Performing Arts: One-on-One with Marsha Mason

by Editorial

Marsha Mason sat down with Washington Life to talk about her upcoming role in All’s Well That Ends Well.

By Julie LaPorte

Marsha Mason

Marsha Mason. Photo by Mark Seliger.

Washington Life: All’s Well That Ends Well is your debut performance with the Shakespeare Theatre Company. How does it feel?
Marsha Mason: It’s really exciting. The director, Michael Kahn, is so knowledgeable about Shakespeare. He’s done these plays sometimes two and three times, and he’ll put in a full day’s work and then come back the next day with notes and changes. And they aren’t just directorial notes – they are notes about the actual text.

In preparation for the part, I read several different published texts of the play. And there were times when I wondered what the heck was going on, what was that particular speech about. But when Michael sent me the text we were going to do, it’s one that he actually edited. And it’s so clear and very specific. It’s just great. I didn’t have any real questions about what was happening, what the arc of the scenes were, what people were really saying. He’s made it very truthful to the text, and at the same time it’s very understandable.

WL: You play the Countess of Rousillon. What do you like about her?
MM: I think she’s a really wonderful character. First of all, I think she’s very contemporary in the sense that she has just had to take over the household since her husband has passed away. There is a balance you have to strike between being in control as the boss and having people happy to work with you. I can relate a bit to this because I have this big farm in New Mexico, and I didn’t plan on being an entrepreneur or a business owner or a manager of 15 or 20 men. So it’s an interesting dynamic.

Also, she is a wonderful mother in the sense that she really understands that her son needs a certain amount of education and maturation. And she tries to help him grow up by encouraging his relationship with Helena.

WL: What do you think audiences will be able to take away from the production?
MM: First that they enjoy themselves and have fun. That they find out Shakespeare can be understandable. And too that human emotions and character and conflict and issues are universal. I think all the women will be able to relate to unrequited love.

WL: You started out acting, and then bought an organic farm (Resting in the River). Now you’re in the process of selling the farm and moving back to New York to re-energize your acting career. It seems like you’ve lived several lives throughout the years.
MM: Yes, I have. And it’s been very exciting to do. The whole focus of my 20s and 30s and a lot of my 40s was really work. It was all about the theatre and films and being an actor. And then when the business changed in the late 80s – and it shifted dramatically from the films I did in the 70s and 80s – there was this huge shift of focus groups and marketing and the studios changed. More and more were bought by large corporations and consequently run differently from a creative point of view. In 1993 I really felt like I needed to get out of Hollywood.

And it really feels like I threw up the pieces of my life like a kaleidoscope and waited to see what pattern they would come down in. And I wound up in NM. I never intended to become a farmer. It’s kind of one thing led to another and I went with it. I still continued to work as an actress, but less so because there weren’t as many parts available to women as they got older. And that’s pretty much still the case. There is a whole group of us that felt that shift.

WL: Did you find that in the theatre as well?
MM: No, and that’s one of the reasons I love the theatre – because I’ve been able to play really interesting roles in the past several years. I did Frank McGuinness’ translation of Hecuba in Chicago, and it was the American premier of that very successful production that they had in London. I also played a much older woman at the beginning of this year in I Never Sang for My Father, and in Impressionism I played a contemporary, sophisticated New York woman. The part itself, while small, was really interesting and fun to do. That’s why I made the decision to downsize and simplify, so I’d be able to work more in the theatre because the parts are really interesting.

WL: What is it you like about being on stage compared to acting for film or television?
MM: The audience. I like the interrelationship and the interaction with the audience to the play and to the character. I love what I like to call the psychic energy between us. It’s exciting because it’s different for every performance. And you get to play with it, work with it. You can feel it. That’s very fulfilling.

WL: Do you prefer comedy or drama?
MM: I like them both. I approach them the same way – I think the key to comedy is you have to play it deadly serious. And that’s what makes it funny. I think drama is a bit easier than comedy. Comedy is a little more difficult and complicated because of the timing and the different styles of comedy. But also I think comedy comes out of pain. Comedy writers, certainly having been married to one I would say so, as well as comedy performers, understand pain. Comedy comes out of a much more serious pain than most people realize.

WL: Do you have any advice to young people who want to make it in the theatre?
MM: I think that studying theatre, and studying acting in particular, is a terrific thing because it can be a benefit no matter what you end up doing. It gives you a level of confidence and ability to put yourself out there. But I don’t encourage anybody to do it. I figure if they really want to do it, then they’ll have the passion to do it despite all the negative things, because it is very tough. And the thing that you find out when you try to do it is whether you have the strength, the personal strength to take the rejection.

WL: Tell me a little bit about Neil Simon.
MM: We had a terrific, professional working relationship. My understanding from other people is that married couples can’t work together. But what we had was really terrific – I think because we mutually respected each other’s talents. We were both very objective about it. In terms of the film work we did together, that was heavenly. We had a great time working together.

All’s Well That Ends Well will run at the Shakespeare Theatre Company from September 7 through October 24. For more information and to buy tickets, visit their website.

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