The ghost of Hollywood cinema's archetypal sexpot, Marilyn Monroe, haunts two local productions still running at small L.A.-area theatres: The Fountain Theatre's revival of Arthur Miller's autobiographical play After the Fall, which deals in part with his disastrous marriage to Monroe, and A Noise Within's production of William Inge's 1955 classic, Bus Stop, which is indelibly associated with Monroe's starring performance in the 1956 film. Physically and vocally, these two actors could hardly be more different, and their roles less alike in emotional color, but their respective approaches to After the Fall's Maggie and Bus Stop's Cherie turn out to have much in common.
Both are busy performers with high profiles on the local theatre scene: Craden with a series of performances in classics, from Ibsen to Shakespeare to Coward, at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, Los Angeles Repertory, and A Noise Within, where she was recently named a resident artist. Middendorf works regularly in TV, but she's best known for a series of acclaimed performances at the Fountain Theatre—especially in Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending and Summer and Smoke, for which she won a raft of awards.
The two met a few weeks ago at a Glendale coffee shop to talk about Marilyn, about vulnerability, and about other stuff, too.
Abby Craden: [Director Sabin Epstein] and I talked about how a good sort of prototype for me was Marilyn Monroe—not to play her, but to think about. Cherie would want to be Marilyn. She would have seen all her movies, and she would think Marilyn was beautiful, and she would wanna dye her hair to look like Marilyn. That would be her idea of what a glamorous woman looks like.
Tracy Middendorf: I was very nervous about doing this play, because it is based on someone who was so well known. I read Donald Spoto's biography of Marilyn, and I had a very difficult time with the play after reading that; it was so much Arthur Miller's, or his character's, point of view of their relationship. I struggled with certain lines that I thought were his perception of what she would say. It wasn't until really just a few weeks ago, and I was talking to a friend of mine who was male and saw the play, and I was saying, "It's so much his point of view—Louise is his point of view, Maggie is his point of view," and he said, "Yes, but we all know that, and it says something about him that this is how he represents the women."
It's very hard to do somebody's version of someone—especially someone who you read about and you find out…
Abby: What the other part was.
Tracy: Yeah. It was a hard line not to be Marilyn. I was scared to death that people were going to say, "She did a terrible Marilyn." So you feel like if you go all the way toward Marilyn, you're doing an imitation of her, but if you stay away from it—there are certain lines that are so Marilyn, and you look similar, people are going think that you failed miserably at doing Marilyn.
Abby: The thing for me that was interesting was the vulnerability. I felt like Marilyn has that—that her heart is really on the outside of her body; there's a sweetness. Things like that, I sorta went: That's Cherie, that's how she is. The way she moves with men, the way she deals with it—they're so similar in so many ways, in the way that they interact with their world.
Tracy: It's very childlike. I actually watched my child a lot in this, and people who know my child have come up to me and said, "That was Calvin." And I never paid attention to that, but children live so in the present and so in the moment; I have to kind of find that place before I go onstage, because Maggie does—she just reacts to exactly what's coming to her and doesn't bring a lot.
Abby: Yeah, I felt like there were no defense mechanisms. I was kind of like, Where's Cherie's defense? There is no defense. Which is why she's so vulnerable to everything around her, and so freaked out. It's almost like she's walking around naked all the time.
Tracy: I was just working on a television show and a lot of actors were asking about the play, "Where is it?" "It's at the Fountain," I said, "it's Equity Waiver." And they're like, "Oh, Equity Waiver—no pay, huh?" And I said, "You know, I wouldn't be here, working on The Practice, if I was doing an Equity show." That's the only way I can juggle it. You don't get paid to do the theatre, but you're doing what you love to do, and then you do the television and the films to support yourself. In New York it's a little different because you're there doing that—a lot of people come to theatre, and it's much more respected. If I could get paid well to do theatre, I would do only that; I love it. I wouldn't do anything else.
Abby: I'm lucky to work at two theatres in town that actually pay a little bit. The Geer has an Equity Letter of Agreement, and A Noise Within pays $55 a show—so if you actually do four shows, you make a little something. But I supplement that with voiceover work and try to do film and TV, but I haven't had much luck with it. I teach a little bit. Mainly, doing two or three plays at the same time is a way I can make a living. If I do two plays, and I've got four or five shows a week, I can actually make a living and stay in L.A. and audition.
Tracy: You spend so much of your time waiting around for an audition, and you find that's the only time you're acting. When you get to do a play, you're working those muscles and being creative.
Abby: And you're working on great writing. That's the thing I miss with film and TV; it's not the same idiom. It's just not. There's something about doing Inge or Shakespeare or Chekhov; it's like heaven. I think I'm crazy sometimes, because it would be nice to make some more money, but if I fall in love with a play, that's what I have to do.
I used to send postcards [to the industry], but now I'm like—it's just so not about that. If they come and happen to see it, great. And I look so different in the different roles in rep that I feel like they're not going to be able to pin me down for film and TV, anyway, or recognize me from one thing to the other. Because with TV casting and film, they really want you to look like the part—they want you to walk in and be that person, and that's kinda not who I am.
Tracy: I never sent postcards out; I was usually so insecure. It was like, OK, maybe on the last weekend this person can come see it now. But since I've had my child, everything's become more practical to me; my managers have sent out packets and postcards and reviews. And if having people come and see the play is going to open a door for me to get another job, then I feel like I have do that. I never felt that way before—I always kinda waited till they came, and it was nice, but now, I'm like: I've done the work, I'm proud of the work, come and see the work—and give me another job. It's wonderful to have the praise, it's wonderful to get nice reviews, but this is a town where there's a lot of work happening, and a lot of us should be working. So I'm trying to keep that ball rolling.
Abby: Actually, I came out to L.A. to do film, and then I realized I'm a theatre actor.
Tracy: I went to New York for college and pretty soon came out here. But you can't really go back without a name and do Broadway, or even some Off-Broadway. So it's nice if you can keep your theatre experiences going here, so that if that does happen—if you do land on a series or do a couple of films—you can go back to the theatre and actually have the chops to do it.
Abby: That's also why I like the L.A. theatre scene: If you're good, you can rise to the height of it without having to be a name. In New York, I think it's harder to do quality theatre; in L.A., it's a little more open, because it's not where everyone wants to be.
Tracy: And if you're in the right theatre, people come see it. The Fountain always has full houses. A lot of people do come to theatre in Los Angeles.
Abby: Yeah, A Noise Within has a huge subscriber base. I mean, I live out in Woodland Hills, and these old people who live right near me drive all the way down to Glendale and see everything there, and I'm like, "You drive 40 minutes to go see theatre?" But there's a hunger for it—for really good classical theatre, for good writing. General folk want to see theatre. They need it in their lives. BSW