Saturday, January 19, 2013

Jane Staab.

If you’ve spent any significant time at Wheelock Family Theatre, as an actor, a crew member, a staff member, or even an audience member, you know Jane Staab. Jane is 1/4 of the founding foursome (along with Andrea Genser, Anthony Hancock, and Susan Kosoff) and is the Theatre’s Casting Director and Resident Actor. She has been in over thirty productions at WFT and, as the Theatre’s General Manager, holds court in the back office behind a desk lined with tea-brewing accouterments and next to a bookshelf filled to overflow with textbooks, plays, and poetry. Jane is as familiar a face as anyone at WFT and I, personally, have known her for over twenty years. She is commanding and opinionated; clear and direct; and, above all, kind and generous of spirit.

It was my pleasure to chat with Jane last week about her work at WFT over the years and her clever and innovative take on the character of Fagin, whom she will be playing in this winter’s production of Oliver! (opening on January 25, 2013.)

Robin: How do you decide in which shows you will take a part? Do you audition for the director when the director is not you?
Jane: Well, initially, we wanted to use me as much as possible. Tony [Hancock] and Sue [Kosoff] wanted to make sure that I had at least one really good role each year. Needless to say, it was my profession, so I wanted that too. So, sometimes the play choices would center around what was right for the theatre and what would work for me. It’s evolved, in part because it’s not as important to me to do that. But it’s still important to the theatre for me to have a presence in the production as a role model -- for the kids and even some of the professional actors. So we don't choose the seasons with me in mind as much anymore and that’s fine. I don’t have a problem with that. It’s nice to have a meaty role, but I can go without.

This past year when Charles suggested it was time to do Oliver! again, I knew there wasn’t anything for me. There wasn't anything in Oliver!, nothing in Anne [of Green Gables] and so I blurted, “Ok! I'll play Fagin!" Kind of a joke. A half-serious joke. And then I saw Charles’ eyes light up. They lit up and I said, “Oh, well maybe it’s a possibility and I broached it with Susan and she said, “I’ll come back and direct!” It all came together, like ok. I’ll do Fagin. Often times that’s how it happens.

Well, 50% of my roles are because of Jim Byrne. When he directs, he wants me to be in it. I’m flattered. I appreciate it. He also doesn't give a damn if a character is female or male. He’s used to gender bending, at Gold Dust or anywhere else beside Harwich Junior Theatre. Or maybe even Harwich Junior Theatre! He likes the idea of men playing women. We don’t do it at WFT much, though.

Jane as Willie Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
For the last 20 years, Jim has directed once a year. (I direct one and Sue directs one.) And Sue likes me to be in it, even though I annoy the hell out of her when she’s working! I’ll say, “Sue that doesn't work; can I do this instead?” I’ve never auditioned, though. I haven’t auditioned for anything, actually, except for one or two other theatres. I auditioned for the Nora and didn’t get it. And Grey Gardens at the Lyric and didn’t get it.

Robin: What are some of your favorite characters to have played at WFT?
Jane: Oh, Robin! What are your favorites that I have done?

Robin: Well, of course the Wicked Witch!
Jane: Yeah, the Wicked Witch last year was the most fun witch I have done.

Robin: What made it different than the other two?
Jane: I was freed from constraints of symbolism. When Jim [Byrne] directed it the second time we produced it, I was sort of constrained by the concept. I was in a rocket at the end of one scene. Physically, I really couldn't do very much because I was stuck in these different “vehicles of industrialization.” Physically, I was restrained. And in this one I wasn’t. And when I can play with the physicality of a character, it’s much more fun. Actually, this last time when Jim also directed, he was going to put me upstairs for one scene and I said, “Can I please just do it up front so I can interact with the audience? It made it much more fun.

Let’s see. Other parts. Emily Dickinson has always been one of my favorites -- to be able to do drama, comedy, aging, poetry, it has everything. It comes very close to Chekov in terms of emotions and depth of the character. I really loved doing The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, but that was so many years ago. I loved being Annie Sullivan when we did Miracle Worker.

There have also been little roles. I loved my little role in Holes. Madame Zeroni. It was a wonderful role. It was tiny, but I loved it. There was weight to the character and I like the characters to have weight to them. Gravitas. A seriousness. Depth. I just like depth. Which doesn't mean I don’t also enjoy comedy, of course. I did have fun the first time I played the Wicked Witch because Tony gave me an umbrella and I started playing with it in rehearsal and came up with all kinds of fun things to do with it. I loved it.

Robin: This winter, you’re playing Fagin in Oliver!, who is traditionally played by a man. Tell us about how you’re playing that part and why this portrayal is unique.
Jane: I am really enjoying Fagin because I’m playing the [traditionally male] part as a woman who has survived by being a man in society. So, I'm actually a woman -- not just a woman playing a man's part. It's unique and exciting to me and to the cast. It’s not like we announced it. As it’s been revealed just from rehearsal, it’s been very exciting to them. And it isn’t going to change the text at all. The text, in fact, really works for this character to be a woman. Everything about this character is feminine—nurturing. Fagin loves the kids. Fagin really doesn't like violence and wishes it didn't happen and is even frightened by it. You can see Fagin as having recognized that he has kind of raised a monster, but had no control over Bill’s psychopathic behavior. Even though he admires him as a thief, Fagin doesn’t admire his violence. I haven’t had to change a word in the script to accommodate my being woman. Not a word.

The characters will be seeing Fagin as a man because she had, in fact, faked her way through life. And people think of her as – well, she is a man. Many women did this in society. Especially in that time period. Just by virtue of dressing as a man, because no one really did that, people accepted them as men more easily and readily. It's only now kind of coming out, historically, that it happened way more often than we thought or knew about. Theatre Espresso is doing a play, actually, about women in the Civil War who dressed as men in order to fight and, more likely, in order to survive in a time period where women didn’t have much or many ways of surviving if they were alone.

Robin: Will there be a piece about your portrayal of Fagin in the Study Guide?
Jane: I think there is a piece going into the Study Guide about it. Because, for once it isn’t just the resident actor playing a male role. It is a whole thing. It’s got a life of its own that comes from a truth in history. We’re imposing it on this play specifically because I’m the resident actor of Wheelock Family Theatre, but it doesn’t feel like it’s an imposition.

Robin: How does this role affect you as an educator and a feminist?
Jane: I haven’t sat down and studied this thought, but, as with all our plays that we do, I want to generate conversation. Especially between adults and young people. Or amongst young people. I want them to think about what they have just seen. And I think this might do that. When it is revealed at the end, children will question it. What just happened? What does that mean? And if the parents or other adults are there, it will generate discussion and they will go out of there thinking about it.

They may not connect it with anything right away but ultimately, it will connect and that’s what’s exciting about the experience of theatre. You don’t always get it right when you see something, but over time, maybe when you study about the Civil War, you'll say, Oh! I saw that in Oliver!

That's what I love about theatre. That’s what should be happening as opposed to lectures and setting down rules. It’s about learning in the most effective way. That’s what theatre does. It supports an understanding of life and history and humanity.

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