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Six Utah actors, six questions, so many connections

Published March 12, 2013 2:07 pm

Utah theater • Six local actors, familiar and unfamiliar to one another, take six questions on Utah's collective stage.
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We all know the meme by now. Choose any six people at random, list their immediate and intermediate friends and acquaintances. Compare that list to that of another person selected at random. You will soon discover, according to the theory of Hungarian playwright and journalist Frigyes Karinthy, that six connections at most separate the two.

Playwright John Guare constructed his best-known work, the 1990 phenomenon "Six Degrees of Separation," on that very concept. And so the contagion spread, comforting everyone who heard it with the idea that we're all more closely connected than previously thought.

Selecting six Utah actors — more or less at random but not blind to talent, either — we decided to see how the theory might play (pun intended) in relation to Utah's collective theater stage. Rather than measure Karinthy's theory by degrees removed, however, we decided to measure it by professional proximity across their careers and through the years.

The results, as you might have guessed, hinged greatly on how long each actor has graced various productions at Pioneer Theatre Company, Salt Lake Acting Company, Pygmalion Productions, Plan-B Theatre Company, Grand Theatre, People Productions and others.

Only Dee-Dee Darby Duffin, a relative newcomer to the stage, lacked four connections, even if she has acted with Anne Cullimore Decker for Pygmalion Productions' 2011 staging of "Well," about a young woman's struggle with her mother's hypochondria. But Duffin will work alongside Teresa Sanderson this fall for another production under the same company. Utah's theater world would rather expand, not contract.

Otherwise, every other actor was at most two connections short of a full five, demonstrating the depth to which Utah's acting talent draws on the synergy, wisdom and experience of other actors in the field.

Anne Cullimore Decker, a veteran of the Utah stage who's graced virtually every Utah theater company past and present, discovered that the only other actor she hasn't shared a production with is Sanderson, the toast of Plan-B Theatre Company's most recent production, "Eric(a)." And while she's never shared a stage with Jay Perry, she taught Perry when he studied at the University of Utah's Actor Training Program.

"I taught him everything he knows," Decker joked.

Cynthia Fleming, co-executive producer of Salt Lake Acting Company, said Utah's acting company is a family in almost every sense.

"A growing family, at that," Fleming said. "It's wonderful to see them scale an intimate stage like ours, then take on larger productions at other companies like Pioneer Theatre."

Duffin, Decker, Perry and Sanderson along with actors Colleen Baum and Justin Ivie all met up at SLAC to take six questions and ham it up for the camera.


What inspired you to start acting? • Carol Burnett. Hers was the only show I was allowed to stay up past my bedtime to watch as a child. She made me laugh so hard that I knew I wanted to be like her.

First role? • I played a mom in a Christmas play my elementary school class wrote. … It was the first time I learned I was a character actress, because I didn't get the lead.

How many Utah productions have you acted in? • I don't count them all on my résumé, so I'd have to say between 50 and 60.

Favorite role or performance? • Hannah Pitt in "Angels in America." She was so well written. Just acting out that script was such a joy thanks to [playwright Tony] Kushner's writing.

Role you'd most like to play but haven't? • Martha in Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" It's a great, beefy role. She has so much spunk. I'd love to chew on that role, at least once in my life.

What does Utah theater need now more than ever? • More variety. Don't get me wrong. Utah theater's fantastic. All these young companies have done so well surviving through great contemporary theater. But we don't seem to produce the classics such as Ibsen or Chekhov anymore, when those plays really deserve another look through different angles. Pioneer Theatre Company does that once in a while, but it would be nice to see more. More Shakespeare would be nice, too.


What inspired you to start acting? • I wasn't inspired. I had a nice compliment from my drama teacher at Provo High School, who said he thought I had talent. I never aspired to be an actor. But when someone gives you a sense of direction as you finish high school you think, "Really?

First role? • I attended one year at Brigham Young University, where I got involved in a production of "Taming of the Shrew." I applied for the crew, but the director said everyone had to audition. I got the role of Kate. It was frightening, overwhelming and scary.

How many Utah productions have you acted in? • I'm the last person who can answer that. When I hear people say they've been in more than 100 plays, I think to myself, "I have no idea how many I've acted in." It's not as many productions as people think. I started late and was pretty selective when I started raising my three sons.

Favorite role or performance? • Maria Callas in Terrence McNally's "Master Class" was a favorite. She really got into my bones —a huge role. You're onstage the entire time. I've done it twice, three years ago for Salt Lake Acting Company and 13 years ago, also for Salt Lake Acting Company. Roles based on real-life people get to me the most. Sculptor Camille Claudel, lover to sculptor Auguste Rodin in Aden Ross' 1992 play "K-Mille" for Salt Lake Acting Company.

Role you'd most like to play but haven't? • I'm too old for it, but Eleanor of Aquitaine from James Goldman's "The Lion in Winter." I had the chance to play it when I was young, but vacationed with my sons instead. She's a feisty, wonderful and dynamic woman with brilliant dialogue. Again, I lean toward historical characters.

What does Utah theater need now more than ever? • Not a 2,500-seat theater, that's for sure. However, a 200-seat theater for local productions inside it would be nice. It's really a hard question for me to answer. I'd like to see more productions like Pioneer Theatre Company's "Clybourne Park." We also need more stages for intimate theater. We need more venues for provocative, live performances.


What inspired you to start acting? • I've been a singer, mostly, then found out while onstage I could also act. It wasn't until I was an adult, and got some roles with meat on them, that I finally considered myself an actor.

Your first role? • Rheba, the maid, in Grand Theatre's 2001 production of "You Can't Take It With You." I went to the audition thinking it was a musical, but because they needed an African-American they needed to fill the role. I said, 'But I don't act! I sing!" The director wanted to see me anyway.

How many Utah productions in all have you acted in? • Probably 13 or 14. I don't think I'd go any further than that.

Favorite role or performance? • I'd have to say it's Billie Holiday. I love the character's arc, her complexity, and that I was interpreting what people thought of as just a character, but she was more complex than anything anyone ever knew. She was such a full person to interpret for an audience.

Role you'd most like to play but haven't? • I'm not that savvy about contemporary theater just yet, but there are some wonderful roles I'd want to be a part of. Theater is something in which you start all over again. Every time I finish an amazing role like Billie Holiday, I ask what I'd do next after such an incredible role. The answer is, "You start all over."

What does Utah theater need now more than ever? • Utah as a theater community is growing up. What we need most is an audience willing to be open-minded. What upsets me most is watching an audience member get up and walk out — right in the middle of the performance. To think that walking out is somehow less rude than staying in your seat to listen what a production has to say is appalling. All people have to do is read the liner notes to figure out if a play is for them. Be willing to be uncomfortable for just a moment!


What inspired you to start acting? • I first caught the bug from Kent Burrell, a great drama teacher at West Jordan High School. He did everything: acting, directing, set design and lighting. Every single day — between classes or after school — I hung out in his class to learn everything I could.

First role? • Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof" during sophomore year in high school. I was far too young to play such a role, and far too inexperienced to realize just how in over my head I was.

How many Utah productions in all have you acted in? • More than 100 if you count my school roles.

Favorite role or performance? • Sweeney Todd my senior year at Weber State. I love that it's an opportunity to explore the dark side in all of us. Sweeney goes to a place we never get to go in real life, but playing him, you learn that if the circumstances are right, most of us have the potential to become a killer.

Role you'd most like to play but haven't? • I've always dreamed of playing Iago. He's so wicked and loves it so much. He has such a great time being bad. I do seem to be drawn to playing bad guys, but I'm not alone in that. Actors are drawn to the opportunity of doing something different from everyday experience. Besides that, the bad guy is always better written than the good guy.

What does Utah theater need now more than ever? • More courage to travel toward uncomfortable places and try new things. Let's be willing to jump off cliffs and see where we land. Sometimes I think Utah theater is a little too satisfied with doing the same things.


What inspired you to start acting? • I was always performing little skits in the living room for my parents. Then someone suggested I audition for a part at Murray's Vine Street Theatre. I got further into it at Judge Memorial High School. I played Émile de Becque in "South Pacific" my senior year. After everyone congratulated the cast, I went back to the auditorium alone, stared at the lights and realized acting was what I wanted to do with my life.

First role? • In preschool, I was a munchkin in the Lollipop Guild for "The Wizard of Oz." My mother probably has a photo of me in the cast, but no one else will ever find it.

How many Utah productions in all have you acted in? • Twenty-five, maybe 30 or more.

Favorite role or performance? • A tie between Marcus in Plan-B Theatre Company's 2006-07 production of "Facing East" and Bud in "Gutenberg! The Musical!" Marcus was a perfect role during an almost perfect time in my life. He was the lover of a man who'd just killed himself because he wasn't accepted by his family … a role almost bigger than the play. Bud, by contrast, is more fun every time you play him.

Role you'd most like to play but haven't? • I'd love to try my hand at Iago, Hamlet, Laertes—the big Shakespeare roles. Those characters are right now in the front of my mind. I'm definitely craving some Shakespeare.

What does Utah theater need now more than ever? • We have a wealth of talent here, with a lot of fresh ideas and perspectives. We need a way for companies to work more closely together in a way that suits everyone.


What inspired you to start acting? • If you asked my mom, she'd say I've always been an actor. I carried a tune before I could talk, I was dancing at age 3 and started acting at age 7 in community and church productions. I've just always been drawn to it.

First role? • Snow White in first grade, because I was the only one who'd dare let a boy kiss me.

How many Utah productions in all have you acted in? • I have no idea. From youth to the college years, I was in about five or nine productions per year. As a young mother I did about one production per year. I'm between three and five productions per year right now — as many as they'll hire me for. It's up to at least 100 by now, I'm sure.

Favorite role or performance? • Always the one I'm currently working on, if you know what I mean. I feel honored and privileged to play almost any role.

Role you'd most like to play but haven't? • Golde in "Fiddler on the Roof." Also, Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" There's a million, but those are the two biggies.

What does Utah theater need now more than ever? • Hard to say. Theater in Utah is very impressive. My friends in L.A. are astounded at the amount of work I get here. I think there are ways we could build more bonds between companies so that we're not all staging four different versions of the same production around the same time. We don't really need more of anything, unless of course it's money.


Twitter: @Artsalt







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