Deborah Strang on her 'lovely, crazy' life in the theater*

lao-strangtartuffe.jpglao-strangsheba.jpg
Deborah Strang in "Tartuffe," left, and "Come Back, Little Sheba" last spring / Photos by Craig Schwartz

In more than two decades with A Noise Within, Deborah Strang has played a shrew, a stage manager, a fairy queen, a pompous wench, an earthy innkeeper, a jilted bride, a jealous sister and a host of wives and mothers silly, grieving, fierce and fragile.

ANW being a rotating repertory company, Strang has sometimes performed two of these roles in the same week -- or even weekend. "It's the ideal for an actor," she says. "It brings out the creative juices. You don't get any sleep and you don't have time for friends, spouses or extracurricular activities, but it's a heady, fantastic experience."

Currently, the versatile veteran is appearing in her 70th Noise Within production, starring as the magician Prospero in "The Tempest" through Nov. 22. "I've done all the mother parts so now I'm playing men," she jokes during a recent interview at the Pasadena theater. Why so many moms? Timing. "I was in my 40s when I started here and I'm in my 60s now." She doesn't hesitate to mention her age -- or to declare her preference for "my more natural head shot" in which wisps of graying hair set off soulful blue eyes. "I'm happy with the way I look."

strangheadshot-use.jpgStrang also is happy she's made her home with the classics-centric troupe led by Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott. The native of little Big Stone Gap, Va., worked in New York and Boston before arriving in L.A. in 1989. Three years later, she debuted with ANW during its early days in Glendale. Strang's credits include film and television, but her main focus is the stage, where she's earned acclaim for her skill and range. (She just won a 2014 Ovation award for her performance in "Come Back, Little Sheba.") Offstage, she teaches and runs the box office -- which is more than a day job: "I'm a better actor because I really get to know my audience."

"I also keep learning more about myself thanks to people here who know me so well they push me to keep growing." A few years ago, she recalls, "I asked not to be included in Alfred Jarry's 'Ubu Roi' because absurdist theater isn't my thing. Of course, no one paid attention to me." Director Rodriguez-Elliott cast her and then suggested she begin the show sitting on a toilet. "I said, 'Are you kidding?' Well, it turned out to be so liberating. After you start out on a toilet with your pants down, you can do anything."

Here are some other memories and musings from Strang's "lovely, crazy" life in the theater:

Above: Photo by Daniel Reichert Photography


Preparing a role

lao-ubu.jpg "The bulk of my work is done in rehearsal," says Strang, who likens her approach to "jumping on a bucking horse and bucking around until I settle in."

"For contemporary works, like William Inge or Tennessee Williams, I read the play and the playwright's biography and research the period, but I like to be loose enough to respond to what happens in rehearsal." Her Bard prep is more text-based. "I spend a lot of time with the script, scanning everything I say for the meter and looking up every word. Shakespeare offers my most challenging parts. It's like singing an aria."

Above: "Ubu Roi" (2006) with Alan Blumenfeld / Photo by Craig Schwartz


Performing two roles

"Doing more than one play at a time, creating more than one character is like working out double time. You develop -- I stole this word from Geoff -- muscularity and the ability to pull out any actor tool at any moment." Strang compares the theater to baseball. "Every night, you get up to the plate and try to be as present as possible. I'm going to miss some, but I always give it my best shot. I try to imagine each show is important to somebody in the audience. It's their anniversary or this was the first play they saw as a kid."

Last spring, Strang portrayed a saucy servant in Moliere's "Tartuffe" and a disillusioned housewife in Inge's "Sheba." "That rep was really challenging because these are extremely complicated characters. Plus, 'Tartuffe' has rhyming couplets and language you have to wrap your brain around and 'Sheba' is such an emotional journey."

Usually, she says, it's easy to avoid mixing up plays. "By the time you are dressed and hear the pre-show music you are in that world." Once, however, "we were doing two Hellmans. In 'Another Part of the Forest,' I played the mother of the character I played in 'The Little Foxes.' I put on my makeup and was about to go on as the mother when I looked in the mirror and said, 'What's wrong? I'm too pretty!' It turned out I'd made myself up as the daughter."

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for LAO-strangpioneer.jpglao-newchairsusethis.jpg
With Geoff Elliott in "O Pioneers!" (2003), left, and "The Chairs" (2011) / Photos by Craig Schwartz


Leading men

"Geoff and I have performed together so many times he's been my son, my husband, my lover, my sworn enemy, my father and my slave. [Elliott is Caliban in "The Tempest."] I know I can try anything with him, especially during rehearsal. I wouldn't normally haul off and slap an actor without asking permission. But I could slap Geoff and he would take it and respond and then I could respond. It's a wonderful way to work. Our history, in real life and onstage, is part of every part we create together."

A Noise Within also has given Strang opportunities to act with her partner of more than 30 years, Joel Swetow. "Onstage, there is a sexuality, a trust and a love that can be completely released because we are lovers. Then, at night, we go home and spend all of our time talking about the play."


What's next

"This spring," says Strang, "we're putting on 'REVOLUTIONRep,' two plays in the same day with dinner in the middle. I'm going to be Mrs. Peachum in 'Threepenny Opera.' I have no idea what I'll be doing in 'Julius Caesar.'" She stops and smiles, clearly relishing the prospect of performing Brecht/Weill and the Bard back to back. "It should be lots of fun."

This post has been updated to include Strang's winning a 2014 Ovation award Nov. 2.


More by Karen Wada:
Recently on Native Intelligence
New at LA Observed

LA Observed on Twitter