Kathleen Chalfant Reflects on the Courage and Serendipity of the Off-Broadway Community

The Obie Lifetime Achievement winner considers theater a ‘collaborative work’ that, at its best, can function as a ‘perfect model for society’


Actor Kathleen Chalfant, winner of the 2018 Obie for Lifetime Achievement, has been a powerhouse of the Off-Broadway stage since the early Seventies — not to mention her accomplishments on Broadway and in the world of film and television. (Recently, she’s appeared on shows like House of Cards and The Affair.) Through long-running collaborations with playwrights like Sarah Ruhl and Ellen McLaughlin, and directors such as David Esbjornson, Chalfant has brought life to dozens of world premieres. In the Nineties, she starred in the original production of Angels in America, on and Off-Broadway, and in the first New York production of Margaret Edson’s Wit. Chalfant’s work has also involved decades of advocacy for women theater artists — she was a founder of the Women’s Project in the late Seventies — as well as teaching (she’s currently mentoring high school students through TDF’s Open Doors program). On a rainy Saturday in May, Chalfant sat down with the Voice to answer a few questions about her life Off-Broadway.

What does it mean to you to win the Lifetime Achievement Obie?

I’m very proud and moved and deeply abashed about it. You don’t think of yourself in terms of lifetime achievement, especially a life in the theater in which you do one thing after another; sometimes it feels as though it’s stopped, and then it goes on again. There is something particular about the Off-Broadway community in New York — it’s an enormous community that does the best and most innovative work because it can. I’m now doing a piece called Women on Fire with a tiny company called Royal Family Productions. Every time they do something, it’s beautifully made and incredibly brave and done for a dollar ninety-five. So that’s one of the parts of Off-Broadway, and the other part is the big institutional theaters that have grown in the last forty years.

You’ve had a particularly long-term relationship with Playwrights Horizons.

When Bob Moss was setting up Playwrights Horizons, he sent out a call for people to help renovate the theater. I went to help and very nearly killed myself and two or three other people pulling a big industrial radiator down from the second floor to the bottom. After it crashed to the floor, I thought, “I can type — maybe I should go to the office!” I ended up being one-third of the staff of Playwrights Horizons for its first season on 42nd Street. One of my indelible memories is of [actor] Ron van Lieu, in a riff on the Ring Cycle; he was dressed entirely in red sequins and had bright red hair at the time. I got an acting job in August of that year, and I went to Bob and he said, “You’re an actor, go take the job!” I was on the board of Playwrights Horizons for a long time after that.

But my first connection to the theater in New York happened when we were still living in Woodstock, through a wonderful actor named Bob Burgos. He said, “When you go to New York, you should study with Wynn Handman” [at the American Place Theatre]. So on my 28th birthday — January 14, 1973 — I went to interview with Wynn and he accepted me, and so began a whole association with American Place. I’ve had close associations with those institutions since the beginning. And they led to everything. A life Off-Broadway takes you on adventures you can’t imagine. I spent time playing Harvey Fierstein’s son in a Megan Terry play! I was the gum-chewing, helmet-wearing, hockey-playing son.

You were also one of the founders of the Women’s Project (now WP Theater), in 1978. Could you talk about that?

That came from my time at the American Place. Julia Miles asked Caymichael Patten and two or three others of us to help establish the Women’s Project. There was a report about women’s participation in the American theater, and of the plays produced, something like seven percent of them were written by women. We thought the project would go for a couple of years and everybody would get the picture and then it would go away. And that hasn’t happened.

What, if anything, has changed for women in theater since then?

The goal was always that we wouldn’t have “theater” and “women’s theater,” and that’s still an issue. The paradigm is still work written by men and organized in a masculine way, and work that is organized in a masculine way is immediately understandable to everybody. Work written by women is often baffling to the people who write about the theater. There’s an awful lot of condescension about writing by women — as though the women didn’t know what they were doing, so they couldn’t possibly have meant to do it that way. I have to say I don’t think that people condescended to Beckett in the same way.

The play you’re in now, Women on Fire, is also by women artists, and it’s about women’s experiences under the Trump administration, right?

It’s [director] Christine Henry’s response to everything that’s going on, mostly focusing on women’s issues. Chris wrote it based on interviews and casual conversations, women who talk about everything on all possible sides. It starts out with a woman saying, “I’m seriously going to set myself on fire. If one more person says we have to wait, I’m going to go to the White House and set myself on fire because nothing is stopping.”

You were in the original production of Angels in America, which is now on Broadway in revival. How do you think the play resonates now?

I’ve always thought that its great power is how seductive its language is. Ellen [McLaughlin] and Stephen [Spinella] and I were with it from the beginning and watched as our audiences changed, and by the time it got to Broadway, we weren’t singing to the choir anymore. It was the beauty of the language, and the humor, that seduced people — sometimes, into thinking something for seven hours that they’d never thought before. That must change you somehow. I’m sure that is happening now.

I was in high school when Angels premiered and that play was so much in the air. I think high school and college students of recent generations don’t know it quite so well.

And now I think they will again.

What roles, perhaps ones you’re not asked about often, have changed you as an actor?

Every play you’re in is the most important play you’re in then. I’ve been lucky because there have been a couple of mountains in my topography. Angels was one, and Wit was another. But I have gotten to play everybody. I just finished flying in Sarah [Ruhl]’s play, For Peter Pan. I got to be in Far Away. I played Clov in Endgame. I played Rose Kennedy.

Is there anyone you haven’t played that you would like to play?

I’d like to have a shot at Lear. My model for it was the Mabou Mines one, when Ruth [Maleczech] was Lear. I’ve missed most of the great parts, just because I’m too old — in Chekhov, the older women are fiftyish. The writers of those plays died before they were as old as I! So you go over to the men. Those would be wonderful parts to play.

What advice do you give to people setting out to make a life in the theater?

It is both the most difficult, and — when it’s going well — the easiest way to carry on your life. Not everyone will succeed, and you also need to have a different idea of what it means to you to succeed. And you must believe that it’s worthwhile.

I’ve had a life in theater and I’ve had the enormous luxury of also having a family. It is not a luxury that everyone who does this work can have, so I am very grateful for that. I can’t talk enough about the importance of the community. Theater is collaborative work and when it is done in the best possible way, it’s a kind of perfect model for society. And the most important thing is to be kind.