An Interview with Elizabeth Stanley
Written by Victoria Myers
May 27th, 2015
We saw Elizabeth Stanley in On the Town and thought, “We should interview her.” Then we saw her perform at The Lilly Awards’ Cabaret and thought, “We definitely should interview her.” And then we saw her at the shoot for the #MakeItFair video, that’s recently exploded on the web, and thought, “Wait, why haven’t we interviewed her?” Prior to being hilarious in On the Town and earning a Drama Desk nomination for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical, Elizabeth played a wide range of roles that showcased her versatility. She made her Broadway debut as April in the 2007 revival of Company. She then appeared in shows ranging from Cry Baby to Michael John LaChiusa’s Hello, Again and the Encores! production of Merrily We Roll Along. She’s also been a longtime supporter of ASTEP, an organization that we’re also very fond of. We recently talked with Elizabeth in her dressing room before a performance of On the Town about being funny, her development as an actress, and being a woman in the theatre industry.
One of the things that’s great about On the Town is that it goes from broad humor to very poignant, dramatic moments. What was it like shaping a character within that?
We knew that going in and that gave us freedom. I knew I was not hired to be the delicate, romantic person in this show. It was nice that the sky was the limit in terms of how wacky we could be. John Rando is a fantastic director and he was really encouraging in saying, “Try this,” or, “Try that,” but also really reminding us to keep the heart. It’s easy with all the crazy comedy to forget the heart and what’s really the meat of the story; it’s about a desperate love and a need to connect in a time of war.
What was your process like for finding the humor for Claire?
I think the thing that makes her tick is that she’s very buttoned up, but what’s great about this role is that she really comes undone. So I just tapped into my own life story. I was sort of very studious, very academic—I wouldn’t say I was nerdy although maybe other people would. I lived by a lot of rules when I was younger because they got me the things I wanted; they got me the grades I wanted and the discipline of practicing worked to my benefit. Then, very much like Claire, I got to a certain age and was like, “I don’t seem to be having a lot of fun.” I’d say I was always the quirky one out of my group of friends, and my friends who come and see this show always say, “It’s so great to see you in a role where you’re actually just being yourself.” So I guess she’s a little bit of me. I see a lot of my older brother in her. He’s very, very smart. He’s an electrical engineer and an air force pilot, and he’s really dedicated and meticulous, but then he’s such a goofball when he lets loose.
Styles of comedy change over time. When you’re doing something that’s from another era, is that something you had to think about?
Yes. I’m lucky in that I’m the third scene in and by then audiences are like, “We see where you’re at.” I’m lucky that audiences are ready to embrace that type of comedy by the time my scene rolls around, which helps because it allows me to be a little more off the wall. I wasn’t necessarily thinking about it when I created it, but people have said, “Oh you remind me a little bit of Lucille Ball or Carol Burnett.” I think that style of comedy influences what I did, and it’s different than something like April, a comedic role I did in Company, which is very dry and minimal. So, yeah, you have to shape it because I feel like if you don’t honor the era in which it was written, then it doesn’t play as well. It sort of confuses the audience brain of like, “What’s the tone? Who are you? I’m confused about how to look at you.”
A lot of the jokes in this have to do with sex too. That’s something that’s changed a lot, especially for women. Were those kinds of jokes something you had to be aware of?
Phyllis Newman [of the original cast of On the Town] came and saw our show and said, “I think they would have loved this,” meaning Betty Comden and Adolf Green and Leonard Bernstein. She said, “It’s a lot sexier than I’ve ever seen it.” The jokes are written in there, it’s not like we added them or changed it, but I think we’re able to be more blatant about it than they originally were. Sex is so human and it’s really funny. It’s tragic and heartbreaking and all of those things, but most people, when they talk about their dating experiences, make jokes about it—because that’s the way you deal with the pain. When you’re vulnerable and trying to connect with someone, most of the time it doesn’t work, so I think there’s a lot of comedy to be found in that.
Some of the other actresses we’ve talked to have mentioned they feel extra pressure to make their characters more likable than a similar male character would have to be. We’ve had it only come up with more serious roles, but we were wondering if that came up doing a comedy?
I don’t know that I feel that very much with this role. I know exactly what you mean though. I’ve definitely felt that with other roles. In this role I feel like it works on her side. I feel like out of all the female characters in the show, she’s the most relatable perhaps. I think a lot of women know what it feels like to be sort of buttoned up and keeping their true feelings under wraps and then letting them out. In that sense, I feel like it’s a very, “Yay ladies” role. My partner is equally goofy so I don’t feel like I have to dumb down for him. The only thing with Claire that’s tricky is that she is technically engaged to someone else, and that I think gender doesn’t play into that since cheating is generally a problem for most people.
You’ve had the likeability issue come up with other roles?
I feel it especially when you’re playing an ingénue-y, romantic character. It’s like in order for the fairytale version to work you have to be a little demure or a little quieter—all the things that are stereotypical feminine traits. It can be tricky.
On the Town started at Barrington and actually came to Broadway in a way that’s a little out of ordinary these days—unexpectedly. What was that like for you as an actress to be able to do it out of town without feeling like it was a tryout with a capital T?
It’s so great. I feel so lucky to have had that. When I got the audition for On The Town, I was like, “I’m just going to go away for the summer and enjoy the Berkshires.” Of course, I love being in a Broadway show, but everything that goes around it can sometimes be really distracting since it’s not why most of us become artists—you do it because you love the actual craft. I always like going out of town because you can just do it. It doesn’t become this huge thing outside of the show. So that was awesome. And it was nice to get time off in between to think about it, and then get another rehearsal process to go, “Oh I think this angle wasn’t quite right,” or, “I had this idea, but I never got to try it before.” It’s definitely a luxury to try and re-do something. And I think that theatre is special because it’s a live performance and you’re having a collective reaction to something that’s happening right in front of you. It’s different to watch action unfold with real people right in front of you than it is to watch a movie unfold in front of you. I feel like that can happen no matter where you are and I think it’s something to be valued.
Is there anything you think could get more people to come see shows?
Have you seen the new Matilda commercial [where people sing and dance to one of the songs from the show]? Things like that make it more accessible to the average person. If you see a video of people singing and dancing that’s b-roll of the show, it’s very accurate advertising like, “This is exactly what you’re going to see when you come.” But if you’ve never seen that before or didn’t grow up going to shows or watching old movies, I just don’t think that grabs someone who doesn’t already have an experience with it and makes them say, “Oh I want to try something new and go to that.” So I think you have to show it to people in more everyday terms of what they’re used to. So if commercials looked more like movie clips that’s a great way to engage them. Like with our show, they could have a handsome solider—it doesn’t even have to be one of the actors from our show—wandering around the city and trying to ask a girl out or ask for directions and have “Lonely Town” playing and have him experience all of these great New York spots. That’s exactly what this story is and it’s still accessible and relevant. I just think advertising could be more contemporary.
There’s a study that says if people don’t go to a show by the time they’re twelve, it’s next to impossible to get them to go.
I feel like a pretty adventurous gal, but I’m not super interested in sports so I’m not going to buy a $100 ticket to see a sporting event unless someone is like, “Hey, let’s do this!” But on my own it’s probably never going to happen. So I understand the reverse. I get it.
What’s something you think can be improved upon in how we develop musicals?
That’s hard. It’s so hard to create something new. And in our culture, Broadway has become something closer to Vegas, so people have this expectation of a real spectacle when they come, which is limiting to so many artists in terms of what you’re capable of producing that then gets produced on a giant level. As a general rule, I think if we as a culture had a greater appreciation of art for art’s sake that would be a place to start.
What’s your process like as an actress? Do you go to the character or do you bring the character to you?
I meet it in the middle is maybe the safe answer. I do feel like I’ll go back and look at a performance I did and think, “You were putting so much of yourself into that and you didn’t even know it,” since I think your subconscious can certainly sneak out. I usually go through a script and analyze it with what’s being said about the character, what do we know about them, how are people talking about them, and then I ask questions for anything that’s not answered, and some of that you have to make up so that becomes personalized. It’s really fun to play characters who aren’t like you and you get to find people in your life or in history that tap into that character. But, ultimately, it all comes from your own imagination. For me it feels almost impossible to not go, “Okay, how am I like this character and how am I not like this character” and then see how you fit in the middle.
Do you come into rehearsal with a lot?
I would say I feel better when I come in with quite a bit. It gives me a place to start. It feels safer, in a way. But it always changes based on who you’re with and what happens in the room. With music, that was the first thing I started studying, so I like to feel pretty solid with it before the first day, if I can. And, again, it changes.
What’s your relationship like with music? When you hear a piece of music do you go to an image or a color or a story?
I’m more of a scene person. It almost always puts me in some sort of mood. I’m actually very careful about the type of music I listen to in my downtime or at home, because sometimes there will be singers that I love—I love their voice or their instrumentation or their lyrics—so I’ll listen to it for all of these other reasons, but then I’m like, “I really don’t need to be in that mood right now.” When I was younger, I remember playing piano music and talking to my teacher and going, “This piece of music makes me think of this story.”
What are your top five favorite albums?
1. Joni Mitchell, Blue.
2. India Arie, Love and Testimony.
3. Michael Jackson. I don’t know which one.
4. Stevie Wonder, The Key of Life.
5. Aaron Copeland, Fanfare for Common Man. (I know, not exactly an album)
What shaped your sense of humor?
I have a lot of really funny friends. I honestly think most of my stuff is from them. My brothers are both funny, but we don’t joke a lot with each other. We’re not funny with each other as a family. In fact, my parents came to see one show I did and my dad said, “I didn’t realize you were funny,” which is kind of hilarious in itself.
What other areas of culture influence your artistic life?
Visual art, for sure. I love going to museums. I usually like to go alone or I have a couple of really good friends where we both like to go alone, but we like to go together and say, “I’ll meet you back here in two hours and we can talk about what we’ve seen.” I love that. I like historical and I really like contemporary art. I like to paint. It’s just something that I do for myself. I paint a lot of cards and things like that for my family and friends. When you make your living in one creative capacity, it’s nice to have something else creative that’s not your job.
What is the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?
I have really early memories of my grandmother putting me to sleep and repeating nursery rhymes. Going to visit her, I’d sleep in the bed with her and she’d tell me nursery rhymes. So that’s definitely one of them. I grew up going to church every Sunday and we had this children’s storybook bible. I remember the Moses story where he was put in a basket and sent down the river. And I remember loving it because the picture of the baby was so cute. From an early age I wanted that story told over and over.
Who were your heroes growing up?
I was definitely a kid of the 80s so Mary Lou Retton was on the Wheaties box and was a super cool gymnast lady who had me doing cartwheels and headstands and things like that amateur style in my living room. Musically, when I was really young, I loved Madonna. I just wanted to dress like her and be like her. She was just so cool and such a badass. I was really far from it, but I secretly hoped to be like her. By the time I got to fifth or sixth grade, I was starting to get really into music, so my first voice teacher. I just worshipped her, and she was so pretty and just getting married and an amazing teacher and she had lots of energy and was so encouraging of her students. I’m from a pretty small town, so any artist that would come through and play or sing with the local symphony I just thought was really awesome. They were unique because they weren’t from there, but they were doing something that I hoped I could do but didn’t really understand yet. My older brother was a really great role model to me growing up. He’s a really sweet guy and great older sibling, and he’s such a hard worker and was so studious and just calm. I think that shaped me.
Were you imitative as a child?
I did cut my hair really short, which was a huge mistake. My mom was like, “Okay…” I needed to put gel in it and style it, which I was never going to do at eight or nine so I just ended up with this boy haircut. I thought it would be really cool. And I was really creative about what I would wear. I was always trying to copy what I saw people wearing on TV and stuff, but with a really limited budget. There wasn’t H&M. It was like JC Penny. I don’t know how successful I was.
When did you first feel like a grown up?
It might be this cast. I just suddenly feel like no one looks at me like a child anymore. This is one of the first casts I’ve been a part of where I’m one of the oldest people. And I still don’t feel very old, but there are a lot of young people in my cast. But that was sort of an, “Oh wait! I used to always be the youngest person!” My youngest cousin got married a couple of weeks ago, and that was a real eye opener because I saw a lot of extended family that I hadn’t seen in maybe fifteen years. For the longest time, we were the kids and they always looked the same and now my cousins and I were all there and some of them have kids and some of them are married and, all of a sudden, all of our parents looked older. That was like, “Wow I guess we’re really adults.”
Going back to what you were saying about the show, did you think about what you wanted to bring to it as someone leading the company?
Yes, that’s something I’ve certainly thought about with this show. Anytime I’m playing a more principal role I think about people who I’ve been in casts with who were in that position and what I admired. I want to emulate that. I hope. I try to be someone who is able to speak up in rehearsals and challenge a decision if it’s something I feel differently about, but in a collaborative way and in a secure way. Then, just being inclusive and compassionate because there are times that are hard. Everyone is going through their whole life during the time a show is going on and that’s another part of everyone’s world. I try really hard—and it’s not possible everyday—to leave whatever is going on outside, so we can all be on the same field.
We’re always interested in how other people’s labels affect an individual’s artistic growth. Actresses get boxed in a lot at the beginnings of their careers based on how they look and voice type. How do you think that affected your development as an artist?
A lot. I’m not and have never been a size two, so when I moved to the city I was immediately a different type. In college I was always the soprano, ingénue part, and when I moved here there was more of an expectation of what the romantic lead should look like and that she should be tiny. So then I became the quirky sidekick or the sassy, sexy belter. But I don’t regret that because those roles were so fun and I ended up loving that. Now I feel like I’m a grownup and I’m growing into these roles where you can look more womanly and they’re more fleshed out, so they’re more interesting to play. Early on I did have someone tell me, “You should never wear flats,” and you see my Birkenstocks, so I really listened to that today, but I thought about it like, “Someone is going to be there taking my photo, and you need to always look pretty if you’re going to be around people in the business. You need to have your hair done and you need to have a face on.” And that’s hard. I get it because I chose to go into an industry where what you look like is a part of it. That’s undeniable. I’m not a studio musician. I’m not a radio voice. But I wasn’t raised that way. My mom never colored her hair. She takes pride in how she looks but it was not the most important part of her day or life. It was a real adjustment for me. At first I felt really fake and superficial or like my priorities were messed up if I was spending so much time and money on what I looked like. Sometimes that’s still hard. Sometimes you still get feedback like: “You wore the wrong thing.” “You look terrible in that.” “That was unflattering.” I don’t think guys probably get that. Some do. I don’t think they’re immune to it. But it’s harder for women, for sure. Even if you’re not an actress.
Was there a learning curve to figuring out how to deal with that?
Yes, and I’d say I’m continuing to find that balance. It’s a constant juggle of what can be my style, how much do I need to look like what people are expecting me to look like, and when I can I just be real. It has gotten easier. I think I feel more comfortable about it. I also think the more successful—I’m not saying this about me—an actor gets, the easier it is to just be. You’re not having to prove yourself. People learn to love you for who you are. Like Meryl Streep. She’s not making a statement with her clothing. People respect her as an artist no matter what she looks like.
You were recently part of the #MakeItFair video that’s been going around the internet. Why did you want to be involved with that?
I was like, “Yes! This is a great idea!” It was a couple of my friends who approached me about doing it and they’re both very cool ladies and great creative talents. And people who have been very honest with me as a friend about, “This is hard,” and, “I’m struggling with that.” So I knew they were going to have smart things to say. I also knew they were very funny so I knew they’d make it something that wasn’t too heavy handed, which I feel they did.
You also did the Lilly Awards cabaret this year. We always think women supporting women is cool. We’re always interested to hear from people about why it’s important to them, personally, to support other women and be involved in those types of events.
I think women are awesome. We’ve come so far. I don’t feel like a lot of my friends had to fight for doing what they wanted to do, but I still feel like gender equality isn’t totally there. It’s something to stay on. There can be so much negative energy and thoughts around competition between women and sometimes that, I think, is a result of them having to fight for what they want instead of just being able to say, “This is what I want. That’s what you want. Okay. Great.” So I think it’s really important to be supportive and encouraging. And now where I’m the age where a lot of my friends are having children, that becomes a whole other thing to juggle and embrace and everyone has a different path. It’s a whole thing. And that feels like the conversation that my generation is dealing with. Equal parenting. And I think that’s a really interesting conversation.
Something we talk about a lot with the women who have children are the questions they get asked about being a parent that their husbands never get asked.
Yeah. I didn’t really think about it but, when I was at this wedding a few weeks ago, my older brother said, “I’m really glad that it’s cool for dads to be so involved now.” I was sort of shocked since my older brother is a very sensitive, great dad. I was shocked that he ever even had that thought that it was never not cool. But I suppose, as a guy, that’s perhaps on your radar that you weren’t successful if you weren’t killing it in your career rather than being a fabulous dad.
What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?
I think educating women that there are jobs in theatre other than being an actress because I had no idea about any of the other jobs growing up. I thought, “Oh I like theatre,” but it never occurred to me to do any of the other stuff around it.
You can follow Elizabeth on Twitter: @StanWoman and Instagram: @ecstans.