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Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles
Karyn Quackenbush was completely unfamiliar with Jenny Schwartz's work before trying out for the playwright's latest production, Iowa, a dramedy-with-songs at Playwrights Horizons. As the veteran performer read the surreal script, filled with intricate wordplay, kaleidoscopic associations, and a 15-or-so-minute rapid-fire introductory monologue for her character, Sandy, she got nervous.
"I thought, I don't know what to do with this!" Quackenbush recalls with a cackle. "I was looking at it through a prism of terror." But she went on the audition anyway, approaching the material with her own point of view. "After I did it the first time, Ken [Rus Schmoll, the director] gave me a lot of instruction, and I caught on to the pacing," she says. "I remember thinking, 'Wow, whoever gets this part has got their work cut out for them.'"
That turned out to be Quackenbush, of course, and she's been happily slaving away ever since to find the heart of what makes Sandy -- a flighty mom who uproots her life to move to Iowa to marry a man she barely knows -- tick.
The show is quite a change for Quackenbush, who's spent most of her three-decade career doing musicals regionally (including the jukebox tuner The Bikinis, written by her husband Ray Roderick) and in New York City (she has a dramatic story about being Bernadette Peters' standby in Annie Get Your Gun on Broadway).
However, despite her lack of experience with absurdist theatre, her background as a singer came in handy for this production. "Just like with lyrics, every single word of Jenny's script is there for a reason; there are no pauses or 'ums'," Quackenbush explains. "It's total stream-of-consciousness, and yet each line has to be attached to real, thought-provoking emotion. It's not just acting; you have to be musical. My first monologue is almost like an aria, the breath control and the beats and the nonstop pace of it. We went very slowly initially, and now it's like I'm a slingshot."
Quackenbush admits she's still ruminating on what the whole piece means. After all, it's hard to make conclusions about a show that includes singing polygamists, a gaggle of Nancy Drews, and a tender scene between a cheerleader and a pony. "It's an interesting little animal, this play," she says. "Jenny's so unique, her voice is unlike anything I've ever heard before." But the actress certainly seems to have a handle on Sandy and her motivations, especially in that massive monologue. "When we started rehearsing, we had to break it down and talk about what it all meant, why I'm calling my daughter, Becca, Booka and then Burka," she remembers. "We got into the belly of what she's saying to her kid and the crassness of it. She's really a narcissist, but she still has to be charming. That's the trick, and hopefully it's being conveyed."
Since the role is so far outside of her wheelhouse, Quackenbush hopes that Iowa opens up new doors. "I know it has stretched me as an actor and a human being," she says. "Even with the crazy career I've had, going on for stars at the last minute on Broadway, this is the scariest and most exciting and most difficult thing I've ever done."
Raven Snook is the associate editor of TDF Stages
Photos by Joan Marcus. Top photo: Karyn Quackenbush in "Iowa"