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Acting Like a Director

Date: Jul 06, 2009


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Vanities has all the trappings of a major new musical: The story of three Texas cheerleaders who remain friends over three decades, it's based on the popular 1976 play by Jack Heifner (who wrote the musical's book), and it's premiering on July 16 at Second Stage, a company known for long-running hits like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. If you heard that Judith Ivey was attached to the show, you'd be forgiven for assuming she was the star. A two-time Tony award winner, she's the kind of actress who lends prestige to up-and-coming shows.
But Ivey isn't the star of  Vanities. She's the director, and this project is just the latest step in her remarkably successful new career path.
In 2004 Ivey was directing solo shows, and by 2007 she was helming mainstage dramas for major Off Broadway theaters like The Cherry Lane. With a major musical under her belt, she's essentially established herself in a field that often takes decades to crack. Not bad for a woman who still books regular acting work, like her starring role in the Ann Landers biodrama  Lady, opening in October at the Cherry Lane.
Ivey says the harsh realities of acting, however, are what led to her the director's chair. "Practically speaking, I could work all the time as an actress and still not make a living," she says. "So I tried my hand at directing, and it turns out I enjoyed it."
It may sound impossible that an award-winning actress of Ivey's longevity could struggle to make ends meet, but she notes that most of her recent roles have been in Off Broadway and regional plays, where even the biggest paychecks hover around $750 a week. "If that's all you're offered, instead of Broadway shows, it's hard," she says. "I'm a woman over fifty, and there are very few actresses my age who can go from film to film or Broadway show."
She adds, "I'm fortunate, though, because not every actress over fifty gets to turn around and be a director who works the way I'm working. I think I've proven that I deserve to be here, but I'm fortunate I got a break."
Ivey credits her friends for launching her directing career, saying they offered her projects on the faith that she could handle them. Soon enough, the work started coming on its own, and she found she was developing her own directorial voice. "I want to be good at this," she says. "I don't want it to just be an outlet."
Asked to define her style, Ivey says she's a director who prizes collaboration above all things, and she tries to create an environment that she herself would like to perform in. She explains, "In rehearsal, it's wide open. Let's play. Let's invent. Let's not make decisions right away. I'm not a happy actress when a director wants to freeze everything I do in the first week, because what am I supposed to do for the next two weeks? If we're going to stop developing what we're working on, then we may as well bring an audience in."
Of all her directing projects, Vanities has proven the most collaborative, which Ivey says is a happy necessity of a musical. "There are just so many people invested, from the lyricist to the music director to the choreographer, that you have to keep yourself open to ideas. We've made so many discoveries since I began working on the show that it's like we've had three different versions."
Ivey first signed on to Vanities in 2006, and last year, she directed a production at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, California. (A Broadway run was announced, postponed, and finally cancelled due to the economic crisis, though producers claim they're still eyeing the Great White Way.) She says that constant conversation with Heifner and composer David Kirshenbaum has had an enormous impact on the show, and that moments as crucial as the opening number will likely keep evolving until opening night.
If Vanities is a hit, then Ivey will no doubt receive a boatload of new directing offers, though she may not be able to take them. Her directing career has put her back on the acting world's radar, so that she's getting more parts than she has in years. "For the first time in my life, I've got more work than I know what to do with," she says. "Right now, I'm at a point where I can't take another job until 2011. It's a wonderful place to be."

More about Vanities here

Mark Blankenship has written for The New York Times, Variety, The Village Voice, and many others. He also edits The Critical Condition, an award-winning pop-culture criticism blog. (