Dallas — Director Susan Sargeant at Wingspan Theatre Company readies Dear Liar!, Jerome Kilty’s 1959 drama based on the 40-year correspondence between brilliant playwright George Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell, the beautiful and talented actress who created Eliza in his Pygmalion. Beginning at the turn of the century in Victorian England and ending with Campbell’s death in 1940 in France, the two wrote to each other with wit and affection about everything from personal triumphs and disappointments to professional concerns. They also wrote about their great love for each other, although their relationship remained platonic to the end.
Theate Jones talked with award-winning Dallas actress Lisa Fairchild as she rehearses for the role of Mrs. Campbell. She plays opposite Alan Pollard as Shaw.
TheaterJones: How do you set about making an epistolary drama sound like people talking?
Lisa Fairchild: The playwright, Jerome Kilty, edited the 40- year correspondence in such a way that makes the process somewhat easier. We also break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience on occasion. It also helps that the letters really were a “dialogue” between these two people. The acting process is the same as always. One of us is sending and landing our character’s thoughts and intentions (“penning the letter”) and the other is receiving and reacting (“reading the letter and posting response”).
This literate play has many lengthy speeches. Do you read some lines or prompts from the letters?
I wish! No, it is all memorized. It might be nice to have “cheat sheets” but we are not doing a staged reading—this is a fully realized production. While the physical “letters” are always present, we are not actually looking at them or writing them all of the time. (I think you would get pretty tired of looking at the tops of our heads.) We are frequently composing letters out loud and the staging is away from the desks. Trying to keep track of which piece of paper contained which individual speech would make our heads explode…if memorizing all the words doesn’t make that happen first!
Are the two of you sitting at desks for all or most of the play? How do you create meaningful movement when the main action is two people writing letters and reading them?
There is a great deal of movement in the first act, another reason it absolutely must be memorized. The relationship is more active and fluid in the first act; they are younger. In the second act, they are growing older and at a fractious point in their relationship for much of it. We are not glued to our desks but there is greater physical distance and less movement due to the aging of the characters. The language of the letters definitely dictates the movement of the play.
Forty years go by during the duration of the show. How do you “age” yourself accordingly?
Mrs. Pat (as she was known to the public) was a consummate actor. We never “admit” our age. In her youth, she was a “graceful glider” and “draper” with her body. I think the gliding and draping were minimized with age but never completely conceded. She had a great deal of back and knee pain late in life so that comes into play toward the end. I will also have some costume changes to help with the visualization of time passing.
The press photos of you and Alan Pollard as GBS are truly handsome. Does wearing a Victorian blouse with a high neck and cameo make your posture better? How does costume figure in this performance?
Thank you! Lowell Sargeant shot the photos and we had a good time at the shoot reading actual love letters written to him by a very young Susan Sargeant! We are really pleased with the photos also. Stella Campbell (as Shaw called her) was fairly bohemian for her time and rarely wore a corset when not onstage but I have obviously been working in a long rehearsal skirt and heels, which inform the restrictive movement consistent with the time. The costuming definitely reminds me that I can’t cross my legs or stride across the room as quickly as I would in a modern-dress play.
Have you worked with Pollard before? How do you create a believable chemistry between two witty people communicating via the mail, and who, in fact, never had sex?
Alan and I met on an out-of-town gig about 10 years ago. The fact that we are friends certainly helps the process in a two-person play. In Dear Liar!, Kilty incorporates scenes that we know from the letters and our research took place in private so the relationship is fleshed out in more than the reading of letters. Shaw was well known for is dalliances with women. There are enough references to physical intimacy in both his and Campbell’s letters to each other to be considered a fully realized relationship by today’s social network standards! Our goal is to stay true to the text and support it with honest character choices so the chemistry happens naturally.
Can you comment on your esteemed director’s style of directing?
Stella has a line to the audience before beginning work on Pygmalion: “I knew I must be thoroughly prepared.” I felt the same going into rehearsal with Susan. She is renowned in the theater community for her exhaustive preparation and research for any play she is directing. She holds herself to extremely high standards and, as an actor, you don’t want to disappoint. Susan mines every word of the text for character clues and allows her actors to consider every possible motivation for the character choices and movement. It is unlikely to have a question that she has not already considered from a director’s point of view. Susan is a very smart woman and encourages intelligent as well as emotional performances.
Off the subject, a bit, but fascinating to me because it demonstrates your great range: I last saw you playing multiple roles in Echo Theater’s wonderful Precious Little, and especially loved your depiction of a super-smart female gorilla dealing with life in a zoo. How do you feel your way into something like that?
Gosh, thank you. Precious Little was a wonderful experience and I have been overwhelmed by the number of fans the Ape has. I should probably create a Facebook page for her! The day after I was cast, I went to the Fort Worth Zoo and spent a long time with the primates, observing and video-recording. I watched more YouTube videos than I can count and I worked with my Pilates instructor to create movement that would suggest a low center of gravity and amazingly graceful economy of movement and gestures (Ibuprofen was also involved). I have to give a shout-out to set designer, Randy Bonifay, and costume designer, Derek Whitener, because their contributions truly helped me feel the weight and girth of the Ape’s body as well as the confines of the environment.
What’s your favorite aspect of Shaw’s favorite muse?
In her early 20’s, Campbell found herself in very difficult financial straits and responsible for her quite extended family. She made the decision to take on the British star system and did not take “no” for an answer. When she became a star herself, she took on producing in an effort to keep creating projects for herself. I admire her intelligent tenacity, her appreciation of Shaw’s wit and her fearlessness in calling him on his blarney.