Love comes naturally to the actors in Love Letters
For the busy theatrical couple Nigel Reed and Valerie Leonard, Valentine’s Day is more than a once a year affair. It’s nearly the definition of their marriage. Be it comedy or drama, hearing that either is in a show is reason enough to check it out. She was fantastically funny in Fox on the Fairway and stunning in King of the Jews and he has gifted us with outstanding performances ranging from the quartet comedy of Travels with My Aunt, and the solo show Barrymore, both at Rep Stage to a muscular performance as the heavy in Mauritius, and the just closed comedy Becky’s New Car at Bay Theatre. The two seem to have made a home at the Annapolis venue. We noticed them running tech there for Matthew Vaky in Chesapeake, and now they are making a rare appearance together in A. R. Gurney’s Love Letters, which is where we began our conversation.
– I heard you brought the Love Letters project to Bay Theatre.
We did discuss with [Artistic Director]Janet Luby the idea of doing Love Letters, but initially it was only with the idea of doing it as it is usually done… that is, as a very short run, minimalistic sort of reading, perhaps as a fund raising event. It was Janet’s idea to do it as a full, regular season production.
– Have either of you performed it before?
Although we knew about it, we’ve never seen another production or even read the script before this.
– Would you have considered playing it opposite anyone else?
We might have considered doing it with other partners before this experience. But now, having done it together, I don’t think we’d ever want to do it with anyone else.
– Andrew and Melissa have been interpreted many different ways. Tell us a little about them as you play them.
Melissa is the “girl gone wild”. She’s smart enough to know she’s jumping down the rabbit hole, but can’t stop herself. She is the life of the party, even as she watches herself in the downward spiral and reaches out to Andy for support. What makes her most enjoyable and fascinating is her sense of humor… loud, a bit abrasive and yet, so fragile, laced with pain.
Andy is a man whose exterior is largely shaped by the conventional forces around him. But beneath that exterior lie layers of himself that he struggles to understand and which ultimately shape his relationship with Melissa. Gurney has created two real, multi-layered, and somewhat flawed people in Andy and Melissa. As actors, our challenge is to allow the audience to see all the layers they are made of without being judgmental or sentimental.
– They, of course, never marry each other. If they had, do you think it would have worked out?
That is certainly one of the questions the audience should be asking itself as they leave the theatre. And it’s one that might inspire a good deal of debate. We wouldn’t want to influence how the audience might feel about that before they see the show, so we’ll kindly duck that question for now.
– Has there been anything about doing this show that has surprised you?
Our initial feeling was that this might feel like a rather static experience for an audience. After all, these are letters, read aloud, with the actors not even looking at each other. But the script is so beautifully written and the words evoke such powerful emotions as well as time and place, that the audience comes away feeling as if they witnessed the unfolding of conventionally staged scenes. It makes for a unique theatrical experience for both actor and patron.
– Do you find that your experience performing Love Letters changes?
After every performance, we find ourselves going back to certain moments in the script and discussing something new we may be feeling about a moment that we hadn’t considered before. That may result in a slight alteration in performance the next evening to test the validity of a new discovery. It can be something very small and difficult to describe out of context. This is a delicate piece and, because we cannot look at each other, we have to feel each other breathe. It’s an intricate dance. We’ve always felt that a good actor continues the investigative process of a script even after the rehearsal period has ended. So, in that way, our experience with Love Letters is no different from most projects we work on. Of course there is a lot of comedy in the piece and, as we all know, comedy is all about timing. So, we’re always working on that.
– Is there a specific moment in the play that you each savor?
One favorite moment involves Melissa’s reactions to a rather smug Xeroxed family Christmas letter that Andy has sent. Another has to do with Melissa’s dissection of Andy’s use of the non-specific phrase “much love” at the close of a particular letter. Both moments are especially revealing of our characters’ unique personalities.
– Have you brought anything you’ve learned from Love Letters into your relationship?
Whenever one explores a play or a character, you learn something about yourself. The personal journey is what we both welcome and treasure in our theatrical endeavors. And working together as actors makes us really listen to and hear each other. These stage skills have a certain translation into our everyday life.
– How long have you been together? How did you meet?
We met playing opposite each other in a production of Anna Karenina at Olney Theatre Center in 2003. (Valerie as Anna, Nigel as Count Vronsky.) The rest, as they say, is history. We married in 2006.
– How would you describe your relationship?
Closer than close. We always want to be together. At home, it’s just us and 2 beautiful cats. We tend to feel (and behave) like two kids in a candy store, 24/7. There’s a lot of laughter in our house.
– What defines romance for you?
Spontaneity, laughter, swirling across a dance floor, adventure, and passion for everything you do. And one or two other things that we’ll just keep to ourselves. Oh… and two crystal flutes of Veuve Clicquot at 45 degrees doesn’t hurt, either.
– Being a theatrical couple must pose some challenges.
One of the biggest challenges is when we are both working at separate theatres. We rarely see each other during those times. Household chores tend to go undone. We council each other on decisions about auditioning and other business details, and we try to offer each other honest and constructive feedback on the work that we do, which we both handle differently.
– On the other hand, what are its pleasures?
Most people really don’t understand what it is to live a life passionately dedicated to the art of theatre. It helps to be in a relationship with someone who really gets that. Of course, we talk a lot about theatre and acting….discussing technique, parsing plays, sharing information and experiences. Our discussions are often very animated and full of passion, which we really love. We both feel we are better theatre artists because of our relationship. Of course, living together makes it easier to collaborate on a project. We’ve developed a show together called An Evening of Shakespeare. It’s a collection of the Bard’s excerpts that revolve around variations on the theme of love. We had its inaugural performance this past December and it was very well received.
– In addition to your theatre careers, do you have other interests?
Besides the theatre, my (Valerie’s) greatest passion is animal welfare. I became a serious advocate at the age of 17, becoming vegetarian and forgoing leather products. Since marrying and moving to Columbia, I’ve worked steadily with two animal welfare groups: Animal Advocates of Howard County and Maryland Votes For Animals. I have testified before Maryland legislative committees and emceed fundraisers. And, preferring not to have a “behind the desk” day job, I also do pet walking/sitting for Unconditional Love. Exercise and animal time….couldn’t be better.
– If you were to write a love letter to each other, what would be the opening lines?
Mmm. Don’t know about the opening lines. But the closing line would be, “Truly, Madly, Deeply. 28/55.” You’ll have to forgive us for not giving you a more complete explanation.