Erin Davie on Coney Island
Written by Victoria Myers
September 24th, 2014
We took Erin Davie to Coney Island to talk to her about starring in the Broadway revival of Side Show, and it was an adventure. There were carnival games (our idea), fake tattoos (her idea), and fireworks (Coney Island’s idea). We also had a fairly adventurous conversation (as usual: no spoilers), which is no surprise given the eclectic, intelligent, and multifaceted women she’s embodied on stage, from Young Little Edie in Grey Gardens, to Charlotte in A Little Night Music, and many more. Erin is an explorer and a questioner—in fact, she even came up with some of her own interview questions—in the broadest sense of the word. She’s inquisitive and sensitive to the world around her; one of the books on her Kindle is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (another is Outlander, and she wasn’t too into that one because she thought it lacked emotional investigation). She led us around Coney Island, and we even tried to psychically intuit our way to the Side Show (because, “Hey, it’s Coney Island!”); this led us to walk in the wrong direction, but we met some interesting characters along the way. Basically, whatever journey she’s going on, we’re glad to be along for the ride.
We talk a lot about interpretation, and the idea of theatre being a living, malleable thing. Side Show is a revival, but there have been a lot of changes made to it. What’s it like creating a role in a show that’s a really revised revival?
A revisal is the term they’re using; have you heard that? “It’s a revisal.” I don’t think of whether it’s a revival or not. I just think about the show itself, the character, how I feel it, and my interpretation of it. Fortunately and unfortunately, somebody has already done it before, and if you have heard it or seen it, is always in your head. That is something that already exists and that people have in their minds, so there is going to be some comparing, and that is the hard part, I think, for me. Because you’re always going to be compared to somebody else. But at the same time, it’s a wonderful opportunity that we have because there are so many changes. The tone of the show is, I think, very different than the original. It’s changed quite a bit, so luckily we do have quite a bit that’s new and we get to create for ourselves. It’s kind of the best of both worlds.
(ii.) Women in the World
Side Show is one of barely a handful of musicals that has two female leads of similar types. What’s that experience like?
I think I manifested this. I’ve always thought, “God, I admire so many of these women who I won’t ever get to work with because we’re such similar types, and we’ll probably never be in the same show.” And I used to think, “Oh, I wish I could do a show with…” and now I am, with Emily [Padgett]. I love it because it’s empowering, I think, for women in theatre. Since it is rare—it’s two female stars. And not only that, but—not to give anything away—they choose each other in the end rather than the typical allowing a man to take care of them and take charge. They choose. They choose in the end to stand on their own, and that’s why I love it.
In Side Show, Violet and Daisy have limited agency because they’re physically conjoined. They’re defined by their physical presence. It’s interesting to think about that in relation to how the world views women. It’s kind of a heightened version.
I think there are a lot of themes in Side Show that touch people on many levels across the board. That’s interesting though. I never thought of it exactly that way. But it’s true because there’s also a theme of sexuality in our show and what that means for them as women and sexual beings. I mean my general feeling about how women are viewed… I have a theory. Want to hear it?
People might think I’m nuts. Okay. At our base level we are animals, right? And so, my theory is that women, especially in the industry, are only considered attractive as long as they look fertile, because we, as humans, are made to reproduce and move on. And so we kind of can’t ever get away from our animalistic nature, in a way. I feel like part of the inequality is that there are few great roles written for older women, and I think part of that is, basically, people want to look at young women, whereas men are still considered attractive—or more attractive—when they get older. And I think that’s the hardest thing as a woman; feeling like once you reach a certain age no one wants to look at you, or that you’re not attractive or sexy anymore. And you start to feel like you’re put out to pasture. And that’s been the hardest thing for me—aging as a woman and what that means and how you feel like your worth changes. And the roles. And as an actress you’re always being told not to tell your age. It’s ridiculous. I was on the subway yesterday and a guy—first I thought he was flirting with me, but later he said, “My boyfriend would love you”—but one of the first things he said to me was, “Oh, you’re not married.” He didn’t see a ring on my hand. So he goes, “Oh, you’re not married, you must be young. Like twenty-three?” And he winked at me like, [Erin does impression and, girls, we trust you can imagine this wink well] and then he goes, “See, guys can be nice.” And I’m like, why is it nice to assume that a woman is young? How is that a compliment? And yet in our society it is. That would never happen to a man, you know?
The fact that sexuality is dealt with in the show is really interesting. Is that one of the additions?
Well, you know, one of the things that fascinated people about the twins, and one of the first things that comes to people’s minds when they see Siamese Twins is: well, how do you have sex? Or how do you have a romantic situation? What is that like? And one of the themes throughout the show is how do they find love separately, yet attached. Is it possible? What does it look like? How would that work?
The realities, and not just idealized romance.
Yeah, that’s what I love about it. It’s a little dark, and deals with things that musicals often don’t. So buy your tickets now, folks.
What is Side Show about for you?
It’s hard because whenever I think about it, I think about it so much from my character’s perspective. What’s so great about the show is that it has so many levels to it. There can be so many answers to that question. I just love that it highlights the fact that, no matter how different we all are, we are all the same underneath. I love that aspect of the show. Everybody feels like a freak in some way at some time in their life. Or feels on the outside. And everybody is worthy of love. I think that’s a lovely theme.
In Side Show, there’s a lot of talk about being normal. We’re not sure if we know what being normal means.
Is being normal (whatever that means) something that concerns you?
Being normal? No, no. I certainly would never want to be normal. When people say, “You’re weird,” I usually take it as a compliment. However, I think what scares people about not being normal is being ostracized for not being like other people. And that’s hurtful when that happens. A lot of times, just because people are different, they’re judged. I try not to let that concern me. But sometimes it can be hurtful, because I do feel judged sometimes for being a little different.
In show business there can be a lot of noise. As you prepare to be at the center of all of that, how do you figure out what type of presence you want to be?
I think it is really important to be aware of how you’re affecting the rest of the company. So what type of energy do I want to be for them? I hope to make them feel like they have solid leaders in us. And I’d hope that they feel like we’re a complete ensemble, and that every single person is just as important as anyone else in the cast.
Are there people you’ve worked with who you think are good examples of that?
Yes, of course. [Curtains co-star] David Hyde Pierce—the quintessential, perfect leading man example. He’s really just wonderful. He’s always relaxed. His door is always open. He’s incredibly generous. [A Little Night Music co-star] Angela Lansbury—wonderful, wonderful example. I think people around you should feel like you’re always approachable and always open. I mean, kindness—top of the list. And I like people who seem very grounded. That’s a lovely quality in a leading player.
You’re very grounded.
You think so?
Do you not think so?
No, I do. I think I am grounded. I just think I’m grounded but I’m also like [Erin flails her arms about]. How do you write that down?
How do you handle being at the center of attention?
I handle it differently at different times. It can be hard for me sometimes because it’s a lot of energy coming at you from a lot of people. Some of it is great, and some of it isn’t good. Some people are going to like you, and some people aren’t going to like you. How do you handle that? Staying grounded. Personally, for me, having a spiritual life helps. And also feeling my worth outside of my work—that I don’t only have worth in this medium of singing and theatre. Having a life outside of it is really important to stay balanced.
How do you manage the expectations from an audience that come with leading a Broadway show?
You can’t. Honestly, you can’t manage expectations. It has nothing to do with you. It has everything to do with everyone else. And everyone else is going to have expectations, and all you can do is do your job, and do your best and be true to yourself.
How do you manage the expectations and attention put, specifically, on your career now?
People can have all the expectations that they want, but I know that you never know what’s going to happen in life. Everything is part of the journey. So, if things aren’t as successful as you thought they would be, sometimes that’s not the worst thing that can happen. Sometimes that can be the best thing to push you in another direction that you were supposed to go in. Or to have an experience that you were supposed to have to grow.
This is one of the questions you wrote for yourself. You wanted to know: What is your artistic process like?
I think I wanted to know this so I could figure out how to have a process. I asked you to ask this of other actresses. Okay. Here is what my process is like. I’m very scattered at the beginning—so scattered. When I get on my feet for the first time, I’m usually physically a little all over the place. The way I find my footing is by being all over the place. And I won’t completely commit. I go in and out of the scene a lot—I’ll comment on it a lot while doing it. It’s very messy at the beginning. It’s a very messy process for me, I think.
I’ve read Cate Blanchett doesn’t come into rehearsal with anything pre-planned.
I do love Cate Blanchett. I don’t come in with anything. I just start to pick it up as it comes. And I also like to know what the director’s idea is, and I like to get a look at the other actors and get a sense of how they’re going to be in the roles and how that’s going to affect my choices. It’s bit by bit—in layers.
What other areas of culture do you think affect your work?
What doesn’t? I’m a very visual person, so anything visual: photographs, paintings, colors, nature (that’s not culture). But I feel like everything does. If it’s beautiful and it touches me, then it affects me, and therefore affects my work. Or if it’s ugly and it affects me, then it affects my work.
What’s your relationship like with art? Do you imbue it with character or feeling?
Yes and yes. I used to paint when I was younger. I used to be all into artwork and painting and making things. [When I was a child] I’d do things like just pick up crochet needles and just start crocheting. So just being creative in any capacity.
Did you ever want to go into the visual arts?
I did. I used to want to be a clothing designer when I was really young. I used to make clothes for my Barbies. I used to be very creative and visual.
You brought your camera today.
I did. I haven’t taken any pictures yet, but I will. I haven’t been taking a lot of pictures lately. Having a camera is a really easy and quick way to indulge in your creative side. I hope to get back to making things with my hands again; I’ve been feeling that itch lately. I find it’s a wonderful way to balance your creative inner-world. Lately, I’ve been throwing myself so much into this theatre world, and just creating characters, that I feel like I’ve gotten a little bit out of balance and I’ve lost a bit of the other aspect of my creative side. So I hope to reconnect with that. And I find that when I do, and when I’m able to throw myself into something completely different creatively, it always helps the other.
If you weren’t an actress would you have an artist’s studio?
Yes. I don’t know what I’d do in there, but yes, sounds like a lovely plan.
What is your relationship like with music?
I have a constant kind of soundtrack going on at all times. I almost always have a song in my head. I’m very musically inclined. It feeds my soul. It definitely helps me get into a mood or get out of a mood. Or inspires a mood. Honestly, it is one of my therapists—cheaper and always available.
What is your relationship like with fantasy?
That’s an interesting question, because what is fantasy and what isn’t? How do you know that your fantasies aren’t real on some level? I’m more interested in asking the question of, “What is going on that I can’t see right now,” you know what I mean? And that’s kind of fantasy, but it’s not. I’m fascinated with what is all around us that we cannot see.
Erin, you wanted to know if you had a spiritual life and if it impacted your work?
No, I wanted to know if other people did.
And yet we are asking you.
Yes, I’m a very spiritual person. And it affects my work greatly. [Loud noises are heard from a distance] Are there fireworks going off? Okay, sure, it’s Coney Island.
It’s because we’re about to talk about spiritual things.
That’s true. There are no coincidences.Yes, I have come to accept that I’m a very spiritual person. However, it’s interesting because part of me shies away from admitting that, because I think that comes with assumptions. I think, when I was younger, I used to make judgments about people who were super spiritual. And I think it’s a very personal subject. But it makes me peaceful and happy. And I find there are so many synchronicities in my life, and it’s become fun for me to connect the dots in my life and see how things connect, and therefore, sometimes you see the reasons things happen the way they do. So yeah, it affects me and my work greatly. It’s fascinating to me, since it’s not just spirituality, but everything is energy. It’s physics. So I find the science of it all interesting too; how 90% of stuff that’s in our universe is made of stuff that we can’t even measure. I find that fascinating.
What is the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?
ET. I went to see ET and I had a breakdown and, apparently, was inconsolable afterwards. And I became obsessed with ET. I had a blowup doll ET. I have not seen that movie since. I’m actually curious to see what it would be like to watch it now. But I completely fell apart after ET.
Who were your heroes growing up?
Cyndi Lauper. Because she was so unusual, right? She was completely different than anybody else I had seen, and she was not afraid to be different and completely herself. I loved her for that. I was really obsessed with Cyndi Lauper. I liked Madonna for a while. I loved female singers. I didn’t listen to male [singers] until I was in my twenties. A lot of my idols were female singers.
Were you looking for people to model yourself after?
Certainly not consciously, no. I was really shy and introverted as a kid and as an adolescent; I probably could not have even looked you in the eye for longer than two seconds. I didn’t know who to model myself after. I think that was actually a problem. I don’t remember having a lot of strong female role models around me. But you know who I loved? I didn’t realize it at the time, I wouldn’t have said, “They’re my role models,” but I loved hanging out with my brother, Michael, and his girlfriend (now wife). He was seven years older than me. They were kind of hippies, and they loved to talk about what was real—and no bullshit. And I loved that. At a time when I was really vulnerable and adolescent and didn’t have a lot of friends, I loved hanging out with them because they were so cool and real with me and about life. And they were also artistic. And they just accepted me for who I was. And that was lovely.
How did you get over being so shy?
Well, I forced myself to perform, actually. I wanted to perform, but I was scared of it. But I did it anyway. I always push myself and make myself do things that I’m scared of. And that’s how I got over it—I just pushed myself.
Any theories on why you were so shy?
I have no idea. I’ve always felt a little different than everyone—you know, most of the other kids in my class—and I didn’t quite see things the way they did or I didn’t experience things the same way they did. I often felt a little bit like an outcast, which is probably why I identified with interesting characters like Cyndi Lauper and people who were a little different—like ET. I don’t know why. Who knows? I feel like I was born that way.
Do you feel like you’re an old soul?
Yes. Who answers that question with “No”? “No, I think I’m a young, idiot soul.” I read a book about past lives, and there’s a theory that there are ten soul levels. And I don’t think I’m a ten, but I think I’m above a five.
Do you have an example of a way you saw things a little differently?
I didn’t apply to many colleges and I wasn’t a very academic student in high school. Northwestern was one of the schools I applied to, and Northwestern didn’t have any auditions for admissions. We had to write an essay, and I believe the essay was on like, “What is the most challenging thing you’ve experienced in your life thus far?” I really didn’t have any good, moving sob stories, so I thought I was being clever and I wrote about the first time I had to buy tampons by myself.
You’re very funny. Who do you find funny? What helped shape your sense of humor?
When I was younger I loved Just Say Julie on MTV. She was this obnoxious redhead. She was completely ridiculous and I found her hilarious. I don’t think many people did. That was my early influence of comedy. I think my boyfriend [Nehal Joshi] is pretty hilarious too.
When did you first feel like a grownup?
I have not yet felt that. I really have not felt that. It’s hard because I’m the youngest of seven so it’s actually been hard for me, in general, to break out of that identity as “the youngest” and always feeling like a kid in some ways. So, when did I feel like a grown up? I don’t know… I kind of felt like a grownup when I first got out of college and got my first job and paycheck, and I was able to go buy a pair of shoes if I wanted to. I thought that was pretty awesome.
In Lucille Ball’s autobiography she says the advice she gives young actresses is that you have to develop as a person before you develop as an actress. This seems like good advice, in general, and something we’re interested in, especially as it relates to that confusing time of life called one’s twenties. How well did you feel you knew yourself when you were in your twenties?
I did not know myself, but I think I always had a strong intuition about myself. I think it’s really important to follow your intuition and gut, and try not to do things just for the sake of pleasing other people. I think I heard Barbara Cook give similar advice about [how artists should] learn about what’s going on in the world—become a well-rounded person and you’ll become a better performer. I do think that is true. I think what’s important is to first have your life, and then do your job. I find that so often, this work can so easily overcome you and knock you out of balance, and become all you think about and all you care about and all you feel is important in your life, and it’s kind of the opposite. Relationships first and people first and then you can be a great performer.
How do you handle being labeled as a performer? Especially the ingénue label that exists in musical theatre as you go from college into the real world; how does that affect you as an artist?
I think in college, that’s where you get a chance to play roles that aren’t just ingénue roles. So I got to do that in college a lot. Like I played Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire in college. The first things I ever did out of college were not book musicals. I did The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber and then I did Swing, which I enjoyed because it’s just about the music, and you have a song and you can have a journey within a song. It’s funny, because after that it was hard, since I resisted the ingénue roles. But I don’t remember it being a problem. I’ve been really lucky is basically what it is. Once I did Grey Gardens, because it was so… it wasn’t the typical ingénue role and it was so fantastic. Once I did that, I got put in a box that wasn’t a bad box to be in at the time, which was the interesting, deeper, mentally unstable, darker ingénue. I was thinking earlier about how I shy away from so many of the cliché roles for women in musical theatre, especially when they are roles where they are the woman who is supporting the man; I find myself really resisting those roles.
What are the top five male roles you’d like to play?
1. Jean Valjean in Les Miz
2. Robert in Boeing-Boeing
3. Sweeney Todd
4. Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls
5. Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing
Do you feel that actresses leading the company—rather than actors—have their behavior judged differently?
Yes. There’s always that thing of, if you’re strong or if you get pissed off, you’re “bitchy” or “moody.” But men never get that. There’s this negativity when a woman is strong or when she has strong opinions, whereas when it’s a man it’s just perceived as, “he’s strong.” I’ve had really good experience with strong women. Like doing a show with Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch. Christine Ebersole is a very strong and opinionated woman. I think it only helps the project and the process when you have women who have strong opinions, know what works, stand behind it, and speak up for what they believe in. I think that only makes whatever we’re working on stronger and better. And it’s true that a lot of the time—in not just theatre but across the board—women are often encouraged to not speak up and to be quiet and to follow.
Have you ever been asked in an interview about being a woman in the industry?
No. Are you kidding me? No.
We ask everyone to pick three to four nouns to describe themselves. You came up with a subversive one that we love, but it’s too long to go on the homepage. So we’ll just include it here, okay?
Okay. My noun was, “Ben Brantley in his review for Grey Gardens called me: A pretty cypher in search of a defining shape.” And then: Ice cream aficionado.
What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?
I think just bringing it up because, honestly, I didn’t even think about it—I didn’t even notice it until someone brought it up to me. And then I was like “Oh gosh! That’s right!” There’s definitely an imbalance with directors, composers, and writers. I think it’s really important to bring it up and make people aware of it, because I don’t think many people realize it. Especially women. I don’t think audiences have even thought about it. So I think just making people aware of the imbalance, so it’s on their conscious minds, can help to change it.
You can follow Erin on Twitter: @ethedavie and Instagram: @ethedavie.