The much talked about Quintessence Theatre Group, one of the few ensemble theaters in Philadelphia, under the direction of Alexander Burns, is featuring two of its actors—E. Ashley Izard as Winnie and Gregory Isaac as Willie, the husband—in its latest production of Samuel Beckett’s (1961) Happy Days in a most intimate production and a tour de force, especially by E. Ashley Izard. In this interview, she shares some pretty personal things about her eyes, her voice, her fear of being scooped up in a claustrophobic environment, and the support she is getting from Beckett, the director, the cast, and even other staff members in this most exhausting and yet liberating production.
Henrik: What are some of your earliest childhood memories of your playing and developing a sense of drama and theater?
Ashley: From a very early age, thanks to my wonderful parents, I studied dance, followed by piano, then singing lessons. All three creative expressions lent themselves to performing at various times—whether a dance performance, piano recital, or voice recital. I loved singing in the choir at my school in Nashville, TN, where I grew up. It all began in 5th grade. Singing was my first love. I had an amazing chorus teacher who helped me discover that I was a soprano.
When I first went to college, I was a BA voice major, but by the end of my first year, I found my way to the theater department after having been cast in my very first straight play—The Shadow Box. Ultimately, I found my home in the theater.
You have expressed great reverence for your parents.
Yes, indeed, great reverence for my father, who is still with us—and the same reverence for my dear mother, who passed back in 2009. My mother, who was often my best friend, was also a theater artist. She acted and directed for many years. I had the great pleasure of being directed by her in a few productions when I was in my early 20s. We shared our passion for theater. It was a special bond. She is most with me when I am doing a play.
My father, who had a remarkable career as a psychology research scientist and professor, whose field was Human Emotions, was always supportive of the arts. My parents were also supportive of my two older siblings. My father and my mother had one of those amazing marriages, filled with great love, passion, and mutual respect. They were married for 64 years. I am and will always be indebted to my parents for all that they have given me.
You have a most extraordinary voice that is unmistakably you.
Well, thank you so much, Henrik. I can’t help but chuckle a little, because I, for many years, thought my voice was way too high. I have memories from Grad school of being told to lower it. I also had to learn to take out what Southern accent remained. My regular Ashley voice is a good bit higher than the voice that often comes out when I am playing a role. However, in my current role as Winnie, a lot of my natural register is heard—[artistic director] Alex Burns approved!
A funny side note: when Alex first met me after seeing me audition at the Generals [annual auditions of the Philadelphia Theatre community] three years ago, one of the first things he remarked on was how high my voice was in comparison to what he heard on stage.
Where did you study drama and what were the most important roles you’ve played since?
I went to West Chester University and graduated with a BA in Theatre Arts. I got my MFA in Acting from Temple University. Most important roles—well, some of my favorite roles in the past have been two Christopher Durang pieces, Baby with the Bathwater [Tomlinson Theater of Temple] and Beyond Therapy [Lantern Theater]. I enjoy doing comedy, and I love drama equally. I’ve been most fortunate to play some incredible roles: Nora [A Doll’s House], Mrs. Alving [Ghosts], Madame Ranevsky [The Cherry Orchard], Lady Macbeth [Macbeth], Regan and Goneril [King Lear], Nurse [Romeo and Juliet], and now Winnie [Happy Days].
Happy Days is one of Beckett’s most demanding plays. How did you work yourself into your role as Winnie, the main protagonist?
No question, the most demanding role of my artistic life. When I learned I was going to play Winnie, about two months before rehearsals were to begin, I knew I had to memorize as much as possible before we started. After getting some council from a dear friend on how to go about that, I worked pretty diligently for seven weeks. It was tough going, and very hard to learn. I didn’t get as far as I had wanted to, but was grateful for what I had managed to get into my brain. However, there was still much to learn—and so little time. It was terrifying.
A lot of it I didn’t quite understand, but having Alex Burns as my director has been wonderful. He did understand and together we forged a way into Winnie and this complex, beautiful play. Also having Gregory Isaac as our Willie is wonderful. His input and presence has always been helpful and insightful. I am very lucky to have him there, with me, albeit not seen much by the audience, but believe me, his presence is felt by me—and Winnie.
In a more traditional play, actors get their cues from their fellow actors. However, in this piece, apart from the occasional interactions with Gregory Isaac as Willie, the husband, you carry the bulk of everything being said and done through your facial expressions, movements, even silences. There are literally hundreds, possibly thousands, of nuances with which you present Happy Days to the audience. How did you prepare yourself for this fascinating, if highly demanding and exhausting role?
It was a long process. And for much of it, it was the overwhelming, daunting task of memorization. Our wonderful ASM [assistant stage manager], Janel [Villartoro], was instrumental in assisting me with the learning process, as were some dear friends. Believe me, it took a village! And, aside from all those many words, the emotional ride both high and low—with Alex as my guide—I felt it bubbled up from my core. In a way, my performance of Winnie embodies all that I have ever done in my artistic life and my life itself. That might sound strange, but hey, it’s Beckett. And, it’s Happy Days.
Beckett is one of the few writers who not only insisted that his stage directions must be followed 100%, but he even took some famous directors to court for changing them. How did you and the Quintessence director cope with that legal and artistic restraint? Were there moments when both of you felt tempted to do what a lot of contemporary directors do with older plays, namely re-imaging them?
I think, after my experience, I can understand and respect why Mr. Beckett insisted his stage directions must be followed 100%. They are such an integral part of the play and make it what it is. If anything, Alex and I wanted to stay as true to the course as possible. Now, after breathing Winnie for a while, I have come to realize how it all flows together: the specific stage directions, the numerous pauses, even varied in length, and the rhythm of it all. It just works. And it’s really an incredible ride, to say the least.
Could you describe the way Alex Burns, the director, and you worked together?
This is the eighth play Alex has directed me in. Six were in repertory. We have a good working relationship. I certainly have a lot of respect for him. He is brilliant and works incredibly hard. He not only directs, but designs and builds sets, and is a great photographer. I enjoy collaborating with him and find him to be a wonderful guide.
The director also created the intimate stage design. How did you first respond physically and psychologically being squeezed into this shut-in, claustrophobic heap of sand and pebbles?
At first, especially for Act II, I did panic some. However, Alex made some adjustments and in time, I got used to it—much to my surprise.
In his program note, the director wrote, “Do not expect naturalism. If you expect anything that corresponds to traditional narrative, drama, or action, you will be frustrated until the play’s climax.” Facing the audience, what responses have you observed to this surreal and challenging drama?
Fortunately, for me and my nerves, I am somewhat near-sighted. And I don’t wear contacts. The combination of the above—plus Solomon [Weisbard]’s incredible, very bright lighting, installed by John Allerheiligen, the master electrician—does not allow me to see faces specifically, which is a good thing. However, the one thing I have reflected on as of late, is just how quiet the audience is at times. Not a bad quiet—one that seems like they are really listening and taking this journey with me and Winnie.
The play is a marathon, and I really don’t have that inner voice going on about what’s happening in front of me with the audience the way I sometimes do with other roles. I just have to keep on going, ‘cause, well, I talk for one hour and eight minutes—pretty much non-stop in Act I. It’s just my head talking for 33 minutes straight in Act II. So crazy!
What have audience members told you about their experiences with Happy Days?
I have had some incredible responses from audience members. Some most heartfelt. I am always humbled by such encounters. It’s that connection you dream of, at least for me, to make with your fellow human beings—especially through one’s craft. It’s times like those I feel lifted and grounded at the same time.
During this whirlwind experience into the surreal world of Beckett—before, during, or after your performance—what responses to Happy Days are you experiencing within yourself?
Before, I am always very nervous. During, I’m just going from one moment to the next—trying to plug away, and live in Winnie. Right after, as I am leaving the mound, I sometimes cry.
How do you cope with your emotional overflow after those intensive performances—all by yourself?
Sometimes, I give a high five to Janel [Villartoro], but even as I walk back to the dressing room, arm-in-arm with Greg [Isaac], I am just worn out—exhausted from what has occurred— yet, most grateful that I managed to get through another climb. I might add, before each Act, our wonderful PSM [production stage manager] Shannon [Kearns], accompanies me from the dressing room to the mound. I hang on to her for dear life. That walk with her gives me courage to face what is ahead of me. And when I see Janel, who is there, crouched underneath the mound to my left, throughout the whole show, I always greet her with “Hello, friend.”
All of these people make it happen, including our costume designer, Jane [Casanave]; the general manager, Wes [Somerville]; our wonderful company and house manager, Mara Burns; our interns, Leo [Neyman] and Dana [Maginity]; our box office managers, Madeline [Addis] and Mariliz [Diccicco]; and everyone else at Quintessence Theatre Group. It really takes a village.
What do you do to relax after your brilliant, but draining tour de force?
Typically, I will hang out at the theater with some folks—or go out for some food and drink.
If you had an opportunity to talk with Beckett, what would you tell him or what would you ask him?
Thank you, Mr. Beckett, for writing Happy Days! And, thank you for inspiring Alex Burns to want to direct it. I feel most fortunate to have experienced Winnie. I hope you would approve.
Ashley, thank you for all that you have brought to the Philadelphia theater world. What are your next plans?
Thank you, Henrik—most kind of you to say. My next plans are two short trips to see shows and visit friends. Can’t wait!
Is there anything else you would like to share?
No, I think I have prattled away enough . . . a la Winnie! By the way—I do love her!
Thank you—another happy day. We love you, too, Ashley.
Running Time: 2 hours, with a 15-minute intermission.
Happy Days plays through this Sunday, June 26, 2016 at Quintessence Theatre Group, performing at The Sedgwick Theater – 7137 Germantown Avenue (Mount Airy), in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets call (215) 987-4450, or purchase them online.
Review: ‘Happy Days’ at Quintessence Theatre Group in Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy.