Veteran actor Joanna Gleason teaches art of storytelling at Purchase College
Published 12:00 am, Sunday, January 8, 2017
Yes, if you have a uniquely challenging role for her, she will happily sign on to a stage or film or TV production. The idea of waiting around for that offer, however, is anathema to her.
“I don’t like the term ‘down time’ because when you aren’t acting, you can be exploring other areas,” Gleason, 66, says of polishing her first novel, working on the financing of an independent movie she intends to direct and the hours she spends each week perfecting her skills as a tango dancer. She also is happy having time to spend with her children and grandchildren (and her actor husband, Chris Sarandon).
“You couldn’t have said to me 40 years ago ‘start writing’ because the dream then was all about that one thing,” the Fairfield resident says of the acting career that has brought her Broadway stardom (and a Tony Award) for performances in “Into the Woods” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and an amazingly varied slate of roles in such films as “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Boogie Nights.”
The actor was born in Toronto, but moved with her family to the United States when she was a child — her father is game show personality Monty Hall.
Gleason remembers being disconcerted when she was understudying two roles in the original Broadway production of “The Real Thing” and director Mike Nichols told her she should be a director, too. The young performer said, with some anxiety, “Does that mean I shouldn’t be acting?”
“No, I just think you can direct. I see you watching things with a director’s eye,” Nichols said of Gleason having more varied skills than she might have imagined.
“I’m always happy in my Circle in the Square (acting) class when my students ask about books and I can give them lists of things to read — not theater stuff, but books that apply to life and art. You always need to be reading,” she says.
Gleason is sharing her belief in breaking out of niches with a series of programs, “From Campfire to Cabaret,” at the State University of New York at Purchase in Purchase, N.Y., in which she works with students from multiple disciplines to find common ground as storytellers. Dancers, singers, musicians and actors come together to work on a piece they then share in a public performance. The next workshop is Feb. 1.
“The purpose is to be a part of something new. Students sing a song and then construct a new context for it. An audio engineer might come in and sing for the first time. It’s a communal experience where something amazing happens. ... They’re all illuminating a bigger story,” she says.
Gleason hopes to bring an opera singer into the mix for one of the remaining events (on Feb. 1, March 30 and April 27) because “they operate under a pressure that other actor-singers don’t face. They have to hit certain notes (in every performance). But here, they would just be a part of telling stories.”
One of Gleason’s biggest concerns about the entertainment business these days is that so many young people seem to be entering it with fame, rather than artistic achievement, being their top goal. “Being well known is everything, so mediocrity is now at the center of the culture,” she says of the “neo-narcissism” in social media and reality television. “Fame has been devalued into how many hits you have (on Instagram or Twitter). Kids are broadcasting and curating their own lives, so they don’t have any time for contemplation.”
Gleason believes socially committed theater — a space where cellphones and iPads are turned off — is essential today. “We all have to get serious. We have to get back to our service agenda. Good agitprop theater — exposing the perils in the world. Being inclusive.”
Finding a haven away from the show-business cultures of Los Angeles and New York City has been essential for Gleason to branch out beyond acting. Fairfield and the property she and Sarandon call “Tiny Farm” has been home since 2004.
The place was a classic fixer-upper. “The house was sad. The pool was sad. And they were on four sad acres. ... The house was saying, ‘Please help me!’ ” Gleason recalls, with a laugh. “But room by room it became our haven ... with a writing cabin for me.”
The actor tells a story, going all the way back to 1977, about one of the pieces of art at Tiny Farm.
“I was doing ‘I Love My Wife’ on Broadway, making $750 a week. One day I was walking up Madison Avenue and I saw a poster in a window of two kids in the country playing around apple trees. I bought it for $100, which was like rent in those days. But it was what I dreamed, and now that framed poster is hanging in my home.”
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