Henrik Eger: What made you decide to ask Kittson O’Neill to become the director of your latest production at the Hedgerow?
Penelope Reed: Hedgerow’s artistic director Jared Reed was seeking a director for ON THE VERGE. We had thought one of our treasured directors, Dan Hodge, would be leading the team, but he was off to Walnut Street and a lead in Private Lives. Our production had been cast and some design staff chosen, but we needed a powerful director, as Hedgerow has committed to getting fabulous directors to grow the company.
We both heard simultaneously (from two separate and most esteemed colleagues) about this incredible director and actress, Kittson O’Neill. When Jared heard this and that she loved and knew the play deeply, he knew she would be perfect. I was a little anxious as, having read the play and the part, I thought, “I hope this terrific, new director will enjoy the company we’ve handed to her and that I can rise to the role of Mary.” When I met her, I was overjoyed, because her clarity, discipline and commitment to consistency were palpable. I knew immediately that we were in the best of hands.
Eger: Looking back at your many years as an actor and director, what do you remember about the first time you acted professionally and worked with an experienced director?
Reed: This is a little difficult as I had the great fortune to work with some terrific local directors with the Brandywiners, Wilmington Drama League in Delaware, among many others as a young teen. Some of these directors were terrific. However, there names have passed me by. At 15, when I joined the Equity Summer Stock Robin Hood Theatre (now known as Candle-Light Theatre), I had the fortune of working with New York Directors Winston Sharples, Bill Woodman, Pirie McDonald, all of whom hired major seasoned actors and actresses from New York. The work was even as we turned around a show in one week. I realized the discipline and passion required by watching these amazing professionals. While another show was running, a lot had to be learned, executed and shared in those 6 days.
After two summers (while playing throughout the school year in shows at local theatres) I went to Perry Mansfield School of Theatre and Dance in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. I discovered the actual intense study of the art form–day in day out, with extraordinarily talented other young artists, we learned under the intense professional guidance by Kingo Perry and Portia Mansfield.
But all that paled in the fall of my senior year, when my father died. My mother moved to Rose Valley, and I began to study with Jasper Deeter. This was truly mind-altering as the depth and breadth of his experience was daunting and prepared me well for basing my work on truth before technique. I received my Equity Card at the Summer Theatre and on Carnegie, too, where I spent four magnificent, intense yeas–more competitive than anything I’ve seen in theatre in the 45 years +. Off I went to The Milwaukee Repertory for 13 years and later to The McCarter Theatre and then to the Hedgerow—all the while being an actress, director, and teacher.
Eger: Compared to those days, what was different this time working with Kittson O’Neill, a younger director?
Reed: What I love about Kittson is her depth of experience in theatre, theatre technique, and huge mind for dramaturgy, exploring character, and extraordinary sensitivity and understanding of how to get her ideas and vision across. I have never seen people as “younger” or “older” determining their quality.
All I know is that I saw her as a kindred spirit who is in sync with any cherished director—a kind, generous person for whom I would try any idea she came up with. Because of these qualities of hers, I would give her 150%, often challenging her to bring my choices where she wanted. I also saw her do the same with the other actors and designers. She has a style from which we all can learn.
Eger: Theater critic Neal Zoren praises your “thoughtful, classically-styled take on Mary.” Tell us more about the discussion between you and the director on portraying this role.
Reed: What you see is what we made together as an ensemble of four, bouncing Kittson’s take on the play. I consciously did not do any in depth thinking about the play. Not only because I was directing 60 some people in our A CHRISTMAS CAROL (huge job annually), but I really wanted to experience her take on this obviously complicated material before I made any choices. I’m sure it was difficult for her in that first week—she’d never worked with me before, didn’t know I was back onstage acting (having had much focus on keeping the Hedgerow going), having this more mature actress bushwhack, climb cliffs, skate on invisible ice working with actors half her age, while holding script in hand. Again my summer stock experience told me I could get the lines, but I wanted her vision and depth coming off what the others actors were sharing. I love ensemble work.
Eger: Describe a scene where the two of you collaborated successfully?
Reed: We had lots of laughs. I guess the funniest was the scene where Mary (my character) shares her experiences in the casino and acts out the floorshow Girls a’ Poppin. Having never seen such an exhibition myself, I need guidance. Kittson said there was going to come a time where I would “want to kill her” for her suggestions. Never happened.
With every suggestion, I took it and ran as far as I could. We discovered pole dancing on Google, exotic dancing, etc. Kittson’s brilliance at dance gave me great ideas. I just followed. However, seriously, the most profound collaboration was Mary’s osmosing the future toward the end of the play. Images come to Mary [the character] fast and furious, and the acting job is to keep up with Mary’s words. This was much challenging fun.
Eger: How did you handle a scene where there might have been creative differences?
Reed: We didn’t have any. That’s the truth. I trusted her completely.
Eger: Where there any funny moments in your interactions with O’Neill—on stage and off stage?
Reed: Many. I remember the first time I launched into the moment where Mary thinks Cool Whip is Noxema and smears it on her face. The company wasn’t ready, but I went with it and covered my face. Cool Whip going everywhere—I have a sort of abandon when I feel free and that someone I trust I watching. Well, rehearsal had to stop for a moment as everyone was laughing so hard.
So many other hilarious moments.
The only non-happy moments for all of the [three] ladies of the entire experience was dealing with the packs and particularly the umbrella holders. So for the delight of having a great personal experience on stage, we all take it as part of the journey: Life imitating art and vice versa.
Eger: You seem to have had a great time. Describe those moments where you and O’Neill dialogued, and perhaps even changed roles during certain moments of the rehearsal process.
Reed: Kittson will use any technique to get her point across, which I love—physically or vocally. As an actress who “wants to get it right, ” I love coaching. However, she never tells you how to do it. She guides you to it. Brilliant.
Eger: I enjoyed your portrayal of the Victorian explorer, who travelled all the way into the 1950’s and then seemed to wonder whether to return to her life in the previous century.Is there anything else you would like us to know about your work with O’Neill and her colleagues?
Reed: Actually, Mary returns to her method of approaching the future. She moves ON to discover, explore, and illuminate “new worlds, within and without.” She doesn’t return to 1888. Instead, she goes with her yearning for the future into the TYVEK—with dark distances and clusters of light leading the way.
Eger: If ON THE VERGE is a celebration of self-discovery by three Victorian ladies, what did you discover about yourself as an actor-director working with a young director?
Reed: I guess what I discovered about myself was that I am as young, creative and eager to explore as the extraordinary team Jared and Kittson put together. I am so grateful every night to work with M.R. [Maryruth Stine], who teaches me risk; Jennifer [Summerfield], who teaches me grace; and Brock [Vickers], who teaches me charm and nuance.
I am grateful every night for the brilliance of Aaron Cromie, who designed and Zoran [Kovcic], who built the extraordinary TYVEK set and clock platforms. I’m grateful to Jared [Reed] whose lights changed our adventures from tropics and jungles to mountains and snow; to Patrick [Lamborn] who created character with sound; grateful to the five stalwart folks backstage who make the environment and costume changes happen. Oh, and the problem-solving prop people, who brought in many artifacts and dealt with our continuing pleas for help about our backpacks and those nasty umbrella challenges.
The only real sadness is that we opened the show, and Kittson, our leader and partner, had to leave. It is fun, every night, and we’d love to share it with her. In short . . .Kittson ROCKS!