Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following interview with actress ELIZABETH STAHLMANN
Elizabeth Stahlmann is currently appearing in Grounded at Westport Country Playhouse
Despite working professionally in theatre since the tender age of twelve, Elizabeth Stahlmann, being the consummate actress that she is, yearned to refine her craft — so she elected to attend the Yale School of Drama to earn her MFA. Even before graduation, however, she was chosen by seasoned director Liz Diamond for the demanding and searing one woman show GROUNDED, by playwright George Brant. Pillow Talking had the opportunity to chat with this talented actress following a tech dress rehearsal for the show. Fasten your seat belts and get ready for this G-Force rated interview in which Elizabeth discusses everything from playing a cocky fighter pilot to the art of acting.
PT: Thank you so much for granting us this interview. We are really looking forward to seeing Grounded which we know you are starring in and is playing at Westport Country Playhouse. Before we talk about the play, however, let’s talk a little bit about how you got started in this crazy business of ours?
ES: Sure. I’m from a northwest suburb of Minneapolis called New Hope. I grew up doing theatre there at The Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis which is one of the top theatre companies and takes theatre very seriously. We worked really hard in this sweet little professional theatre company. I ended up continuing theatre and studied it at the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theatre BFA Actor Training Program. It is a four-year BFA program with a huge emphasis on liberal arts education. I did shows at The Guthrie and then I started touring with a company called The Acting Company which is based out of New York. It started with the first graduating class of Juilliard with people like Patti Lupone and Kevin Kline. They ended up collaborating with my school for a few years and I got the pleasure of touring with them.
PT: Wow, that’s fabulous!
ES: It was awesome. After that I decided I realized I had a lot more to learn. I had really specific ideas about what I needed to refine. So I applied to the Yale School of Drama and I got in. I just graduated in May!
PT: That’s great! Congratulations! (Stephanie) I did hear that. Did you also work with Liz [Diamond] there?
ES: Liz was present at all of the student rehearsals and performances and was a guide both to the directors and the actors – to really optimize our communication and get the best art going. She watched me work for three years. I feel very honored by it.
PT: (Wayne) During those three years, did she give you notes and advice?
ES: Liz has always been extremely supportive. Her perspective is so keen. She’s incredibly articulate and verbalizes things and observes things that I am always amazed that she sees. She has such a great ability to observe. If I had questions, she was always somebody I could approach – “How do I articulate this to a director,” or “How do I make this moment work?” She’s always had an incredibly supportive presence.
ES: Months ago I found out she was doing this play here and I thought I could audition for it. But then I thought maybe I was too young. And then I thought if Liz wanted to me to audition, she’s seen my work pretty intimately for three years, she would call. And then I got a call from the casting office and I was really honored to be brought in. That was right before graduation and it was such a whirlwind of a time. I was floored and so excited that I was cast because working with Liz is a tremendous opportunity as an actor. And to really become a better actor in her presence is inevitable (laughs). So I knew I had to do really good if I wanted to get it. But it seemed like a right fit.
PT: Yes, it does.
ES: In the audition room, I said, “Oh, this would be really fun to work with her.”
PT: (Stephanie) So what attracted you to the piece, other than Liz of course?
ES: This character’s voice is super unique. This female who possesses a ton of confidence and speaks with profound poetry in a way. It’s clipped and poetic and colloquial. I was attracted to the challenge of the journey of this one woman show and tracking her psychology throughout. I looked at parts of this play and I thought, “I have no clue how to do that” – and that’s always so fun, because you never know what is going to come out of that. It allows for your creative impulses to be unleashed in ways that you wouldn’t have expected to otherwise – when you just don’t know the answer.
PT: Have you ever done a one woman, solo type of show before?
ES: No, never! This is such an incredible, rare opportunity and I’m not taking that for granted. I’ve been in plays where I’ve never left the stage, but there are other human beings to speak to and respond to – that makes acting easier (laughs).
PT: (Laughs) It certainly makes learning your lines easier!
ES: Yeah. You prompt a response with what that other person says. Here you kind of become your own scene partner. You give yourself cues, either images or sounds (laughs). It’s amazing all the different ways I cobbled together my memorization for this.
PT: We’ve seen a number of one person shows. It’s sometimes really hard when you do not have a big cast. Pulling off a one person show is such a monumental achievement. How do you approach something like that, as an actor, in preparing for a show?
ES: I made it my mission to read the play as much and as soon I could so I could let it sink into my subconscious – get the poetry of the play moving in my body. I would walk around with the script a lot. I was taught by an amazing teacher as an undergrad to never memorize standing still.
ES: It is kind of incredible when I memorize passages without moving it doesn’t stay [in my mind] as quickly. I really did a lot of research. There is so much military jargon that I was really unfamiliar with because it’s a world that I hadn’t yet investigated. That’s what’s so fun about being an actor. You get to be a kind of anthropologist every time you do a play. I looked up every military word and everything I could about drones. You do a lot of Google searches. [I wanted to] understand the psychology of a fighter pilot and how they kind of defy any expectations. They are all just human beings and everyone is so different. I also met with some retired people from the Air Force. They shared their experiences with us and that was really exciting and moving. One of the things they expressed is that a stereotype of a cocky fighter pilot isn’t that off. It’s a life and death situation.
ES: If you’re not cocky and completely sure of yourself, you’re kind of screwed (laughs). I also interviewed an Israeli drone pilot. Drones are huge in Israel. So I Skyped him and got to ask all these questions and that was really illuminating.
PT: That really is in-depth research. (Stephanie) My background is psychology and I also teach it. It’s different for men who can separate the rigors of the military sometimes better than women – it’s evolutionary. Do you feel a certain responsibility to women [as well as] women in the military in representing this kind of character and all of these really deep psychological elements?
ES: Yes, absolutely. I think George Brant wrote this character without a lick of victimization. It’s interesting watching interviews of the first combat pilots. There is not a lot of lingering on the fact that they were excluded. The women in the military want to be treated with the same standards. We talk a lot about the aspects of women who are in a totally male culture – especially down to the uniforms. We were exploring a lot about gender roles in this play and how this character essentially takes on a lot of masculine or male attributes – like she is the head of the household, she earns the money, she goes to work, she’s on top – she’s the Alpha female. Eric, her husband, supports the family and her career. I’m curious how people will respond to that relationship. There’s no kind of focus on how that is unusual or weird – it just is what it is. So she thinks she can compartmentalize. She doesn’t even realize that she has pushed aside as much as she’s had to until it grows in her. Like the pressures of not being able to turn on and off within the twelve hours of coming to work and home. I don’t think she even understands the implications of that until later in the play. It becomes overwhelming to her and her family.
PT: It sounds like you really have a grasp on this character.
ES: Yes. It’s fun to play a character that has so many masculine attributes. How does this woman walk among men? Literally, how has she learned to hang with the boys. With that [though] being somebody who carries life inside her.
PT: (Stephanie) Which is obviously a female thing which you [she] can’t deny.
ES: Where does the femininity begin for this play and how does it fit in?
PT: (Stephanie) I think there is a military mindset whether you are male or female. And I think it’s the same for civil service jobs like police where it is difficult to come home and turn it off.
ES: I think a lot of us do. Every time we have a job – a work life – coming home to family can be a real adjustment because we bring our work persona or who we are as a worker – bring that home and now you have to be a mom or wife. We all have different roles in our life. In this case it is a tremendously taxing and anxiety producing job that needs ten times more adjusting than most. I was thinking of my experience as a waitress and coming home and I would still be like thinking I’m serving tables. You go to bed at night and you’re still serving because of the adrenaline. [My character] finds it hard to come down after these shifts. She talks about how weird it is to go to war as shift work – she does her shifts and her adrenaline is pumped even though she’s not in danger of death. Her family wants to help her decompress and she doesn’t even realize that she needs to do that.
PT: What advice would you give to up and comers in the business, realizing that you just graduated from Yale?
ES: There does come a point when people stop the pursuit of this career because you have to make money. You are unemployed consistently. My friends have houses and children. [As an actor] you are choosing a life which is unorthodox. So that’s a wild thing to come to terms with at times. At this juncture in my life, I’m like whoa! I chose this for myself! But I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s rewarding in life where you meet the most creative people and you create work that shifts people’s consciousness.
PT: We agree. That’s what theatre should do.
ES: We used to have people come to class – older, experienced people who would say that only one of us out of the whole room is going to make it – and we would say that person is going to be me! (Laughs) But people find their own paths. You could be an actor who becomes a director or someone who goes into psychology. It could be that you become an English professor. I think acting training is never for naught. You learn empathy and how to listen better. You learn how to read literature in a way that accesses your own emotions. And you learn how to move with your body (laughs). My mom always said – my mom’s a painter – that an MFA is one of the hardest degrees to get because you have to think abstractly all the time. Who knows if that’s true – I think a math degree is really hard (laughs). But there is really something to it when people say, “Don’t give up.” I’ve been doing professional theatre since I was twelve and it has been twenty years and, for some reason I haven’t given up yet. I’m always thinking with these plays that this is just the beginning and I keep forgetting that I’ve done a lot of plays. I think that’s what is so rewarding about this path for me. Don’t give up, because someday you’ll get better. That’s what I keep remembering because I’ve been bad a lot (laughs).
PT: (Laughs) We find that hard to believe.
ES: I sometimes forget that it does take a lot of courage to have people look at you. I’ve developed a lot of resiliency because of that.
ES: I take it for granted because I’ve been doing it so long. But I can stand up in front of all these people and breathe. You just keep practicing and you’ll have to get better.
PT: That is an eloquent answer. (Stephanie) I loved how you sized up what it means to have acting training and how it relates to so many arenas. It’s so true.
ES: I’m so lucky. I get to work with incredibly intelligent, empathetic people like Liz Diamond and all of these designers.
PT: It’s a tough one, we know!
ES: Oh, man this is hard! I want to say – rewarding – adventure!
PT: Great answer! And the adventure is just beginning!
ES: Yes. Every play is an adventure. Every career choice is an adventure.
PT: Thank you so much! We look forward to seeing you in Grounded!