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The veteran performer is back on stage in back-to-back productions
Considering in-person theatre only recently resumed in New York City, Jay O. Sanders has been remarkably busy. A prolific character actor whose stage credits include many summers of Shakespeare in the Park and a fruitful collaboration with writer-director Richard Nelson, he is currently starring Off Broadway in Nelson's intimate drama What Happened?: The Michaels Abroad while also rehearsing the musical Girl From the North Country, which resumes performances at Broadway's Belasco Theatre on October 13. He likens the experience to his early years as a performer in the '70s, when he did productions in repertory at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, rotating between starkly different shows every day.
Thankfully, Sanders has the range. Since he's an imposing six feet four, he's often cast as heavies or law enforcement on screen. But the characters he plays on stage tend to be more empathetic, though they are frequently disappointed in or disillusioned by life. Take the man he plays in What Happened?, who is reeling from personal loss. The final chapter of Nelson's Rhinebeck Panorama—a series of hyper-naturalistic plays centering on three separate white, left-leaning families who live in the upstate New York town—What Happened? costars Sanders' wife, Maryann Plunkett. (The spouses have appeared in all 12 installments over 11 years.) In this climatic work, he portrays the ex-husband of a choreographer who died of COVID-19, reuniting with their shared loved ones in France to honor her memory and process the toll the pandemic has taken on us all. His character in Girl From the North Country is more laconic, the gloomy proprietor of a rundown boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota at the height of the Great Depression. Written and directed by Conor McPherson and featuring soul-stirring renditions of songs from Bob Dylan's catalog, it was the last Broadway production to open before the shutdown. TDF Stages spoke with Sanders about returning to the stage, Zoom plays and why both What Happened? and Girl From the North Country speak to the current moment, even though they take place almost a century apart.
Raven Snook: You, your wife and Richard Nelson have collaborated on the Rhinebeck Panorama for over a decade. How does it feel to make your return to the stage in the last installment?
Jay O. Sanders: It's a lot of things! It's been so much more than just a show. It's the conclusion of a lifetime project. It's been longer and more consistent than anything else in our theatre lives. It's been a love affair with our dear friend Richard Nelson. Of course, three of the 12 plays were the much-heralded Zoom trilogy we did during the pandemic. The first was the first play of its kind when the pandemic began. We were stepping out into totally unknown territory. Richard was looking for how to make use of this form and created his own way forward by using Zoom as the medium of communication. It was the characters connecting on Zoom, with the same passionate need to talk and stay in touch, to feel we're not alone. It was about maintaining a connection at a time when connection felt nearly impossible. So, having done that at the beginning of the pandemic and then two others over the next few months, coming out of it with this show became very important. For many people in our audience, this is the first show that they're seeing in person. For the cast, this is the first show that we're doing in person. It's emotional. It's, in some ways, religious, the fact that we all continue, we all still have each other and we all get to move ahead. All of that is expressed in the act of doing this play. The play is people talking about what the pandemic has been to them and how they are now and, as the title of the play says, "What happened?" So, it's sort of an epic, from the beginning of the pandemic to, I say very tentatively, the end. Richard gathered us in the very first rehearsal and sat us down and said, "You know, we have to understand that we might never get this show on. But the alternative is to do nothing. And that at this point is just not acceptable." So, we enjoyed every moment every day, the ability to be together and work the way we work, and be reminded of the importance of what we do. Everyone is hungry for the experience of being back in the live theatre.
Snook: What Happened? closes this Sunday, October 10 and you start performances of Girl from the North Country next Wednesday, October 13. It's a whirlwind!
Sanders: It is! The closest thing I've done to this was repertory at A.C.T. in San Francisco. We'd put up one show and go right into rehearsals for the next one. Eventually, we had three or four shows running in rep, say Julius Caesar at night and A Christmas Carol for a student matinee, that kind of thing. That almost doesn't exist anymore. It's an old form. I was so lucky that I got to do that. You just deepen your understanding of each show from the other. So, I'm enjoying that experience again.
The first day I went back to the Belasco [where Girl From the North Country runs], I opened what had been my carefully put together dressing room. We shut down exactly one week after we opened. And I went in, and it was like opening Miss Havisham's living room or something. There were bottles of wine and even boxes of cereal that had been sitting there for 18 months. It was amazing. Books I was reading and even some clothes. But also, it was joyful, because it was all there waiting, the empty stage sitting there waiting for us.
Snook: During the shutdown, did you know Girl From the North Country would come back? And did the cast keep in touch?
Sanders: We have first-time producers who have been absolute gems in communication. We would meet up regularly as a community just to sort of say, "Are you still out there? Are you okay?" And everyone would check in with everyone else. And people were back in the Midwest and on the West Coast and my wife and I were here tucked away in the city and people would go, "What's it like there now?" It was like reaching out from the darkness to feel that you were still part of that community. But the producers have been so, so good, as has Conor [McPherson] and Lucy [Hind], our choreographer. Everybody has been so great about saying we are still this family, and we are still here for you and we're just waiting for when we can get back together. It's sort of like this flower that was all just blooming and we've held on to it and nurtured it and kept it going and it's ready to rebloom now.
Snook: Girl From the North Country is set in 1934 during the Great Depression. Now that we're going through another global crisis, how do you think audiences will react?
Sanders: It's the perfect show for this moment because the entire piece is about a community emerging from hard times. In the case of the musical, it's about the Depression and my character's entire purpose—and one of the reasons I don't have any songs—is that all of my energies are put toward shepherding this group of people forward and back into their lives. I'm sort of carrying the whole thing on my shoulders. In the final scene, Mare Winningham, who plays my wife, says, "Well, you did it. I don't know how you did, but you did it. You got 'em all out." By the time we come to the final song of the show, "Pressing On," I have to believe that the audience is going to feel that it's a parallel rebirth. Moving on from the oppression of the Depression is translated into the moving on from the oppression of this terrible virus, and that's a beautiful metaphor to have. You just have to keep moving forward and doing what you do.
Snook: The fact that your character doesn't sing really informs his story. But I'm curious, can you sing?
Sanders: I do but I rarely get to do it. I would love to be singing! I've been singing for as long as I've been acting. I thought it might be very frustrating not to sing when I first got involved with Girl From the North Country, but I've not found it to be so.
Snook: While it sounds joyful to be back on stage, is it stressful, too? Do you worry about what the future holds for the theatre industry as we continue to navigate the pandemic?
Sanders: I'm just feeling like good luck to us all. I'm doing my part. Maryann's doing her part. We're trying to be as safe as possible, for ourselves, for our families and for everyone we meet. And we're still trying to reflect on what it means to be alive, no matter what's going on out there. It's a privilege being able to consider our lives in the theatre. So, let's hope this is a return to the ability to do theatre on a nightly basis.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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Top image: Jay O. Sanders in The Girl From the North Country on Broadway. Photo by Matthew Murphy.