A rare vortex of D.C. stars, on one stage
Three veteran actresses — Robinette, Schraf, Twyford — performing at Ford’s
A hazard of being a Washington stage actress: It can isolate you from your female peers.
“ There’s this powerful core of women of a certain age in the Washington theater community who don’t intersect very often,” says actress Kimberly Schraf.
Schraf, a 25-year veteran of Washington theater, is getting a rare chance to act with two pillars of the scene, Nancy Robinette and Holly Twyford. The three women are sharing the stage at Ford’s Theatre in Horton Foote’s “ The Carpetbagger’s Children,” swapping monologues as they play Texan siblings looking back at the complexities of love, landowning and their opportunistic daddy’s stern legacy.
Twyford, nodding toward Robinette, says: “We’ve never done a show together.” Twyford and Schraf figure they’ve been onstage together only once before. Schraf says she’s understudied Robinette several times, but has been cast with her in only a handful of productions.
“Men have it easier,” Robinette says. “I’m gonna put it out there: Men have more roles.”
Twyford says, “A play with just three women is remarkable. And three women over 40 is remarkable, too.”
Thanks on this occasion are partly due to Foote, author of “ The Trip to Bountiful” (which will be revived in March at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre with an African American cast). The late Foote had a reputation for creating intriguing
— Holly Twyford
female roles; Schraf says, “He does write a great Texas woman. And the men tend to be a little paler.”
Ironically, even as “ The Carpetbagger’s Children” is bringing these performers together, it enforces a certain distance. Foote’s 2002 drama is built of monologues that interlock but only briefly overlap into dialogue. The sisters tell the family story from individual memory, unwinding the tale one at a time.
“We have six lines together,” Robinette jokes.
It seems unlikely and a touch unfair that their paths haven’t crossed more often, given the years these performers have worked in the same circles. Twyford, a comparative newcomer, made her debut in the early 1990s, and has since won Helen Hayes Awards for everything from high contemporary comedy (“The Little Dog Laughed” last year at Signature Theatre) to classical tragedy (as the doomed, jeans-wearing heroine in “Romeo and Juliet” at the Folger Theatre in 1998).
Schraf is a stalwart whose star has risen lately: She helped set the savvy tone for Ford’s surprisingly breezy “Sabrina Fair” last fall, and she roped in her first Hayes nominations in supporting roles the last two years (for the intensely racy “Measure for Pleasure” at Woolly Mammoth and for “Show Boat” at Signature Theatre).
Robinette, the grand dame
Robinette, of course, is the doyenne of Washington actresses, a 16-time Hayes nominee and five time winner who broke in nearly 30 years ago and whose career parallels the coming-of-age of Washington theater. Robinette started her career late — when her son, now 38, was 7 years old.
“I wish I had known earlier that it was possible to be an actor,” she says, during an interview with the actresses at the downtown church that Ford’s uses as a rehearsal hall. A professor at the University of Kansas had offered encouragement: “Just a gentle, ‘You should do this,’ ” Robinette recalls. “Nothing more than that.” Returning to Washington, where she grew up, Robinette began taking classes with Joy Zinoman at the Studio Theatre.
“I felt like I needed to go back to who I used to be when I’d studied in school,” Robinette says. The 1980s were a brave new time for emerging troupes. “A lot of people were hooking up to see how far they could go with this work. So I feel fortunate that I caught that wave. But I didn’t call myself an actor for the longest time.” The pay wasn’t great, of course, and day jobs — typically office temp work— were a necessity for years.
By night, Robinette, equally comfortable being dotty or ferocious, knocked out audiences in demanding, sometimes wacko comedy-dramas at Woolly (“Fat Men in Skirts”), Studio (Martin McDonagh’s “ The Beauty Queen of Leenane”) and Round House (Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”). She drew more confidence from classes with the much-admired Arena actor Stanley Anderson, and she gradually broke in with Arena and, finally, the Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Still, the ground beneath her feet was shaky enough that by the beginning of the last decade Robinette got an agent and relocated to New York for a period. She was never off Washington stages for long, though, and playing Birdie opposite Elizabeth Ashley’s Regina in Lillian Hellman’s “ The Little Foxes” at the Shakespeare Theatre in 2002 turned out to be a new level of triumph. “ The agency took me seriously,” she says, “and that felt like a big sea change in terms of wider audience.”
Family factors led Robinette back to the D.C. area, where she lives with her husband. “I think I have a fierce pride in the fact that I’ve been able to cobble this would-be artistic life,” Robinette says. “And I think a lot of people in town are, too — that movement, we’re all fiercely proud, is how I would characterize it.”
Robinette, having to move on to another show, was replaced by Schraf in Studio’s hit drama “Frozen” in 2006, a near-convergence that Schraf calls “ the wildest ride
“A play with just three women is remarkable. And three women over 40 is remarkable, too.”
ofmy life.” Schraf learned the part — which was substantial enough that Robinette would earn a lead actress Hayes nomination for it— in nine days, and the substitution drew a rare second look at the production from The Post’s Peter Marks, who called the actresses’ differently shaded performances “nearly equally effective.”
Schraf, the tough broad
Schraf, who Twyford notes “ has the lion’s share” of the material in “ The Carpetbagger’s Children,” graduated from St. John’s great books program in Annapolis and then briefly helped start a small company outside her home town of Pittsburgh. Lured by friends, she came to Washington on New Year’s Day 1984 intending to act. Like Robinette, Schraf studied with Anderson (his class is where they met) and with Zinoman, landed her first gig at the Studio in 1987’s “As Is.” There was one year where nothing came her way, but otherwise Schraf — who juggles a host of non-acting commitments and has been with actor Craig Wallace for 17 years — has kept busy.
“I think I’ve played a lot of ramrod, straight and strong and tough broads,” says Schraf, whose credits include “ The Women” both at Studio in 1991 and at Arena in 1999. “Gals. But it’s that yin yang of where is the crack— or the ache or the loss — under the veneer. And I think I’ve been lucky in that the pattern of women, of late, has been diverse.”
Twyford, the phoenix
Diversity has been thrust upon Twyford ever since her emergence with the Consenting Adults troupe in the early 1990s. She began in the wig department at Arena Stage. “Somebody said to me, ‘If you ever want to act here, you have to leave the costume shop,’ ” Twyford says. “And they were right.”
Soon she had bit parts at Arena and more substantial chances that included playing the Katharine Hepburn role in “Desk Set” at Studio and a slice of Hamlet when the Dane was psychologically quartered — played by four performers — at the Folger. Twyford can tell funny stories about the humiliation of being an extra on Hollywood projects shot here, but she can also tell about being so generally burned out after the bleak Russian drama “Black Milk” at Studio in 2005 that she stopped acting for a few years.
“You sort of get on this roll of needing to say yes to everything,” Twyford says. “And I wasn’t focusing on anything in my personal life. It was too much. I had a long discussion with another actress in town about this who has since stopped acting completely, I think. And she said, ‘I know exactly what you’re talking about.’ ”
Yet last year, Twyford, who grew up in Great Falls and didn’t make the cut after two years in the Boston University acting program (she then transferred to the more general theater studies), not only won the Hayes Award for outstanding lead actress, she was nominated three times in the category. Last fall, she romped drunkenly through the farcical “A Fox on the Fairway.” In May, she will make her Shakespeare Theatre Company debut as Michael Kahn directs her in Harold Pinter’s “Old Times.” How did she go from burned out to all this?
“I don’t know,” she says easily. “People keep calling.”
She expands: “Since Helena”— Twyford’s 3-year-old daughter with longtime partner Saskia Mooney— “I can sort of manage it a little bit, because I don’t ever do anything that overlaps.” Overlaps are when actors rehearse the next show by day while playing the current show at night.
The question is put to all three actors as to whether Washington theater is using these performers in the fullest, best sense? Robinette volunteers: “It could give us lead roles [in the biggest theaters]. It’s really time. . . . I would like to be able to audition against [New York-based actress] Kathleen Chalfant, for instance. I would like the opportunity to have that director see both of us.” Why isn’t it happening? “Name,” Twyford suggests. “The perceived need of the star to get the butts in the seats. . . . I guess they just don’t think we’ll sell the tickets.” All three performers chafe briefly against the label “ local,” suggesting that it’s healthier to simply think of actors as actors.
At the same time, it was Schraf who earlier spoke of the pleasures of working with old friends, which was true for much of the “Sabrina Fair” company: “It’s kind of an underpinning. That was really lovely, and it’s lovely about this, too. You have something warm around you.”
PILLARS OF THE STAGE: Kimberly Schraf, left, Nancy Robinette andHolly Twyford, in a scene from “ The Carpetbagger’s Children” at Ford’s Theatre. TheHorton Foote play is giving the three veteran actresses a rare chance to perform together.
SEASONED CAST: Twyford, left, says she and Robinette, seated, have never done a show together. Twyford and Schraf figure they’ve been onstage together only once before.