A few assumptions might come to mind when you imagine what it's like to live in a two-actor home. Now imagine that home when both actors are opening one-person shows within a week of each other, one of which they are producing.
John Billingsley—known to many as Dr. Phlox on Star Trek: Enterprise—has already garnered rave reviews from Back Stage West and the Los Angeles Times for his performance in Mac Wellman's Bitter Bierce, or, The Friction We Call Grief, about writer Ambrose Bierce. The opening also marks the return of the devotedly challenging theatre group Bottom's Dream, headed by Bierce's director Jim Martin along with Mitchell Gossett. Running in repertory with this will be Roberto Athayde's Miss Margarida's Way, a "psychotic romp" with a fascistic eighth-grade teacher performed by Bonita Friedericy, directed by Bruce Wieland, and produced by the couple's Stage Door Johnny Productions. Friedericy is an L.A. treasure—a native who has been a beacon on the theatre scene for years, whether at Bottom's Dream (where she did Wellman's 7 Blowjobs and Erik Ehn's Chokecherry) or at her former home, the Colony Theatre Company. Both shows play at the Zephyr Theatre.
While Billingsley and Friedericy may embody a few generalizations about actor couples—they are both animated storytellers who love to riff off each other, for example—they defy the assumption that an all-actor home could be a battleground for egos or a place of competition. Rather, these two seem like they could write the book on building an environment of mutual respect.
As Friedericy tells the story, she fell for Billingsley when she saw his performance in A Noise Within's Great Expectations. Not long after that, they ended up sharing a hot hallway while waiting for a commercial audition (they were auditioning for the same part). After Billingsley emerged from the audition "nervous and sweaty," jokes Friedericy, he asked for her phone number. The rest is history.
The couple sat down with Back Stage West to talk about the joys and challenges of sharing a life, a livelihood, and of course their current shows.
Bonnie Friedericy: Right now, there is a lot of, "Do you have the keys to the Zephyr [Theatre] or do I?" Our house is really messy.
John Billingsley: The burden of producing is always great. Half our conversation is on the producing side. "Did we get the flier back? There's a typo." The other half of our conversations is just bucking each other up constantly. "You're great, honey! You're great! I suck, but you're great!"'
Friedericy: "You don't suck, honey. You've never sucked. I'm going to suck, but you won't."
Billingsley: That's the flavor of it. Actually, I have to say, I am elated to be married to you, period, whether you are or are not in the business. But I couldn't be happier that we are both actors. It's a very difficult life with such peculiar hours that unless you really have an empathetic as opposed to a sympathetic understanding of what's entailed, I think it becomes frustrating for a partner.
Friedericy: It's very interesting in mounting these shows, because your show opened last week and mine is opening this week. I got to see the seven stages: anger, denial, etc., and I can identify it and it's exactly similar. All actors go through the same stages of thinking it's not going to work, hating it, then thinking it's going better, then hating it again, never wanting to do it again, then thinking, "Well, maybe I do." So it prepared me….
An Ideal Audience
Friedericy: You do often burst out of the bathroom doing Bierce.
Billingsley: We are always sort of rehearsing around the house. When I was feeling particularly at sea, you had several things to say that were very helpful. One of the dicey things, when you have actors in a relationship together, is that line between being supportive, honest, helpful, and stepping over into a realm where you are offering some kind of unsolicited critique, which is actually potentially problematic. We navigate it pretty well. Both of us are pretty good at saying, "Here's what I need right now. Here are the parameters of what I can hear. So if you can speak to what you think might be at issue within those parameters, that might be great."
Friedericy: Plus we've both directed, which I think helps you to have respect for not stepping on another person's direction, either.
Billingsley: I always find one of the things that gets tricky from directors—and I think Jim is a fabulous director, I mean this only as a general observation about directors—is that sometimes you get close to opening, and you are at a point where you've kind of got your hands on it, and the director says, "Ah, I know what's missing. A color!"' And they offer a general note, and the general note might feel to them to be the missing piece of the puzzle, but because it's a general note and seems to be sort of amorphous and difficult to get your hands on, it risks blowing the whole thing up in your face. Someone who says, "It needs to have that element of sudden revelation," and now you're going back and going, "Sudden revelation? Sudden revelation? Now I've got to take the whole thing apart again and figure out what the hell that means." If you are talking to another actor who is about to open a piece, you have to make sure that what you are saying can be absorbed in a way that doesn't risk making them unwrap the whole package again.
Friedericy: Yes, yes, yes. I just find that it's best the week before to tell you that you're extremely gorgeous, and I love you very much, and what a big hunk I have in my life.
Billingsley: That's the level of duplicity we practice in our home.
Friedericy: The other thing is, "If I'm terrible, will you still love me?" And the other person just says, "I love you no matter what."
Billingsley: We always plan treats. After the show closes we're going to have a weekend away. My first love is Bonnie. I like my work, but it's my work.
Friedericy: You like me better than acting?
Billingsley: I like you better than cheeseburgers, baby. My work is not more important than my relationship.
Friedericy: My work is not more important than my relationship.
Billingsley: Let it be noted that John said his work was not more important than his relationship with more fervor and immediacy.
Friedericy: Yes, but I had tears in my eyes.
Billingsley: You did not.
Friedericy: We are sharing designers, and as they've been seeing both shows, we've been realizing that though our shows are stylistically different, they are thematically similar. I think both playwrights are cynical guys who hate war and have very strong opinions about human behavior. Miss Margarida's Way was written in the mid '70s, was first performed by Michael Learned at A.C.T. and then by Estelle Parsons on Broadway. The author is Brazilian Roberto Athayde, and he wrote it when he was 21, and directed Estelle Parsons when he was, like, 25. I think then it was done by a lot of the leading actresses in Europe and then fell away and wasn't done anymore. I'd been trying to get the rights to it for 10 years, and I finally got them. It was difficult as Roberto had done a remount with Estelle Parsons in 1990, and he didn't feel that it did very well because everyone said, "There are no more dictators. There's no more tyranny. This is passé."
Billingsley: The whole "end of history" thing. Francis Fukuyama. It's hard to believe that anybody could seriously have posited that.
Friedericy: A month later was when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Both [Athayde] and I thought that this was a nice time period to re-examine it. Miss Margarida is an eighth-grade schoolteacher and a fascist. I did teach middle school and I did find that in anything that feels like a dangerous environment, people do respond in that fashion and the need to control your environment is utmost. It's something that has been interesting to talk to John about, because in both of our pieces one of the balances we've been trying to strike is with the caustic and negative aspects of these characters, but [we're] trying to keep them filled with humor so that an audience can take it in. I picture it as being a cross between Willy Wonka, The Crime of Miss Jean Brodie, and Pirates of the Caribbean. It is an examination of power and how you can wield it. There's no nudity in my show—close but no cigar. There's profanity. It's not for the faint of heart.
Billingsley: I impugn the concept of patriotism. Bill O'Reilly would not like this play.
Friedericy: I levitate. I do yoga. Karate. Strange leaping movements.
Billingsley: A lot of leaping, sweating. It's very erotic. We give party favors away at the end of the show.
Friedericy: There's candy. There may be some money involved, too. I'm not above that. And yours? I think your piece is wonderful.
Billingsley: You're about as biased as they come. BSW
"Miss Margarida's Way" and "Bitter Bierce, or the Friction We Call Grief," run in repertory at the Zephyr Theatre, 7546 Melrose Ave., L.A. $10-15. (323) 860-9860.