What makes a great actor? Shakespeare advocated temperance, Rousseau tact. Antonin Artaud looked to the sinuousness of the Balinese dancer; Heinrich von Kleist preferred the sturdiness of the bear. A pamphleteer of the 18th century insisted on “the study of painting, statues, prints, language, politics, dancing, and fencing.” Stanislavsky merely wailed: “How can all these elements unite in one man? The perfect actor is not yet born.”
Respectfully, we disagree. On the occasion of the Obie Awards, we’re reminded that Off-Broadway has birthed a number of actors who approach perfection. They consistently demonstrate passion, vivacity, and innovation; whatever the quality of the play, they’re invariably excellent. Six of our favorites spoke to the Voice about the exigencies of their craft—the triumphs, breakdowns, day jobs, and seagulls.
Distinguishing characteristics: Standing at six feet two inches, and seeming even taller, Fletcher somehow combines the troglodytic and the elegant. He’s starred, convincingly, in Richard Maxwell’s Caveman (and many other Maxwell plays as well), but he tempers that brutishness with geniality and intelligence. Last season, he played a death-dealing cowboy in Maxwell’s Ode to the Man Who Kneels and the title character in Gatz, Elevator Repair Service’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby.
Favorite role: “All of my roles with Rich Maxwell. They have been super-fabulous—even the ones where I hardly ever said anything, even the ones where I just walked on. I played the guy at the end of Good Samaritans. I came on and ate soup. My one line was ‘OK.’ “
Dream role: “There was a role I had to turn down in a six-hour Brazilian show. I would have played a cardinal visiting from Europe who gets eaten.”
Other jobs: “I do make most of my money, at least these past few years, acting—especially when we do a show in Europe. But I also work as an art handler. I’d done that for 10 years before I started acting.”
Distinguishing characteristics: Though elegant and urbane in person, Frazier specializes in disordered, wounded characters, like the unctuous boss in Anne Washburn’s The Internationalist or the bewildered Dad in Heddatron.
Favorite role: “The father in Jenny Schwartz’s God’s Ear. It required emotional resources, physical resources, and great mental dexterity.”
Typical role: “If there’s a Gibson Frazier type, sign me up. Occasionally, I’ll get offered or asked to audition for either ‘the nervous guy’ or ‘the buttoned-up accountant.’ I tend not to enjoy those scripts.”
Dream role: “None. That’s why I think I’m not really an actor. My girlfriend will say, ‘Oh, I’m going to play Célimène in The Misanthrope,’ and she’s thrilled. I just don’t think like that.”
Other jobs: “I can support myself acting . . . if I lived in a Third World country. I have a very nice supplementary-income job working for Johnson & Johnson. I research and fact-check for a website that they have for their Campaign for Nursing’s Future.”
Age: Older than she looks
Distinguishing characteristics: Heisler plays young women—and occasionally young men—suffering emotional catastrophes. In plays such as Mark Schultz’s Everything Will Be Different or Elizabeth Meriwether’s The Mistakes Madeline Made, you can watch her petite features collapse as she undergoes another internal calamity.
Favorite role: “Charlotte in Mark Schultz’s play. It was breathtaking—this young girl who just propels herself off a cliff.”
Typical roles: “Adolescent boys and girls who have some physical deformity and a parent who has just died. There was a period right after Mark’s play where I’d get calls like, ‘I’d love you to do this play: She’s got a hump, a wooden leg, her dad’s just died, and no one will talk to her. And she might be gay.’ I’ve never played somebody my age. Ever. I think it’s because I’m short.”
On breaking down onstage: “In rehearsal, it’s much harder. There’s not the same kind of release—whereas in performance, the audience shares that burden. I think they wind up feeling much more pain than I do. I tend to walk out of the theater afterwards, even when it’s been something harrowing, saying, ‘Wow, let’s go get nachos.’ “
Backstage rituals: “I should be somebody who warms up for half an hour and does yoga. But I don’t. I hate yoga. I find it very calming to put makeup on. Not even character makeup—just makeup.”
Distinguishing characteristics: Lately, Lyford has become best known as a clown, courtesy of his silent-comedy work, All Wear Bowlers, created with partner Geoff Sobelle. But as an actor, Lyford doesn’t kid around: Though he’s been touring his original works, New York audiences have seen his fine features and nuanced intonations in productions by the Play Company (The Attic) and the Civilians.
Favorite role: “I played Iago once at the Folger Theater in D.C. There’s a balance in him of joyful glee and total villainy.”
Typical role: “When I first started acting, I played young boys who fell wistfully in love. In college, I played Nina in a production of The Seagull. It was a gay production, so I was called Nino. Then I got older and started balding.”
Actor’s nightmare: “Once I went to audition for an agency. I decided to do a child-molestation monologue from Short Eyes, by Miguel Piñero—there’s something really beautiful about the writing in it. I went in and I forgot the words, so I just started improvising this child-molestation speech, just musing about how molesting kids was awesome. I finished, and they seemed very upset.”
Distinguishing characteristics: Delicate and steely, Schreck brings a fierce intellect and gentle irony to her roles. The lissome blonde recently played wronged wife Deianira in a Sophocles adaptation, a Salvation Army sweetie in Major Barbara, and Leni Riefenstahl’s sister in Amazons and Their Men.
Favorite role: “Nina in The Seagull. I love what happens to Nina—she becomes a real actress. Yes, she loses a baby and gets her heart broken and has to perform in all those shitty towns—Yeletz or whatever—but she figures out what to do with her hands!”
Typical roles: “[A] neurotic, high-strung woman is something I can always access pretty quickly.”
Dream roles: “I’ve always wanted to do Nora in Doll’s House, Elida in The Lady From the Sea. Anything in Chekhov. Also, I like to be the actor in the first production of a new play, to start something off.”
Stage fright: “In my twenties, I would have occasional panic attacks onstage. It actually happened in a production of Hedda Gabler. I burst into tears on the line, ‘I’m a coward,’ because I felt that indeed I was.”
Upcoming: “I’m playing a sexy nun in Room for Cream, the Dyke Division’s lesbian serial at La MaMa. I’m also finishing final revisions on my play, Creature, which just had a workshop at New Georges.”
Quincy Tyler Bernstine
Distinguishing characteristics: Tyler Bernstine has a honey-dripping voice and an acid cleverness that serve her well in both classic and contemporary plays. She’s lately played Eliante in Ivo van Hove’s production of The Misanthrope and Blanche, a radical lesbian cleaning woman, in David Adjmi’s Stunning.
Favorite role: “Blanche in Stunning. The character is so multi-layered. This woman is not who she appears to be at all.”
Typical roles: “On television, I’ve played my share of nurses and nannies and prisoners. But in terms of theater, the range has been much wider.”
Dream role: “Hedda Gabler. I’ve been talking with my friend John Rubin from LAByrinth. We did a workshop of that many, many years ago. I keep pressing Rubin to do that again.”
On what attracts her to a part: “Sometimes it’s the director, sometimes it’s a writer. I’m most attracted to playing broken people—maybe because I feel somewhat broken myself.”
Upcoming: “I don’t know. Temping?”