“I went into it expecting to be terrified. Hanging up after talking to the agency, I thought to myself, ‘Oh, I’ve just guaranteed myself two weeks of total stress.’ But it hasn’t been that way.”
Tonya Beckman opened in a play last weekend: Passion Play by Sarah Ruhl at Forum Theatre. That fact by itself is certainly not unusual in any regard; actors open in shows all the time. What is out of the ordinary, though, is her last-minute involvement in the production. Less than two weeks before press night, she wasn’t part of the play’s cast. Adding to the uniqueness of the situation is the fact that she jumped into a role that was to have been played by a man.
Rick Hammerly is Producing Artistic Director of a local company, Factory 449, and has been a familiar presence on our stages for the last twenty-five years. I first saw him in The Rocky Horror Show at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. He followed that show by playing the Player Queen and other parts in Washington Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet, which I directed. Since then, he’s been nominated for Helen Hayes Awards for playing Prior Walter in Angels in America at Signature Theatre and for playing Bette Davis in Me and Jezebel at MetroStage. He won the award for playing Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Signature.
Rick’s a trouper, and it would take something serious to make him pull out of a project, and that something was unexpected hernia surgery. Nothing dire or life-threatening, but what made him have to leave was the uncertainty regarding how long recuperation would take. It ended up being on the shorter side of the expected range, but doctors couldn’t assure him before the surgery that he’d bounce back in time for Passion Play performances.
“I felt so guilty for having to pull out of the show,” Hammerly told me in an e-mail. “It was really disappointing. It was the first time I have ever had to pull out of a project. When I contacted Michael [Dove] with the news, he couldn’t have been nicer or more understanding, which was exceedingly generous on his part.” Hammerly also had to suspend, during the recuperation, rehearsals for Closet Land, the show he is directing for Factory 449.
With opening night less than two weeks away, Dove (who in addition to being Forum’s Artistic Director is also the director of Passion Play) had a gap that needed filling. Beckman recalled the circumstances of her beyond-the-last-minute casting: “It happened totally out of the blue. I got an e-mail from CTA [Capital Talent Agency, which represents her]: ‘They’re re-casting a role today. Are you interested?’”
Beckman learned that the actor being sought for Ruhl’s sprawling epic would play Queen Elizabeth I, Adolph Hitler, and Ronald Reagan. “As soon as I heard what the roles were, I really wanted to do it. I thought, ‘When am I ever gonna get another chance to play these three?’ I looked at my calendar and said, ‘Yeah.’ At the end of the day, there was an offer for me. It happened really, really quickly: a couple of e-mails making sure calendars worked, and that was it.”
Just how quickly was she put into the show? “I had one rehearsal, and then we were in tech.” Tech, as many readers are aware, is shorthand for technical rehearsals, the long, often grueling process of layering in the elements of lighting, sound, costumes, and final (as opposed to rehearsal) props, and getting used to the shift from a rehearsal room onto the set in the actual performance space.
Beckman told me that she was cast on a Wednesday. She spent that night reading the play. (And that’s not a quick read: the run-time of the show is three hours and fifty minutes.) She rehearsed with the cast on Thursday night. Friday night was off for actors. Tech started on Saturday.
Beckman went into her only pre-tech rehearsal with her first scene memorized, and she went from there. “Because of the kind of show it is, tech was slow, which worked to my advantage.” She’d work to get one scene down, then tech that scene, then repair to the dressing room, get the next scene “pretty well down,” then — rinse and repeat. “So I had each scene memorized by the time that scene would be teched. It’s the only time I’ve ever been grateful for a slow tech.”
Not many actors will have had an experience like this, so I asked Beckman whether she had ever had to do anything like it. “This is the first time I’ve ever done this, I think. I’ve understudied and gone on, but I’ve never jumped in completely from the outside.”
Beckman has now been through first rehearsal to tech to previews to press opening Sunday night, and was enjoying a few days off as her involvement in Passion Play neared the two-week mark. I asked whether she had reached a point at which the rush into the role, with its attendant stress, was starting to recede, and whether she was beginning to feel the way she would in a normally-rehearsed situation. “It [the stress] is starting to go away. I’m starting to feel more settled, that I know what I’m doing. Every day I feel more confident and the feeling of being an outsider is fading. I think, two more runs, and I’ll feel like I was doing it all along.”
Her colleagues have helped her integration: “The cast was so amazing when I came in. I was nervous about how I would fit into an existing ensemble, but I feel very taken-care-of. Everyone has helped me get my bearings. Everyone is doing everything they can to help me out.”
I had heard from my house-mate Frank Britton, who is in the cast, that he was feeling sore because of the physical demands on the ensemble. “It’s not demanding in the same way for me,” Beckman told me. She described how the ensemble plays so many different parts and is involved in “creating the scenery in each piece, and that involves a lot of movement work. The role each character I play serves in the story-telling is to come in and interrupt, so it’s not physical in that way at all. All my time is spent changing makeup and costumes.”
March 19 – April 11
Forum Theatre at
Silver Spring Black Box Theater
8641 Colesville Road
Silver Spring, MD 20910
Tickets: PWYWish all performances or $30 reserved seating
Wednesdays thru Sundays
To complicate matters even further, as I mentioned, is the fact that two of Beckman’s characters are of a different sex than she is. What sort of challenge was that? She told me that, within the style of the show, there is a sort of do-it-yourself aesthetic, “reminding everyone that this is a play. The style was never meant to be completely realistic.” The ensemble, for instance, have a modern base costume and put pieces over that which signify the parts they play and the time in which a scene takes place.
Beckman tried to make each character different enough physically that the audience can pick up on each of them. “Hitler is so campy, I’m not worried about, is he a ‘guy’ enough. But stepping into Reagan, I work on how to alter my stance, and that comes out of working on Riot Grrrls.” Beckman is part of the core company at Taffety Punk Theatre Company and has been involved with its annual women-only productions of Shakespeare, performed under the rubric Riot Grrrls. Even in those productions, though, she “has played women more often than men. But I have played a couple of men: Capulet, Caliban.”
Did she see Passion Play when it premiered at Arena Stage in 2005? “I didn’t see the show, but I wish I had. I would be interested in knowing what the differences are.” The person who played her roles then also played Richard Nixon, a part that’s been cut by Ruhl since the Arena production.
This crash course in zero-to-ninety acting is Beckman’s first experience at Forum, though her husband Joe Brack has acted with them before. “Joe did Mad Forest and a couple of others.”
Beckman made a point of what her casting says about the adventuresomeness of Forum: “I have to say, I am so impressed with Michael. He had cast a man in the role. It was so open-minded of him to look at a female actor to take over. I don’t know that a lot of people would have done that. They would have been locked in [to the gender of the earlier actor.] I think it’s great.” Reminded that only last May, Dove had to replace Frank Britton after a violent attack on press night left him hospitalized and not immediately able to return to Forum’s production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, Beckman said, “It must be a nightmare to have to replace someone so quickly, and he had to do it twice.”
Beckman’s leap into the breach is certainly impressive, but she credits the quality of Ruhl’s script and the way it made the challenge easier: “It’s so well written. That helped me learn it so quickly — all the thoughts you see there, on the page. It’s a gorgeous play. I got to know it really quickly, but I’m in love with it. It’s strikingly beautiful and heart-breaking. If the audience is engaged, you don’t look at how long it is.” Remembering her own reaction to plays longer than normal, she said: “If it’s good, I don’t care.”
The reviews are in and have been strong. Nelson Pressley in The Washington Post wrote, “…the chief virtue of the new staging now at Forum Theatre is a playful and precise acting style that director Michael Dove’s ensemble absolutely nails.” In her review on DCTS.com, Jennifer Clements lauds Beckman’s “memorable trifecta of performances.”
And looking back, Beckman is glad she risked all the stress and said yes: “I’m having such a great time, with the company and the parts. I never thought I’d play Hitler! It’s a great time.”