San Francisco Chronicle
Award-winning Laurie Metcalf offers insight to actors at camp in mountains.
Metcalf offers encouragement as well as realism
Laurie Metcalf never went to anything like Young Actors’ Theatre Camp when she was young.
Growing up in Edwardsville, Ill., the three-time Emmy Award winner (“Roseanne”), two-time Tony winner (“Three Tall Women” and “A Doll’s House, Part 2”) and Oscar nominee (“Ladybird”) was “very, very shy,” she told a rapt audience at the esteemed theater camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
She didn’t “get up nerve to audition for something” until she was a junior in high school, she explained to the campers at a master class on Thursday, July 26. Some members of her audience, by contrast, were as young as 7 years old.
The implication was that if a relative late-bloomer like Metcalf can make it — helping to found Steppenwolf Theatre Company, performing recurring roles in “The Big Bang Theory,” “Getting On” and “Desperate Housewives” and weathering the recent “Roseanne” controversies to garner another nomination — there’s no reason these campers couldn’t succeed as well.
Answering campers’ queries about her career and coaching seven of them on monologues, Metcalf gave encouragement tempered by realism. Of stage work in particular, she said, “I never would have thought I would still, at my age now, love it just as much as ever.”
One tip for developing a character is to “get rid of the punctuation” in the script at first, so that the actor has to come up with his or her own logic for pauses and emphasis.
As for nervousness, “it never goes away,” she says.
Metcalf found out about the 17year-old YATC through two-time Tony winner and “Younger” star Sutton Foster, who’s also taught at the camp. Metcalf ’s younger daughter, Mae, is a camper this year; Metcalf says this was her first time talking about acting with Mae in the audience.
Camp co-founders Shawn Ryan and John Ainsworth book highprofile master class instructors like Darren Criss, Jonathan Groff, Idina Menzel and Beyoncé choreographer James Alsop through word of mouth as well as their own connections in TV and film. (Ainsworth
has performed in “Glee” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” among others, while Ryan has appeared on “The Mentalist” and “America’s Got Talent.”)
Their campers — 500 of them across multiple sessions each summer — sport T-shirts and tote bags emblazoned with titles of recent musicals: “Come From Away,” “Dear Evan Hansen.”
One young boy wears a magenta tutu. “He hasn’t taken it off since he got here,” says camp Associate Director Valerie Dohrer, “and we wouldn’t have it any other way.”
As confident as they seem, the campers still furiously scribble notes when Metcalf admits that she’s “still inhibited on camera,” which is why theater will always be her true love.
“I have a longtime camera phobia,” Metcalf admits after the master class. “You’d think it would be cured by now. But it isn’t, and so now I realize that it never will be. So it’s just something I have to work around. It makes me self-conscious in a way that makes me aware that I’m acting . ... I end up using too much energy trying not to be inhibited by it.”
She says she knows that actors who like working on camera “know how to work with it almost as a scene partner, but I’ve never made that connection.”
That sentiment belies her recent accolades. Of returning to “Roseanne” after two decades, Metcalf says it was strange “for the first 15 minutes, but then it felt like a nice pair of old slippers.” Amidst the show’s turmoil, she just received another Emmy nod, which she called “flattering.”
But as for Roseanne Barr’s racist tweet about Valerie Jarrett and subsequent ouster from the show, Metcalf says, “I don’t even know how to talk about that. To tell you the truth, I haven’t done any press since the whole thing blew, on purpose.” (She also says she has no knowledge of what shape the show’s successor, “The Connors,” will take.)
Metcalf was more than ready, however, to talk about her Broadway turn in “Three Tall Women,” Edward Aland bee’s 1990 play in which an elderly woman on her deathbed (Glenda Jackson) talks to two younger women (Metcalf and Alison Pill) who turn out to be two younger versions of herself.
“There’s no frills” of diva in the 82-year-old Jackson (who will play the title role in “King Lear” on Broadway next spring), Metcalf says. ”I thought I had good stamina; she could go all day long.”
In rehearsal, as Jackson’s character talked talked, Metcalf at first “was being very mindful of being very still and quiet and being the good acting partner, the listener,” but that wasn’t working.
Eventually, director Joe Mantello gave her permission to be bored with Jackson’s character’s ramblings; she even had a deck of cards she turned to.
Her job then became about “exploring the role of a caregiver, which is filled with tons of feelings in any given day, of frustration and empathy and then wanting to kill the person and then sharing a laugh together.”
In all her recent work, including “A Doll’s House, Part 2” and “Ladybird,” Metcalf says she’s been fortunate to play “all really remarkable, strong women.”
“Any female role I’m asked to interpret, I try to find the strength at the core of them,” she adds.
It’s hard to imagine Metcalf playing a quivering victim, or “a shaky Blanche DuBois,” as she puts it, with a laugh.
“In my interpretation of that, I would have to find the rod of steel, and she does have that,” she says. “So maybe in my version, it would come forward more than in other people’s versions. But it is there. It’s there in every great character.”