Deborah Staples | Performer of the week
Seven lives are all connected by a single act of violence in Robert Hewett’s The Blonde, the Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead, a darkly comic thriller that finds one versatile actress playing all the roles. Portraying seven characters of different gender, age and race, Deborah Staples gives a remarkable performance in Writers’ Theatre’s production. Staples grew up in the Los Angeles area and graduated from the Pacific Conservatory for Performing Arts before coming to the Midwest, where all the great theater was really happening. After an acting internship at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, she moved to Chicago for five years. She returned to Milwaukee to become a company member with MRT, where she first performed Hewitt’s play under the direction of Joe Hanreddy in 2008. Staples speaks to us about how the production has changed over the four-year gap, how she created each individual persona, and her reaction to an intrusive cell phone at last Thursday’s performance.
How has the production changed since 2008?
I think our point of view on some of the characters has shifted. Partly as a function of doing it in a smaller space, which is really great and I’m just now starting to understand how great it is and what the possibilities are. It’s really fun. Some of the characters that we needed to go a little more broad with, we’ve taken down. Down isn’t really the right word, but in that process, what we realized is that we needed to go inside them more and get completely inside their point of view in a deeper way than we had done before. I guess giving all of the characters more credit. Even the ones that seem less desirable as people (laughs), making sure that the choices I’m making actually allow them to be better people than how they have actually been behaving. Because sometimes we are better people inside than we behave. That happens.
What was your process in creating all those different characters? What was the first thing you did when you got the script?
I sat with it very quietly, and read them and tried to get internal images of where each character might live in my body, in my voice. And in their point of view, in their psyche. And when you’re doing that, you don’t want any of these characters to be very similar to one another. As you’re doing that, you’re kind of pushing each one to the outside of a circle. So that by the end you have a complete but varied spectrum within that. There was at least one character where my director, Joe Hanreddy, said, “Yeah, but now she’s too similar to this other character, let’s push her off in this other direction.” He was a great guiding hand in making sure all the characters were very distinct.
What do you feel having those character transformations on stage brings to the show, both for the audience and for you as a performer?
Well, there’s no dropping out. And I think that’s why we decided to do that originally, because if you go offstage, there’s the opportunity to take a break from the play. And we thought, “No, let’s keep everyone engaged.” It’s just kind of fun. It’s that sort of backstage peek into things that the audience doesn’t usually get to see that is always so interesting to people. We always underestimate just how fascinating that is, for people to see the process. It’s like letting all the tricks show, but for some reason the trick still works. Which is delightful. The whole experience has been one unexpected surprise after another.
How do you think having one person play all the characters works with the themes of the script?
The “nothing is what it seems,” certainly. In addition to you not being able to put your finger on who the person is that is playing this, your expectations are always altered when you meet someone. They’re not the way you think they were going to be. The characters themselves are a surprise. The way we’ve tried to land the play with the second round of monologues, Rhonda’s coming to an acceptance of the whole of her. Everything that she’s done, everything that she’s been, what she’s lived. It’s embracing all aspects of ourself, and I think it’s just fun. (Laughs.)
At Thursday night’s performance, someone’s cell phone went off in the middle of a very emotional scene at the end of Act I. What is it like for you when a phone goes off, especially in a small space like the Writers’ bookstore?
Honestly, on Thursday night, I remember vividly of course, I’m not sure I’ve ever been so aware of a palpable feeling of a collective “Nooooooooo!” (Laughs.) Nobody wanted that to be happening, especially the person whose cell phone it was. And I ended up feeling really sorry for them because they had to deal with that. There’s just no anonymity in that space. I actually felt like if it had to happen, it could have been at a worse moment. It could have been at a plot point. There are other times when it could have been worse, and that’s even more frustrating. Where you feel, “Oh well, all of my work for two hours has been unraveled.” And I didn’t feel that. There was no new information coming out then. It’s just what it is. There but for the grace of God go I. We’ve all forgotten to turn off our cell phone at one point or another, and just be glad it’s not you.
Writers’ Theatre’s The Blonde, the Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead runs through July 29 at Books on Vernon (664 Vernon Ave, 847-242-6000). Read our review of The Blonde, the Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead.