More accustomed to sequins and spotlights, Natascia Diaz talks about
her role as Denise Savage in John Patrick Shanley’s Savage in Limbo
Some people go to theater for the glamour of it, and imagine the stage as a place of magic, a frictionless universe where heightened adventures bloom and dissolve into cotton candy dreams in three hours’ time or less. Perhaps you’re one of those people.
If so, you’ve probably seen Natascia Diaz, either here or in New York. As much as any actor on the Washington stage, she seems to carry the charisma of glamour with her – from her Swiss birth to a renown opera singer and his ballerina wife, to her television gig immediately after graduating with honors from Carnegie-Mellon, to her long-running role as Anita in the national touring production of West Side Story, to her appearance in the documentary “Every Little Step,” which (among other things) chronicled her struggle to be cast in A Chorus Line, to her work here – as the tortured Elektra in Agamemnon and His Daughters at Arena, as the mysterious, idealized Spiderwoman in Signature’s Kiss of the Spider Woman, as the impish Monica P. Miller in MetroStage’s Rooms.
She even looks exotic, with raven hair framing a high forehead, delicate features molded into ivory skin. And she sings like an angel.
Right now, she is in John Patrick Shanley’s Savage in Limbo at MetroStage. The play is about five people, each one of them thirty-two years of age, waiting for their lives to start. (Steve McKnight’s excellent review is here.) Diaz plays Savage – Denise Savage, a rough, clumsy, conflicted woman who, during the course of an evening spent at a bar, tries to pick her way through the debris of her life, and the lives of those around here. Savage wears little makeup and a dowdy dress, and she lives with her mother and her mother’s cats. She is a virgin. She does not – except to the extent that Shanley’s lyrical language permits her to – soar. She does not sing.
This is the play Diaz wanted MetroStage to do, and wanted to be in. What’s going on?
One answer is that Diaz sees less separation between a musical and this gritty play, set in a New Jersey dive, than you or I might. “You have a moment you are trying to bring to life on stage,” she explains. “The purpose…is you are creating a conflict which has to be resolved, and something has to happen. Good theater and good musicals start from this point of conflict, and truth, and when it gets too heated, and gets to be too much, the character breaks into song, and then, when it gets to be too much even for that level, the character bursts into dance.”
But Denise Savage doesn’t burst into song or dance, does she?
““[Shanley] calls it a concert play,” Diaz says. “In this play, I have always been in love with this stream-of-consciousness-like arias; the wrenching of the ideas, the grating of the wheel of discovery and trying to find out the answers. They are relentless. Doing this material requires something that feels a lot like turning your body and soul into a freight train…the existential ideas are written with inescapable purity and such humor that it balances brilliantly the audiences experience, It wins you with the humor, then it it socks you in the stomach with the questions, and ultimately with the existential agony that you’re left with at the end.”
In short, Denise just bursts. Diaz knows how difficult the final monologue is:
“I was having trouble with the very last monologue, and the transitions,” she admits, “because just when you think Savage is really at the apex, there’s another apex to go. And then yet another apex. And then yet another apex. And so as an actor I continue to grapple with those – what level am I dropping to now, or soaring to, or how is this next section going to be different. In terms of tone, feel, emotion – where does it sit? Is simply revealing its truth? Is it searching? (Is it just sitting there?) What new color of exploration can I find. It’s interesting. These words reveal new things to me every night.”
It is Friday night, right after the show – a good performance, with all five actors clicking and a large, appreciative audience, which got the humor and seemed to understand the struggle each character went through to live more authentically – livelier – than he had been living before. We are in a large, cluttered office upstairs from the theater, and Diaz is, she says, exhausted and exhilarated both. She sits down and gives me a remarkably candid picture of the actor’s life. It is not a gravy ride of glory and glamour.
“I think [theater] has, probably more often than not, dragged me through the mud…It has hurt me very badly at times. From issues with the disappointment in the piece, to having to able to take the pain that it takes to go through it every night, physically, or whatever that show’s requirements are. You pay for the privilege. I’m sure every actor will agree with me.
She recalls her difficult audition for the role of Cassie in A Chorus Line, which was traced in the documentary “Every Little Step.”
“We look like mad people,” she says. “It’s crazy. And I even had a moment, watching myself in that movie, getting a real wake up call to wonder how much you have to want something in order to stomach the tension and requirements of a life in theatre. We’re insane. We have to be. Look at what we put ourselves through.” She didn’t get the role, though she played it later, in Oklahoma.
She does it all anyway – goes to the auditions, accepts the rejections, deals with the backstabbing (more in New York than here), takes on the physical challenges of roles…does the work, for an actor’s pay. Why?
“People might guffaw at this – but theater is church for me. And I think it has the same effect as church for people who go, because ultimately, we go to empathize with someone else’s story, and we go to be comforted in that the terrible, glorious agony and responsibility of living is something we all share. And there is something holy about it.” Diaz looks down, as someone in prayer might look down. “We go to theatre to remind ourselves how we share the burden and gift of existing– and like church, inside a theatre is where we go to reconnect with that gift.”
So she brought Savage in Limbo to MetroStage – and asked to play Linda Rotunda, the oft-pregnant hottie, a role which eventually went to Veronica del Cerro. Diaz had played the role in college, and her work won the favorable attention of her professor. But del Cerro was available, and MetroStage couldn’t find a Savage. And so – Natascia Diaz was Savage in Limbo.
“In Savage’s material, Shanley shoulders her with the enormity of the existential questions in their most basic, and ‘animalistic’….her desperate need to find her way back to a life of possibility, instead of compromise; she has lost herself…how do I go on and get back to the joy of discovery and the protection of innocence, and hold on to life, the way it was supposed to be, the way it [once] was.”
Savage is all of these things, a woman who hates the life she’s been living but who knows that every change she makes will have irreversible consequences, and so is determined to make only those changes which really reflect who she is. “Playing Savage really strips me to be that woman in this acute existential crisis…..mostly because of why the title of the play is what it is; because we find that Denise has created and ended up in the isolation and desperation where she is, and finds herself unable to free herself from the stagnation. Savage is the part of all of us that ultimately must learn to be tamed in order for us to evolve and survive in this world.”
“It’s a lot for me,” Diaz admits. “It’s a lot harder, because [of what] you wrestle with…”
She commenced grappling immediately. She cut up her script, pasted each page in a notebook, and surrounded them with quotes from other works of literature which helped her to understand Shanley’s meaning. Most of the illumination came from the work of Salmon Rushdie, she says, although she can’t trace each quote to a specific book.
“What kind of idea are you?” one of the literary notes reads. “Are you the kind that compromises, does deals, accommodates itself to society, aims to find a niche to survive, or are you the cussed, bloody-minded, ramrod-backed type damn fool notion that would rather break than sway with the breeze – the kind that will almost certainly, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, be smashed to bits. But the hundredth time, will change the world.”
“That’s Savage,” Diaz explains. “It’s when she gets [to] Tony, [Linda Rotunda’s boyfriend, played in this production by Michael Kevin Darnell]. It’s when finally, for a moment, it looks like he’s going to understand what she’s trying to do for him for him and for all of them. She is fighting for us all to not give up looking for the authenticity and truth and discovery of life.”
Her script is illuminated with perhaps a hundred literary effusions like that one. “I found the incendiary ideas that set people aflame,” she says simply.
One of the striking things about Diaz’ performance in this role is the distinctive physicality she brings to it. She is the daughter of a ballerina and an exceptionally strong dancer herself, and her performances are usually marked with physical grace. As Savage, though, she is awkward and wide-stanced, and riddled with anxiety. She keeps a rubber band on her hand, which she periodically snaps. I asked her how she developed this physical representation of Savage’s character. Her surprising answer:
“With this character, I actually had to pare down… we had been in rehearsals for about a week, and I said [to MetroStage Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin], ‘so Carolyn, how do you think it’s going?’ and she said, like, ‘um, you want me to tell you the truth?’ and I said, ‘of course I do,’ and she was like, ‘you are flailing around so much, you’re talking so fast, and you’re running around, and it’s just like, stop and talk!’ and I was like, ‘oh, God, you’re right. You are absolutely right.’”
So Savage, who manages to be both manic and depressed at points, calmed down. “Obviously there’s torrential energy coursing through these lines. But…the ideas are so complex…it does not serve the material if you are running around the stage like a savage. Because the ideas get lost; the distillation of the performance gets lost. So I found my way back to… shaving off the excess energy…so it was scored more, so that the physical performance was scored more.”
Diaz had a bit of good luck in that she was acquainted with Mark Linn Baker, who directed the first production of Savage in Limbo. Baker contacted her on Facebook when he heard she had been cast as Savage, and at her request offered some advice.
“He said that Savage is generous. And I thought that that was really interesting, because on the page it looks, it can be interpreted [otherwise]. But if you look at the ideas, she’s considering everybody. Linda walks in crying, she says, ‘hey, give her a minute.’… April’s in trouble, we’re going to help her too. She’s trying to come up with the right solution to help Tony, and…She tries to understand and pleads to Murk at the end “to break the sameness.”
Baker was also helpful in Diaz’ effort to take on her difficult final monologue. “He said…before you say ‘ain’t you tired of living if this is all living is?’ take a deep breath. Say it all the way from your toes.” And doing that, it all came clear to me. Because breath and life (It’s breath and life), breath and truth…they’re hand in hand in theater….Breath is intention. Breath is experience. Breath is a tool that we can use. And in my journey with this role, wanting to pare down that physical manicness, breath became a very, very useful tool. And was very informative.”
And she had other useful tools – Shanley’s text (“the stones that he set in the language,” she says. “Just step on them. Step on them sure-footedly, and keep stepping. And all of a sudden, it’s doing you. You’re not doing it. “) and her colleagues in the cast. (“I’m on stage with such life, and such skilled people that I just enjoy watching them grapple with their stuff too. It’s really a lovely fun thing.”)
So what’s the value of doing hard things like this, or like theater in general? The same value as in going to work or going to church, one supposes.
There’s insight. “It’s uncanny,” she says. “For example, when I was doing Petra, in Night Music at the Sondheim festival. I was what I call terminally single during that time, and it was a very hard time for me and I found myself having to sing about how you’ve got to celebrate what passes by…You know, Petra’s like, oh, I gotta be o.k. with this. I gotta be ok with where I am, and just celebrate, because in a wink of an eye, you’re gonna be in your deathbed. So be here now.”
There’s joy. “It continues to be a fun ride that we take. And…we’ve had a few shows where, I think, it’s just been a total invocation – where it’s like ‘oh my God, what just happened?’ to all of us.”
There’s transcendence. “I love going into the stratosphere like this,” she says. “You do burn brighter in those moments. You are given the privilege to fly in those moments. There was a moment in West Side Story I remember, when I was on tour. And I was doing ‘America.’ And unbelievably, at one point of the dance, one purple streamer from the dance at the gym came down unraveling from the rafters of the theatre. And it just hung there. It was like a message from the theatre gods. Well, you’re on the rooftop. Seeing no other logical choice, right in the middle of the number, before my solo, I ripped it down, and I swirled it around my neck. And I danced with it. All I could see as I turned was this swirl of purple. And when I was done, the girls who were dancing with me – they all came and they grabbed a piece, and one put it around her neck, and one put it around her wrist, and we all danced with it. And I just – it was magic. It’s moments like that make you feel immortal.”
There’s complexity and challenge. “I want to work at this level. I love poetry…I love the classics. And I would just love to do more straight plays in general. I have let this part of my theatre tool box wait in the dusty cupboard for longer than I ever thought I would. This play represents the kind of places where my soul thrives. I want to wrestle with complexity. I want to get right to the point. Acting allows and demands distillation of intent. And it is the best tasting performers palate cleanser I know.”
And then there’s fun. “In any good piece of theater, you are messing around with some pretty powerful human dynamics; and if you are able to harness them, look at them and put them under lights, on a stage, then you have transcendence, you have magic, you have catharsis. And it IS church. You have light.” She takes a long pause. “And then sometimes you just have to you know, shake your butt.” Which is what she promises to do in an upcoming project, The Boys from Syracuse.
[Ms. Diaz, after seeing her interview in print, asked to ‘revise and expand’ her remarks, as they say in the Congressional Record, in order to enhance their clarity. This interview reflects her revised remarks.”]