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The Tony-winning actress helms Strindberg's The Dance of Death for Classic Stage Company
Victoria Clark has been job hunting lately, but not in a desperate way. A celebrated Broadway performer since the '80s (Tony nominations for Sister Act, Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella and Gigi; a win for The Light in the Piazza), she's rarely idle. Yet, like many a renowned actor, she's always wanted to direct, too. In fact, that's originally what she set out to do nearly four decades ago when, after graduating from Yale, she studied directing at New York University's Graduate Musical Theatre Program. Chance -- or perhaps fate -- is what thrust her into the spotlight.
Now, as an actress of a certain age (59 to be precise), this opera-trained Texan has decided it's time to pursue her original ambition by helming a production of August Strindberg's The Dance of Death, which is running in rep with a South Africa-set riff on Miss Julie at Classic Stage Company. The drama about a very destructive marriage is a fascinating choice considering Clark made her name in musicals. TDF Stages chatted with the Tony winner about finding humor in darkness, her directorial wish list and how her performing career has prepared her for this leap.
Sandy MacDonald: In an interview I read, you said that you fell into acting "accidentally." I'm sure plenty of New York hopefuls would like to know that trick!
Victoria Clark: I was going to come to New York and be the next, I don't know -- Hal Prince! At NYU the writers always needed people to demonstrate, because sometimes authors don't like to sing their work. As one of the few directors with a performing background, I was always like, "Oh, I'll do it." A wonderful casting director pulled me aside and said, "C'mon -- you're really an actor." I told him, "I don't think so." And he said, "Trust me, you are."
MacDonald: We're certainly all grateful to that person.
Clark: Well, he put his money where his mouth was and gave me an audition for the original Broadway production of Sunday in the Park with George and I booked it. And once people saw that on my résumé, I couldn't turn back, you know? That opened so many doors. Actually, it's beautiful coming full circle, because if I had continued to direct, I wouldn't have had the pleasure of working with directors like Tina Landau, Anne Bogart, Jerry Zaks, Bartlett Sher, Anne Kauffman… I basically had a 37-year graduate program! It has been a great, great learning experience.
MacDonald: And now the wheel is turning.
Clark: Well, I just feel like it's time. I kind of accomplished everything that I set out to as an actor -- not that there isn't more, and I would love to keep acting. I want people to keep thinking of me for things. But I think it's time to turn my focus back to mentoring and teaching and telling stories from a different perspective, from behind the table -- to show female leadership in the room, so that young women coming up can see themselves doing that.
MacDonald: Were you surprised when Classic Stage Company's artistic director John Doyle suggested that you take on The Dance of Death?
Clark: I'm very grateful that he proposed a play and not a musical. I was thrilled. [Clark previously helmed a few musicals Off-Off Broadway, including Inner Voices and New York Musical Festival shows.]
MacDonald: Did he explain why he thought of you for this?
Clark: I think he wanted somebody who had some mileage on the tires, someone who has lived and is not afraid of the ugly parts of human nature, the savage parts. There's no reason to shy away from it; it's just part of who we are. As Americans, we want to move quickly through that, to something sunnier, right? Those Scandinavians like Strindberg, they live in darkness most of the year, and they have no trouble sitting in the dark.
MacDonald: I couldn't help noticing you sitting in the dark in the theatre -- and occasionally letting out a laugh -- at an early preview of the show.
Clark: Our cast is so brilliant -- they are so inventive and so surprising, they still make me laugh! As we worked on the show, I tried to make it as fun as possible, because it's Strindberg -- it's, like, heavy! And difficult. The places these actors have to go to!
MacDonald: Dark doesn't begin to describe the marriage depicted in this play, yet you managed to bring out an extraordinary amount of humor. Why is it so much fun to watch a thoroughly dysfunctional relationship? Is it Schadenfreude, or are we being asked to relate on some level?
Clark: I've heard audience members say, "Oh gosh, I guess my marriage isn't so bad after all." When I read the script, I thought, wow, I'm so glad that's not me! It's like driving by a car accident -- you slow down and look. Is there an ambulance? Is anybody injured? And then you think, oh, there but for the grace of God… that could have been me. You realize how delicate life is! How one wrong turn, one mistake, one word misplaced -- you said it at the wrong time or in the wrong tone of voice -- can change your life forever. And that's what is so beautiful to me about this play. Strindberg was brave enough to have people talk the way they really talk, especially after 25 years of marriage. Think about how shocking this must have been when it premiered in 1900. That to me is enormous bravery.
MacDonald: A few years ago, you remarried yourself. I was fascinated to learn that you two found each other on eHarmony.
Clark: How about that! I had no faith in that at all. I was like, this is not going to work. This is just stupid. And he just kept smiling at me, saying, "Well, we're here! Here we are." Two glasses of wine later, we were still sitting there and I thought, that's interesting. I haven't got up and left. I think I kind of like him. And now I couldn't imagine my life without him.
MacDonald: Wow. As theatre audiences we may enjoy witnessing wrecks, but in real life it's comforting to see happy relationships.
Clark: Yes. There's something so soothing about it -- and something simple, too, about finding each other.
MacDonald: I know you have some performing gigs coming up, notably MasterVoices's presentation of Lady in the Dark at City Center in April. How about directing projects? You've expressed interest in helming The Light in the Piazza on Broadway, and you previously directed it at Pace University. Any prospects on that horizon?
Clark: Not yet! I also want to do a revival of Alan Jay Lerner and Kurt Weill's Love Life. I'd love to do Sondheim's A Little Night Music after having spent so much time in Scandinavia on this piece. I directed Merrily We Roll Along in college, and I'd like another professional crack at that. Also any Craig Lucas, Christopher Durang, Marsha Norman or Annie Baker play.
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for The Dance of Death. Go here to browse our current offers.
Sandy MacDonald is a theatre critic who contributes to Time Out New York. Follow her at @sandymacdonald. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Victoria Clark. Photo by Bjorn Bolinder.