Local theatre-goers heading up to New York City and checking out the Tony Award-winning Best Play of 2015 might do a double-take after looking at the program, wondering whether or not they had actually left town. They will see in the cast list a couple of very familiar names.
One of those is Nancy Robinette. It would be difficult to find a D.C. actor who is better-loved, better-respected, and more lauded, one whose resume is as diverse, one whose experience in our town is as inextricably linked to the growth of our indigenous theatre scene.
After a mid-week performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Nancy and I went out to (and closed down) Joe Allen’s, the popular theatre hang-out just a couple of blocks away from her current professional home, Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
Since Nancy is a long-time friend and colleague, I will dispense with journalistic custom and will refer to her by her first name. As we caught up with each other, and talked about old friends and shared history, we also, of course, discussed her exciting recent experience — making her Broadway debut in that increasingly rare beast, a long-running hit play.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is by Simon Stephens, adapted from the celebrated 2003 novel by Mark Haddon. It opened in 2012 at the Royal National Theatre, transferred to the West End, and swept the 2013 Olivier Awards, London’s equivalent of the Tonys. Last Fall, it opened on Broadway to rave reviews.
And, unusually for a Broadway show that isn’t a musical and that doesn’t have a big star leading the cast, it has leveraged its reviews and its awards and the buzz it has generated among enthusiastic audiences into an open-ended, multi-year run.
In fact, it’s a run so long that it has now necessitated cast replacements. Nancy told me that about half the cast I saw that night came into the show at the same time that she did.
Since she joined the cast along with several others, I asked Nancy how long their rehearsal process had been. “Five weeks. Our young Assistant Director Ben Klein whipped us all into shape, then Marianne came in for a day,” she replied, referring to the play’s Director Marianne Elliott, a Tony-winner for War Horse as well as for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
Nancy referred to this rehearsal process as “boot camp. In the mornings, we would exercise for an hour before rehearsal, because there’s so much physicality.”
Had she seen the play before being cast? Nancy shook her head. “In fact, we were encouraged not to see the play too often, if at all. So I got my own sense of it and then watched the play, which I thought was great. I didn’t feel threatened that some choices were made, because they were interesting choices, interesting more than limiting. And I didn’t feel like we were asked to do what the previous actor did. Except for the blocking.”
The tightly choreographed movement on the grid set needed to be precise, and so they also had a day with the renowned Steven Hoggett of Black Watch fame. (Hoggett works here with co-Choreographer Scott Graham.)
Referring to Elliott and Hoggett, Nancy said that they are “both wonderful. It was kind of great to listen to them talk about the play they knew so well, that they had created.”
Nancy talked about how she got the role. Included among the incoming actors, along with her, was Andrew Long, who D.C. audiences have seen over many years at Shakespeare Theatre Company, Olney Theatre Center, and Signature Theatre. Nancy and he have worked together before, most indelibly in Studio Theatre’s Frozen a few years ago.
“Andrew was in the audition with me.” Nancy said it was nice to have a friend there with her, that it made the atmosphere more relaxed. They read from the script, and there was also a movement component. “I don’t know how I passed that,” she added, with a chuckle and with a touch of her characteristic self-deprecation. “I’m so happy I got a role.”
Nancy has an agent in New York, and she’s been coming up “not a lot, maybe twice a year. I’ve auditioned for every M. Night Shyamalan film,” she joked. She also spoke about how connections over the years ended up paying off. “After thirty-five years, you get to know a critical mass of people.”
Conveniently, Nancy’s son Jacob resides in Brooklyn, so she didn’t need to find a place to live. “I’m the oldest person in Williamsburg,” she said, referring to their trendy neighborhood. “My silver hair gets me seats on the subway.” I asked if Jacob could be described as a “Brooklyn hipster,” and she nodded emphatically, and chuckled affectionately.
Her contract is for a year. Despite that, and though the theater was packed the night I attended, the producers maintain a two week out. “But I haven’t had a steady paycheck for years. It feels good to have that kind of support.” Salaries in D.C. are similar, she says, but they last “only for two months, and then you’re unemployed again. This is nice. New York actors say that Broadway roles can be few and far between, and being in a long-running show can make the difference between having stability and not.”
This isn’t Nancy’s first New York show, by the way. I saw her in 1999 at New York Theatre Workshop in The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek by Naomi Wallace. That five-person cast also featured Philip Goodwin, who has appeared frequently on our D.C. stages, as well as a young Michael Pitt (Boardwalk Empire).
Later that year, Nancy was Off-Broadway at Roundabout Theatre Company in Brian Friel’s Give Me Your Answer, Do! That cast also featured Joel Grey, Kate Burton, John Glover, and Lois Smith. Its run of four months is the longest she has done yet. Presuming she’s with Curious Incident… longer, does she worry about her performance becoming stale?
“I’m already worried about that. I’m already playing with it. But that’s what I like so much, that’s my favorite part, is performing, not rehearsals. It’s finding nuances in performance. And I like the routine of it. It’s where you get to be free and own it in a way that you can’t in rehearsal. And I like being in a newish play. I’ve done so many period plays, and I’ve been longing to do new plays again.”
5 reasons why DC audiences love Nancy Robinette (and we could go on and on)
The Barrymore, with 1,058 seats, is among the smaller Broadway houses, and the experience of the play feels remarkably intimate, but it’s still a big theater. What’s that like? “It feels like any play I’ve ever done. It feels familiar and natural to be up there. This particular theater isn’t that big. It feels like the Lansburgh or Ford’s. It feels intimate; it doesn’t feel cavernous.”
However, she does have the occasional feeling of, “Oh, I’m in New York,” and admits, “That’s strange. But I think any play has the same high stakes: how to make it work and how to support the play and how to bring life to it. And that’s exactly the same process. It feels very familiar.”
Nancy did, though, draw comparisons between the two cities. “I think the standards in Washington are very high. What’s different for me, even being from a lively theatre community, is how celebrated theatre is in New York. This is huge. Artists are really valued in a way that is heartening. And that’s important because, in D.C., political life takes over the city. It’s about politics. 42nd Street is about theatre. There’s something reaffirming about that. There’s something about the scale of importance that’s placed on theatre here that I find meaningful.”
Incidentally, there are more actors with connections to D.C. than just Nancy and Andrew Long. Nancy is inheriting her role of Mrs. Alexander from Helen Carey, who we’ve seen frequently at Shakespeare Theatre Company (where she won a Helen Hayes award for Major Barbara) and at Arena Stage (and who was also in that Brian Friel play Nancy did in New York at the Roundabout). Also in the original Broadway cast was Francesca Faridany, who took home a Hayes award for STC’s Strange Interlude.
Additionally, that original cast included Mercedes Herrero, who is still with the show. I worked with her in the early days of WSC while she lived here. Anyone who saw her wonderful turn in Christopher Durang’s Titanic at Source Theatre Company won’t have forgotten it. In New York, she was in the original cast of The Laramie Project (as well as in the cable film version) and later returned to town to play Stella at Arena. Nancy and she had done Yerma at Arena together, in a cast that also included Helen Carey…the head swims with all the interconnections among these actors! So I’ll stop there; I could go on.
Nancy effused about her friend Long. “I think Andrew is doing a great job. And his wife Katie just had a baby, so he’s up all night, along with doing this major role. I don’t know how he does it.”
Long plays the father of the protagonist, a young man on the autism spectrum. The role of the boy, by the way, won a Tony for Alex Sharp. Sharp’s replacement, who joined the cast when Nancy did, is Tyler Lea, who, I had learned earlier in the day, graduated from North Carolina School of the Arts in the same class as Joshua Morgan, another D.C. actor now on Broadway. (Wait! I said I was done with the D.C. connections!)
The conversation inevitably turned to the changes Nancy has witnessed as the scene in Washington has developed over the last few decades. When I first saw Nancy act (at Studio, in The Seagull, in the very early 80s), there was a glass ceiling for indigenous Washington actors, a ceiling which Nancy played a great role in breaking through, as Michael Kahn at STC and Jerry Manning at Arena began to cast local actors in roles beyond spear-carriers, or just using them as understudies.
“I think it was gradual. There was that great company at Arena that created a model of, the possibility of, a life as an actor. The Arena actors gave me the idea that you could do what they were doing, could have an actor’s life in the city, somehow. Then Zelda [Fichandler, Arena’s founder] went away, and the company dissolved.”
Nancy looked back nostalgically at a very different time. “I’m really proud of the window we had in the 80s, with small theatre. A bunch of us decided to do a lot of theatre, as often as we could, and kept at it, and kept building something together. We had a unique window. It’s interesting; those early relationships were the ones that really last and stick with you. Those were my salad days,” she said with a laugh.
“There were different people who were extremely helpful to me.” She mentioned the actor Ellen Karas and the director Kyle Donnelly, both of whom she worked with at Arena.
“You create a relationship with a director, and it’s great. They open doors for you. You develop an artistic relationship and find how you work together. I think that’s what happened with me. I was lucky to find people who I had chemistry with. And I had great teachers.”
Nancy mentioned Source’s founder Bart Whiteman. (Nancy and I appeared together in In the Shadow of the Glen, when Bart did a ten-year anniversary production of the Synge play with which he had opened Source.) “Bart would talk about ‘big potato’ choices versus ‘kitchen sink’ choices.” Having just, that day, visited the famed Actors Studio, Nancy likened Bart’s approach to that of Actors Studio members like Al Pacino and Ellen Burstyn: “They value street sense: less of an academic approach, as opposed to the visceral experience of being alive.”
Michael Kahn helped Nancy, she told me, by casting her in plays she never thought she’d ever do. “And I’ve heard that from other women — Pat Carroll, Veanne Cox — that he gave them the chance they never thought they’d have to do classical theatre.”
And Nancy discovered that doing a Restoration comedy felt a lot like doing some of the contemporary plays she had done at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, the theater where she was a company member for years, and at which she won the first of several Helen Hayes awards (for Fat Men in Skirts). Referring to Woolly’s founder Howard Shalwitz, Nancy said that he had “taught me a great deal about acting, particularly about communicating the story of the play and character progression.”
Nancy then mentioned Studio’s founder Joy Zinoman, who, she reported, puts great emphasis on differentiating one’s style of acting for different plays. We also talked about Zinoman’s production of The Seagull (as I said, it was the first time I saw Nancy on-stage) and how memorable it remains after all these years, not only for someone who was in it, but also for someone who saw it.
Both of us had known, in the early 80s, Madeleine Potter, before she left for New York, Broadway (Plenty, Slab Boys), and films (The Bostonians, Slaves of New York). In order to take her current role, Nancy had had to pull out of playing Amanda in The Glass Menagerie at Ford’s. She told me that she was delighted to learn that Ford’s has since recast the role with Madeleine.
We looked around Joe Allen’s and Nancy noticed that we were just about the only people left, keeping the staff from calling it a night, and so we decided to call it a night as well.
As we strolled to our respective subway lines, Nancy mused on life in The Big Apple, and how nice it is to run into friends as she walks the streets of the theatre district, and she mentioned again Veanne Cox, who is working a few blocks away in An American in Paris. She talked about the D.C. folks who have seen the show. “Joy was here, and Kathryn Kelley, and Dori Legg.” The night I saw the show, I ran into Molly Rupert, owner of the late, lamented Warehouse Theatre, who was excited about seeing her friend act on The Great White Way. Like me, and at the risk of seeming prejudiced, she spoke about how Nancy stands out amid extremely impressive company.
We parted, and Nancy headed back to Brooklyn. I’m sure we here in town will have other chances to treasure more Robinette performances. For now, though, we are sharing her with Broadway.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is onstage at the Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street (between Broadway and 8th Ave), NYC. Details and tickets