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Interview: Laila Robins

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Interview: Laila Robins

New York’s fall theater season is the best in recent memory, primarily due to the high quality of its remarkably large number of repertory productions. Performing Twelfth Night in tandem with Richard III, Mark Rylance and his all-male company find fresh immediacy in the 400-year-old traditions of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. Ian McKellen and Billy Crudup exhibit impressive versatility moving from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot to Pinter’s No Man’s Land. And Bedlam Theater brings Hamlet and George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan to blazing life due to the energy of four young actors tossing characters around as if they were juggling balls. The greatest ensemble in town though, featured in The Apple Family Plays: Scenes from Life in the Country, performs the same roles in play after play after play after play.

Writer-director Richard Nelson’s intimate four-part work takes place around a dining room table. Writ small, it lands large by enmeshing us in the emotional lives and political beliefs of a Chekhovian family unit—the three Apple sisters and their brother—along with their uncle and a sister’s boyfriend. Emotionally epic, the unique project began as a one-off, with the Public Theater’s production of the 90-minute That Hopey Changey Thing. It opened the night of 2010’s midterm elections, which was also the night the play takes place. There was little expectation that this “disposable” work, as Nelson himself described it, would ever be produced again much less lead to any sequels. It proved such a success a new installment has appeared every year since—on the 10th anniversary of September 11 for Sweet and Sad, 2012’s election night in Sorry, and now, with Regular Singing, the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The works’ impact stems largely from the brilliant acting of the company, particularly the four who’ve been with the project from the beginning: Laila Robins and Maryann Plunkett as two of the sisters, Jay O. Sanders as the brother, and Jon De Vries as their uncle, whose amnesia from a stroke sparks the plot and theme of much of the project.

Robins’s 30-year career, with a new leading role season after season, is studded with indelible performances in such plays as Howard Brenton’s Sore Throats, Mrs. Klein with the legendary Uta Hagen, and Edward Albee’s The Lady from Dubuque. She’s that rare breed, an American actress who can handle Elizabethan verse and contemporary vernacular. Believable as either a fairy queen or a contemporary grade school teacher, her performances are physically commanding, rawly emotional, and immaculately thought out. She began in rep, touring the country in Six Characters in Search of an Author and Moliere’s Sganarelle, and now comes full circle with all installments of The Apple Family Plays running in rotation. An ode to American heartiness despite devastating trauma, her Marian Apple is played organically, without a trace of artificial colors or flavoring.

For the past three years, you’ve performed only the latest installment. What has the process been this time, planning to do the previous three plus the newest play, Regular Singing?

Back in June we did three days of table work on each, then there were five days of blocking. Richard [Nelson] has devised a complex system, but it’s also been pretty methodical. Right now, I’m rehearsing the fourth play while performing the second one and reviewing the others. Visiting each periodically gives them time to gestate—to get them into our long-term memory. We haven’t done them sequentially yet. But hopping around is really challenging, particularly for the memory. There are four different plays, but it’s always the same dishes. Sometimes I start cleaning the dishes and think, “Which play is this?” One day we did the fourth one and then went back to the first one so we could see the larger arc. This is where we finish, and this is where we started. [spoiler alert] I realized when I casually drop my daughter’s name in play one, I have no idea by play two, my daughter would be dead.

And does that knowledge now affect your performance?

The future informs the past. You fill in the blanks, retroactively putting a piece in here. Now when I do play one, and I know my daughter’s troubled, it’s colored differently. It informs the internal journey. It’s a silent exercise I used to do in class. You come in with groceries and make dinner. Now you do the same thing, but your mother is in the hospital. You may find that you cut your finger. But you carry on. The action is the same. You learn that you have no idea what people go through, so you should have compassion. People hide their internal lives so successfully. It’s a subterranean thing. But in going back to the earlier plays, we also have to remember what we don’t know. As we discuss with Benjamin in play one, acting is willed amnesia.

Do you find that the audience is having a different experience, now that all the plays are being done together?

Absolutely. The audience becomes a detective. They lean forward to figure out what’s going on. That engagement is so exciting for them and us. You have to participate. With the audience on three sides [of the theater], we don’t keep you out. We’re all in the same room. When originally done, the political stuff really landed. Now it’s more about family dynamics. Interesting to see, years later, what resonates. Sometimes now it hits us in a whole new way. It’s fascinating to see how time affects the plays and how people receive them. It’s fun to see the plays morph. They’re not set in stone. Richard will change intentions to make them more alive.

And when he decided to continue the story, did he write with you and the other original actors in mind?

After the success of That Hopey Changey Thing, Richard started to see a bigger picture forming. There was a third and that was supposed to be the end of it. A trilogy. Now there’s a fourth. Now he’s writing for our impulses and instincts, emotionally too. I went through a trauma with a young family member, so the writing about Evan [Miriam’s daughter] has been a place for me to express those emotions. Some other actors are going through things that the plays allow them to work some things out. To have a place to express losses is a healthy healing thing for me. Richard writes to that. He’s so psychologically attuned to the actors and he casts people who welcome these things. It’s a circle of healing. I can bring something to the work that he sees. And he realizes, “Now I know where to take that.” Now we get to have more impact on the writing. We get to tweak it this way, then that way. When Richard comes back from rewriting, we get veto power when he changes something. If we strongly disagree he won’t force it. He keeps the writer and director hats separate. We did a three-day workshop [of Regular Singing] and we were able to say, “Maybe I wouldn’t do that. Maybe I wouldn’t say this.” Slowly, methodically, we explore, while staying connected to the other actors. Let’s do it this way, that way. Not going for a product too quickly.

And I imagine things have changed with different actors, Sally Murphy and Stephen Kunken, joining the cast?

It’s an entirely new thing. They’re using their instincts, their impulses. And we shift with them. It was different when I went into The Real Thing [as Glenn Close’s replacement in the original Broadway production opposite Jeremy Irons]. You get put into their blocking. I could never figure out sometimes why I moved where I did. I just did it. But now I’ve learned that, even with your own work, you can get enamored with what you did. When you kill your darlings though, you discover something new. It’s very cool. Uta Hagen talked of going back to see Laurette Taylor do Amanda in The Glass Menagerie. She said she was so excited, waiting for that moment she’d loved and it wasn’t there. So each time, you try to take that trip for the first time. It’s fun. You look at the other actors backstage and think, “See you on the ice,” because on the ice anything can happen. You can slip and fall on the ice because they’re happening now. Film will always be that one way. But Richard loves that not-knowingness. Anything can happen. You can start to feel, “Oh, I get who that person is.” But people don’t stay in boxes. Doing these plays brings out the complexity of the human personality and how we interact with each other. I feel so honored to be in this. We call it “The Apple Family School of Acting.” Now we almost can’t imagine working in any other way. It’s a very loving atmosphere, in knowing each other for this long, trusting, making room for each other. I don’t care if I do it every year. To have people stick together this long is amazing. But don’t try this at home. It’s tricky. It’s like a string quartet. It’s all in the timing.

The Apple Family Plays: Scenes From Life in the Country runs at the Public Theater through December 15.