One might think that after battling a demonic hand puppet for ten months, a performer would want to ease into the new year with some relative peace and quiet. But dealing with onstage darkness has come easily for Sarah Stiles, who earned a Tony nomination last spring for her role as Jessica in the satirical play Hand to God. She is no stranger to the emotional complexities — and extreme biological urges — of puppets (she starred in the double role of Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut in Avenue Q), and her turn as Little Red Riding Hood in the Shakespeare in the Park production of Into the Woods involved a particularly traumatic sexual encounter with an amorous wolf.
All that seems incongruous with Stiles’s offstage demeanor, which is charming, delightful, and bubbly. It’s that girlish charisma that’s also possibly to blame for her frequent casting as what she describes as “angsty teenage girls.” Now the 36-year-old performer is making an effort to tap into her own personal adult energy with her upcoming show, Squirrel Heart, which premieres at Joe’s Pub on February 8.
Despite being caught in a semi- permanent adolescence onstage, Stiles has had the typical career of a thirtysomething working actress: Growing up in New Hampshire, she attended theater camp early on, after her fifth-grade teacher noticed her propensity for turning any school project into a play. Community theater — and “8 million productions of Annie and The Wizard of Oz” — followed. She dropped out of high school in her senior year and started working in the administrative office of her local theater — with the full support of her parents. ” ‘Supportive’ would be a weird word,” she says, explaining that her parents were both creative in spirit. “They weren’t pushing me in any direction…they sort of let me do whatever I wanted.”
She made her way to New York, enrolling in the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. By the time she was done with the year-long program, she felt that she was familiar with the city — “or the Upper West Side, at least,” she says. A few years later, she made her Broadway debut — albeit slightly obscured by the puppets on her arm — in Avenue Q. She then understudied for roles in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee before eventually joining the national tour.
None of these were bad gigs by any means, and the roles came pretty easily to Stiles. “I still wouldn’t say I knew what I was doing,” she admits. “I was going purely off of instinct. I could get by because I had a good voice and I was funny, but I didn’t know what I was doing.” It was while she was touring with Spelling Bee that she began taking voice lessons with actress and singer Sally Wilfert. Upon her return to New York, she started to get serious. She landed a role in the Off-Broadway musical Vanities at the Second Stage Theater, which coincided with two major life events: turning thirty and getting divorced.
It was a complicated time in her life, she says, being in the middle of a show and having to acknowledge that she and her husband, who lived in Washington, D.C., were going their separate ways. She began taking acting lessons, which were as therapeutic as they were constructive. “I thought, ‘I have all of these feelings!’ ” she says. “I had to channel them somewhere.”
Vanities, which follows three former cheerleaders from their teenage years to middle age, was the first of a string of shows that featured Stiles playing a character nearly half her real-life age. Another Broadway show followed, the forgettable revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, in which Stiles was lost in the ensemble amid a headache-inducing, psychedelic set. The outdoor production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods — in which Stiles’s Little Red sported a roller derby getup — earned more attention, thanks largely to the show’s anticipated revival (and to A-list co-stars Amy Adams, Denis O’Hare, and Donna Murphy). And though critical response to the production was mixed, Stiles’s performance, as the precocious little girl who turns quickly from a naive child to a vengeful wolf- killing and giant-hunting renegade, was one of the show’s highlights.
The part in Hand to God came in the spring of 2014; the production transferred to Broadway the following year for an impressive run that lasted nearly eleven months — a feat for a new American play lacking the star wattage boasted by its competition. Not to mention its dark subject matter: Hand to God follows a shy, sullen teenager named Jason and his sock puppet, Tyrone, the latter of whom may or may not be possessed by the devil. Stiles’s Jessica is practically the heroine of the show: While the adults prove they’re just as incapable and lost as the poor kid with the demon attached to his arm, Jessica manages to save the day by distracting Tyrone with — what else? — the sexual charms of her own comely hand puppet, Jolene. (There’s a long scene that features the two teenagers quietly getting to know each other while their puppets furiously copulate just below them.)
Despite the over-the-top elements of the play, Stiles says the role grounded her. “Jessica is so strong, and she respects herself,” she says. “To be able to do that every night, and to be confident and be still…. It was really good for me. I’m a little bit more bonkers. That’s what I love about being an actress: The parts you play teach you things.”
After ending her run in Hand to God, she began working on her debut cabaret act with collaborator Holly Gewandter, who had previously worked with Stiles on a reading of Gewandter’s musical, Cinderella: The Real True Story. It was Gewandter, in fact, who suggested that Stiles put together a nightclub act. Working with director Darren Katz and musical director Brian Nash, Stiles has developed what she considers a new work of theater — full of covers and mash-ups, an original song, and a long, personal piece centered on a poem she wrote. “What I love about this art form is that it can be anything it wants to be,” she says, dropping names of current downtown performers like Molly Pope, Erin Markey, and Natalie Joy Johnson as her contemporary influences. Of course, she cites another cabaret titan who helped establish the form as we see it today: Bette Midler. “I am always impressed with people who are brave enough to get up there onstage, by themselves, practically, and do what they want to do and express themselves authentically.”
While she has her collaborators, Stiles’s cabaret vision is a solo affair — and a delightfully manic one. She says she’ll have a host of outfit changes. (“I’m going to look like one of those Russian dolls,” she jokes.) And yes, there will be puppets. But she’s most excited to “get real honest.”
“It’s my own chance to dip my toe in darkness,” she says. “Well, darkness wrapped in bubblegum.” When told that it’s hard to imagine her being a dark person, she waits a perfectly timed beat before replying. “Oh, all the bubbly ones are.”
Sarah Stiles’s Squirrel Heart opens at Joe’s Pub on February 8. For ticket information, click here.