Supporting creative work by women
Wendy vanden Heuvel is one of the most inspiring women in theatre these days. She is involved in many aspects, producing with piecebypiece productions, acting in thrilling productions (Resurrection Blues by Arthur Miller Guthrie Theater; Counting The Ways/Talk To Me Like the Rain…, Magic Theater; A Movie Star Has To Star in Black and White, Signature Theater) and having taught acting at various institutions (The Barrow Group, New York University’s Experimental Theater Wing). Works by Women caught up with her as she is coming off acting in the workshop production of Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, American, Kuwait, a new play written and directed by Daniel Talbott. The piece was commissioned by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and Encore Theatre Company for Rattlestick West. The two presentations were performed over Labor Day weekend at A.C.T.‘s new performance space, The Costume Shop, in San Francisco.
Wendy spoke with Works by Women about Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait and working with Daniel Talbott, what she learned from Joseph Chaikin and Jerzy Grotowski, and why teaching younger actors inspires her.
WORKS BY WOMEN: You have a diverse and interesting theatre history. What is one of your seminal moments from your work in theatre?
WENDY VANDEN HEUVEL: I would have to say my seminal moments in theater were more like two very different periods in my life. One was knowing Joseph Chaikin from the age of 11, and being guided by him as a mentor and watching the amazing work and rehearsals of the actors he worked with in The Open Theater, The Winter Project and then later working with him myself as a student at NYU’s Experimental Theater Wing and later as an actress on Beckett, and in Talk to me like the Rain….by Tennessee Williams and Counting the Ways by Edward Albee. Also working with Jerzy Grotowski in The Objective Drama Project at UC Irvine was one of the most important learning experiences of my life. We, an internationally diverse group, spent 9 months working on various exercises related to developing heightened awareness, songs and rituals, and then we created our own Mystery Plays. Grotowski’s deep wisdom and insights into performance and process were incredible to be around, he had x-ray vision when it came to seeing work and giving notes. You felt so seen, and guided. There is not one day that goes by where I do not think of either of these two men, their passion, their ethics, and their wisdom.
WBW: What first inspired you to pursue a life in theatre?
WENDY: What first inspired me to pursue a life in the theater was probably growing up in a house where these very theatrical parties were held as a kid. I watched the most amazing characters come in and out of our house and many dramas would unfold. I also am very grateful to my mother, Jean Stein, who took me to see some of the most amazing theater and film when I was a kid, and just to be in the presence of her fine-tuned aesthetics was a huge lesson. I was exposed to a lot of incredible art, writing, and genius people growing up. I would also say that I was not a very good student at school, very rebellious, but that I really excelled and loved theater, and thought ,”Well I can do this!! It is way fun and you are being asked to be irreverent! That’s good!”
WBW: You’ve taught theatre at various places, including your alma mater NYU’s ETW. What do you like about teaching theatre?
WENDY: I love teaching because it is a way of continuing to study acting. I also feel like I was super blessed with amazing teachers through out my life, and I feel a responsibility to pass what they passed on to me on. I love working with young actors, they inspire me and keep me on my toes, and it is a very intimate type of work that feels very meaningful and is incredibly satisfying because of that. I love teaching people how to hang out in the “unknown” and to welcome that, and not be afraid. I love when someone enters into that cracked place where they are coming from something that is beyond their mind/civil ideas, and they switch into their bodies, heart and groin. It is so spontaneous, alive and joyful.
WBW: You’ve worked with Daniel Talbott on many projects. What inspires you to work with him over and over again?
WENDY: I love working with Daniel Talbott, and I love his writing and work as a director. I have been producing with Daniel and his wife Addie Johnson, for over five years now I think, and they are such “good people” to work with. They are thoughtful, full of integrity, intelligent, generous, super hardworking and talented people. This is the first time I have worked with Daniel as a director, and I was so impressed with the ease and freedom he gave to us as actors. He allowed us to have our process and at the same time he was very clear, demanding and specific about what he wanted. Daniel always has his eye on the company’s well being as human beings as well as the work, and he nurtures both. Also he is hysterically funny, and he creates this amazing vibe in the room that is both playful and can hold real profound depth.
He is extremely open to questions at all times from his actors; he is a true collaborator. It was very exciting, and lively to be in the room with him and the other actors all searching together. He is fearless and wants us to find that risk and fearlessness at all times!
WBW: Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait sounds like an exciting project. What did you enjoy about working on the project? Did it feel different developing this piece on the West Coast versus workshopping a new play in New York?
WENDY: AZAK is a bomb, a hand grenade, a landmine. It is a visceral and experiential look at War. So much of the play is hard driving and rough, and explosive that I feel people won’t go away thinking about war, they will go away with the feeling of shrapnel in their stomach. It is also very moving, hopeful and way funny too! The language is soooooooo Daniel too. Friends of Daniel say that there are “Talbottisms”, certain phrases and ways that Daniel speaks, and you hear it in the language of this play for sure. It is a theatrical language, alive, gritty and poetic!
You have to really go out on a limb as an actor to work on Daniel’s material, if you are not hanging out in that place where you can fall flat on your face, the play won’t ignite.
WBW: What are the challenges facing women in American theatre?
WENDY: Well certainly that more female writers should be produced, and more women should be directing right now. I know that there are many people trying to make all this happen, and it is time for us to open our minds to include more stories from a feminine perspective as well. I love Irene Fornes‘s plays because only a woman could have written them, they live in the feminine psyche, they are not logos, they are round and emotional. We need more of that in the theater today.
WBW: What gives you hope for women in American theatre?
WENDY: What gives me hope for women in the American Theatre is how many wonderful inspirational women are out there with their voices and spirits doing it or making it happen today under hard conditions. I wish there was more funding for the arts, and for the theater specifically in our country. I wish that more women were given the chance to have their plays done, or that more female directors were trusted to lead, and that more plays had complex and varied roles for women. I am so encouraged though by the work, collaborative spirit, and insight that American women have today in the theatre, it is going to be a clear and inspiring example for the next generation of women coming up that’s for sure!