Melissa Gilbert has enjoyed the kind of career longevity many actors can only dream of. With nearly 40 years of stage and screen credits at her back—“The Miracle Worker” and “Little House on the Prairie” among them—she’s been in the midst of what she calls “the massive reinvention” in New York City, starring in Off-Broadway theater productions and turning in career-best work. The latest is Irish Repertory Theatre’s “The Dead, 1904,” a critically acclaimed immersive adaptation of James Joyce’s novella, “The Dead.” Gilbert recently spoke with Backstage about diving deep into this holiday affair, to offer her best audition advice, and to recount some highlights of her years as a working actor.
“The Dead, 1904” makes for such a unique and thrilling night of theater.
It’s very different, isn’t it? For me, it’s very interesting. It’s sort of like working on film more than it is on stage.
How is it that this first came about for you?
The Irish Repertory company called my agents and made an offer. The opportunity not only to do this show in this way was really appealing, but the chance to do it with the Irish Rep, who have such an extraordinary reputation and have been around for so many years—it was just irresistible. There was no way to say no.
Was the immersive aspect of the production an adjustment for you at all?
It’s so odd! Audiences always add a sense of unpredictability; it’s always like there’s another character with you and you don’t know who they are, you don’t know what their reactions are going to be or where the laughs are going to be. So the show is always different, which I love. But to have them actually there really makes a difference. It adds a different sort of layer of unpredictability that is so unexpected and yet so much fun. I love interacting with them. It’s just so enjoyable for me. And having the opportunity to sort of bring them into this world and into this story and have them help us be a part of it—and, my god, what a wonderful story it is to tell. It is amazing to be able to say such extraordinarily written words.
To rewind a bit, how did you first get your Equity card?
I first got my Equity card when I was 14 and I did “The Miracle Worker” as a play at the Royal Poinciana Beach Playhouse in Palm Beach, Florida. We did it as a play before we did it as a film. So it was the whole cast from the movie that we did—Patty Duke as Annie Sullivan and me as Helen Keller. It was a really terrific idea to do it that way so that by the time we got to shooting it, we knew where we were and who we were and how we related to one another and we had a sense of the shape of the show and the timing of the show, so that was really, really helpful. And it really helped me even more to ultimately find Helen Keller because I had to do it in such a terrifying and exciting venue, somewhere I’d never done it before.
Has it been important for you to have other pursuits outside of being a working actor?
Very much so. I mean, my children have been my life from the moment they were born, so that’s 28 years. I have spent the last five years living in Michigan, which has been a dream and very comforting and relaxing and sort of a great way to hibernate a bit and give myself the opportunity to give back and experience what I’m calling “the massive reinvention.” All female actors with career longevity get to the point where they have to reassess and reinvent and figure out who they are now and how best they can work, and for me, at the age of 53, my sense is the most opportunities for me are here in New York because I can do theater, I can do film, I can do television, I can do voiceover. There are so, so many opportunities for me. And so that’s why I’m here, and that’s what I’m doing. I did a play at the Cherry Lane called “If Only” over the summer, and [“The Dead, 1904”] is my second. And, I’ll be ready to announce soon, I’ll start another play in the spring. So this is not only a way for me to work more and sort of restart my career, reinvent myself, but it’s an opportunity for me to really enjoy the creativeness of this. This work is so much different from all the other stuff I’ve done. There’s such incredible depth and skill and it’s just a different world. And I have felt so welcomed and I’m so excited to go to work every day.
What advice do you have for maintaining career longevity?
I think it’s important for younger actors to know that you must always be aware of planning and forward momentum and being ahead and being aware of where the lulls are and where things can pick up—especially for women. I think that there is always value in returning to theater no matter what and returning to class.
How do you typically prepare for an audition?
I do the best that I can to prepare and go through the scenes that I have to read and try to be as off-book as possible so that I can be focused and can add some elements of performance and some colors to it. And beyond that, it’s out of my hands. It’s up to what they’re looking for, their imagination, what they want. I just leave the best that I possibly can in the room. The older I get, the less stressed I am about auditions. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. I rarely tell people that I’m going to audition. That’s great advice for young actors: Don’t tell anyone you’re going to an audition because everyone calls after and says, “Did you get it? Did you get it?” It’s like they’re waiting for a baby to be born.
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