By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Welcome to Building Character, TDF’s ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles.
Connie Ray is facing a conundrum: She’s making her Broadway debut in Geoffrey Nauftts’ bittersweet drama Next Fall, which just moved to the Helen Hayes Theatre after last summer’s successful Off Broadway run. Like the rest of the cast, she needs to maintain the immediacy that made the first production so striking, but she also needs to fill a Broadway house with her performance.
In other words, she needs to do 99-seat work for a 600-seat theatre.
And of all plays, Next Fall demands intimacy: Nauffts paints a delicate portrait of Adam and Luke, a gay couple navigating religious differences, family histories, and a near-fatal accident, and the Off Broadway production electrified those conflicts with small gestures and silence. “Big” performances would warp the effect.
So how can Ray—who stars as Arlene, Luke’s dysfunctional mother—play large and small at the same time?
“We were wondering how it would translate, but we’ve found that the transition has been smoother than we thought,” she says. “Thank goodness for previews! We started out very small and very quiet, but we got great feedback from those early audiences. Now we’re learning how to stay intimate, but also make ourselves heard.”
Ray feels the show is actually more authentic at the Helen Hayes. “We slammed the Off-Broadway production up in two weeks, including tech,” she says. “Because we had the luxury of three weeks of rehearsal on Broadway, we were able to make things richer and deeper.”
She adds, “When we were Off Broadway, I was just doing the job the script gave me in the first scene. It was just exposition, exposition, exposition. Now, I take my time and really speak to people. I think now you understand that I really do care for my son and want to be his mother and reach out and help him and help other people.”
Ray has also changed her approach to Next Fall’s funnier moments, most of which spring from her flamboyant character. “In this big theatre, I’ve learned that laughs come in waves,” she says. “The orchestra section laughs, and then the balcony. You have to stay in the moment and still let the people have time to laugh.”
After leaving the theatre for eighteen years to pursue television and film, Ray’s happy to discover how a Broadway crowd reacts. “It’s the greatest thing, learning how to play to the audience,” she says. “There’s nothing like a response from real people.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor.