Questions For . . .Martha Plimpton

The actress, who is nominated for a Tony Award for her performance in “Top Girls,” answered readers’ questions in an e-mail.

What would you say to someone who was unfamiliar with the history presented in "Top Girls" that might help contextualize the show and their reading of it? — Sarah

What's maybe important with a play like "Top Girls" is to let it run away with your mind for those two and a half hours and allow yourself to be taken elsewhere. Yes, there are themes of Thatcherism and economics and women and yadda yadda, but it's also just a play, really, about people. Oftentimes I wonder if people aren't struggling so hard to contextualize the play or have it make sense in some more categorizable form that they get angry and frustrated with it. It's as though they were trying to unravel it like a crazy, knotted up ball of yarn that they just get mad at and throw across the room.

I like it better, and I think I like playing it better, when I am not trying to fit it into my own tidy understanding of "how this should go," when I am not trying to inform it with my own story. That is when I enjoy it the most myself as an actor doing it. That's a lesson I'm learning from doing it. But I have the luxury of being with it every night. The audiences have to exercise a bit more trust, since they're only with us for a couple of hours.

Did you find your role as the teenage girl in "Top Girls" through the inspiration of someone you know? If not, how did you develop her? — Harry Redlich

Angie, the teenager I play in the second and third acts, is more a collection of behaviors, really, than a character with a specific personality. She is something of a mystery, a cipher, an unformed person. And all of what I needed to know about her was on the page, given to me in plain English by Caryl Churchill. It seemed to me the world in which Angie lives is very much what we are presented with as viewers. So I guess I focused a lot on how she behaved in that world, or out of it, as the case is when she visits Marlene at her office in London. She is entirely out of place there, but Marlene tells us that more than Angie does. Angie has merely to exist and she brings trouble with her. It's how people around her react to her that tells us what Angie means in the story. I don't like to say too much about stuff like this though, because I think it sounds pretentious and silly and never makes sense except in an actor's own head.

I will say, though, that the young actor Kelly Reno, who plays Alec Ramsay in "The Black Stallion," comes to mind a lot. I've seen that movie 5,000 times and his face in emblazoned on my brain, so he may creep in from time to time. Angie's like Alec Ramsay might be if he'd grown up without love.

And when I'm playing Pope Joan, I'm thinking specifically of a certain brilliant gentleman actor I've worked with, and I try to imagine how he might play the role. I pretend that I'm him, and therefore a better actor than I actually am. This helps me in that scene more than I can possibly say. Marian Seldes recently guessed that I might be trying to channel Winston Churchill, which was pretty close and a fantastic compliment to boot. This actor hasn't come to the play yet. I'm hoping he will, without telling me!

What has been the most exciting and fun thing about being in this particular production of "Top Girls?"

Playing these two very different characters, Pope Joan and the teenage girl Angie, has been the most enjoyable thing about working on "Top Girls" for me. I find these two characters seem to exist outside of the world of the play itself. They are "in the world but not of it," and so they are perfectly in the present at all times, even when speaking about the past or about future hopes. I think we draw the work and the experiences to us that we most need to have, even subconciously. Perhaps this quality that these two characters share has something to do with that.

Also, I feel incredibly lucky to have been a part of the first Broadway production of a Caryl Churchill play, a fact that still amazes and shocks me. That MTC decided to bring this play to the Biltmore was incredibly brave and smart, and I am really very glad that they did it, and that I got to have the experience of sharing in something that is, frankly, quite daring for an audience that perhaps wasn't expecting it.

What constitutes as a bad performance in your mind? Do you believe the audience is aware when you are not on top of your game? — Lisa

Actors are often convinced, because our minds are very tiny and can hold very little in the way of rational thought once we've memorized all those lines (joke), that any given audience on any given night can tell when we are having an "off" night. I for one am absolutely positive of this. This is why I don't like to know when someone I know is in the house watching. I prefer to think of the audience as a single living organism with which I am sharing a singular, never-to-be-repeated experience. As soon as I start to think of them as individuals, a terrible process of transference begins and I can hear the screaming of the inner critic lambasting me at every turn of my wrist and every poorly-placed breath.

Then, I begin to have a "bad show" which, as far as anyone else can tell, is no better or worse than any other show. It's all in the mind, unnless you're in a terrible flop, in which case the inner critic takes a nap, having little to contribute in the face of such overwhelming objective failure.

What single thing that you have done to advance your career in theater did you the most good? — Ed Marod

For the most part, I choose to do what I hope will afford the biggest challenge, the most excitement with the niftiest collaborators from whom I can learn. I've found over the course of a lot of years and a lot of ups and downs that this approach to life in general is the healthiest for me, and actually begets work more often than the alternative. If I'm enjoying myself, I find my opportunities for more fun become greater.

In the long run, mistakes in the theater are an asset. A life and a career in the theater, I think, require a certain willingness to be adventurous and to err. So, making decisions based on what will "advance your career" is probably the quickest way to become despairing and jobless. Anyway, that's what agents are for.

Choose a favorite character from your acting portfolio and describe the "eureka!" moments, or key bits of work that helped you find that character which illuminates something about your acting process. — Duncan Thistlethwaite

This is a hard question to answer with any sort of brevity. So I'll give one story and hope it's not too over-long.

Rehearsing "Hedda Gabler" with Doug Hughes was a great life-altering experience for me. We did it twice, at Long Wharf and at Steppenwolf, in a shared production. One night, during a scene in which all the characters but one are onstage drinking claret or some such thing, I was standing there in my gorgeous gown designed by Cathy Zuber on that stunning set by Neil Patel, with these incredible actors from Steppenwolf, including Tim Hopper and Tom Irwin, and I was so enjoying the show that night, just kind of doing it without thinking too much or planning ahead, when all of a sudden, in a terrifying flash, I realized what we were doing: standing there in weird outfits with weird make-up on, holding these tiny wine glasses like so, and saying these strange words to each other while hundreds of people sat in the dark watching us do this crazy, crazy thing.

It was like I had entered a vortex in which any suggestion of sanity was completely out of the question. All attempts to rationalize this experience were doomed. I began to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all, or at my own ridiculousness. Either way, that's when I started to love my job. I can only describe the moment as un-selfconscious self-awareness.

During that time I think I learned how to accept and enjoy the absurdity of my job while taking it actually much more seriously, if that makes any sense. For me, that sort of captures what is most wonderful about really great work on stage, or of any kind. It's absurd and foolish, and breaks your heart to look at it. Everything that moves me has this at its core.

Since you are an ensemble member of Steppenwolf, how has that relationship contributed to your continuing acting success? Do you have any plans for a return acting engagement at Steppenwolf? — Mike Bradford

Joining Steppenwolf changed my life enormously. It meant I had a permanent artistic home, which is enormously comforting and gratifying for an actor. It meant I was being affirmed in my promise and potential as an actor by people whom I respected and admired. There were so many things about it that aided in making me a more confident performer, meaning I became more comfortable making mistakes, which I think has made me a happier actor, if not a better one.

I hope to get back to Chicago very soon; it's been a bit too long, I'm afraid, as I've been home in New York working so much, lucky for me. But I hope it won't be much longer now. It's getting to be time.

Praising the New York production of "August: Osage County", transplanted from Steppenwolf, some critics remarked that New York audiences were not used to seeing this style of acting. Do you think, in general, there's a difference between New York stage acting and Chicago stage acting? — Bill

Chicago has one of the most vibrant theater communities in the world. Ask any Chicago actor and they will tell you the first thing a Chicago acting student does out of school is form a theater company. So you have a constantly shifting foundation of new artists making theater who are continually challenging the standard.

This is a lot harder to do in New York. Everything is much more expensive here. You can't just rent a storefront or a church basement and start putting on shows here like they do in Chicago. So maybe the environment informs the strengths and assets that become useful to an actor in their given situation and make them into the kind of worker they are, i. e., "Am I going to learn to collaborate very early on, share my ideas, accept getting shot down by my peers, maybe not pursue fame and fortune in the traditional manner?" or "Am I going to focus on my own approach first or on what will get me noticed, will separate me from the crowd, and afford me a life doing what I love in the most expensive city in America?" Both have their positives and negatives.

Perhaps New York audiences, and critics, are a bit more attuned to looking for the star turn in any given show, as opposed to expecting finely honed ensemble work which doesn't necessarily highlight one performer over any other. We probably need some more exposure to that in our city, but there ought to be room for every style and every approach. There are an infinite number of ways to be moved in the theater.

I was one of the lucky ones who caught a marathon performance of "The Coast of Utopia." Were there any particular challenges that you or others encountered in staging such a monumental work in a single day? Were there any snafus that occurred during these performances? — Andrew Stigler

Performing those all-day marathons and spending the entire day, from 11 am to 11 pm (with meal breaks, of course) with the same audience those nine times that we did it, was an indescribably gorgeous experience. Believe it or not, those were the days that seemed to go the smoothest. Everyone was on top of their task, working together and stayng focused. Adrenaline was generally high. We were always so pumped up afterward, we'd go out and have dinner together en masse and stay out until four in the morning, usually.

Nothing ever went wrong during a marathon that I can recall, outside of the normal odd things that happen in live theater. Those days were particularly golden for everyone. It involved a crew of outstanding men and women who are the best in the world at what they do. It is a testament to the brilliance of the Lincoln Center crew that I can say we never noticed anything going wrong on those days.

I loved your work in "Cymbeline" this past year. I will be working this summer with high school and college students in an outdoor production of "Two Gentlemen of Verona." What advice do you have for young actors taking on Shakespeare? — Larry

Well, if you're doing it outdoors, might I recommend some breathable cottons? A diaphanous, sort of Grecian theme? A hot actor is a confused actor. Other than that, I wouldn't begin to know! I always feel badly for actors who approach Shakespeare as though it were an Ancient Alien Text only decipherable by Experts. The iambic pentameter is there to guide you to what is important in the phrase, line or couplet, and beyond that, it ain't string theory. Not that it's easy. You need a good command of your breath and vocal stamina. (Katherine Hepburn quit her pack a day smoking habit while doing a Shakespeare play, if you're curious.)

But Shakespeare has taken care of all the really hard bits, what with writing it and all that. I'm by no means a Shakespeare scholar or expert, but many I have known were not as smart as Shakespeare himself, and probably should turn in their "Shakespeare Expert" cards. Maybe you can tell your students that, and maybe they will take heart and have fun, most of all.

Despite all of your success, do you still find yourself getting recognized for "The Goonies", and if so, how does that make you feel? — Jeremy Gable

The other night, coming home on the subway, a man asked me to remind him what it was he had seen me in. He said I'd had had such a powerful impact on him that he just had to know where it was from. I found this completely hilarious.

I get recognized from "The Goonies" nearly every single day. If I am in public in the world, someone will recognize me from "The Goonies." I will admit right here for all the world to read that this delights me, because it indicates that I happen to be aging superbly.


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