Saturday, August 18, 2012

Frog Into Princess: An Actor's Journey

                     Andrea Maulella as Adelaide Pinchin. Photo by Lanny Nagler.

Any interview is, for most actors, an opportunity to both audition and perform. Those actors who do not audition/perform during an interview are either making millions of dollars by simply showing up on the set or stage, or are fools. Andrea Maulella isn’t making millions of dollars, and she isn’t a fool, so when I met with her in the Hartford TheaterWorks gallery, she both auditioned and performed…and thoroughly engaged…right from the moment she entered stage right.

Maulella, who loves stormy weather, is a slight, dark-haired lady with angular features and an embracing personality. She showed up wearing a short gray skirt, a simple, white peasant blouse, and dealing with a slight case of bronchitis that, she believes, has hampered, to a certain extent, her performance in “Tryst,” the play by Karoline Leach she is currently co-starring in with Mark Shanahan at Hartford TheaterWorks. It was six days since opening night, which I attended. If she was bronchitis-bitten then it certainly wasn’t apparent, but she urged me to come see it again, because, “Last night, I finally got it, I got the second act,” she said. When urged to explain about finally understanding an act she and Shanahan have played at numerous venues over the past four or five years she initially shrugged, then said, “I know what Adelaide (her character) is doing, what she’s driven by. I can’t wait to try it out tonight.”

Maulella, who was born in Maryland while her father was serving in Viet Nam, was quickly brought to New York – Queens – Long Island – the boroughs. She’s a quintessential New York girl, sassy and sharp, the total reverse of the role she is currently playing -- a very proper, frustrated London shop girl circa 1910 -- and as the interview extended the LonGiland accent manifested itself, especially when she became excited about something she was explaining, explanations she would punctuate with expletives that an Edwardian shop girl would blush to hear. 

People attending a play may think they are seeing a finished product, but a production, any production, is a protean thing – it changes over time…or dies, and each performance is unique unto itself. Maulella, Shanahan and director Joe Brancato have been tinkering with “Tryst” for years – if “Tryst” were a hand-copied manuscript the palimpsests would be inches thick – and that’s one of the things Maulella loves about being an actor, the opportunity to try new things, to shake up the old wine in the old bottles, to listen to both her mind and her heart…and to go places beyond the strictures of the role as written. However, the fact that she’s an actor, and a very accomplished one, is a constant surprise to her.

“I wanted to be a chef and I wanted to be a fashion designer,” Maulella said. “My father found himself a single parent and, well, it was cheaper for him to send us to a theater school than it was to get a baby sitter. I was 13 and I just hated him for it.” At the time, she had one sister – she ended up with three – and this sister was “gorgeous and precious. Everyone just wanted to squeeze her and hug her,” Maulella said. “Why would I ever want to compete with that? So, in my first play she was Snow White and I was a dwarf, then she was a princess, I was a frog. It was unnerving. So, I really just came to this by accident because my father was cheap.”

Things slowly changed, because if a young girl was going to do this, well, why not be more than a dwarf or a frog? But, how do you get to be a princess? The answer to that question, asked so long ago, might be the source for Maulella’s interpretation of the character she is currently playing, for Adelaide Pinchin wishes to be a princess saved by a dashing prince, or does she? Maulella’s frog into princess journey has marked her, right from the moment she decided that she wanted this, whatever this was.

“It’s probably the most competitive and ambitious I’ve ever been in my life,” Maulella said.  “I would always have a rash from spirit gum,” she said, quickly rubbing her forehead and upper lip, “because I would have to wear moustaches and fake eyebrows, so I went to the family that ran the children’s theater and I said, ‘What do I have to do to wear a dress?’ and they said, ‘You have to practice,’ because they knew I didn’t care and I didn’t practice anything. So I practiced and I got to wear a dress. Then I asked, ‘What do I have to do to get a line?’ ‘Practice.’ Then I got a line.” She then asked about getting a solo and received the same answer. Slowly but surely, Maulella said, she became “wickedly competitive,” going home every day, putting on a record and singing “There are Worse Things I Could Do” along with Stockard Channing. “That became my big audition song,” Maulella explained, “and I was going to do it perfectly.”

The game was afoot, but for all of her competitiveness, there were inner doubts. “I felt I wasn’t pretty enough,” Maulella said. “I felt I could never be good enough to complete with the likes of them,” referring to the young female competition at the school. “They became my arch nemeses; they were the bane of my existence. And thank God, because I started applying myself. Then the people who ran the theater asked me to play Peter Pan.”

During the run, the family that owned the theater was out of town for a weekend and, Maulella said, “I was thinking to myself, nobody is going to be around; I can do what I want, which was very exciting to me.”

Manning the concession stand before the show, Maulella, now sixteen, saw a group of senior citizens troop in and thought, “Oh my God, we have to do it for old people. They’re going to fall asleep.” So, after serving coffee to an elderly man, she went backstage committed to doing whatever she wanted because, after all, the audience was going to be nodding. And that’s exactly what she did.

“We went off stage and people started saying, ‘Boy, you were really good today. That was really good.’ I went down the steep stairs, trying to get past the elderly people who were leaving, and this women stopped me at the first level and said, ‘Oh, you were as good as you were in the movie’ – I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about -- and then I got to the next landing and someone said, ‘Oh, it’s you!’ and I started feeling uncomfortable. I got to the bottom of the stairs and there was this very heavy door which I decided to hold open for the old people – I’m Catholic and those are the kind of things you were supposed to do. I had my head down because I didn’t want anyone else to talk to me and this man I had served coffee to before the show – he was one of those people I had thought would sleep through the show – stopped and looked at me and then said, ‘Thank you for taking me to Never-Never Land.’ I still get chills when I think of it. That moment, that man, changed everything for me because, I thought, I could see in his eyes that he wasn’t the same man I’d given the coffee to, and even if it had been for just a few moments, he had gone somewhere, I was able to help him go somewhere else. That was the most amazing thing ever.”

Maulella went on to study at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in Manhattan for two years, a time during which she had “the most amazing teachers,” including Elizabeth Browning and Karen Gustafson, among others, most of whom were working professional who, Maulella said, “were more than generous.”

After her stay at AMDA, Maulella turned away from acting for awhile. “I had some challenges to face just growing up,” she explained. However, the profession’s draw on her was such that, after a few years she began taking acting classes, until one day she asked herself: “What am I doing? I’m paying to act. I’ve got to shit or get off the pot. Either I’m going to do this or I’m not. So, let’s see, I graduated from AMDA in ’87 and in ’92 I finally said, ‘Okay, I’m going to be an actor.’”

Maulella has come a long way from the young girl with a rash on her face from over-application of spirit gum, and the journey has included, as she described it, “a lot of blood and guts.” Her experiences have led her to approaching a role in her own unique manner.

“When push comes to shove, you do what it takes,” she said. “I’ve been found on the floor praying; I’ve been found in the wing banging my head against the floor, because, I thought, there’s gotta be something in there but I’ve got nothing left.”

Maulella paused, sat back in her chair, then jerked forward, hands extended. “Characters come to me asking the same questions I ask myself. I am my own barometer of truth, so I need to know, where does this sit with me? Am I in the basic ballpark of telling my truth? Another actor might have a whole other take and a whole other ‘truth’ for the same material, but where is it in me? And from there…I think it was James Cagney who said, ‘Just know your lines and tell the truth,’ and that can often be challenge enough.”

Maulella is well aware there are many actors who develop notebooks full of information on the characters they will be playing, back stories and family histories and details on the historic time and place, but that approach has never helped her. For her, “The better I know the words, the easier I can say them, the better I can get out of the way. It’s the words that are the things that lead me, the questions and the words. I also try to look at what isn’t said, because what isn’t said is as interesting as what is said. It’s almost more interesting. For instance, in ‘Tryst,’ all the things that aren’t said…it’s so compelling.”

In addition to acting in “Tryst” several years ago at the Westport Country Playhouse and now at TheaterWorks, Maulella has appeared in several productions in Connecticut, including two at the Ivoryton Playhouse: “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Miracle Worker.”

                     Andrea Maulella as Nurse Rached in the Ivoryton Playhouse's 
                                  production of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
In “Cuckoo’s Nest” she played Nurse Rached, the tyrannical head nurse who battles Randall Patrick McMurphy for the souls of his fellow patients. “We had a great director,” Maulella said, referring to Peter Lockyer, “but I struggled quite a bit with the character. She’s definitely out of my realm. I did feel they trusted me with something that was…precious…a character that is almost more pop culture than a literary figure. I wanted so much to bring out the humanity in her, and I don’t know whether the text of the play could withstand that journey, and maybe because of that I couldn’t honor what was written. I wish I could go back…I think I took a running leap into the pool every night and I enjoyed being hissed; I don’t know if I’ll ever be hissed at again. The entire process, from auditioning for ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ to the final performance, was all about giving up, about being willing to fail.”

Maulella may not be totally satisfied with her work as Nurse Rached, but what she did as Anne Sullivan in “The Miracle Worker” more than makes up for any doubts. At the time, reviewing the play, I wrote: “I defy anyone to enter the Keller household and watch Annie Sullivan (Andrea Maulella) fight for the mind and soul of Helen Keller (Jenilee Simons Marques) and not come away emotionally shriven.”

                       Andrea Maulella and Jenilee Simons Marques in the Ivoryton 
                               Playhouse's production of "The Miracle Worker"
“It’s because of the Connecticut Critic’s Circle that I got the opportunity to meet Jacqui Hubbard,” Maulella said, referring to Ivoryton’s artistic director. “You folks were kind enough to acknowledge my work in ‘Tryst” at Westport and I met Jacqui at the awards get-together at Roz Friedman’s house. I’d been reading about ‘The Miracle Worker,’ I wanted to audition and then at the ceremony they said Jacqui Hubbard and I said, ‘Oh my God, she’s here. I wonder…could I…I can’t…it’s ridiculous…they would never…. I feel if I hadn’t been there, if I hadn’t been recognized, she probably wouldn’t have given me a shot. It was divine intervention.”

Maulella got her shot at auditioning and, she remembers, Hubbard’s reaction consisted of one word: “Lovely.” Maulella was satisfied – she had, for a few moments at least, gotten to play Anne Sullivan. It was her role and she had done what she wanted to do with it. “I almost fell off my chair when she told me I had gotten the part,” Maulella said.

Having the opportunity to work with Jenilee Marques, a young lady deaf from birth, was a thrilling and humbling experience for Maulella. “You wouldn’t believe what she taught me about having trust and faith on stage.”

Obviously, co-starring with someone who cannot hear presents certain challenges, especially since you never know from night to night what is going to happen onstage. Maulella remembers two incidents that required she ‘communicate’ with Marques lest something dire happen. The first involved a plate that shattered during the breakfast scene. Marques was unaware of what had happened and was moving towards where the shards were.

“For a moment, I thought,” Maulella said, “didn’t she hear it? Of course she didn’t. So I grabbed her by the waist and she fought me, she fought me so hard, that girl was incredible. I was pulling at her, tugging at her – I didn’t want her to hurt herself -- and I couldn’t say anything. How do you communicate that there’s danger without saying something? Afterwards she said to me, ‘I thought you were old and you had forgotten what you were doing.’

The second incident had to do with the dog in the show that belonged to the Keller family. Near the end of the second act it was sitting on Helen’s bed when, for no apparent reason, Maulella said, the dog started to growl and show its fangs.

“I could see the dog’s teeth and it goes, ‘Grrrrrr,’ and there’s Jenilee playing Helen and her hands are flailing and I wanted to stop her from making any sudden movement because I didn’t know what this growling dog was going to do. Jenilee put her hand down near the dog and I grabbed it. She pulled it away and she went to do it again and I grabbed her hand again and I put it on the dog’s back. I could see her hand ‘sensing’ the dog’s emotions. Afterward, Jenilee said, ‘Oh, yeah, thanks, I felt the vibration. That’s why I backed off.’ I’ve taken all of that with me everywhere I’ve gone since. I’ve become more sensitive to who I’m working with. I worked with an actress recently and I could see every time she was going to go off…her eye would start to twitch…and I’d go over to her and…” (Maulella started patting her own hand)  “…and she’d come back, and those were the greatest performances because something unexpected happened, something real.”

It seems that “something real” happens every night in “Tryst,” which runs through Sept. 9, and perhaps that’s because the three primary members of the creative team, Maulella, Shanahan and director Joe Brancato, are willing to take chances and try new things, so much so that those who saw the production at Westport will see a substantially different show at TheaterWorks.
                             Mark Shanahan as George Love. Photo by Lanny Nagler
Adelaide continues to evolve,” Maulella said of the woman she is playing. “She has changed, I guess most notably for people who have had the opportunity to see it more than once, quite subtly. I’ll say, ‘Let me try this,’ and Joe and Mark will say ‘Yeah, yeah, go,’ and I’ll do it and then ask, ‘What do you think?’ and Joe will say, ‘It looked exactly the same, Andrea,’ but it didn’t feel the same.”
                                                      Director Joe Brancato
Probably the most dramatic change, Maulella explained, has to do with what the actor referred to as a “dilemma.” To wit: exactly how intelligent is Adelaide Pinchin? For a while, Maulella said, she felt that she was sidestepping Adelaide’s sense of fantasy, her sense of joy.

“We sacrificed it for this vision of the ghost story of it all, but I felt dealing with that sense of joy and fantasy was one of my challenges coming into the production this time around, and it’s enhanced by being at TheaterWorks because it’s the most intimate space we’ve been in. The acoustics are intimate and I feel it’s allowed me to really enjoy Adelaide’s words in a different way and really savor things that are just for her. For me, this time around, that’s been a huge change.”

Another change is the sheer physicality Maulella has brought to the role this time. Maulella explained that a lot of the physical self-abuse that Adelaide undergoes comes from what the actor herself has experienced.

“The last couple of years of my life,” Maulella said, then paused. “I’m sorry, I have to take a deep breath.” Her head turned aside as her chest rose and fell several times. “Well, the last few years of my life were filled with a lot of challenges and…it’s very hard when you come to familiar ground with familiar people …we all want to reinvent the wheel…but for the three of us, we all end up where we started. Last year, just because of where I stood in my life, Adelaide’s increased physical abuse seemed to come quite naturally…giving up a little bit more of the period behavior for a woman of her stature and class. We abandoned some of the boundaries that previously existed. The increased self-abuse showed up last year and Joe said, ‘Why didn’t we ever do this before?’”

Maulella stopped abruptly, leaned over and pulled a cell phone from her purse. “I have to show you this,” she said as she sorted through pictures stored on the phone. She turned the screen towards me and there was a close-up of her hand with the area around her thumb and wrist bone red and swollen.

“During rehearsal at TheaterWorks,” Maulella said, “I kind of lost the hitting myself and I asked Joe if he was missing it and he said, “I thought you were gonna do it, pepper it in somehow.’ Well, last year it hadn’t been a problem, it had seemed natural, but now I didn’t know if I could hit myself, but I went for it and this is what happened. I have to tell you, this finger…I bruised my head so badly, and my knuckle, well my hand swelled up. And it was the sound designer who said, ‘Andrea, you’re not doing it like you did last year,’ and she was right because last year it was very easy for me. Here, let me give you a little demonstration.”

With that, Maulella, careful to remove her thumb ring first, smacked her forehead with her fist…hard. “I think the first four shows I just kept punching myself. My head hurt…I hurt myself because it just wasn’t innate any longer, it wasn’t relevant to my journey with this character. Over this run, the hits and slaps have become a little bit more strategically placed and I can make the sound,” she said, again audibly smacking her forehead, “without hurting myself, and we’ve compromised now so that it’s no longer necessary that she actually hit herself…just the suggestion she is going to is enough.”

We talked about the end of the play…now the bathtub scene…which has also evolved: whether Adelaide would be dressed or undressed, whether George, the character Shanahan plays, would undress her or not, whether Adelaide should wear the white nightgown…all of which has been tried by the trio. What they have come to in the TheaterWorks production, without wishing to spoil anything for those who have not seen the play, is certainly more graphic and shocking than it was in Westport.

“If I can backtrack,” Maulella said, “because it pertains to the ending, I don’t always know if Adelaide is a victim. This time around I’m still playing with the idea that she’s getting into the tub thinking she’s going to take a bath. How does that change everything? I think that the audience…its reaction…does feed off that energy and I have noticed people’s reactions when I’m playing it that Adelaide is not a willing participant in what is going on. The other night I heard a woman in the audience scream, ‘Oh my god. Oh my God.’ She must have said it six times. I’m glad my head was in the tub because I thought to myself, I’m going to start laughing. The best reaction we ever got was in Lowell, Massachusetts. This one voice called out, ‘This is bullshit!’ It was a matinee and she’d obviously had a couple of Mimosas. She was not buying it.”

Maulella explained that her attitude about her character’s motivation in getting into the tub clearly affects the audience’s response to what follows, and that attitude changes performance to performance. It’s a very subtle thing. If you listen to the words George speaks at the end of the tub scene, Maulella said, you have to ask yourself, what do they mean, how do we interpret them? She also noted that the splash she makes, very intentionally, affects the audience’s response: the bigger the splash the bigger the reaction. And for those wondering what she’s doing in the tub while Shanahan is doing his thing, her answer was: “Abs of steel.” She keeps her upper body tense, hands pressed against the side of the tub, while she allows her legs to go limp. And then there’s the quick change behind the scenes, which takes well under a minute before Maulella appears, fully clothed, for the play’s final visual vignette, a change that Maulella credits the theater’s interns for, including their sang-froid while rapidly clothing a naked lady.

As for the future, Maulella fully admits that she doesn’t know what will happen next. “That’s the fun, the excitement, the angst of being an actor,” she said, although she indicated she’d love to come back to TheaterWorks because “I just love the space, the atmosphere. But I’ll do anything. I don’t know what will happen next but I’ve never been bored.”

                                                        Andrea Maulella

And as for where she will go immediately after “Tryst” closes?

“I’m going down to Florida to visit my dad,” Maulella said, then threw up her arms, signaling a touchdown. “I’m going to Disneyland!”

An appropriate destination for the little frog who practiced and practiced and eventually became a princess.

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