As ephemeral, astonishing and palpable as a sudden flare-up of aurora borealis: bask in the glow of the special chemistry some actors brew up on stage. When WingSpan Theatre Company’s Producing Artistic Director Susan Sargeant decided to mount Samuel Beckett’s two person play “Happy Days” (opening October 11 at the Bath House Cultural Center), she knew she needed to find a special combination of actors capable of achieving that rare kinetic bond. She had directed Bill Jenkins twice before, once in Edward Albee’s “Seascape” at Circle Theatre, again in Albee’s “The Play About the Baby” for her own company. Bill was a natural to play Willie. Casting the national touring stage artist and film actress Stephanie Dunnam to play Bill’s counterpart Winnie offered promise of creating a unique “aurora borealis” production. Regional theatre critic and arts journalist Alexandra Bonifield plumbed aspects of Dunnam’s life and ethos, chatting over tea at Half Price Books.
With her piercing clear eyes gazing directly out from under a shock of disarmingly feminine grey curls, Dunnam’s aura evokes an unusual combined essence of youthful exotic world-traveler interwoven with a mature Earth Mother nurturer. Her travels as a performing artist have taken her to diverse places on the globe, with Texas and Los Angeles figuring in as major touchstones.
What connects you to Texas and how did theatre become your life? My parents were both from Paris, Texas. My father made his career in the Navy, so they moved lots, hard on the marriage. I was actually born in Washington State. After my folks divorced, my mom moved us to Dallas when I was four. She married my step-dad, her boss at Texas Instruments; we moved to Richardson, getting into a “normal life” groove. I stayed close to my biological father all this time. When I was 13, he got posted to Japan and invited me to come live there. At first my mother resisted, but the opportunity it offered for international education overcame her reservations. My father believed that all teenagers should stay busy, so he introduced me to the community theatre group on the base. I was the only teenager among career military people in their 30’s, and they treated me like an adult. I immersed myself in their productions, performing in Edward Albee plays by age 14. My Shakespeare teacher on the base took us to Tokyo to see Peter Brook’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. That did it for me. I knew I’d found my place in life. When I returned to Richardson High School, I studied with the eclectic, creatively driven Barney Hammond. I give him full credit for teaching me a professional ethic and instilling in me the drive to excel artistically. I take his life lessons with me proudly, everywhere I go.
And your connection to LA? After high school I bounced around a bit, between Texas, San Francisco and Los Angeles. I auditioned several times for the distinguished ACT program in San Francisco but never got accepted. I got a regular job in LA and thought, “Well fine, this is where people go to act; I should be here.” I got the wrong agent and ended up trying to represent myself, which isn’t a really good plan. I returned to Texas and immediately got signed on with Kim Dawson Studio, and the work started flowing in. I performed at Theatre Onstage and Dallas Repertory Theatre. I had the privilege to perform in “Man and Superman” at Theatre Three with Norma Young directing blind, while Jac Alder supported her as her eyes. Being here in the early 80’s in my 20’s was absolutely fortuitous. College? I started attending SMU, but Kim Dawson got me an audition for the successful television show “Winds of War”. Once back in LA, I got cast in “Dynasty”. The diverse opportunities were amazing…. I got to work with the best of the best, Cloris Leachman and Diane Lane, to name two.
It sounds like you have literally leapt through open doors in your career. Where else has your thespian life led you? I got the chance to travel to places I would never have thought of going: I shot a delightful film in Iowa with Richard Thomas and Charlton Heston, a min-series in France and had a major European stage tour. Back in Dallas, I performed in “Misalliance” for Dallas Theater Center, which also toured to Pittsburgh. I had a fabulous time performing with Sean and Dee Herrigan in Dallas Theater Center’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”, a big hit at, and so right for, the Kalita Humphreys Theater. I’ve performed all around the country, from San Diego to Philadelphia. I’ve had the great fortune to be in productions at the Mark Taper Forum, The Old Globe in San Diego and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It was an honor to play in both national tours of Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Heidi Chronicles” and “The Sisters Rosensweig”. I Fabulous to run into so many people I know and love and have worked with at the recent Theatre Communications Group Conference here in Dallas. It’s like having a huge creative family stretched from coast to coast.
Do you find challenges getting cast due to your age? There are lots of roles for women in 20’s and 30’s and some for 50’s and up. Right now it’s harder to find roles for women in their late 30’s – 40’s. That’s sure to change as more women come into power and prominence in that age group, in business and politics. Until roles balance out with 50/50 representation, it will remain a challenge. Losing the remarkable playwright Wendy Wasserstein so young has limited options for mature women actors. In all the time on the road performing in her amazing plays, I never got bored; I always found some fresh aspect of my role to bring out, a very human, female reality. The mark of real genius. From another aspect, it’s harder to find non-ethnic roles in LA than in this region, as we still have a preponderance of white audiences here who want to see plays that reflect their world. It’s part of what keeps me here.
Is having grey hair a problem? Oh, no! In LA I decided to stop dying my hair. I wanted mature roles, got tired of being told I was “too young”. It did worry my agent. It’s not a problem performing across the rest of the country…from film work in Austin to the regional stage work I’ve been doing here in North Texas.
Now you’re about to open in “Happy Days” at the Bath House Cultural Center, under the guidance of the respected regional director Susan Sargeant. How did that come about, and how do you feel about performing in a Samuel Beckett play? I had never met Susan before although I knew of her. I auditioned for her recent production of “Children of A Lesser God” at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, and she saw me in “The Grapes of Wrath” at WaterTower Theatre. I consider myself a storyteller. I believe “Reality TV” has numbed audiences and limited their imaginative expectations. Performing this play will add depth to my resume, as I have never performed Beckett before. And his plays challenge an audience to stretch imaginatively. Once cast, I started reading books about his minimalist style, hallmark language and absurdist approach. Susan and I found in our research a word that describes Beckett’s work well: intertextuality. It means that all works of literature incorporate references to other literary work and build from the connections. Beckett’s references intend to connect those other works freshly in the audience’s mind, like “Paradise Lost” for instance, a work of literary genius that so few people read today. The austere poetry of his language adds beauty, depth and nuance, almost symphonically. Over the years since the 70’s, I’ve performed in plays by Wilde, Shaw and Albee as well as Wasserstein, all great image-makers. Beckett has an interior aspect, like a visual artist…his landscapes matter; he paints with words. We as actors and you as the audience don’t need to analyze and understand in a literal sense; just absorb and experience the work like a symphony or painting. Let it wash over you. I will become a better actor, I know, from this experience. I hope our audiences can grow and find delight in seeing Bill and me in “Happy Days”. I look forward to performing in the intimate, historic Bath House black box space. A first for me — I relish new experiences.
Susan Sargeant feels eager to see the fruits of her and her cast’s and production team’s labor come alive, starting October 11th. “When you cast, you are hoping for the right fit and the magic we call ‘chemistry’. Bill and Stephanie have never performed before as an on stage couple. When I cast them, I knew their approach to the work would be quite different. This is always intriguing to me as a Director, especially in a play with just two actors. Even though Beckett physically isolates the characters of Winnie and Willie, Bill and Stephanie truly do ‘connect’.” The result should make for a spectacular theatrical display of aurora borealis scope.
WingSpan Theatre Company, now in its 16th season, presents “Happy Days”, an absurdist, avant-garde performance masterpiece focused on the human desire for connection by Samuel Beckett, Irish novelist, playwright, theatre director, and poet. The play opens Friday, October 11th and runs through Saturday, October 26, 2013. It plays Thursday – Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. Saturday matinees at 2 p.m. (October 12th, October 19th and October 26th). Post Performance Talk Backs occur Friday, October 18th and Friday, October 25th. Pay What You Can performances: Thursday, October 10th/Preview; Friday/October 11th/Opening; Thursday, October 17th and Thursday, October 24th. All performances at the Bath House Cultural Center.
For reservations, call (214) 675-6573
Photos by Lowell Sargeant
A version of this article runs on TheaterJones.com