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Work-work balance: Why three actors decided to take on multiple shows simultaneously
Lots of people in many industries work more than one job. But when you're performing in a play eight times a week, it's tough to find the time and energy to rehearse a second role in a different production. And yet that's exactly what Tala Ashe, Francis Benhamou and Molly Ranson have been doing. After being off the stage for 18 months, they welcome being busy.
In March 2020 when the shutdown hit, all three were rehearsing shows set to begin performances later that month: Ashe in The Vagrant Trilogy at The Public Theater, Benhamou in Selling Kabul at Playwrights Horizons and Ranson in Plaza Suite on Broadway. Two of those shows, The Vagrant Trilogy and Plaza Suite, are finally opening this spring, while Selling Kabul completed a well-received run in December. The actors not only kept their parts in those productions, but they were also offered roles in other shows this season that they couldn't turn down. Acting in back-to-back plays means their already grueling schedules are even more intense as they rehearse one show during the day while appearing in a different one at night. But all three say these projects justify the juggling.
Take Ashe's character Elham in Sanaz Toossi's English, which is running at Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater through March 20. The play is set in a classroom in Iran where adult students are prepping for the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). Elham has a heavy accent and has failed the exam five times. This is her last chance to pass in order to study gastroenterology in Australia. "The sense of drive and competitiveness was something that felt close to me," says Ashe, adding that it's reminiscent of her own experience as an Iranian immigrant growing up in Ohio. Since Ashe is not interested in "narratives that are sad Middle Eastern people on a stage just like crying about their circumstances," she didn't want to pass up the chance to portray such a nuanced character in English, even though she was already committed to The Vagrant Trilogy, which begins previews at The Public Theater on April 8.
Currently in rehearsals, Mona Mansour's three-part epic also resonates with Ashe. In the first section, a Palestinian scholar goes to London with his wife (Ashe's role) to deliver a lecture. When war breaks out at home, they must decide whether to stay in London or return to Palestine. Parts two and three find the characters in split timelines: In one they stay in the UK; in the other they return home. "I have experienced that very particular and peculiar feeling of being somewhere and realizing you're not from there, but you speak the language," she says. "I'm speaking English, but sometimes I have a sense that this language that I'm speaking is not actually the language that I should be speaking. My whole being has been built around that."
Benhamou has a similar personal connection to her character Elodie in Joshua Harmon's Prayer for the French Republic, which is running at Manhattan Theatre Club's City Center Stage I through March 27. The drama follows five generations of a French-Jewish family navigating anti-Semitism, with the action alternating between 2016-2017 and 1944-1946. Like Elodie, a brilliant, loquacious woman living with her parents after a manic-depressive episode, Benhamou is Jewish—half Ashkenazi and half Sephardic—and her mother's family survived the Holocaust. "I've been doing the research [for this play] since I was born," she says. "This character has been home, and I don't often get that opportunity. That's why it's been such a gift for me. I feel my ancestors with me every night."
Her character in Sylvia Khoury's Afghanistan-set thriller Selling Kabul—a harried new mom who is neighbors with a couple hiding a family member from the Taliban—required more research. Yet, as the mother of a four-year old, Benhamou could still relate to aspects of the role.
Benhamou's Prayer for the French Republic castmate, Ranson, left the production last week to begin previews of the Broadway revival of Neil Simon's comedy Plaza Suite starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick. Ranson previously worked with playwright Joshua Harmon on Bad Jews and he wrote her Prayer for the French Republic role with her in mind—he even named the character Molly after her. Like Ranson, Molly is Jewish and a native New Yorker and she connects with Elodie and her family, all distant cousins, when she spends a year abroad in France.
The actor's biggest challenge in playing Molly was figuring out just how immature and naïve she should seem. "I didn't want her to come across as the dumb American college student," she says. "I tried to find that balance of giving her somewhere to mature toward, but also not playing her too young initially."
Ranson was in Plaza Suite's Boston tryout in February 2020, so returning to the roles (she plays two parts in the farcical triptych, a sexy secretary and a bride-to-be with old feet) has been a homecoming. "It is an ideal situation in a way because the roles are both very small," she says. "I think I would have been quite overwhelmed if I had a large role that I needed to prepare for in addition to doing Prayer for the French Republic at night."
While Ranson admits "a light comedy is a nice break from the intensity of Prayer," she says it hasn't been that difficult going back and forth between the characters. "I have always been able to leave it on the stage," she says. "I feel like my main job as an actor is to be in the moment. I don't tend to carry things with me from shows."
Benhamou struggles a bit more with letting go. In Selling Kabul, her character is faced with giving up her child, and Benhamou found herself weeping hysterically on stage so as not to bring that fear home with her. After performances of Prayer for the French Republic, her husband noted she was sometimes aggressive and frenetic. When working on both shows simultaneously, Benhamou used transcendental meditation to separate the characters from each other—and herself. "It's kind of like a palate cleanser," she explains. "It's like having a really good night's sleep so you're ready, but it's condensed into 20 minutes."
Ashe is quite experienced at switching characters on a dime: On DC's Legends of Tomorrow on the CW, she's played two versions of her character Zari for years, and a third variant was just added this season. Figuring out each one's unique physicality helps her go back and forth. With her character in The Vagrant Trilogy, her biggest challenge has been language. While in English she speaks only the title tongue, both with and without an accent, for The Vagrant Trilogy she sometimes speaks in Arabic and she's been working with a coach to hone her pronunciation as she was raised speaking Persian.
Despite the heavy workload, all three actors are grateful to be back on New York stages after such a long hiatus. "For our first preview of Prayer for the French Republic, I got on stage and just felt really emotional, really moved to be back at a theatre and that all these people were still coming after all that time," Ranson says. "It's like riding a bike," Benhamou adds. You get back on and you're like, 'This is why I love it.'"
Top image: Molly Ranson and Francis Benhamou in Prayer for the French Republic. Photo by Matthew Murphy.