhero to me to be able to deal and hope and pray that the Lord would take her or him away from the other. She truly left it in The Lord’s hands.
Missie May and I are very similar. She is full of life and love and wants to see the people that she loves happy. She’s a puppy dog as well. She’s going to go along with what you say because you said it. Her head is in the clouds. She grows up within the piece. I definitely connected with Missie May the most, seeing as how I grew up within this process. I learned a lot of things about myself as a person and as an actor.
Every night was surprising. There was always something. I would have to do a list. We had a ball on that stage every night.
My Favorite moment has to be The beginning of Six Bits. A huge chase between Joe and Missie May goes through the house. The daily routine of Joe and Missie May. The other one is Tell Me Mama also. The Musical number in Slemmon’s Ice Cream Parlor
I was blessed to work all year and didn’t see much due to being on stage but the shows that I loved were Unmentionables at Woolly, Emergence-SEE! at Arena, I’m not sure what else I saw this season.
I just finished The Piano Lesson at Indiana Repertory Theater in Indianapolis and I go to Geva Theater in Rochester, NY to do The Piano Lesson again. That runs April 15th through May 11th. After that we will see! 🙂
Tina Fabrique, Outstanding Lead Actress
Ella in Ella, Arena Stage
Ella Fitzgerald was a shy person, with an underlying determination rarely seen in artists of her time. She also had a girlish manner about her even into her mature years that came out in playfullness, especially in performing her uptempo and scat material. She suffered from low self esteem, but her spirit soared to such great heights when performing that audiences were never aware of that. When Ella got to know you she was great at joking and fun to be with and was said to have a great sense of humor.
She was the epitome of vocal exactness, and she enveloped a melody as you would wrap silk around a precious and delicate work of art. She wanted more than anything to please her audience and was a one take wonder in the recording studio. Her private life was one of humble beginnings with many bumps along the way, but her determination even as a homeless young girl to “make something of herself” paid off in success rarely seen by any vocalists of her time or since.
My connection to this character was done with studying her in all phases: in performances, in interviews, and in conversation with people who knew her. I felt very close to understanding her as an artist because it was clear that she gave all, and she was always in the moment, which made it easy to let myself just follow her lead. I was more concerned with capturing the spirit of Ella than in purely imitating her sound, which I believe would be a mistake for anyone to do. I was fortunate to have performed her music with the Ellington Orchestra for several years so I was familiar with her phrasing and I sang her songs in her keys. I shared some of her same experiences like appearing at the Apollo Theater, and being a natural jazz singer growing up in Harlem I heard some of the same swing and beebop that inspired her as well, though at a later time.
Many times while in performance in “Ella” I visualized her singing and saw her in my mind’s eye. She was very real to me, and because it is such an honor to portray her I believe that kind of visualization keeps her story fresh for me as well.
I think the most surprising thing that happened during the run was when several bus loads of children came to a sold out noon performance and reacted just like the adult audiences had on previous nights. They laughed at the same jokes, They REALLY responded to the music, the book and sympathized with her tense relationship with her son in a way that was very mature. I believe they were middle school youngsters which speaks so well for the teachers preparing them for a show like this and for their obvious sophistication.
One other surprising and funny thing was when one of the audience members screamed out “sing Mack the Knife Ella” like it was request time at a concert.
My favorite moment in the play is when Ella breaks down in the second act. It’s heartbreaking in such a public yet personal way and it always brings to mind the story a radio announcer told me about Ella. About the time when she was losing her sight he interviewed her on his radio show and she was going through a tough time with her diabetes and although she kept talking to him the audience never knew it but tears were running down her face for the entire interview.
I must admit I had many enjoyable moments observing my peers during “Women of Brewster Place”
Among them were Harriet Foy singing “Ghost with paper bones” about her father, Terri Burrell as the classy Mrs. Brown talking to her daughter about life in her song “Then Know This” and Etta Mae coming to grips about losing out once again in “Man of God”. I felt honored to be in this cast.
“Ella” moves on to St Louis, Cinncinatti, Hartford Stage and several other theaters through 2009. What a blessing and honor for an artist and I am very grateful!
- Phillip Fletcher, Outstanding Supporting Actor
- A Witch in Macbeth, Synetic Theater
I played one of the witches that sort of foretell and guide Macbeth to his bloody end. Because it was Shakespeare without dialogue I had to read the play several times not only to find out what the subtext of the language was but how I can convey the meaning behind the language without saying a word. I also dug into my character more once I started rehearsing with a long skirt, not something I am used to, but it really helped me build a stature and demeanor for the witch I portrayed.
The trap door that I used for most of the show collapsed and fell through one night during the final fight scene between Macduff and Macbeth. Had it been a few minutes later I would have been crushed. There really must be something to the Macbeth superstition.
The scene I liked performing in was where Macbeth returns to the witches for prophecy and the witches tell him among other visions that he cannot be killed by a man born from a woman. I wasn’t in the dinner scene where Macbeth begins to go mad but thought it was excellent. Those two were my favorite because of the choreography and music.
Greg Marzullo in The Fall of the House of Usher at Synetic, Meghan Grady in Speed the Plow at Theater J, and Cherry Jones in Doubt, a Parable at the National Theater.
Synetic’s Carmen at the Kennedy Center Family Theatre early June.
Outstanding Ensemble, Hamlet … the rest is silence, Synetic Theater
Why this play?
This was the first Synetic production I saw and I saw it several times when it was at the Church Street Theatre in DC. I just loved the classic elegant feeling it had and I especially liked the wordless adaptation and choreography.
Why was this play a perfect fit for your company?
Because it is Shakespeare and therefore full of vivid imagery and the story is relatively well known so even if people didn’t hear the dialogue they could see it.
Of all the elements you juggled while mounting the production, which was most challenging?
I work full time for HMSHost in the Law Department and also attend school for a paralegal degree at Montgomery College.
What about this production makes you most proud?
This production really cemented a close bond between the Synetic company members. It is such a great group of talented folks and even though people branch out to other venues and locations the friendships stay strong. Truly an ensemble production.
- Harriett D. Foy, Outstanding Lead Actress
- Lorraine in The Women of Brewster Place, Arena Stage
Lorraine is a schoolteacher. She loves her students and would do anything for them. She is one of those teachers that decorates the room and always has special treats for her class. She has learned to hide her true self and feelings because of past years of hurt and pain. She is an active member of her community. She is an overachiever and will do anything to make people like her. She just wants to be normal and fit in. She loves her partner Tee, but if the true nature of their relationship is revealed, she knows that they will be ostracized and that she may lose her job and standing in the community. She is vulnerable, but has a quiet inner strength which comes to the fore, once she is pushed to the brink.
Normally, I wouldn’t be cast in a role such as Lorraine. I am usually cast as the strong leader type. I really had to work at letting the vulnerable side of me come out, so that I could truly inhabit the character. My director Molly Smith would give me notes throughout the process asking me to find the softer points of Lorraine. I would get upset with myself, because I thought that I was doing that. I am a perfectionist and am really hard on myself. I eventually let everything go and just played the truth of the character. The fun side of Lorraine was easy, because I am like that. I love to make people laugh.
The audience response across the board. We knew that we were working on a special piece, but it really came to light after each performance. The audiences were so moved by the performances and the piece, that we received standing ovations after every show from Atlanta to DC. Each member of the audience could identify with at least one character. The second thing was that none of us got sick! Big blessing!
I have two. The first is the Tenant’s Association Meeting. I have always thought that was a hilarious moment and quite tragic at the same time. The second was when Lorraine and Tee would kiss. I don’t think the audience actually thought we were going to. We would hear gasps, laughter and teeth sucking. Funny thing the student audiences embraced the moment fully.
Of course all of my sisters in The Women of Brewster Place, and Nancy Robinette and Donetta Lavinia Grays in Well.
I will be doing the “On the Levee” workshop by Lear deBessonet and Marcus Gardley, music by Todd Almond at the Epic Theater in NY.
- Matthew Gardiner, Outstanding Choreography and Outstanding Director
- Reefer Madness: The Musical, Studio Theatre
Why this show?
I was thrilled when Keith asked me to work on this project because the show explores so many different styles of dance. Salsa, swing, Vegas showgirls (and boys), tap, manic zombie attacks – the show runs the gamut. It’s a choreographers dream.
While really exciting to work in so many styles, it also provided a huge challenge. Once you’ve gotten comfortable with the movement and vocabulary you’ve established for one number, you have to throw it all out the window in the next. You’re shifting gears constantly.
Andrew Sonntag’s endless bag of tricks.[Andrew played Jimmy]. He’s a little bit superhuman. Fire eating, unicycle riding, tap dancing… I think we used every special skill on that boy’s resume.
The Orgy. Naked boys and girls, fire eating… what’s not to love? Actually any moment the incredible 7 person ensemble was on stage was a favorite of mine.
If you could work with anyone in the theatre, living or dead, who would it be and why?
That list could go on for days. Let’s just say I’m very lucky to be the Resident Assistant Director at Signature Theatre. I think I’m very spoiled with the people I have met there. Next I get to sit in a room with Chita Rivera and Anne Reinking. They’ll probably have to lift my jaw off the floor a couple times.
Signature Theatre’s Glory Days on Broadway!! [Matthew is Assistant Directing Glory Days.]
- Edward Gero, Outstanding Lead Actor
- John in Shining City, Studio Theatre
John is a grieving widow in his fifties who, some time after his wife’s terrible death in an automobile accident, believes he sees her appear in their home. His shock and fear forces him to leave the home and live in a B&B. At the recommendation of his doctor he is referred to a psychologist. During his time with the ex-priest counselor, he uncovers the source of his fears, guilt and shame in a long shaggy dog story of a failed attempt at an affair and a journey that took him to a brothel. He feels he is in some way responsible for his wife’s death because of a fight that erupted the night of her car accident. John descends from the great tradition of Irish storytellers. It’s in his blood. So is humor, humanity, charm, irony and gruffness. He is a psychologically complex and emotionally direct character. John is a product of extraordinary writing on playwright Conor McPherson’s part and a gift for an actor to play and inhabit.
Connecting with the character was really an intuitive process for me. I worked a lot on getting the words down, finding John’s rhythms and ways of expressing himself syntactically. And being an actor of a certain age, life experience allows me to understand the struggle of mid-life that I think John attempts to negotiate. It isn’t terribly difficult to imagine the grief of losing a loved one. I have lost both my parents and know how powerfully grief can affect day-to-day living. Part of the grief process for me included hearing voices of my parents, so it didn’t seem so far fetched to imagine that John had seen and heard his wife. So a combination of life experience, imagination and intuition served me well. Connecting to a character is a mysterious thing, but mostly it emanates from the craft and skill of the acting to create and inhabit a character that is based on what we observe and know of human nature and emotion. That is the essence of the actor’s job.
Perhaps the most surprising thing during the run was being able to make it through John’s 35 minute monologue night after night, and come to enjoy doing it. At first it was harrowing to think, oh my God will I make it through… would I remember it all. I think it was surprising that I looked forward to not only living through the speech, but also discovering how the audience would respond from night to night. The audience was different from performance to performance – some laughed a lot, while others were more reserved. The play was like a Rorschach test. The audience brought their own experience to the storytelling and that was a constantly surprising element during the run,
I think the favorite moment for me was the moment before the play began when the opening music cut would begin as the house lights went down. All four of the actors in the company would be together backstage. Donald Carrier (Ian) would be at the doorway ready to begin the play, while Laoisha Sexton (Neesha) and Chris Genebach (Laurence) would sit on the stairs backstage as I sprayed my hair with water gearing up for my first entrance. We were all together, anticipating how the audience would respond, each in our own private concentration but sharing the excitement of working together on such a fine production of a great play.
I wish I could say I saw a lot of theater last year. One of the drawbacks of being in shows is not being able to get to the theater as much as I want. But I did get to see My Children, My Africa! and thoroughly enjoyed Yaegel Welch. He is a former student and I was so thrilled and proud watching his commitment to the work. And James Brown-Orleans work was stunning. I am honored to share the Outstanding Lead Actor category with him and the other remarkable actors whose performances thrilled so many theater goers in Washington this past season.
I am very excited about what is coming up next. I will reprise the role of Richard Nixon in Nixon’s Nixon at Roundhouse Theatre, which will open in May. It’s always interesting to revisit roles, but I usually only do that in Shakespeare. Nixon, however, is definitely a character of Shakespearean dimension. Other projects are in the works for next season taking me to CenterStage in Baltimore, return to Studio Theater and the Shakespeare Theater Company in 2009.