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Building Character: Terri White

Date: Aug 27, 2011


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Welcome to Building Character, TDF’s ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles.


Follies proves the power of supporting roles

Written by Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman, the musical imagines a cast reunion of the Weismann Follies, a fictional revue that ran between the world wars. There are four main characters, but the show bursts with secondary roles: retired performers who saunter on stage, sing a number, then strut away. We don’t learn much about them, but they create a sense of community. They remind us that people can still be captivating, still be essential, even when their younger days are behind them.

Terri White makes that clear in the current Broadway revival, now in previews at the Marriott Marquis. She plays Stella Deems, whose lively tap number “Who’s that Woman?” is about realizing the person inside you is different from the person in the mirror. At a recent performance, her routine made the audience go wild.

In that showstopping song and a few brief dialogue scenes, White gives Stella a feisty, no-apologies attitude. Obvious joy radiates from her face and defines her movements.

So what made Stella this way? How did White decide she’d be a happy survivor?

She started with her own life. It matters, for instance, that she’s not just tapping through “Who’s That Woman?” but hoofing. “Hoofing is down into the ground, down and dirty, whereas tap is very light,” she says. “My father was a hoofer, and he taught me how to hoof. The day that I took my first step, my grandmother was taking care of me. She called my father up at work, and he took the rest of the day off to teach me a shuffle step.”

Given her own history---she danced for years before injuries slowed her down---White wanted to dance through her entire number, even though Stellas typically do more singing than stepping. That helped her make choices about Stella’s attitude. She might be older, White decided, but Stella’s still got it.

The actress explains, “Looking in the mirror, I’m going, ‘Dammit, that woman is me, instead of going the opposite direction of, ‘Oh God, that woman is me.’ It’s, ‘Dammit, I can still hoof. I can still perform.”

White adds that Stella focuses on the joy of being at the reunion, even though the script hints at hard times: “It’s about the moment we shared thirty years ago, the camaraderie. That was the moment I wanted to approach, not what happened after the Follies.” (She feels personally connected to that attitude, since she herself has endured career ups and downs.)

But not everything in White’s performance is so complex. In several scenes, she moves through the background, hobnobbing with other cast members, and she has strategies to keep those moments fresh.

“There’s all sorts of chatter going on,” she says. “Sometimes, it’s ‘What are you having for dinner?’ But we also do a lot of chatting in character. I have a lot of chats with Jayne [Houdyshell], who plays Hattie and sings ‘Broadway Baby.’ We really get deep into our characters. We talk about grandkids, and when we’re pointing, we’re saying, ‘I can’t remember, was your dressing room on this side or that side?’ It’s a lot of fun.”


Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor

Photo by Joan Marcus