In the latest addition to our Art of the Actor interview series, writer Jamila Reddy chats with Helen Hayes Award recipient Dawn Ursula about the challenges of uncovering a character, and her current work in Stage Kiss, at Round House Theatre through December 27.
Tell us your origin story. How did you become an actor?
I started out doing dramatic prose and poetry as part of Speech and Debate when I was in high school, and then I took some classes and did some theatre while I was in undergrad, but I actually majored in Sociology for my undergraduate degree at UVA. And then I just kept doing it on the side until it kind of took over my life and then I went back and got my MFA. That’s the rough sketch of my origin story.
What do you enjoy the most about acting?
That is such a difficult question to answer.
Hopefully that means there are a lot of reasons, so it’s hard to pick one.
Yes! Exactly. That is the truth, actually. There are a number of different things I enjoy about it, so it’s tricky to say what the most enjoyable thing is. It’s a non-answer answer. It’s that I can’t do anything else. Everything else makes me miserable.
Tell us a little bit about this character you’re playing at Roundhouse, and what excites you about this role?
This character, She, is an actress who has not worked for a while and she gets cast in this play that’s set in the 1930s—a melodrama. In this play, she falls in love with an old love, and it turns out that the man who’s been cast as her ex -lover in the play is her ex-lover in real life. The play within the play rekindles an old relationship that has some history that gets uncovered as the play goes on, so very craftily through the moments that [playwright] Sarah Ruhl creates. This actress is currently married with a teenager, so rekindling this romance with this ex-lover causes a lot of problems.
What do you consider the most challenging thing about acting?
There are so many challenges—exciting challenges, good challenges—but getting out of my own way is what comes to mind. There’s a lot of things that can be distracting about the process of putting a production together, so remaining steadfastly focused on the work and the story is key —knowing that it is going to be, ultimately, the most rewarding for all involved and will lead to the best possible production that you could want. But there are a lot of distractions. It’s being aware of those distractions and then staying focused on not getting caught up in them.
What is “the art of the actor?”
The art of the actor is that ability to transform, as much as possible, into that person or creature that you’re trying to portray—bringing with you what works and controlling and holding off what doesn’t, in service of the story that’s being told.
What did you do to prepare for this role?
One of the things that Aaron Posner talked about when we were rehearsing is opening up and closing off channels—having a real understanding of who the character is, how they exist in the world, and recognizing our similarities and differences. And recognizing them sometimes means being honest about myself in a way that might not be so pleasant or comfortable. It’s saying, “this character thinks this way, behaves this way, feels this way, is motivated by this, is attracted to this,” and then recognizing in myself what fits right with my own natural sensibilities—and what doesn’t. Then it’s about finding a way to open and close those pathways of thought and emotion and behavior so that I marry as much of myself to the character as what’s needed and control and hold off that which is not true to her or him.
This is, I have to say, one of the most enjoyable shows I’ve done in my career, because it’s such a wonderful theatre show—it’s speaks to all those things about who we are and what we do as theatre practitioners. It’s also a very sweet and poignant love story, and its riotously funny. And even if you aren’t a theatre practitioner, you don’t get lost at all; you get so much out of it as well.