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Kathleen Chalfant and the Tragic Secret

Date: Oct 02, 2012


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

Kathleen Chalfant might be playing realistic emotions in Red Dog Howls, now at New York Theatre Workshop, but that doesn't mean she's in a realistic play. "One might think of it as a kind of domestic drama, but it isn't, really," she says. "It's more like a classical tragedy."

Written by Alexander Dinelaris, Red Dog Howls thrusts us into the memory of Michael Kiriakos (Alfredo Narciso), a young man who unexpectedly finds Rose, his long-absent grandmother, and learns her dark secret. A survivor of the Armenian genocide, now living in New York, Rose knows her grandson will lead her to the terrible thing she once did and the price she must pay for it now.

That "terrible thing" gives the script its classical traits. Like Phadera's forbidden lust or Oedipus' half-forgotten sins, it defines everything that's said and done. The plot races toward it like a ship chasing a star.

For Chalfant, who starred in the original productions of Wit and Angels in America, Rose's secret is a clue to her performance. "It's the driving force of it," she says. "And it's a thing to play. That's not the specifics of the secret, but the fact of it."

In other words, though the actress is invested in her usual goals---listening to her co-stars, finding the rhythms of a particular scene---they're all in relationship to Rose's secret. She credits her director, Ken Rus Schmoll, for helping her incorporate that fact into her work. "It felt like being sculpted," she says. "The only other experience I had where it felt like this was working with Derek Anson Jones in Wit."

For instance, Schmoll worked with her extensively on the climactic monologue where Rose finally tells Michael about her past. (Without revealing too much, her secret involves her family and a few split-second decisions.) At first, Chalfant was leaning on a horrific moment near the middle of the speech, letting it become the centerpiece of her emotional outburst. Her director, however, kept pointing out a more surprising detail that came a few beats later. She recalls, "Very gradually, in the most gentle way, Ken would say, 'Do you think we could try this here?' And basically, what he was saying was, 'Can we play this [emotional arc] to the end of the scene?'"

Now, Chalfant says holding back until the end of the speech clarifies how Rose exists in the play. She sees herself not as a victim but a criminal, and she is heavy with guilt.

Chalfant knows she can't perform that guilt in the very first scene. "You have to contain the anguish to tell this story," she explains. "People don't cry in this story, because if they did, they would jump out the window. It's very carefully written that way. It's very emotional material, and we [actors] all like to show that we have feelings, but if you trust the material, the <i>audience</i> will have feelings."

Kathleen Chalfant is a mentor in TDF's Open Doors program


Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Joan Marcus