JAYNE HOUDYSHELL, a Kansas Thespian alum of Troupe 210 at Topeka High School, won the 2016 Tony Award for Featured Actress in a Play for her portrayal of Deirdre in the Tony-winning The Humans, which was also a Pulitzer finalist for drama. Written by Stephen Karam, the play revolves around the Blake family Thanksgiving hosted by Erik and Deirdre’s daughter Brigid. Each of the gathered family members — which also include eldest daughter Aimee, Brigid’s boyfriend, and Erik’s senile mother — struggle with their individual choices as they reckon with the family’s serious medical and financial challenges.

Jayne Houdyshell

Jayne Houdyshell

Dramatics talked with Houdyshell this winter, as The Humans was nearing the end of its Broadway run. Since graduating from high school in 1971, Houdyshell has pursued a career in theatre, spending some three decades working around the country before settling in New York, where she has received additional Tony nominations for her performances in the 2012 revival of Follies and the 2006 production of Well, which marked her Broadway debut at the age of 52. Houdyshell has also been part of the original Broadway casts of Fish in the Dark and Dead Accounts, as well as revivals of Romeo and Juliet, The Importance of Being Earnest, and Bye Bye Birdie. In April, she will appear in the Broadway premiere of A Doll’s House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath.

In reading about you, it seems you got the acting bug early — and it’s been incurable.
JAYNE HOUDYSHELL: I didn’t know that I wanted to be an actress when I was a small child, but I was developing the skills at a young age. I had three siblings considerably older than I, and they were not at all that enamored with the idea of hanging out with me. We lived in a rural community, and there were no neighborhood children to play with, so I was left to my own devices in entertaining myself.

As most children do, I was fond of make-believe. I was also an avid reader, and I would assume the characters from the books I read. I would spend hours and hours absorbed in being another person. I entertained myself well with that, but I also remember taking it seriously. I would costume myself as accurately as possible. For about three years I lived as Laura Ingalls Wilder. She was my alter-ego.

My reading nurtured my imagination. I was so committed to becoming other characters that I became a little actress long before I even knew what theatre was. When I finally was exposed to theatre — some touring show that came through Topeka when I was maybe 11 — I felt I was entering a world I was destined for. I wept at the curtain call, because the show was over. I never wanted it to end. I felt so passionately about what I was witnessing.

I also began singing a lot and playing guitar. A friend of my family introduced me to some people at the local civic theatre, where they did a melodrama on Saturday nights, and they asked me to sing in the oleos after the show. That was my first taste of being in front of an audience. And that was exciting.

When I was entering high school I was fortunate, because we moved out of the rural district and into town. I went to a wonderful, large, urban high school that had a sizeable music department and theatre department with great, dedicated teachers. There were all sorts of options for classes, so I felt nurtured by my high school years. There also was a local summer theatre group run by teenagers.

That was the Spotlighters?
JH: Yes. We did everything ourselves. We built our sets and costumes and borrowed lights and stage effects from anywhere we could find. We rehearsed in such an intensely dedicated fashion and then did one play over one weekend at the end of the summer. We were all theatre geeks and loved it so much. We took it seriously and did good work.

Your father also enjoyed performing and even tried to break into vaudeville.
JH: My dad had a dream deferred. As a young man growing up in a tiny town in western Kansas, I don’t know how he found himself wanting to be an actor, but he did. He went to Kansas City, which was the nearest metropolis, and tried earnestly to break into vaudeville. For a short period, he worked as a magician’s assistant. He also had a radio show on which he sang and played ukulele. Then the stock market crashed and vaudeville dried up quickly. He still did magic tricks for me — and played his ukulele and sang. I would listen to his stories, and they whet my imagination.

Also, my oldest sister belonged to record clubs, when they were popular in the ’50s and ’60s. You’d subscribe to a record company, and they’d send you so many albums a month. She often would get cast recordings of Broadway shows. She liked them, but I loved them. I wore off the grooves on those records.

I understand another important influence was Martha Herrick, your theatre teacher at Topeka High School.
JH: Miss Herrick was an incredible instructor. When I went to school there, she’d already been teaching for a couple of decades. Their theatre department was active, and the Thespian chapter was strong. By my senior year, I’d taken all the theatre courses offered, so I fashioned some independent study classes with Miss Herrick. I did one semester studying directing, one studying dialects, one studying makeup. I was trying to set myself up as well as I could for my studies after I left high school. I was clear about where I was headed.

Miss Herrick also believed that anyone active in her theatre department should become versed in all aspects of production. So, even if we were in the shows, we helped to build and strike the sets and find costumes and pull props and work on publicity. We all were aware of the multidisciplinary nature of theatre and how essential and important every element is in making a show work.

One of the more important productions to you was Blithe Spirit, I assume, since you keep a framed note from that show in your dressing room on Broadway.
JH: All the productions I did at Topeka High were extremely exciting to me, and they all meant something, but Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit was the first major role I had — and it was in my sophomore year. Everyone else in the cast were upperclassmen, and I was the newbie. So, it felt special and exciting to me. My recollection is that it was quite good.

After high school, you first headed to Emporia State.
JH: Yes, I went to Emporia State, which at that time was called Kansas State Teachers College, as a theatre major. I got As in all my theatre classes and incompletes in everything else, because I hung out at the theatre department all the time. At the end of my freshmen year, I explained to my parents that I wanted a more single-focused education.

Again, Martha Herrick stepped in and helped me find that. She had heard about an acting conservatory on the Oakland University campus outside Detroit. It was founded in 1967 by John Fernald, who had run the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art for many years. He came over from London to be artistic director of a regional theatre on the campus, Meadowbrook Theatre, and to be the head of this acting conservatory, the Academy of Dramatic Art.

Miss Herrick took me to Chicago for my audition, and I was accepted into this two-year conservatory training program. It was the RADA curriculum, with a team of teachers from London, classically based and highly technical. It has stood me in good stead, particularly the vocal and text work, the movement work, and most of all, the work on the classic plays of Shakespeare, Chekhov, Molière, and Euripides. I was exposed to some great world dramatic literature.

Between my first and second years at the academy, I did my first season of summer stock at Hope College Summer Theatre in Holland, Michigan. After my second year at the academy, I did my second summer stock job at Timberlake Playhouse in Mount Carroll, Illinois, where I met and fell in love with my fellow actor Steve Shaffer. After that summer, I returned to Meadowbrook Theatre at Oakland University, but I soon rejoined Steve in Iowa, and we got married.

He was a member of this new group starting in Garrison, Iowa — the Old Creamery Theatre Company. They were building a theatre in a town of 200 people, and they subsidized the building process with grants to do children’s theatre all over Iowa. The 11 of us in the company would travel across the state by Greyhound bus, sometimes playing in two or three towns in one day. It was rigorous work.

That’s worse than bus and truck.
JH: Yes, it was just the bus! On our days off, we’d go back to Garrison, where the town had donated an abandoned creamery, in which we built a theatre, a restaurant, and an art gallery. By the end of our first nine months of touring, we had also built this theatre and produced a resident summer season. I became as adept at hanging sheetrock as at acting — and I stitched a lot of costumes along the way.

Over the years, the Creamery has grown. They’ve moved to another small town and become a full Equity theatre. They’re still going strong to this day, and I feel proud to have been on the ground floor of making that theatre happen.

You remained an itinerant actor for the next two decades or so.
JH: I moved to New York in 1980, after working another six years in small, non-Equity companies across the Midwest. My marriage had dissolved, and I thought, “If I had a home base somewhere, it might as well be New York.” But my real ambition was to have a successful regional theatre career. I got a small, affordable apartment in New York, and that was my official residence for the next 27 years, but I was hardly ever there. I continued working in regional theatres as well as doing Equity summer stock seasons. I was away from New York an average of nine months a year.

I was playing a wide range of roles steadily, and I was supporting myself as an actor, not having to do other things to keep my life going. As a character actress, it was heaven to me to avoid being pigeonholed. And the longer I worked, the bigger the parts were getting. That was terribly appealing to me. Also, at that point in the history of American theatre, the regional theatre movement was healthy and robust. For an actor to have a steady career in regional theatre was enviable and respected.

It’s a little harder today, and there aren’t as many actors on that track anymore. The economics of having a life exclusively in the theatre also aren’t as sound as they were back then. Young people now ply their craft in film and TV as well as theatre. Whereas, when I was coming up, it was possible to live exclusively as a theatre actor, which is all I ever wanted to do.

I loved my life working in those theatres all over the country, but eventually, I tired of the itinerant life and wanted to stay and work in New York. I also had a hankering to do new plays and originate roles. So, I decided to stop working out of town. It was a struggle for a few years, because I wasn’t established in New York. It took a while for producers and casting directors to get to know my work, but they did eventually. One way I established myself was by saying yes to every reading and workshop that came along for a new play. You are paid nothing for those, but it is a great way for you to meet playwrights and directors and producers and for them to become acquainted with your work.

You did go out of town, though, for Well, which was a breakthrough for you.
JH: Yes, I did a workshop of that in Baltimore, but I knew that, if there was any future for the play, that future would be in New York. So, I went down to do the workshop, then a year later to Sundance Theatre Lab in Utah for another workshop, then Off-Broadway at the Public Theater, then a production of the play in San Francisco at ACT, before opening on Broadway. That particular journey was four and a half years.

When Lisa Kron was first working out the play, she had a lot of different ideas about where it might go. The meta-theatrical elements of the play took a long time to develop, with director Leigh Silverman and dramaturg John Dias. That’s one reason we kept doing workshops and productions. It coalesced into an extraordinary piece, but it was a slow process for all of us.

You’ve said that everything shifted for you after that show.
JH: First, Well gave me what I’d been hungering for. I was part of the process of someone writing a play, which I had dreamed about but never knew if I would be able to do. Second, the length of time I was with Well and everything that happened with it — from the first workshop to my Broadway debut at age 52 to the Tony nomination — shifted not only my understanding of the process of how plays are created but also the responsibility of the actor originating a role. It isn’t just about getting a script and learning lines, trying to figure out a way into a character that had been played many times before. It’s exciting to know that what you’re doing has never been seen before. It’s also scary, because you don’t know whether people will buy it or not.

Did you have similar feelings as you started Deirdre in The Humans?
JH: That wasn’t as long a process, because Stephen Karam didn’t take quite as long to write it, but I did do one developmental workshop of the play and another reading before we went into official rehearsals for the Off-Broadway production.

I did feel the interpretation of the role was wide open. I could do anything. Nobody had ever done it before, so I wasn’t looking at someone else’s performance as a shadow behind me. Anything I did was the first time this character had ever done that, and it either worked or it didn’t, according to the director’s and the writer’s vision for the play. It’s hard to describe the freedom I feel to invent when a play is brand-new and it’s never been seen before.

You’ve described Deirdre as one of your most deeply personal roles.
JH: There are elements of Deirdre that are my own mother, and I feel that the opportunity to play Deirdre is an opportunity to acknowledge my mother in ways I never was able to when she was living, so it’s extremely meaningful for me. A lot of people come up to me after the show to say, “I feel I need to call my mother.” Mothers often are grossly underappreciated individuals, and there’s something in Deirdre’s humanity exposed in the play that helps put people in touch with how important it is to have a little more respect for their moms.

Has your recent Tony win changed your attitude toward your career or your craft?
JH: It hasn’t changed my attitude toward my career. It was an extremely joyful moment. I was so happy and grateful and pleased and honored to win the Tony for playing Deirdre in this magnificent play, but that’s what it was — a joyful moment, a celebratory, beautiful moment that I will always remember and cherish. It’s a nice acknowledgement, but it’s not changed how I view my work or my career.

I’ve heard that one contribution to the Thanksgiving meal in Humans comes from your mother.
JH: In rehearsal one day we were talking about what the Blakes might have on the table for this extraordinary and impromptu Thanksgiving meal. I said, “At our Thanksgiving dinner, we always had Orange Easy and Delicious,” which was a recipe my mother found in some magazine. We loved it and had it every year. It’s a particularly Midwestern dish. We called it a salad, but I have no idea why because there isn’t a vegetable anywhere near it. It’s simply Cool Whip with dry orange Jell-O and drained mandarin oranges, blended with cottage cheese, then chilled and served as a salad on a wedge of lettuce.

You’ve said that theatre sustains you and makes you feel insanely happy.
JH: My definition of success has always been to be working on a project I love and respect with people I love and respect. That’s been true for me whether I’m working in non-Equity stock, children’s theatre, regional theatre, Off-Off-Broadway, or Broadway. I’ve had great experiences in all those places, and I’ve had not-so-great experiences. For now, I can say that I feel happy in my life. I’m able to live at home and work at home, and I’m able to support myself doing something I love. I don’t take any of that for granted. I’m extremely grateful, but I also understand that it’s a result of putting in a lot of years of hard work and dedication.

When I was in my 20s, I read a biography of either Paul Scofield or John Gielgud — I can’t recall which — who said, “One doesn’t become an actor until you’re 40.” Even if you work hard all your life, it takes that long to achieve a degree of mastery over your craft and to understand your humanity and the depth of your emotional life. That doesn’t mean you can’t do great work before the age of 40 if you apply yourself, but maturing to a point of mastery can’t happen until your middle years. When I originally read that, I didn’t want to think it would take that long, but now that I’m 63, I realize that my work started to shift into a truly confident place when I was in my 40s, as I began to trust my skills and know who I was as a person.

If you love acting and want to have a life as an actor, it will require nonstop dedication and hard work. It never gets easier. Success has nothing to do with things getting easier. Success has to do with the result of your hard work paying off. If you’re looking for an easy life or a life of fame and celebrity, the theatre isn’t the place to look. Entering a life in the theatre is like entering a refiner’s fire. It’s not an easy path, but if you stay dedicated to being a good professional, the payoffs are beautiful. Whether you become famous or not, the payoffs are beautiful.

On the other hand, if you embark on that path and feel your desire for it falling away, don’t panic. There are lots of other exciting and worthy ways to have a life where you feel successful. Not everyone is destined for a life in the theatre. Some people do it for a short time, then look for other things and find for themselves a much more fulfilling path. As Polonius said, “This above all: To thine own self be true.”

This story appeared in the February 2017 print issue of Dramatics. Subscribe today to our print magazine.

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