OUTSPOKEN ACTRESS -- Interview with Colleen Dewhurst

In the 1950s, they called her the princess of Off-Broadway, because she first made her name working with Jose Quintero at Circle in the Square and playing Shakespeare in Central Park for Joseph Papp. In the 1970s, she became the matriarch of Broadway through her commanding performances as Martha in Edward Albee’s revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And Josie in Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten, among others. By now Colleen Dewhurst has extended the boundaries of her sovereignty to encompass all of the American theater. She recently succeeded Ellen Burstyn as the national president of Actors’ Equity Association. She has lent her name, her presence, and her support to numerous political causes ranging from Performing Artists for Nuclear Disarmament to the gay civil rights bill in New York to the International Committee for Human Rights. And this month she makes her debut with the recently inaugurated American National Theater at the Kennedy Center playing Madame Arkadina in Chekhov’s A Seagull, as it is titled in a new translation staged by Peter Sellars, the company’s wunderkind artistic director.

“As I said when Jason Robards was here with The Iceman Cometh, part of our job is seeing to it that the royalty of the American stage will appear in the best plays,” says Sellars. “These days, you usually see the royalty of the American stage in made-for-TV movies. An actress of Miss Dewhurst’s stature should be taking the big roles.”

Although Colleen Dewhurst is no stranger to the classics, Chekhov is relatively new territory for her. She once appeared in The Cherry Orchard at the Williamstown Theater Festival. “It was a disaster,” she says, displaying the gravelly voice and the glinting Irish eyes that more than 30 years in show business have made so familiar. “I’ve tried to black out the whole experience.” And she second-acted an off-Broadway production of The Seagull “a hundred years ago” to see Montgomery Clift in the role of Treplev. But for the most part she has brought a fresh perspective to A Seagull, along with enthusiasm and a lot of questions.

“The reason I am excited about this is that everybody has a different vision of this play and this character,” says Dewhurst. “This is really up for grabs.” Arkadina, the character she plays in A Seagull, is a famous actress who is summering on her retired brother’s estate and who becomes embroiled in artistic and romantic rivalries involving her lover, a successful novelist, her son, an experimental playwright, and his girlfriend, an aspiring actress. In approaching her character, Dewhurst says, “You have to think about a lot of things. Is she a good actress? Or is she just a good actress? Is she charismatic and therefore threatened by age? Do we have a woman who could have been different in some way, or is she a woman who’s just fine as she is? What is her Achilles’ heel? I find it interesting that her husband, the father of her child, is never dealt with in any sense, not by name, not by casual reference – you don’t know whether he’s dead or alive. Those are the things you begin to sift.”

The strong, earth-mother persona that Dewhurst most often projects contrasts sharply with the usual presentation of Arkadina as a pampered, temperamental grande dame. In particular, Dewhurst’s political activism makes her a very different sort of public figure from the more self-involved Arkadina. “It probably started with my being astounded that anyone thought it would help if you came out in favor of something you thought was appalling,” she says. “There’s always this debate – should actors speak out? The intimation is that your brain is not too big, and actors are not thought of as intellectual. But I was lucky in that I started Off-Broadway with Joe Papp and with Jose. I became conscious of things happening around me and that I was not in the business of self-aggrandizement, even though it sometimes seems that it’s all about how many pictures of yourself you can get in the paper.”

But it was exactly because of her earthy forcefulness that Sellars made Dewhurst the cornerstone of a cast that also includes Henderson Forsythe as Sorin, Kelly McGillis (who co-starred with Harrison Ford in Witness) as Nina, and the titanic avant-garde actress Priscilla Smith as Masha. “These people are always played as vain and trivial, which is not enough,” says Sellars. “Nobody in this play is stupid. And the main thing about Colleen Dewhurst as an actress is that she does no funny business, nothing vague. She goes right for the heart of something and nails it. So instead of being this dumb piece of frippery, you see her as a dangerous, lonely, tormented woman.”

“Dangerous” is also the word Dewhurst uses most often to describe Sellars, whom she spoke to first on the phone and later met when they were both on a panel of artists in Washington. While noting that “this young boy could be my son,” she found the director “very impressive. From talking to Peter, I immediately assumed it was not going to be your ordinary approach to Mr. Chekhov. The intellect is amazing, extraordinary, and of course the humor is what I like. If I can’t laugh, I may as well go home again.”

There are very few good directors in today’s theater, Dewhurst opines. “The ones you meet that you adore, you never want to let go of. You realize that’s ridiculous, but you’re always looking for someone who keeps beckoning you, taking you somewhere you always felt you could go but maybe stopped short. When you act, there are things you’re known for, adjectives they will always use for you, which may be complimentary but also begin to bore you. If you don’t have a good director, they will accept what you’re giving them as the best that you have. Someone else will not accept it, and that’s what you’re looking for. You’re looking to stretch.”

Born in Montreal and raised in Milwaukee, Dewhurst got her first training at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in new York, and she learned her profession touring in stock with Edward Everett Horton and playing a bit part in Tyrone Guthrie’s Tamburlaine long before starring on Broadway opposite Jason Robards and George C. Scott. But the actress confesses that she doesn’t have a recipe for acting. “I use words like ‘approach’ and ‘motivation,’ but probably the truest word to use is ‘intuition,’” she says. “I mean, I want to say how hard I study and all of that, and I do study, but I think when we were in our twenties we talked so much about acting that it bored me ever to open my mouth about it again. We were the group that grew up in the heavy Method, and we could talk and analyze everything to death. Unfortunately, we weren’t always able to do it. Harold Clurman used to say the trouble with us was that we always wanted to make everything so difficult. ‘If it’s easy, just leave it alone,’ he said once. ‘You’ll get to the hard part soon enough.’”

Stagebill, December 1985