Kathleen Chalfant, Actress-Episode #148

Feb 16, 2021 | 2 comments

The revered actress, Kathleen Chalfant, has spent more than five decades performing on stage, screen and TV. Perhaps best known for her devastating portrayal of Vivian Bearing, a scholar battling cancer, in Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, Wit, for which she received numerous awards, including: the Obie, Drama Desk, Lucille Lortel, Outer Critics Circle, and Ovation.

Kathleen made her Broadway debut in Dance with Me, followed by M. Butterfly.  She portrayed six distinct characters, including Hannah Pitt and Ethel Rosenberg in the original cast of Tony Kushner’s groundbreaking Angels in America, receiving nominations for both the Tony and Drama Desk Awards.

Among her dozens of performances on New York stages, Kathleen has starred in A Woman of the World, Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday, Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, for which she won the Obie, and Twelve Dreams, which was written and directed by James Lapine.

Kathleen has graced some of America’s most prominent stages, including the McCarter, Long Wharf, Guthrie, Yale Rep, Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, Mark Taper Forum, and many others.

You may have seen Kathleen on the silver screen in movies like: Kinsey, Duplicity, The People Speak, A Price Above Rubies, and The Last Days of Disco, and many more.

She’s also well-known for her numerous TV appearances, including playing Margaret Butler on Showtime’s The Affair.  And on Doubt, The Guardian, Rescue Me, House of Cards, The Americans, Madame Secretary, Elementary, all of the various Law and Orders, and in TV movies, like: A Death in the Family, Lackawanna Blues, Stephen King’s Storm of the Century and Georgia O’Keefe.

Kathleen’s a founding member of The Women’s Project. And in 1975 she helped Robert Moss establish Playwright’s Horizons in its home on 42nd Street.

Among her many influential turns as an acting teacher, she’s on the faculty of the graduate acting program at The New School.



Read the Podcast Transcript

Narrator: This is StoryBeat with Steve Cuden, a podcast for the creative mind. StoryBeat explores how masters of creativity develop and produce brilliant works that people everywhere love and admire. So join us as we discover how talented creators find success in the worlds of imagination and entertainment. Here now is your host, Steve Cuden.

Steve Cuden: Thanks for joining us on StoryBeat. We’re coming to you from the Steel City, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. StoryBeat episodes are available at storybeat.net and on all major podcast apps and platforms. If you like this episode, won’t you please take a moment to leave us a rating or review, and please subscribe to StoryBeat wherever you listen to podcasts.

Well, my guest today, the revered actress, Kathleen Chalfant, has spent more than five decades performing on stage, screen and TV. Perhaps best known for her devastating portrayal of Vivian Bearing, a scholar battling cancer in Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Wit, for which she received numerous awards including the OB, Drama Desk, Lucille Lortel, Outer Critic Circle, and Ovation.

Kathleen made her Broadway debut in Dance with Me, followed by M Butterfly. She portrayed six distinct characters, including Hannah Pitt and Ethel Rosenberg in the original cast of Tony Kushner’s groundbreaking Angels in America, receiving nominations for both the Tony and Drama Desk Awards. Among her dozens of performances on New York stages, Kathleen has starred in a Woman of the World, Sarah Rules for Peter Pan on her 70th birthday, Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads for which she won the OB and 12 Dreams, which was written and directed by James Lapine.

Kathleen has graced some of America’s most prominent stages, including the McCarter, Long Wharf, Guthrie, Yale Rep, Actors Theater of Louisville, Mark Taper Forum, and many others. You may have seen Kathleen on the silver screen in movies like Kinsey, Duplicity, the People Speak, A Price Above Rubies, the Last Days of Disco, and many more. She’s also well known for her numerous TV appearances, including playing Margaret Butler on Showtime’s The Affair and On Doubt, The Guardian, Rescue Me, House of Cards, The Americans, Madame Secretary, Elementary, all of the various Law & Orders and in TV movies like a Death in the Family, Lackawanna Blues, Stephen King’s Storm of the Century, and Georgia O’Keeffe.

Kathleen’s a founding member of the Women’s Project. In 1975, she helped Robert Moss establish Playwrights Horizons in its home on 42nd Street. Among her many influential turns as an acting teacher, she’s on the faculty of the graduate acting program at the New School. So for all those reasons and many more, I’m deeply honored to welcome the towering force of nature that is Kathleen Chalfant to StoryBeat today. Kathleen, welcome to the show.

Kathleen Chalfant: Thank you, Steve. I’m very happy to be here.

Steve Cuden: Well, I’m very happy to have you here. So let’s go back in time a little bit to your origins. I know that when you first started going to college, you studied Greek. It had nothing to do with the theater, although the Greeks were pretty good at the theater. What was it that eventually got you interested in being not only involved in the theater, but performing?

Kathleen Chalfant: Well, actually, my study in Greek was the anomaly. All my life before that, I’d never really wanted to do anything seriously, but be an actor. So when I was a little kid, I was not an only child. My older brother was 14 years older, and he’s dead now, but I refer to him always as my glamorous gay brother. He was the person closest to the theater that I knew when I was a kid. But when I was little, my grandmother used to take me to the movies, and I would act out the movies in the backyard.

For a long time, actually wanted to be a cowboy in the cowboy movies because I loved horses, and I perfected a kind of cowboy smirk that I worked on a lot. Then in high school, I did all plays in the drama department and worked at a small community theater in Alameda, California. because I grew up in Oakland, California on Fruitvale Avenue, an avenue that some people might know.

Steve Cuden: Yes, indeed.

Kathleen Chalfant: So anyway, I firmly intended to do the theater at college where I went to Stanford. I was then 17. My boyfriend had just gotten kicked out of college. He lived in Oakland, and I lived in Palo Alto. They were 90 minutes apart. Both the theater and the boyfriend happened at night. So I have to say that for this entirely noble reason, I didn’t do the theater. He was an intellectual, a philosopher, a lover of phenomenology and all like that. He thought that I should study Greek. I had a free period as a freshman to study Greek, because in those days, the California public school system, of which I was a product, was one of the great educational institutions in the world.

I went to it all my life and I ended up with a scholarship to Stanford, but I also ended up not having to take freshman biology at Stanford like everybody else did, because we had laboratory biology in my inner-city high school in Oakland, California. So anyway, so then I studied Greek and somehow, I forgot what I had always wanted to do.

Steve Cuden: But you got back to it somehow?

Kathleen Chalfant: Well, I did in a very specific way actually, that had something to do with Greek because I met, while studying Greek, my husband, who’s now my husband Henry. I went through quickly and he went through pretty slowly otherwise we’d have missed each other altogether because He’s five years older.

Steve Cuden: I was going to say you went and studied Greek because you were in love, but your real love, which was the theater you had to get back to.

Kathleen Chalfant: I had to get back to, and that love, the way you’re in love when you’re 17, I stayed with that man for a while for three years. But then I took up with Henry and I graduated early. So Stanford has the quarter system. So I graduated at the end of the fall semester. So on Christmas break, rather, it was kind of a big deal in those days. It was 1965. Henry and I went to Mexico together. On the way back, because I was supposed to start a graduate program in Greek at the end of the Christmas break, I said to Henry, I really don’t want to teach Greek to prep school boys. He said, well, what do you want to do? I said, well, I’ve always wanted to be an actress. He said, why don’t you do that?

Steve Cuden: Well, that was very good. That was very encouraging.

Kathleen Chalfant: Well, that was very encouraging. I can’t believe I was 20, not quite 21. I did, I think what must have been the most courageous thing I’ve ever done in my life after explaining to my parents that I was in Mexico with Henry, which caused a certain amount of kerfuffle. But then I went to the university and said, I’m going to have to pay you back my graduate fellowship because I’m leaving graduate school. I had just been elected chief justice of the student court, even though I went to Mexico with my boyfriend. So I said, I won’t be able to be the chief justice of the student court either. I left school and I got a job and enrolled in an acting course.

Steve Cuden: Near Stanford.

Kathleen Chalfant: In San Francisco.

Steve Cuden: San Francisco. Was ACT around at that time?

Kathleen Chalfant: No, it wasn’t. ACT wasn’t around at that time. What I should have done, which is in part an answer to your last question, what I should have done was to have applied to a graduate acting program. I probably would’ve gotten into it. But I don’t think I believed that I had a right to do that. I don’t think I believed that the thing that I wanted to do was serious enough. So I began studying with an acting teacher in San Francisco, a man named Larry Badini, who had spent many years, even though he was Italian, at the Abbey Theater in Dublin and was a follower of Stanislavski. I studied with him for that year.

Steve Cuden: The reason why I go back in time with folks is to kind of show the listeners that you’re not just all on the stage at the beginning as somebody who’s in a lead part. It usually takes a while to get there. What I find fascinating about what you just said is, is that you have a degree, if not a large degree, of insecurity about whether you should be doing this or not. You knew you wanted to, but you weren’t certain. Yet you’re the hallmark of pretty much every performance I’ve ever seen you in, is great certainty. When you’re on stage or on a film or TV show, we know that you know what you’re doing. It’s not in doubt. So the fact that you started off not sure of yourself or whether this was the smart move, I find interesting.

Kathleen Chalfant: Well, that continued for a long time. I mean, I now finally at 75 believe that I know two things. I believe I know how to do something, and also that acting is something. We all understand that singing is a thing and dancing is a thing, and gymnastics are a thing, and downhill racing are a thing. But it takes a while to understand that acting isn’t just talking. I have to say I had an epiphany about it in a kind of extraordinary way, which is a wonderful story. This sounds like one of those stories that you put in your memoirs because it involves Corin and Vanessa Redgrave. For reasons that are too difficult to explain, they both are friends of ours. But anyway, as people may know, about five years before he died, Corin had a terrible, I guess, stroke. Nobody ever could explain exactly what it was and nearly died and was unconscious for a long time. When he woke up, he had no short-term memory, and it never came back. So maybe a year and a half after the event, Corin was staying with us at our house and the year leading up to the event, he’d been very, very active in all sorts of politics. One important issue was getting the British detainees out of Guantanamo. When Corin was staying with us, somebody came and brought him poems from some of the detainees that he’d worked with who were still in Guantanamo. As it happened, when that happened Vanessa was visiting and we were in our kitchen, which was just off the living room, Vanessa and I making lemonade for everybody. Corin started to read those poems cold off the paper, and it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. That’s when I absolutely knew that acting is a thing. Corin did a number of other events. He did a whole bunch of quite long theatrical events that he read because he couldn’t remember the lines and was in quite a number of movies. But that was a great revelation to me.

Steve Cuden: So that was a moment of epiphany for you that this is something that not only was a thing, but really something that you wanted to do forever?

Kathleen Chalfant: I mean, this was only 10 years ago. Not even.

Steve Cuden: Oh, this is only 10 years ago.

Kathleen Chalfant: Only 10 years ago.

Steve Cuden: So you’re saying that this entire time you weren’t sure acting was a thing?

Kathleen Chalfant: I guess I didn’t understand how it was. I didn’t really understand that it was like singing and dancing and downhill racing and all like that. I mean, I must have known.

Steve Cuden: Sometimes actors get paid huge sums of money. So it must be a thing.

Kathleen Chalfant: I guess. I’m thinking, I mean, now I know it is. After we got married, Henry and I moved to Europe, and we lived in Rome for a couple of years. I studied in Rome with a wonderful, wonderful teacher named Alessandro Fersen, F-E-R-S-E-N, he’s dead now. He too was a Stanislavsky and he actually looked like Stanislavsky. So I studied acting in Italian in Italy, which was a wonderful experience. But one of the things that interested him, that he used to talk about was what was the impulse in people to want to turn into somebody else?

Steve Cuden: Interesting.

Kathleen Chalfant: That was the kind of acting that was interesting to him. The sort of transformative kind of acting. The invisible kind. I like to think of it as the difference between—shows my generation—but the difference between Lawrence Olivier, who was a performative actor and liked you to see how it was done.

Steve Cuden: Right.

Kathleen Chalfant: Ralph Richardson, who was completely mysterious all the time.

Steve Cuden: Right. Well, wasn’t it Olivier who famously said that once he had the costume and the shoes and the hair, then he was in character.

Kathleen Chalfant: Actually, he said once he had the nose.

Steve Cuden: The nose. Well, that’s definitely performative. That was from the outside in.

Kathleen Chalfant: Right.

Steve Cuden: I’m totally botching the actual quote, but he once said that when he was doing Marathon Man with Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman’s going through all of his machinations of trying to figure out the character, he says, why don’t you just try acting my boy? Or something like that.

Kathleen Chalfant: Yes. Try acting doable.

Steve Cuden: Alright. So for you then, was acting a calling? Is it something that you just had to do? Or is it something that you were just fascinated by and wanted to do?

Kathleen Chalfant: It’s very odd, that question, because I have never wanted to do anything else.

Steve Cuden: So it must be a calling then.

Kathleen Chalfant: It is the only thing that I think I have a gift for. I’m okay at other things, but it’s the thing I guess I sort of have a gift for.

Steve Cuden: You were born to do that. You were born to be an actress.

Kathleen Chalfant: I guess maybe.

Steve Cuden: Well, I mean, you’ve been doing it a while. I’ve been at this for a while too in the industry and I can’t do anything else either. I don’t know anything else to do.

Kathleen Chalfant: That gives you joy.

Steve Cuden: Sure, it gives you joy, and you can’t imagine your life doing it any other way. It would probably be miserable for you if you were forced to do manual labor for your income or that kind of thing.

Kathleen Chalfant: Oddly, manual labor would be the least onerous kind of thing. Well, I mean, depends on the kind.

Steve Cuden: Being an accountant isn’t for you.

Kathleen Chalfant: No and running something. Running some organization, I’ve helped a number of theaters get started and I’ve been involved on the boards of not-for-profit theaters a long time. There are people for whom being a producer is an art form.

Steve Cuden: For sure.

Kathleen Chalfant: A couple of people that I think of are Doug Abel at the Vineyard Theater in New York, Andre Bishop at Lincoln Center. That is where their artistry is expressed.

Steve Cuden: Those folks are not only extremely valuable, they’re not all that common. When they’re able to take the art form and push it somewhere, which those folks can do. Because not every producer has that ability, but there are lots of really wonderful producers that can take the material and make it happen. But someone like an Andre Bishop is pushing the art form into a whole new place. That’s something different.

Let’s talk about performance and preparing for performance. When you get a role. When you’ve picked it, or someone’s picked you or however it works, aside from reading the script, what would you say is your approach? How do you start to think about a performance at the beginning stages of, okay, I’m going to do this?

Kathleen Chalfant: I used to do research beyond the script. You have to be very careful doing that because what often happens is that you end up thinking about the character that you would’ve written, not the character that the playwright has written.

Steve Cuden: That’s good.

Kathleen Chalfant: So I try to find everything I need to know in the text. The text is where I begin from. When I’m in the very beginning, I need to see if I can speak the person, if I have any connection with the person. Sometimes you just don’t.

Steve Cuden: What do you do when you just don’t?

Kathleen Chalfant: You say, I’m sorry, I really shouldn’t do this.

Steve Cuden: I see you. So you’ve backed out of things then. Yes?

Kathleen Chalfant: Right. Now people ask me if I want to do things. Until the world came to an end in March.

Steve Cuden: Well, for all of this. Yes.

Kathleen Chalfant: I used to be able to decide between things not in some grandiose way. We’re not talking about gigantic movies. But people send me plays often, and I read them and can decide whether I feel as though I have anything to offer. Sometimes you just don’t. Either because you resist the material for who knows what reason. Sometimes I’m sent things and I think I’m just too old. There are parts that depend upon you being in the game. Plays in the cannon that I haven’t done and now won’t do because I’m just too old. I don’t think that there are any of the major checkoff heroines, for instance, that I could do. Maybe the seagull. Maybe you could say, it’s unclear how old she is or how old she needs to be. But otherwise, all those women are in the game.

They’ve just passed childbearing age, or they have young children or whatever. By the same token, or no, I mean, it’s the same argument. I don’t think that a 40-year-old woman playing head of gambler doesn’t deal with the issue. Because if you lived in that little, tiny town in Norway all alone without being married, and you got to be 40 and you’re fine, then you’re fine. That’s not the question. It seems to me it doesn’t illuminate the text then.

Steve Cuden: So you’ve been at this long enough where obviously people are coming to you with stuff. You’re no longer really auditioning all the time, or at all, probably?.

Kathleen Chalfant: I auditioned for movies and television.

Steve Cuden: Okay. But plays, they’re coming to you, right? They know you’re going to start a role for someone, or you’re going to be in a classic role, you’re going to star in something.

Kathleen Chalfant: Yeah. I mean, on Broadway. Well, I don’t act on Broadway very much unless I’ve come with it from the beginning. So every once in a while, I have to. I’ve had two auditions recently, and I blew both of them.

Steve Cuden: Really?

Kathleen Chalfant: Yeah. It wasn’t recently. It was a couple of years ago.

Steve Cuden: How do you blow an audition? By doing nothing?

Kathleen Chalfant: In one case, because it was a play with a particular Northern Irish accent. So what I did was audition the vowels, not the character. I’m sorry, because I would have loved to have been in that play, but then in the end, if I’d been in that play, I couldn’t have done a whole bunch of other stuff that happened afterward. Then the other one was I auditioned for My Fair Lady, the one on Broadway. I can’t sing. I’m terrified of singing. It scares me.

Steve Cuden: Well, the musicals aren’t your thing.

Kathleen Chalfant: No, but I sort of thought, oh, well this would be cool, I went in saying. But anyway, it was embarrassing actually. That audition. But mostly I don’t audition.

Steve Cuden: All right. So once you’ve got a part, whether it’s TV or film or on stage, so now you’ve got the text in front of you. The text is going to give you, hopefully all the clues you need to figure out a character. I assume that some of that’s going to come through the rehearsal process as well, unless you’re doing a TV show, in which case there might be limited, if any, rehearsal process. So therefore, they’re expecting you to come in having it. In a play, you’ve got days, if not weeks, to rehearse and you can kind of figure things out with the director and the other actors. Do you start to take notes on the text? What is your process? What do you go through?

Kathleen Chalfant: I don’t. One of the things is that I try to learn the lines as quickly as possible. That seems to me to be important because it seems to me that for anything, you need to put the words inside yourself.

Steve Cuden: So once you have the words memorized, that really helps you to find how you’re going to be in that character.

Kathleen Chalfant: Well, I think until you have the words memorized, you can’t know how you’re going to be, because we are transparent creatures. Human beings, and certainly actors. So if what you’re playing is, what the hell is the next thing I say? Then you say it. There’s a filter between you and the speaking of the line.

Steve Cuden: Well, there’s no way for you to be in the moment if that’s the case.

Kathleen Chalfant: No.

Steve Cuden: There’s no way for you to be delivering what’s happening right this moment.

Kathleen Chalfant: Right. That isn’t true when doing audio books or peculiar now, this new world of Zoom performances. But in that case, when you’re reading it, rehearsal is not your friend.

Steve Cuden: Why is that?

Kathleen Chalfant: Because you begin in a not sufficiently informed way. You begin to try to reproduce what you did before that you liked. Whereas if you have a kind of gift for reading, for storytelling, sometimes the second or third pass at it is the best you’re going to get.

Steve Cuden: It’s not going to get any better because you’re not off book.

Kathleen Chalfant: Right. It’s alive. Still alive.

Steve Cuden: Is it the same for you in terms of the character development for something that’s in a well-known play versus something where you are creating the first shot at the character, like when you did Angels in America where you were the first one in?

Kathleen Chalfant: Well yes, it is because, I mean, you can’t help but know something of the history of the play. I remember once, I didn’t do that. Once my daughter was born during a production of Major Barbara.

Steve Cuden: You were pregnant during Major Barbara?

Kathleen Chalfant: Yes. This was in a community theater sort, in Woodstock. A kind of fancy community theater in Woodstock, New York, before we came to New York. The director had five children. I was very, very pregnant. So he said, look you can be Barbara, or you can be Rummy Mitchens. When is this baby due? I said “uhhhh?”. He said, okay, let’s take it. Obviously, you want to be Barbara. So off I rehearsed Barbara. Our daughter was born in the third week of rehearsals of Major Barbera.

Steve Cuden: I’ve never heard of anybody being cast by delivery date before.

Kathleen Chalfant: It probably happens more than you know.

Steve Cuden: I’ve just never heard of it.

Kathleen Chalfant: So in any case, as you know, Major Barbara is an extraordinarily difficult play. There’s a big turn right in the middle for Barbara, which is entirely arbitrary. I think it continues to be arbitrary. The thing about Shaw is that Shaw understood men very well and found women mysterious. So he just made them do stuff. But I didn’t know that at the time because I was quite young, and so I was trying to figure it out and everything. So I looked at the movie of the Wendy Hiller movie of Major Barbara. So I never could do anything but try to be Wendy Hiller after that.

Steve Cuden: Oh boy.

Kathleen Chalfant: Which I don’t think I accomplished.

Steve Cuden: That’s because she’s Wendy Hiller and you are not.

Kathleen Chalfant: That’s right. Truth be told, most of my work in the theater has been in new plays. I haven’t done very many classics.

Steve Cuden: Do you enjoy that? Do you enjoy finding something about a new character and helping a playwright break a character that way?

Kathleen Chalfant: I guess so. I mean, it’s what I know. In a way, it’s been my profession. It’s also true that that’s what you do in television. Because in television, the writers are writing a new play every week.

Steve Cuden: Of course.

Kathleen Chalfant: If you do a long running character in a show, it’s the actors and the writer who carry the character through. So you’re making it up as you go along.

Steve Cuden: But great big differences between TV and film and stage, I mean, huge differences in TV. The producers are really running the show. In a film, the director’s really more in charge. Yes?

Kathleen Chalfant: Right.

Steve Cuden: On stage it’s the director as well.

Kathleen Chalfant: And the playwright.

Steve Cuden: And the playwright of course.

Kathleen Chalfant: On stage, the text is what you…

Steve Cuden: Is all. Yeah. Because the playwright owns his or her copyright, which once you get out of the world of the theater, you no longer as a writer own your copyright. So other people have said that you don’t.

Kathleen Chalfant: One of the great things about television is the producers are the writers.

Steve Cuden: Well, I should have said that. But yes, the producers are the writers with some exceptions, but almost always, they’re the writers and they’re in charge.

Kathleen Chalfant: Yeah.

Steve Cuden: So they still have some or a great deal of power in the case of television. Writers lose most of their power in motion pictures, in feature films, unless they’re also the director and/or the producer. So in other words, you’ve had a lot of experience with bringing a new character to life.

Kathleen Chalfant: Right.

Steve Cuden: Therefore, you’re not doing a Wendy Hiller thing. You’re not imitating anything else. You’re finding what’s there for the first time. That makes a big difference, doesn’t it?

Kathleen Chalfant: It does. I have to say that I wasn’t the person to play Vivian Barry. I was very lucky in my go at Wit. Wit is the kind of play that whoever’s playing the part seems to be the best actor you ever saw just because it’s a wonderful, wonderful part.

Steve Cuden: I didn’t have the privilege of seeing you do that, but I’ve certainly read a whole lot about it. I’ve never heard anyone ever not say glowing things about what you did in it.

Kathleen Chalfant: It’s very difficult to do the play and not. It’s an extraordinary part. It’s a wonderful part. I also had a wonderful director named Derek Anson Jones, who died a year and a half after we opened in New York.

Steve Cuden: How long did the play run at the time?

Kathleen Chalfant: I was involved with the play for about three years. My first go at it was at the Long Wharf. Then a year later it opened at MCC Theater in New York, and then it ran and then we moved to a larger theater. A big off-Broadway theater that isn’t there anymore.

Steve Cuden: So you played the heck out of it. You played it a long time.

Kathleen Chalfant: Then I played it in Los Angeles and London.

Steve Cuden: Is that all? I have to go to a quote that I know that I found that you talked about in terms of doing that play, which I find fascinating. We’ll go back to the performance of that in a moment. But you said that that play, Wit, showed the futility of condescending to an audience. I’m not a hundred percent sure I know what that means. So I’m wondering if you would explain that to me. Also, how plays and other scripted exercises condescend to audiences in a way that Wit shows that you can’t.

Kathleen Chalfant: Well, the thing about the history of Wit is instructive here. It was written and from the beginning, every time somebody would read it, it would win a prize. So it won the Kessel Ring Prize the first time it went out. They sent it out and it went to every regional theater in the country. Everybody said, oh, no, no, no. No one’s going to a play about 50-year-old woman. She has cancer, she’s bald, and then if it’s not about cancer, it’s about John Dunn. Who’s going to want to see that? I don’t think anybody wants to see that. I don’t think so. So then it would go away. After a couple years after the first round, the South Coast rep did the play with a wonderful actor, and it won all the prizes. Everybody thought it was just the best thing since sliced bread.

They sent it around again and everybody went, oh no, who’ll see a play about cancer, 50-year-old woman, bald John Dunn? So it went away. The only reason that it came back was because Derek Anson Jones, this very director, was the best friend of the playwright, Margaret Edison. Derek had carried the play around with him all the time. He worked at the Shakespeare Theater for a long time in Washington. Then he got an MFA in directing from Yale, and he just graduated from that. He was the assistant director to Doug Hughes of production of Henry the Fifth, Hank Cinq, Henry the Fifth that I was doing in the park.

Derek and I knew each other from before, from the New York Theater Workshop and stuff like that. So Derek said to me, here, I have this play. My friend wrote this play. Would you read it? If you like it, would you ever think of being in it? It also happened that just at that time, my glamorous gay brother had been diagnosed with cancer and he was staying with us. He normally lived in San Francisco. So I read the play, and the first time I read it, I fell apart. But I thought, oh, Derek wants me to play the older professor because I couldn’t imagine you’d have this play, and you wouldn’t have anybody to play the main part.

So I said, so Derek, which part did you want me to think about? He said, well, Vivian Bearing. I said, oh, okay. So I gave it to my brother, and I said to him, is this true to your experience? He came downstairs, tears streaming down his face and said two things. Yes, and if anybody ever asks you to do this play, you have to do it. So six months later, through a variety of circumstances, I was asked to do it by Doug Hughes. Because Derek gave the play to Doug too, and he ended up six months later being the artistic director at the Long Wharf and decided that he wanted to start the new play program again at the Long Wharf and that he wanted to have Wit be the first production.

Steve Cuden: And you to be in it.

Kathleen Chalfant: And me to be in it. He asked me to be in it.

Steve Cuden: Obviously, that play has generated a lot of interest over time and in particular has been a focal point for your career. People know you from it. It’s one of obviously the highlights of your known career for whatever that means. But what was it about that part that was… so I imagine it was incredibly challenging. You had to have shaved your head. You were naked in it, and you were dying in it. Right?

Kathleen Chalfant: Yeah.

Steve Cuden: So what made that go for you? How did you get through that all the time?

Kathleen Chalfant: Because the last moment of the play is triumphant.

Steve Cuden: Ah.

Kathleen Chalfant: Vivian and I ended up in a hopeful triumphant place. So that was a case, because if it had ended during the code blue part, then it would’ve been a different experience. But it ended on a note of triumph and so it was exhilarating for me.

Steve Cuden: So every performance was exhilarating in some way?

Kathleen Chalfant: Yeah. Well, I mean, it’s also exhilarating if you’re in it, but it was the second time in my life that I’d been in a play when the lights went out, it was silent, and then when the lights came up, everybody was standing up. That happened in Angels in America too.

Steve Cuden: Was that a little freaky the first time that happened? Were you surprised by it?

Kathleen Chalfant: No, because the first time that happened, I was still trying to cope with having just been naked. I got to put on a bathrobe before the lights came up again. I mean, yes and it is overwhelming. You don’t expect it somehow. You don’t know what’s going to happen. Because for me, the thing that is made when you act, especially in the theater, is something that is made together with the audience.

Steve Cuden: Each performance is a one-off.

Kathleen Chalfant: Yeah.

Steve Cuden: It never repeats. It is you and the audience are making that event.

Kathleen Chalfant: In the moment. Yeah.

Steve Cuden: It isn’t a complete connection from the author’s original idea to a complete piece of art until you have that connection, is there?

Kathleen Chalfant: No. It doesn’t exist.

Steve Cuden: It doesn’t exist, and then it never exists again unless somebody’s bothered to put a camera up. It’s gone.

Kathleen Chalfant: Then it exists in some different way.

Steve Cuden: Exactly. It exists in some different way every night, even though it’s the same people in it and the same lines being read. It’s different every night. That’s very hard for an audience to understand. From my perspective, I’ve worked on lots and lots of plays and audiences see a play once, and they may never see it ever again. They think that that was it. It’s like watching a movie. They could just put it in the DVR and there it would be.

Kathleen Chalfant: But for them it is.

Steve Cuden: It is. It’s the one they said they know.

Kathleen Chalfant: They’ve made the thing together with the people on the stage so that it is a singular experience.

Steve Cuden: Alright. So I want to go back to my question, which is, how did that play that showed the futility of condescending to an audience. What happens when a production is condescending to an audience? How does that work?

Kathleen Chalfant: Well, I mean, in that case, the condescension came from all the producers who thought nobody would get it.

Steve Cuden: I see. I’ve got it.

Kathleen Chalfant: They’re smart and they’re moved. They know somebody who had cancer and they’ve even maybe read John Dunn. But they assumed that people wouldn’t get it. I have to say that the most, all the work that I’ve done that has been the most successful, has been work that people would say challenge the audience. I like to think it’s just that you assume that the audience is just as smart as you are. You’re involved in this together. So that was true of Angels in America. You know Tony immensely, area died and all like that. But people got it. In Wit, people understood it. They understood what John Dunn had to do with it, that people never asked, why do you have all that poetry in there? That was never a question.

Steve Cuden: What I find so find so fascinating, I’ve had a career in which I wrote 90 cartoons for kids.

Kathleen Chalfant: Woo.

Steve Cuden: Okay. So one of the things that I always approached writing every script, because I was writing for kids that were either from about the age of eight till about 16 in that group. I never once wrote a single word that I didn’t speak to them like I was speaking to any adult. I never condescended to them. I never, so-called, stepped down to them.

Kathleen Chalfant: Absolutely. I think therefore that’s why your work was successful. I mean, basically by the time you’re eight years old—

Steve Cuden: You understand a whole lot.

Kathleen Chalfant: You know everything you’re going to know and certainly by the time you’re 16 you know. In whole other societies, by the time you were 16, if you were a woman, you had three children already.

Steve Cuden: So what it amounted to, I don’t want to digress too much, but the subject matter had to remain within a certain range. We wouldn’t have done a cartoon about someone dying of cancer. That would not have happened. So the subject was what you did, and certain words you didn’t use. But the way that you spoke and the way that you had characters speak to one another was just like talking to an adult. So I think that that’s partly what you’re talking about. Now I kind of understand it better in what you meant that you’ll never get away with having a success off of being condescending to the audience.

Kathleen Chalfant: Absolutely. It’s a bad producorial tactic it seems to me, the thing that goes along with it are that there are many actors, some wonderful actors, and some people of whom I’m very fond, who have an adversarial relationship with the audience. My friend Ron Lieman, who was the brilliant Roy Cone.

Steve Cuden: Sure.

Kathleen Chalfant: Ron hated and feared the audience.

Steve Cuden: Really?

Kathleen Chalfant: I think it’s because he suffered from terrible paralyzing stage fright, I think almost all his life, and a lot of people do, one of the ways to transform fear is to turn it into anger.

Steve Cuden: Have you suffered from stage fright at all?

Kathleen Chalfant: I have. I’ve had two. I’m just trying to think now, if it was one long thing that went all the time or happened twice. I’m thinking of two plays. Yes, and it’s a phobia. It’s absolutely irrational. It feels, in my case, as though I’m being frozen from my feet up. It’s physical. You feel this sort of chemical thing that’s happening in your body, and you can’t concentrate or speak.

Steve Cuden: Is it akin to a panic attack? Is it that kind of a thing?

Kathleen Chalfant: Yeah, I suppose. I suppose because you can’t do the one thing you have to do. It involves all your senses. You can’t quite hear.

Steve Cuden: It’s overwhelming.

Kathleen Chalfant: Yeah. They didn’t have to do with the audience. It was something else. It happened before the audience.

Steve Cuden: So once you got to the audience, you were okay. But it was prior to it.

Kathleen Chalfant: Well, yeah. But in those cases, I had to get through it so that I could learn enough of the play.

Steve Cuden: What did you do to get through it? I think this is an important lesson for folks.

Kathleen Chalfant: Well, I was seeing a therapist at the time for something, other things. I went to her and said look, Deborah, I don’t know what to do about this. She said, oh, I understand. This is a practical problem. She said to me, I don’t know if you know this, but my other practice is out on Long Island, and I have a lot of clients who are pilots with fear of flying.

Steve Cuden: Wow.

Kathleen Chalfant: She said, I see that this is a practical issue. She said, someday we can investigate the underlying things, but right now we have to make it stop. She said, you have to not think about, and you have to actively not think about it. Because one of the things that phobia and PTSD and all those things have in common is that the person suffering from them keeps checking in on them to see if it’s there, see if it feels… There’s some vertigo fascination with it. Then it starts, and then it just goes.

Steve Cuden: Sometimes it loops on itself.

Kathleen Chalfant: Yeah.

Steve Cuden: You have to break the loop somehow.

Kathleen Chalfant: So I practiced actively not thinking about it, which was hard because it tricks you. So I used to think of it as, you’d be looking straight ahead and then it would sort of creep in from the right side of your eye across the screen, and you had to make it go away.

Steve Cuden: That’s very interesting. For someone who’s a professional actor, an actress, to have fear of the stage. That’s not a very good thing. So you really have to overcome that.

Kathleen Chalfant: Not very useful. It’s common. A lot of people self-medicate, drink or drugs or something like that.

Steve Cuden: You don’t suffer from it today, do you?

Kathleen Chalfant: No. It was a very limited acute period, and it involved two plays. It went away and then it came back. The first play was a one play. It’s hard if you have stage fright and you’re in a one person play.

Steve Cuden: Wow. So you had no one to rely on. You had no one to lead on.

Kathleen Chalfant: No. It was kind of a problem. I suffered it from there. Then I was in oh God, wonderful play. Larry Kramer’s called, Just Say No. An early AIDS play that caused a huge scandal for all sorts of reasons. But anyway, in the middle of rehearsals for that, I couldn’t do it anymore.

Steve Cuden: Wow.

Kathleen Chalfant: I got through it and ended up doing it. I’m very glad because it was fun. I got to play Nancy Reagan as a Nymphomaniac. So yeah.

Steve Cuden: I must say that you are even a better actress than I imagined, because in no way, shape, or form would I have ever imagined that this would be something that you would have gone through. So that says a lot about what you’ve done and overcome and done with your career beyond it.

I’m curious about working with directors and can you share any kind of take on what are the important lessons that you’ve learned from great directors? What kind of lessons have you learned that you’ve taken through your career from maybe early on or over time? What do you want a director to say when you’re on a set?

Kathleen Chalfant: Well, in the movies and the television—

Steve Cuden: They don’t say much, do they?

Kathleen Chalfant: They don’t say much. In the movies and the television, it’s important that they’re clear.

Steve Cuden: What happens when they’re not clear? What do you do?

Kathleen Chalfant: Well then, because the movies and the television are so technical, then instead of playing the character, you’re worried about whether you’re standing in the right place or you’re looking at the right place, or is the camera on me?

Steve Cuden: TV and film are probably off the table somewhat because you’re expected to sort of come in and do it.

Kathleen Chalfant: You are. You need to be reassured by the directors in the movies and the television because the camera is right in your face and can tell if you are afraid, uncertain. If you, the actor, are in some way separated from the character.

Steve Cuden: Well, that’s the old adage that it sees into your soul.

Kathleen Chalfant: Yeah.

Steve Cuden: The camera sees right through you to whatever it is, who you are and what you’re doing at that moment.

Kathleen Chalfant: Well, certainly it sees what you’re thinking.

Steve Cuden: No question. Especially if it’s in close, it really sees what you’re thinking. So let’s look at the stage then. When you start a play, what is it that you want the director, the director’s your first audience, the director is seeing you for the first time and making judgements in some way and encouraging you to do something one way or another. What is it that you’re looking for from a good director?

Kathleen Chalfant: Well, let’s see. The best director. No, everybody has a different sort of way.

Steve Cuden: Well, I bet they do. Sure.

Kathleen Chalfant: Again, it’s reassurance. It’s more important when you’re doing something to know, certainly in the beginning what you’re doing right. That’s more important than what you’re doing wrong. Because what you’re doing wrong, if it’s all about that, it sort of shuts you down. It helps when directors say or let you know, either positively or by silence, that the direction that everybody’s going is the right direction. The other thing that’s important is to make the company so that everybody is doing the same thing.

Steve Cuden: You’re all pulling the rope in the same direction.

Kathleen Chalfant: In the same direction. There are some directors who choose a punching bag, a sort of as though that’s a good thing, you sort of cut somebody out from the herd and make a punching bag of them.

Steve Cuden: They become the exemplar of what not to do.

Kathleen Chalfant: Yes. They become the sin eater.

Steve Cuden: That can’t be fun for a company at all.

Kathleen Chalfant: It’s awful because it makes you feel complicit in that cruelty. The other thing is that there are some directors, George Wolf had a great gift for at critical moments, telling each person the thing that that person needed to know.

Steve Cuden: Isn’t that great?

Kathleen Chalfant: In order to actualize the performance.

Steve Cuden: Do you feel like he knew what that was going to be before he walked in that day? Or was it something that was happening in the moment?

Kathleen Chalfant: The one that I remember, which is the most dramatic, when everything’s on the line. In Angels in America on Broadway and the New York Times is in the audience, and you’re not supposed to know, but of course everybody knows that the New York Times, you’re not supposed to tell anybody somehow. So that night, George walked around to everybody in the cast separately and said something to them. I don’t know what he said to anybody else, but I know what he said to me. He said to me, Kathy, just be clear. Now my whole thing is being clear. That’s my deal. I pat myself on the back about anything and said, I’m clear. So that was perfect because that was, well, Jesus, George, I know that. It meant you hit the stage on fire, right. I opened the play as an ancient rabbi so that was important because you had to get people’s attention. That was exactly the thing to say to me. Exactly.

Steve Cuden: So that’s really great when you have a director that knows what to say to an actor or actress to make things work well.

Kathleen Chalfant: Then sometimes when, earlier on, my friend David Schweitzer, who was a wonderful director, and this was the first play I was ever in with David, it was Chuck Me’s first play, and it was called The Investigation of the Murder in El Salvador. It was a little bit opaque. In fact, it was so opaque that, in fact, Chuck meant it to be opaque. He wrote in the notes for the play that the audience read before, I don’t care. I don’t want anybody to understand what the play’s about.

Steve Cuden: Oh, God.

Kathleen Chalfant: So that was a little difficult. So anyway, so I was doing this play, and David was so cool. There were people from the Mabu Minds in the play, and it was just really amazing. I had a complete crisis of confidence about 15 minutes before a very important performance that we were doing of the play at—I forget which museum, no, at the Guggenheim. So there we are at Guggenheim, and I said to David, I don’t know what I’m doing. David looked at me and said, I don’t do very well with, I don’t know what I’m doing. Another moment when you thought, well, I better pull myself together here.

Steve Cuden: I don’t do well with I don’t know what I’m doing either. That’s not helpful. I want to touch on a couple of quick items that I think are important. You are well known for being involved in social causes, in politics, and especially in the arts behind the scenes in the arts. From your perspective, how important are the arts and politics and social causes to being a better artist? How has that helped you be a better artist by being involved in these other things?

Kathleen Chalfant: I can only speak for myself. I wouldn’t presume to speak for anybody else. I have felt lucky to be able to use whatever platform I had to move forward things that seemed important to me. It seems one of the necessities of good citizenship, which is something that’s being questioned now.

Steve Cuden: Yes.

Kathleen Chalfant: Is to move toward the greatest good for the greatest number to seek for social justice. I was born in 1945, so I grew up after the Second World War when we, nice, privileged white people imagined that we were covered in virtue and we’re doing all kinds of great stuff. We did all kinds of great stuff for all of us nice white people, privileged or not. My family were working class people, but still. But the society cannot function unless there is justice for all or unless we move close to justice for all.

Steve Cuden: Do you find yourself wanting to work on projects? I’m talking about plays or whatnot. Do you find yourself wanting to work on things that promote those thoughts?

Kathleen Chalfant: Yes. I’ve been very lucky to have been able to do that. You get offered things that you’re interested in. There was one time when I begged to be in a play called Guantanamo Honor Bound to Defend Freedom that I knew was coming to New York. I had six weeks when I could be in it, and I wanted to be in it a lot, and I got to be in it.

Steve Cuden: That’s a nice perk, I guess, of having been there and done that.

Kathleen Chalfant: Yeah. That was a great thing.

Steve Cuden: So you seek out things that help to promote those causes or ideas that you have.

Kathleen Chalfant: Also, it’s the people you know. The writers that I know are interested in those things too so they’re most likely to send plays like that.

Steve Cuden: Well, of course. Once it’s known that you are of a certain philosophy or whatever that would be, then yes. That’s going to come your way. I would expect it to, especially when you’re well established. Probably a little less so when you’re an unknown, when you’ve never worked before.

Kathleen Chalfant: Absolutely. The other side of that is that I’ve had the luxury of turning down things that I didn’t approve of or turning down things that I didn’t want to give my name. That happens often on television that there’s some script you read, and you think, I don’t believe what these people are saying, and I can’t do this. But I’ve had the luxury to turn it down. It’s harder for other people.

Steve Cuden: Well, yes. My imagination tells me that there are lots and lots of actors at the beginning of their career who need the money and want to make their bones somehow and will take a job that is antithetical to the way they think.

Kathleen Chalfant: Absolutely.

Steve Cuden: You can rationalize that by saying, I’m an actor doing a job as an actor. I’m not promoting a cause. But when you have the luxury, like you say, to be able to turn things down, then you can promote those calls.

Kathleen Chalfant: Yeah.

Steve Cuden: I think that’s very good. Okay. Well, last couple of questions for you. You’ve had this wonderful career, and clearly, you’ve worked with a ton of people and had lots of experiences. Can you share with us anytime where you’ve had a quirky offbeat, oddball, strange or just plain funny thing happened?

Kathleen Chalfant: Well, there are two I think of. One from Angels in America and one from Wit. The one from Angels in America is in Angels in America, I played two men. One of them was the rabbi. For some reason, I could always do the rabbi. I don’t know why I could. I always say my Christmas and Easter Episcopalian roots, but somehow the rabbi was there. How he walked was a little bit of my father-in-Law, who was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. Somehow the rabbi, both the way he spoke and the way he walked, moved. But the other person I played, and the harder scene actually, was that I played the doctor who told Roy Cohn that he had Aids. Of course, whoever played Roy Cohn, in my case it was Ron Lieman was a fierce man. I was supposed to win. The doctor’s supposed to win in that scene. Angels was a very male world. There were almost all men, and most of the characters were men.

It was mostly men. So I would do the scene as the doctor thinking I was being as strong as I could possibly be. The guys would say, no, you’re just giving in. But I couldn’t figure out how it was doing. I thought, maybe it’s the way I’m sitting. So I went home and asked Henry to take off all his clothes, my husband Henry, and sit on the stairs so I could see where he put his private parts and see if that made a difference, how you sat. So I watched. I tried. That didn’t seem to make any difference. It was getting to be a serious problem because every day everybody’s losing their temper, and I was losing my confidence, whatever. I forget what the epiphany was, but I saw somehow that when men argue with each other, they move into the argument and when women argue, particularly with men, you establish a safe place. That feels like strength to a woman. Moving into an argument feels dangerous because they’re bigger than you are. So anyway, once I figured that out, then I could do the doctor.

Steve Cuden: That’s really cool.

Kathleen Chalfant: So that was very cool. Then the other thing was as you mentioned a couple times, at the very end of Wit, I was naked. The play was a little hard on doctors so often, this didn’t happen once. This happened a whole bunch of times. I would go out after and there’d be people waiting after to talk about the play. Often there would be doctors in their fifties or so who would come up to me and say, you are so brave. It wasn’t about my wonderful acting or the script, or how I died or anything else. It was because of how old I was—50 some year-old woman was standing naked on the stage. I thought wait just a damn minute here. Why they felt compelled to say that? It seemed to me to be the apotheosis of passive aggression.

Steve Cuden: Well, I think they’re used to being in their private room. Here you were in a big room full of people.

Kathleen Chalfant: Oh, it was because they were mad, and I’d said bad things about doctors.

Steve Cuden: Oh, oh, oh, oh, that’s it.

Kathleen Chalfant: I think it was passive aggression because it was only men. Only 50 some medical men who did that.

Steve Cuden: No female doctors said this to you.

Kathleen Chalfant: No. No problem.

Steve Cuden: Alright, last question for you. Can you share a great piece of advice or a tip for those who may be starting out and trying to figure out how to have a life in the theater or in the acting business, or perhaps they’re in a little bit and trying to get to that next level?

Kathleen Chalfant: I say this all the time to not to do what I did. Not to doubt yourself. What that means in this world for the most part is most actors should probably think about going to a good graduate school, not because necessarily what you’ll learn, you might learn something. But because of the other people who will be there, who will challenge you and the connections that you will make. I would say by the same token, don’t do an undergraduate major in the theater because the theater is just the same everywhere from your back room when you hang up a curtain to some community theater to high school. It’s always the same. It’s entirely reflexive. So if you’re an undergraduate and you want to be an actor, then spend your four years or whatever learning something. Because what the job is, is to turn into somebody else. You don’t have to be a nuclear physicist, but you have to sound like a nuclear physicist. So the more you know, the more you have to bring to the job.

Steve Cuden: Well it’s two phenomenal pieces of advice in there. One is that go and educate yourself in the world. That’s the first thing, because you’re going to play characters who are of the world and not just you. The second thing is, to go to school in order to expand your horizons of your social circle, which I think is at least half of the reason why you go to school, is to meet people. Like I said, I’ve been teaching for 10 years or so here in Pittsburgh, and I think that school is at least as important for socialization as it is for education.

Kathleen Chalfant: Absolutely. I would add to that, learn to do as many things as you can do. Juggle, fence, dance, sing.

Steve Cuden: Because you never know when you’re going to be called on to use it.

Kathleen Chalfant: Nope. Also, the other part of the job is to move forward at the speed of thought.

Steve Cuden: That’s great. Move forward at the speed of thought. That’s fantastic. I find it very interesting that you didn’t focus on the being in acting classes. You focused on other things, which I think is really important. Because you can get acting classes outside of school.

Kathleen Chalfant: Yes. My best friend and my oldest friend in New York is the best teacher of anything I know. An acting teacher in New York named Kay Michael Patton. If you can study with Kay, then you don’t have to go to graduate school.

Steve Cuden: Yeah. I believe that. Well, Kathleen Chalfant, this has just been a fantastic hour plus on StoryBeat. I cannot thank you enough for being with us today and sharing all of your experiences and all of your great advice. So I’m really delighted that you joined me today.

Kathleen Chalfant: Thank you so much for asking me. It’s been great.

Steve Cuden: So we’ve come to the end of today’s StoryBeat. If you liked this podcast, please take a moment to give us a rating or review on whatever app or platform you’re listening to. Your support helps us bring more great StoryBeat episodes to you. Until next time, I’m Steve Cuden and may all your stories be unforgettable.

Executive Producer: Steve Cuden, Producer: Casey Georgi, Announcer: Javier Grajeda
Social Media: Mina Hoffman, Design & Marketing: Holly Reed, Reed Creative Group


  1. Myla Lichtman-Fields

    Xlnt interview with a top notch professional. Steve’s unique skills helped to reveal Kathleen’s unique and personal approach to her acting craft. Bravo!!!!

    • Steve Cuden

      Thanks so much, Myla. Kathleen is one of the finest actresses to ever tread the boards! It is a real honor and privilege for me to have been able to interview her.


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