Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? Ellen Lauren was. The 48-year-old actor remembers when SITI Company director Anne Bogart first told her that she’d be taking on Woolf as the second in a trilogy of solo pieces on influential 20th-century artists.
“I took a catch-breath and sighed,” says Lauren. “I was unsure. I had a tough experience with Virginia Woolf in junior high. But Anne said, ‘Yeah? Well, you better start re-reading.’ And the one thing we’ve always done in the SITI Company is attach our dinghies to Anne’s schooner and yell, ‘I’m in. I’m in.’ Then we start paddling.” Accompanied by a raft of rave reviews from critics around the country, Lauren brings Room to Classic Stage Company for its New York premiere on May 21.
Those familiar with SITI’s work will recognize the nonlinear narrative structure, the highly rigorous stylized movement, Darron L. West’s evocative aural environments. But the primary departure is that for the first time in a SITI show, Lauren is alone center stage.
“I had never worked with an actress who could pull it off until I met Ellen,” says Bogart, who first worked with Lauren 10 years ago, but has been waiting a lifetime to revisit Virginia Woolf. “In Room, we ask essentially the same question that Woolf did,” the director says, referring to “A Room of One’s Own,” the seminal 1929 essay about women, writers, and writing women: “What kind of space do we need to live and create in the world now?”
Physically, to borrow a metaphor from Virginia Woolf, Lauren could play a lighthouse. She’s lanky and long boned, statuesque and vulnerable. Reddish auburn hair frames steely gunboat–blue eyes that can transmit danger signals or signal safe passage. But in a more important sense, Lauren is a singular beacon for a new breed of American acting.
She began her professional life performing in the regional theater throughout the 1980s, in such standard roles as Effie in The Devil’s Disciple, Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days, and Isabella in Measure for Measure, all three directed by Greg Boyd, the current artistic director of Houston’s Alley Theatre. “Ellen’s one of the great actors . . . ever,” he says. “She has that thing people go to the theater for: to see something alive. She glows.”
Instead of abandoning the theater for the next pilot season, over the last decade Lauren’s followed her own pair of pilots: Japan’s venerable director Tadashi Suzuki, whose rigorous physical approach to acting Lauren not only embraces, but teaches at Juilliard and all over the world; and Bogart, with whom she and others formed SITI Company in 1992. She is now its associate artistic director.
Lauren’s transformations can be so total even admirers have a hard time recognizing her. “For me,” says Bogart, “the hallmark of a great actor is exactly that: I can look at them up on the stage and not know who the hell they are.” Two years ago, Lauren played a devilish genie in David Ives’s one-act Arabian Nights at the Humana Festival. She wore a turban, a mustache, and a flowing golden robe, scampering about like a ferret while jabbering in a B-movie Arabic accent. It was totally hilarious. Yet not one of the dozens of critics in the audience realized it was Lauren. Her ability to project herself (“You become the space,” she says, “like when you’re backing into a parking space you become your car”) can command huge houses: whether as Anna II in Seven Deadly Sins at the cavernous New York State Theater or touring as Agave in Suzuki’s Dionysus to the world’s most famous auditoria, from the Herod Atticus amphitheatre in Athens to the Moscow Art Theatre.
Lauren has never done a film, a TV sitcom, a voice-over, or a commercial. She’ll get occasional cold calls from casting directors, but she doesn’t have the time or inclination to audition. Like the Wooster Group’s Kate Valk or fellow SITI members Kelly Maurer, Tom Nelis, and Will Bond, Lauren has remained devoted to a rigorous acting life found primarily in small, experimental ensembles.
As Lauren matures, she understands that her career can inspire serious young actors. Not that students always get it. “There’s still the phenomenon where I’ll get off the plane to teach with Suzuki and they’re expecting Yoda. Something Japanese and wizened. At least a man. But Suzuki knows this is not about being Japanese—this is about solid training that deals with time and space and energy. That’s kept the theater floating for thousands of years. As Stanislavsky, as Grotowski all say, it’s about the living presence of the actor and the audience.”