15 minutes with . . .
Amy Brenneman was 20 years old and an undergraduate at Harvard University when Caryl Churchill’s ‘Top Girls’ made its Southern California premiere at South Coast Repertory in 1984, later moving up to the then-Westwood Playhouse for a Los Angeles premiere. Ten years later, she became nationally known on ‘NYPD Blue,’ earning the first of a half-dozen Emmy nominations. Another decade later, in 2006, Brenneman played Marlene, the lead in ‘Top Girls,’ for five live performances produced and recorded for radio by LA Theatre Works. In the week before the re-broadcast on Saturday, June 21, 2008, which would be Brenneman’s birthday eve, we spoke with her about her stage work.
As a teenager, Brenneman had performed in productions at school and in Creative Experiences, a theater group for kids in her hometown of Glastonbury, Connecticut. At Harvard she majored in comparative religion and co-founded Cornerstone Theater Company with fellow student Bill Rauch. For four years after graduation, she, Rauch and Cornerstone forged a unique theatrical enterprise: living as migrant theater artists, teaching and performing drama for food and lodging in off-the-road locations like a Nevada Indian reservation or small town in Mississippi. There they stayed for months at a time, often hosted by townspeople, adapting plays of relevance to that community and performing them with local actors.
Brenneman has had great artistic and commercial success. Among her stage credits is the world premiere of Craig Lucas’s ‘God’s Heart,’ directed by Joe Mantello at Lincoln Center (1997) and ‘Saint Joan of the Stockyards’ at Yale Repertory Theatre. The films she has graced would endear her to any theater fan, with the high-profile ‘Heat’ (with the famous Al Pacino-Robert DeNiro face-off) a rare exception among films like the lovely Campbell Scott-directed ‘Off the Map’ and Neil LaBute’s ‘Your Friends & Neighbors.’
In 1998, she was part of the cast – along with Jesus (now Alex) Mendoza – of Anthony Clarvoe’s ‘Walking Off the Roof,’ one of the workshops in South Coast Repertory’s first Pacific Playwrights Festival, and Rauch’s first assignment at the Orange County theater.
It was also where Brenneman and I crossed paths.
AMY BRENNEMAN – Oh yeah! That was fun. I loved doing that.
CRISTOFER GROSS That helped get the Festival started. But it's hard to believe that was 11 years ago.
BRENNEMAN It was really eleven years ago?!
GROSS Sorry, yes.
I know you’re a founder of Cornerstone, so I want to start out there. I assume you have seen Julie Marie Myatt's ‘Someday.’
BRENNEMAN I saw it on Saturday and was very blown away.
GROSS They put a quote from my review on the Cornerstone home page because of what I said about one actress. I don’t know, maybe people familiar with Cornerstone are used to her, but I thought she was just extraordinary.
BRENNEMAN Yeah, she is unbelievable. You know I’m on the Shondra Rhimes show now, ‘Private Practice,’ and I really would like her to meet Diana, because I think it’s kind of the last frontier, to have a really amazing disabled actress who is able to carry a show like that. It’s really unbelievable.
GROSS Yeah. And you don’t know, or I didn’t know because I intentionally avoid pre-publicity, when you walk in where things are going. And this actress moves from what might be assumed to be a support role and moves into the center and, like you say – along with Bahni and Shishir – carries the show.
BRENNEMAN Yeah. Yeah. She really blew me away. I was actually part of one of the story circles for 'Someday.' Sometimes Cornerstone adapts a show and sometimes they create an original piece. And I have lots of feelings and have experienced a lot about this kind of thing and so for the first time I was a participant at a story circle, and Julie came to my house with a bunch of my friends and it was really cool. It was probably the only way that I hadn’t participated in a Cornerstone show, to be a resource in this way, and that was cool, too. I actually felt very connected to that show.
GROSS Of the reviewers in town, I seem to have been the one most fond of Julie's ‘My Wandering Boy,’ which premiered at SCR in 2007. I’m looking forward to sitting down and talking to her one of these days and seeing if I was reading more into it than was there or what. I thought there was a lot going on. But anyway . . .
BRENNEMAN Well, Bill really loves her. You know in Ashland they’re doing a premiere of her ‘Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter,’ which is going to Lincoln Center now.
GROSS Oh it is? Great.
BRENNEMAN Yeah. I was almost in ‘Wandering Boy.’ It was a very sentimental moment where I thought, ‘Oh, Bill, you’re going to Ashland,’ and I wasn’t working, although I had some things on the back burner. But, you know, to make the schlep . . . .
GROSS Sure. Well, Beth Ruscio did a great job with that part. So Bill and Julie were well served.
But . . . on to radio, and ‘Top Girls.’
You play Marlene.
GROSS And you’ve recorded three other plays for LATW.
BRENNEMAN I think I did even more.
GROSS Oh. Maybe I screwed up the search. It only indexed four.
BRENNEMAN Which did they list?
GROSS In addition to ‘Top Girls,’ there is Miller’s ‘After the Fall,’ O’Neill’s ‘Desire Under the Elms,’ and Jeffrey Hatcher’s ‘Work Song.’
BRENNEMAN I also did ‘Streetcar.’ I did Stella in ‘Streetcar.’ And I think there was one other one. Yeah. I love doing them. I just love them.
GROSS Talk about the various aspects of these recorded plays: a live audience, a radio audience down the line, and then, forever down the line in recordings long after the show closes.
BRENNEMAN Yeah! It’s funny I don’t really think about the radio aspect or the fact of the afterwards aspect. For me it’s just a very safe way to explore really great literature. When I did ‘After The Fall,’ Susan [Lowenberg, LATW producer] called me up to ask and I just said ‘Yes.’ I didn’t know the play. And then I started doing research and it’s like, Wait a minute! Me playing the Marilyn Monroe stand-in? That seemed absurd, but then as I got to discover it and do it my way, it ends up being great. It’s almost always a really wonderful experience because in the best sense, the expectation for exploration and excellence is really high, and they’re not going to let you crash and burn. You know what Imean? And also, I think the audience knows that we’ve only gathered together for five days. They obviously see us with our scripts in hand. And rather than that taking away from that experience, that’s what the people who come really enjoy: to feel a part of the creative process. So, for me, artistically, especially at a time where it’s hard to get six months to go do a play, or now that I have my family and I just can’t up and go, blah-blah-blah, this is just such a wonderful way too just dive deep for a couple weeks.
GROSS And it’s always good stuff . . .
BRENNEMAN And it’s always good stuff. Yeah.
GROSS And this re-broadcast comes at a timely when ‘Top Girls’ is a big deal in New York.
GROSS Ben Brantley’s review of the current Broadway staging was very positive. But, as reviewers always seem to do, he points out that it’s structured oddly because you have this incredible first scene with all this color and characters, with women from across centuries coming together for a contemporary dinner party, and then you go into the comparatively drab modern stuff. But it seems that radio, where costumes and characters and structure are somewhat sublimated to the words and language, might help mitigate that issue. Certainly Churchill was aware of what she was doing. There is a lot going on in those latter acts. Do you remember it well enough to recall if it seemed to work well in that way?
BRENNEMAN Yeah. I think so. And again, I had never seen it before we performed it. I really didn’t know anything about it. I knew that I liked Caryl Churchill’s work, but when I sat down to first read it, and got into that first scene I thought, my God what is going on? [laughs] And then going into the rest of the play, on the surface it’s just so different stylistically and everything else. But, you know, the more that we did it, the topic of conversation that is set up in the first scene really carries you through. And, I benefited because Marlene is the same gal in the second act, where the other actresses become contemporary characters after the dinner scene.
I mean, I would say there definitely times during our process where we wished that we had the costumes and we wished that we had the visuals. Because there are visual gags if you will. There’s obviously visual cues of the ethnicity and the time periods of these characters. So, in some ways it was mitigated and in some ways we had a bigger challenge to communicate all of it.
And also there is all the overlapping dialogue, which actually wound up working pretty well in radio. But there were times where we just had to make sure it was clear. Because they are doing a lot of things that you’d understand if you were watching the scene. We just had to make sure that the story was clear even though you couldn’t see it.
GROSS Did you do anything to underscore the double casting from Act I to II and III or did you just have to let the voices do it?
BRENNEMAN You let the voices do it and I don’t remember that being an issue, because I think there are b indicators. Marlene, for one is identified by name. What I remember being more of a challenge was not having the visual tool you have in a production, when that first time each character comes in she’s so visually striking and specific. We also were careful with all the yummy-ness of the overlaps, making sure that each cue was clear, whether they’re ordering a salad or whatever is going on.
GROSS It's interesting that it presents these unique challenges. Are there any more that you are scheduled to do at this time?
BRENNEMAN No, nothing scheduled. But, you know I just did a staged reading of this play called ‘In Darfur’ by Winter Miller as part of a fund-raiser and it was really successful. It’s a really devastating play. And I passed it along to Brendon Fox, who is LATW's development person. So, if they take an interest in it, maybe. I don’t know, though, if I would be able to do it anyway. I mean [laughs] I have a job now.
GROSS That’s right. Which show is it again?
BRENNEMAN I’m on the show ‘Private Practice.’ It’s a job-job. For the last three years I was free to do my own thing, but I’m really happy. I like this gig. But I’m not as free as I was before.
GROSS And how many years did you do ‘Judging Amy?’
BRENNEMAN I did it for six. And after that, for about three years, I did movies and plays and actually went to Williamstown. I had my second kid two weeks after they cancelled ‘Judging Amy.’ So that actually was just great timing. So I could just lie around and . . .
GROSS Yeah, I guess if there was a good role to have as you’re going through the final trimester of your pregnancy, it would be one where you can wear flowing robes as a costume.
BRENNEMAN Yes, exactly. I did the whole shebang during that show. You can watch me gain and lose 40 pounds repeatedly.
GROSS[laughs] What fun on fast forward: Whoa! I remember Julia Louis-Dreyfus talking about . . . I think she had two kids during ‘Seinfeld.’
BRENNEMAN Yes. I think you’re right.
GROSS And she was explaining why she is wearing parkas during scenes during the summer.
GROSS Speaking of births, I see that your birthday will be the day after this airs.
BRENNEMAN That’s right! That’s right.
GROSS Well, it’s been an eventful and admirable few decades you’ve put in. Did I remember from a past bio that you studied in India and learned Sanskrit?
BRENNEMAN Well actually I went to Harvard with Bill, we were there at the same time, but I majored in comparative religion and ended up studying Hindu and Tibetan stuff and then I spent a semester in Katmandu and learned Tibetan – as much as I could, it’s a really hard language. But that was . . . . it still is. I mean I have the thrill of my life coming in July when I get to introduce the Dahli Lama on the 16th. Which I can’t even believe. So, yes, that’s still a part of my life.
GROSS Wow. Introduce him where?
BRENNEMAN In Philadelphia. I got asked. I guess he’s coming in, doing various stuff, and sort of through some people I know I got asked to introduce him, which I’m very, very excited to do. My son’s name is Bodhi . . . . so it’s never far from my heart.
GROSS Have you been up to see Bill in Ashland yet?
BRENNEMAN I have. I went a year ago Labor Day, and we’re going back again on Labor Day. And I just got to see him . . . Cornerstone just had the Bridge Awards, and Chris and Bill came down, ‘cause Chris gave me the award and it was just a fantastic couple days. I would love . . . I’m sure I will, I’m sure I will, take the family and go for a year.
GROSS Oh, that would be good for him, you and the audiences would love it. Is your husband an actor?
BRENNEMAN He’s a film director. [laughing] So, he would have a little less to do [if we were in Ashland for a year]. He’s actually finishing off this big Universal film ‘Land of the Lost’ with Will Ferrell.
GROSS Oh, that should be fun. I’m a friend of Will’s parents and have crossed paths with him a few times over the years.
BRENNEMAN I was in a movie with him about 11 years ago. I think it was the only one of his that went straight to video, called ‘The Suburbans.’ He was adorable and great. I think he’d been on SNL for a year maybe but hadn’t really popped. But he’s the same guy. He’s the same guy: great wife, great kids. Just a wonderful guy.
GROSS Well, then in addition to plugging ‘Top Girls’ I can put in a little plug for ‘Land of the Lost.’ Can’t hurt. And hopefully we’ll run into each other again at a show. It’s been fun talking to you.
BRENNEMAN Great talking to you, too.
GROSS And Happy Birthday.