It is an extraordinary thing to commit yourself to work in theater despite the long hours and low pay. Why do people do it? This is the last in our series highlighting this year’s Helen Hayes nominees: their work, their life, their art, their passion.
In the Capitol Hill row house she shares with her husband, the actor Ian LeValley, their child Calder, their lovely pit bull/great Dane Lucy and a bad cat, Kerri Rambow is preparing for class. She has just learned that she had received a Helen Hayes nomination for outstanding performance by a supporting actress because of her work in Theater Alliance’s Night Falls on the Blue Planet.
She is a drama teacher for the Washington International School, upper division. “I have been involved in teaching in one way or another for about 20 years.” This seems a little curious; by her own admission, she was not a good student. “But I was a nice kid. I excelled at getting out of classes, skating on the razor’s edge of doing enough work to keep up my GPA so no one would notice that I was hardly ever there.”
Things have changed since then.
“I love my kids so much,” she says, and she surprises herself by tearing up a little. “We get to develop bonds in theatre class that you might not get to in your more traditional classrooms. We speak very honestly, and that is a two-way street by the way, this is no hierarchical chalk-and-talk classroom. We work together to create and tell stories.”
Rambow’s worried about the direction education is going, and its effect on the next generation of artists — or potential artists. “Fewer students are taking the arts courses, not just theater but visual arts and music as well. The pressure of STEM [science, technology, engineering, math] is currently upon us heavily. As the experts revise their standings, turning from STEM to STEAM I am hoping that our kids (at my school specifically) and their parents will follow suit.”
Rambow teaches from a place of humility. “My main classroom mottos are ‘I don’t know everything, but let’s figure it out’ and ‘I don’t have any spoons’ meaning I will not feed you the answer. This whole answer feels very circular and I am not sure I have given you a full picture. It is familial, the bond. Every year I watch a group of kids that I love like family go on to the next thing. Psychic reward: they come back, by choice.”
And, in unexpected ways, it pays off. “Because I am lucky enough to have been here for over 13 years, I now have former students who are friends and colleagues in theatre. Coolest freaking thing! The associate artistic director of Theater Alliance, Eric Swartz, is one of my ‘kids.’ He was the one to call me to tell me that I had a Helen Hayes nomination this year. How cool is that circle?”
It’s as cool as the circle which originally brought her into theater. She grew up not too far from here, but in another world from the sophisticated places she now lives (“I feel intensely about my neighborhood, deep love….On our block we are surrounded by lots of museum people, mostly Smithsonian, which is awesome”) and works, two blocks past the Washington Zoo.
“I grew up in Laurel, in the old part of town, which still had a kind of—Mayberry is the wrong term—but small town feel.” It was there that Rambow first jumped into the theater pool: in a community theater production of Alice in Wonderland.
She was nine years old.
“The play was in the old Armory which had been turned into a community center. We performed on the basketball court. I was one of the youngest in the group and I was in awe of the ‘big kids,’ probably in their late teens, early twenties. I remember them teaching me how to do the Hustle on rehearsal breaks. That experience is probably the nascence of the past 25 years. It was the comradery, belonging, working together, everyone was important.”
She was hooked — on becoming a Navy fighter pilot, breaking the gender barrier on the way. But then:
“My eyesight went to Hell in a handbasket (6th grade,) so even if I was interested in pushing that gender bias I wouldn’t have been able to find the cockpit without my glasses. (Navy pilots cannot have diminished vision.) Ah, well.”
And the lure of the greasepaint, etc., still beckoned. “It occurred to me that I shouldn’t go into theater every time my parents asked me what I was going to do for a ‘real’ job, but that thought only lasted a couple minutes before it was gone from my brain and I was back to doing Carson interviews in my bedroom mirror.”
She didn’t land a real-life interview with Carson — and, alas, now never will — but acting did become her real job. She was a standout early, winning two Helen Hayes nominations in 2001 as an outstanding supporting actress (for A House in the Country for Charter Theatre Company and The Greatest Story Never Told for Source Theatre Company, neither of which are with us today).
She did some TV work, for “Homicide: Life on the Streets”. (“I learned a very valuable lesson the very first day on set: the camera is RIGHT THERE,” she says. “I’m performing for the back row and the director stops and says something like, ‘you’re a stage actor, aren’t you? I’m right here, just give it to me.’ Felt like an ass, but they only had to give me the note once.”)
Then she gave birth to Calder, and stayed home to take care of him during his early years. The need for a predictable income narrowed opportunities, both for her and LeValley.
“I teach full-time, which makes it challenging to get cast in some of the bigger houses because I am often not available for daytime rehearsals….Ian works at the Hirshhorn Museum as an Exhibition Specialist.
“No,” she adds quickly. “That does NOT involve a raincoat.”
She jokes, but she is following a path which other theater artists walk in Washington. Craig Wallace, whose story appeared yesterday, also teaches. Matthew M. Nielson, who we posted on Monday (and who is now in North Carolina), is a partner in a production company which does sound not only for theater but for music and other purposes. Anu Yadav, who appeared Wednesday, doesn’t have a 9-to-5 but employs her art as an agent of social change, obtaining grants and fellowships for that purpose.
Kerri Rambow finds being married to another actor to be an advantage. “I don’t know who else would tolerate these hours, the time away, the neuroses that we regularly go through, the tears, the highs, the missed birthdays/anniversaries/funerals etc. other than someone also in the business,” she says.
And the volatile demands on an actor’s time aren’t particularly helpful to stability. Kerri gets by with a little help from a friend.
“Money can be tight at times, but we have been really lucky, knock wood. And scheduling can be a nightmare what with the dog needing to pee and oh, taking care of a young human. But my mother-in-law Raye LeValley has upended her life at the drop of a hat to come stay with us time and time again and take care of Calder and Lucy at those really hairy times. Ian also co-directs the [annual school] play at WIS with me so that is a really messy time. Raye saves our collective butts regularly.”
Having a 9-to-5 gives Kerri this advantage: she can concentrate on those plays in which she really believes. Plays like Night Falls on the Blue Planet.
“I love [playwright] Kathleen Akerley’s voice. I am lucky enough to be friends with her and when I was reading it I could hear her, it was like she was sitting next to me saying the words. I loved that it was written the way she speaks and it is so smart. I loved that it was female driven.”
And — this is a prerequisite for effective acting — the actor must understand, even love, her character. “Audiences wanted to color Annette as the bad guy. Not to get too into it, I got Annette. I am the oldest sibling of three kids (like Annette.) I have a very… complicated (?) non-relationship with my middle sibling (like Annette.) I am always right (joking) or at least I always try to react from a place where I think I am DOING right (like Annette.) The one big difference I supposed is that is NOT how I poop.” (There is an astonishing pooping scene in Blue Planet. I am not going to describe it here, or anywhere.)
Jessica Pearson, reviewing the play for DCTS, noted that “Kerri Rambow gives a fantastic performance as Renee’s older sister, Annette; she is uproariously funny from her first moments on the stage, but also handles the most emotionally intense scene of the play with a deft hand.”
Her performance won her a nomination for outstanding supporting actress in a play — her first Helen Hayes nomination in fifteen years. What was it like, the first time she was nominated?
“I got to hear Yeardley Smith (the voice of Lisa Simpson) say my name from the stage of the Kennedy Center, twice. And when Jewel Robinson’s name was called as the winner it was the first time I could breathe all evening. It was a huge relief, I didn’t have to walk to the stage and address that room filled with so many people with whom I was in awe. At the party when Michael Kahn introduced me as a two-time nominee to one of my childhood soap opera idols (who had been nominated for one) she asked why I wasn’t her understudy, SWOON. Ian wore a kilt and looked super sexy.
“I got those nominations and then did a national tour for almost nine months,” she says. “Out of sight, out of mind.”
What about her nomination this year? As far as Kerri Rambow is concerned, she’s already won, whether or not she gets the award. “The nominations are enormous honors. And I already have won this year. I had a really lucky year of shows, back to back. [She also appeared in The Klunch’s George is Dead, in which she was brilliant. If you don’t believe me, ask…me. Here’s my review of that show.] Taking time off to have a kid and be around in those early years is a career buster! But I felt like maybe that was turning around. The nomination feels like the win, I was blown away, absolutely no expectation of an HH nod, so when Eric told me, that felt like a win.”
So the answer to the original question — what drives theater artists to make art in the face of all adversity? — appears to be love. It might be love of community, which seems to be Kerri Rambow’s answer; or the love of passing an ancient art down from generation to generation, which might be Craig Wallace’s answer; or the love of storytelling and truthtelling as an agent for social change, which could be Anu Yadav’s answer, or the love of the practice itself, which Matt Nielson might say.
So if you are a lawyer or a lobbyist or a wealth manager or a Member of Congress, and you would go through the challenges that theater artists routinely face in order to keep your profession, then you know what it takes to be a Helen Hayes nominee.