Read about NYC's best theatre and dance productions and watch video interviews with innovative artists
The star of the solo play A Woman of the World chats about her illustrious stage career
As her Lifetime Achievement Obie Award last year reaffirmed, Kathleen Chalfant has long been Off-Broadway's most valuable player. Although some may know her from TV (The Affair, House of Cards) or Broadway (she earned a Tony nomination for her work in the original production of Angels in America), she's spent the bulk of her career on smaller stages tackling a dizzying array of roles, notably her breathtaking turn as a cancer-stricken professor in Wit for which she earned a constellation of accolades.
At 74, Chalfant is as busy as ever: Last month she finished up Novenas for a Lost Hospital at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and immediately jumped into Rebecca Gilman's A Woman of the World, a solo play at 59E59 Theaters about Emily Dickinson's posthumous editor Mabel Loomis Todd. During the one-act, which is framed as a lecture, Chalfant's septuagenarian Mabel recounts salacious secrets, heated controversies and her complicated relationship with the family of the reclusive 19th-century poet. TDF Stages chatted with the San Francisco native about her latest tour-de-force performance, how theatre is changing and what would bring her back to Broadway.
Gerard Raymond: How did you come to play Mabel in A Woman of the World?
Kathleen Chalfant: I was asked to do it at a reading series about two years ago by Valentina Fratti, the director. As it happened, Margot Harley [co-founder of The Acting Company] was there and she decided on the spot that she wanted to produce the play.
Raymond: Mabel is the classic unreliable narrator, always exaggerating and self-aggrandizing. How much of what she says can we trust?
Chalfant: By the end you can trust her. It's fascinating to me the way Rebecca has given us layers of truth so that you peel down to what is true, but somehow the essence is always there. Mabel's relationship with Austin, Emily Dickinson's brother, was public knowledge. Her loving and complex marriage with David Peck Todd, a well-known astronomer, is also true. What is fascinating to me is that Mabel's life -- the true one -- would seem to be life enough for five people. The notion that she had to embellish in the way that she did is an insight, I think, into human nature.
Raymond: Mabel is quite the character.
Chalfant: She is one of those people who -- at least in this version of her -- speaks the subtext. She just speaks as though she has come to a time in her life when she doesn't have very much filter. And it's not clear that she ever had a great deal of filter. She has that sort of freedom of narcissism that makes you not terribly alive to what your audience might be hearing. She just comes in and must take over the room -- that's what she's done all her life.
Raymond: Looking at your theatre credits, you've mostly done new plays, not classics. Was that by design or happenstance?
Chalfant: It was an accident, in a way. Through high school I never wanted to do anything but be an actor, but when I went to college at Stanford I didn't study theatre for reasons that had to do with my then boyfriend. So I ended up doing an undergraduate major in classics. When I graduated in 1965, I realized that I didn't want to spend my life teaching Greek to prep-school boys. My husband [photographer Henry Chalfant, whom she met at Stanford] suggested that since I'd always wanted to be an actress, why didn't I do that? And so I did, but I didn't ever go to drama school. I think I didn't have any confidence to apply to Yale or somewhere like that, so I studied with someone in San Francisco. Then we moved to Europe and I studied for two years with Alessandro Fersen, a wonderful teacher in Rome. After we came back here to New York, I began to study with Wynn Handman [artistic director of The American Place Theater]. The work that I found was all new plays. I didn't get to do the great parts. I've missed them now because I am too old.
Raymond: You've said before that the only great parts left for older women are those written for men.
Chalfant: Yes. I dream that someday I will get to do King Lear -- a whole bunch of women have been playing Lear recently, so I have some time to do it. My favorite Lear was the Mabou Mines production with Ruth Maleczech, where they just switched all the genders. So that's what I'd love to do.
Raymond: What about Broadway? It's been nearly a quarter century since you were last there, in David Hare's Racing Demon at Lincoln Center.
Chalfant: I would happily be on Broadway if somebody wanted me. There was Angels in America of course. And [the original production of] Wit was meant to go to Broadway, but the owner of the Helen Hayes thought that the play was a downer and people wouldn't come. But I won a whole bunch of prizes for the play and everybody thinks that I won a Tony, so it's fine.
Raymond: In addition to your work on stage, you've been a champion of theatre off-stage as well. Can you talk a bit about your involvement with TDF's Wendy Wasserstein Project?
Chalfant: I'm the artist mentor for a group of eight kids, and we go to the theatre six times a year. This is my 11th year doing it. There are new participants every year, but I've always been at the same school, the High School for Telecommunication Arts and Technology in Bay Ridge, which is the most diverse institution. Afterward, we go eat pizza and talk about the plays. And no one is afraid to speak. I've had astonishing experiences doing this; it's been a great gift.
Raymond: You were also involved with the founding of the Women's Project, now known as WP Theater, which spotlights female-identifying playwrights and directors. More than 40 years later, gender parity in the industry is still a challenge, but how much worse was it back then?
Chalfant: Julia Miles, the founder of WP Theater, is a fierce woman. When she read the statistics at the time, that only something like two percent of plays done professionally were written by women, she decided to do something about it. She asked Caymichael Patten, Gayle Austin and me if we would be the staff. And I, being quite naïve at the time, thought, "Oh terrific, we'll figure out what this problem is and then it will go away!" Today it's still the case, though better. But there are still two classes of writing for the theatre: women's plays and plays.
Another positive development in the theatre coming all too slowly and with much kicking and screaming: plays are now not all about nice middle-class white people. Some other parts of society are being investigated on the stage. It's hard for those of us who are used to having it our way. We have to own our privilege and we won't have so many jobs. Ultimately, I'd like us to be able to see the character and not the color or gender or, to some extent, the age of the person who is embodying it.
Raymond: Your daughter, Andromache Chalfant, is a successful set designer. Was it difficult raising a family while working regularly on stage?
Chalfant: It's a complicated business, being a mother in the theatre. I also have a son who is a musician, and I have three grandchildren. Of all the things that I'd do over, or do differently, I think being a parent is one of them. I have worked fairly regularly since 1974 when I moved to New York, but I've been lucky because I've been married to someone who supported my work -- at least one of us was home all the time. I'm very proud of my daughter. I love to go to the theatre with her because she sees things that I don't see.
Raymond: Last year in an interview, you said, "A life Off-Broadway takes you on adventures you can't imagine." Can you elaborate on that?
Chalfant: Consider what I've done this fall: I played a saint -- Elizabeth Seton -- in Novenas for a Lost Hospital [about the shuttered St. Vincent's Hospital]. We walked through the streets of the Village with the memories of St. Vincent's; my brother died there, so it had a lot of resonance for me. The play had so many interesting constituencies because lots and lots of people who had worked at the hospital came, survivors from the AIDS epidemic, neighborhood people, Irish people -- entire groups of people who were interested in the history of the city and the neighborhood. And now, with A Woman of the World, I'm looking into the life of Mabel -- not your regular middle-class white lady.
Looking back, I got to be a part of Angels in America from the beginning, and when I got the part in Wit. that was another extraordinary adventure. The play became a teaching tool: I didn't even play a doctor on stage and there I was lecturing doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering about palliative care. The thing about being an actor is you don't need to know anything; you just have to sound like you know it. So you learn all kinds of things and delve into all kinds of worlds.
Raymond: So is it safe to say that receiving that Lifetime Achievement Award Obie didn't signal your retirement?
Chalfant: The award meant a lot to me because it was my community; I was very, very moved. But I have no interest in stopping. I can't think what else I'd do. And now, I only do things that I;d like to do, which is a great privilege.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Gerard Raymond is an arts journalist based in New York City.
Kathleen Chalfant in A Woman of the World. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
TDF MEMBERS: Go here to browse our latest discounts for dance, theatre and concerts.