Wednesday, October 28, 2009

20 Questions ... well, about 14 Questions ... with Jean Hardie

Jean Hardie has been doing shows at the Civic for 28 years. She's currently appearing there in String of Pearls

First, let's do the bio.  Where did you grow up and go to school? First exposure to theater? Theater you did in high school and college?  How many years and shows at the Civic? How many years teaching at St. George's?  How many years with Box 'n' Hat?

            I was born over in Mount Vernon and lived in Anacortes until I was 8, then a year in LittletonColo., then on to Sacramentowhere I grew up. My father was a musician and my mother was a dancer; but by the time I came along, my father managed a dime store and played his saxaphone on weekends and my mother had opened her own little dance studio. There was always music and dancing around. I took tap and ballet from the time I was very young and danced in recitals, etc.  Apparently, I played Little Black Sambo’s Mother in our first-grade play, although my memory of it is somewhat vague. I was in one play in junior high and spent my high school years pining to be a cheerleader. But I did write — and act in — a lot of the skits for the pep rallies. 

I went to Sacramento City College after high school.  On my 18th birthday, my best friend and I decided to audition for the first play of the year. We were both so scared! Well, she got the lead and I got a small part — and that, as they say, was that. I was completely and utterly bitten by the “acting bug." I think I was in every production we did there for the next three years, including my first musical...the role of Alma Hix in The Music Man (“that woman made braaaazen overtures...”).  I went to Sac City for three years ... I lost a big part of one year to a bout of mono ... but although I dropped a lot of classes, I didn’t drop out of The Cherry Orchard. After those three years, I worked for a year and saved up money to go on to Sacramento State. Pete and I got married during that year. We also worked at the JayRob Playhouse, a community theatre in Sacramento which did all comedies. We ushered, did props, worked backstage, played small roles — and watched a lot of performances of a lot of shows ... great experience. And I was a member of a group of young performers — very much like Box ‘n’ Hat, actually — for about a year. 

On to State College. A lot of the same — did a lot of shows, but I was, in actuality, an English major. In 1970, the year we graduated, the Kent State shootings occurred.  That year sort of ended in a blur ... a bunch of us theater types formed a political sketch comedy troupe, and we ran around doing our show wherever we could — including the park downtown next to the Capitol building in Sacramento. I think we were somewhat disappointed that we never got arrested, although we did get asked to move on a couple of times. (It was a different world.) I got my degree even though I never really finished a couple of my classes. The professors accepted a write-up of our theatrical exploits in lieu of finals. Go figure.

          Upon graduation, a group of us — a lot of the same kids — decided we knew enough to start our own theatre ... and so we did. Major Gray’s Company was formed, and we did some pretty good shows over the next couple of years on the second floor of one of the few buildings left standing in Old Sacramento ... just before it got developed into quite a happening tourist destination. But by that time, Pete and I had moved up to Seattle. He got his master's in Design at UW. I worked and had daughter Joanna. Then, out of the blue, we were invited to move to Helena, Montana, where Pete worked as the resident designer at the Grand Street Theatre. I did lots of shows there and I had son Ian. In 1981, the job at Civic opened up, Pete applied and was hired; and we moved here. Our youngest son, David, was born here.

          Since 1981, at Civic Theatre, I have directed – and, where applicable, choreographed — somewhere around 33 shows. String of Pearls will be the 30th show that I’ve appeared in at Civic. I’ve also done shows for Spokane Children’s Theatre, Interplayers, CenterStage, and Valley Rep, but the Civic is certainly my theatrical home. 

            I directed the Box ‘n’ Hat Players for 20 years.  My daughter was one of the original players.  My youngest son graduated from the troupe in the last year I did it. A nice full circle. 

          I’ve been the Drama teacher at Saint George’s School for the last 13 years.  We do at least three mainstage shows a year out there ... so I guess you could say that I’ve done my fair share of theatre in Spokane. And I’m reasonably proud of most of it.


Let me be blunt and ask questions that you may certainly wish to overlook.  Right now, you're the ex-wife being directed by the second wife.  That sounds really awkward.  When was the divorce?  Was it a case of being terribly difficult to act anywhere near Peter for a few years, and then gradually becoming something that worked out?  (My sister got divorced after 20 years and four kids; for the following 20 years, she and the kids and her ex all lived in close proximity and interacted a lot, even as he remarried not once but twice. So I have some sense...)

I am bewildered as to why this should be of any interest; and I am somewhat offended at your asking this question at all, so I sort of waffled between:

a) forgetting about this whole interview; b) saying “none of your goddamn business, so fuck off"; c) politely skipping past it; or d) just going ahead and answering. 

          It’s not awkward at all. The divorce happened about 10 years ago. Things may have been awkward for a very short time for the family, but since our decision to end our marriage was predicated upon our remaining best friends, there wasn’t much point in being awkward, bitter, angry, etc. Peter and I have been a couple since 1966. The romance may have worn itself out, but the love and the friendship have not. I cannot imagine my life without him as a part of it. I think the world of Susan … always have; and I am gratified to see them so happy together. 

          If there has been any awkwardness, it has been from other people not knowing how to react; but that seems to have worked itself out. 

Anecdote: A few years ago, I ran into someone I hadn’t seen for awhile; and out of the blue, he asked me how my daughter was doing.  “Fine," I said. “Still out in Seattle, doing some performing, etc. etc.”

“But what about this show that she’s directing in the Studio Theatre?” he asked.

“Uh … no,” I said.

“But it says so right here,” he said, showing me the Studio brochure: “Susan Hardie.” As it dawned on him what he had said, he was pretty embarrassed. I thought it was pretty funny.


From your perspective as a drama instructor, what mistakes do young and/or beginning actors commonly make? 

Commonly – and very generally: They fail to pick up cues, so the pace drags; and yet, they rush through the moments that need time — they are afraid of pauses.

They speak too quickly — sometimes too softly — and don’t enunciate clearly enough.

Often, they see themselves inaccurately ... they think they are performing an action or a movement in a much bigger way than they really are, and it is difficult to convince them to give you more.

They wait too long to get their lines learned. They don’t think enough about what the character is really saying, doing, wanting, meaning, thinking, etc.... they don’t listen or react enough; and what comes out is line recitation.

They resent the fact that acting/performing/rehearsing is hard work, and they whine.

They lose things, a lot — scripts, props, costumes, schedules, you name it. Some young actors are arrogant and sure that they know more than you do ... they don’t realize that no matter how talented you are, you should stay open to listening and learning for as long as you live.

          All that being said, it is also a most rewarding thing for a teacher or director when they feel they have really taught or brought out something in a student or young actor. It can be really thrilling.   


We hear a lot that the audience for theater is aging, graying, dying out. Yet with Box 'n' Hat and at St. George's, you work all the time with young people who are enthusiastic about theater. Has the High School Musical phenomenon paid off, with musicals increasingly popular among teens today?  Or do they hunger for more contemporary (not Oklahoma!) and less cheesy (not HSM) musicals?  Or do teens today have so much entertainment competition (mp3's, videogames, YouTube, movies) that they truly are losing any taste for handcrafted, live entertainment (of the sort that theater provides)?

I thought you were sending me the first 10 questions ... there are at least three or four questions right here!

I don’t feel that I am qualified to speak to this question for the very reasons you state above. I work all the time with kids who are already crazy about theatre, performing, singing, dancing, acting – even directing and writing – and watching. Their appetite for what is “new” is unquenchable.  The interesting part is that often what is “new” to them is really old stuff.  I see this pattern over and over again.  They are all about the newest thing ... Wicked, Spring Awakening, In the Heights, etc. But if you play them a classic musical theater song from some vintage musical, they fall in love with that, too — they “discover” it all over again. It’s cute. 

           I will also go out on a limb and make another odious generalization by saying that a big difference between theater geeks today and young people of my generation is a layer of ironic awareness that we didn’t tend to possess. They recognize cheesiness and embrace it knowingly in all its cheesy glory. You might call it the Glee Effect. At the same time, they recognize great artistry, too. They are free to love it all – even things they know are bad – as long as they are gloriously, sincerely bad. 

          As always ... non-theater geeks — of any age — need not apply. They will just look at you as though you were speaking a foreign language. It’s always been that way, and it will always be that way. I imagine that the percentage of high school theater geeks has remained pretty stable over the years.      


What's the most important thing that you've changed your mind about? Why did you alter your opinion?

            Having kids.  When I was young, I didn’t want to have children. (So I’m glad I waited until I was a little older before having them.) I have to be honest and say that my opinion was altered for me when I got pregnant. None of the three kids were planned. One thing I haven’t changed my mind about, however, is that having children should be a personal choice and that it is a big serious business that should not be entered into lightly!


What's your best idea for getting more people to attend theater?

            Get Hugh Jackman, Jude Law, Kristin Chenoweth, Bernadette Peters, Sutton Foster and Cheyenne Jackson to come to your town and be in one of your shows. Or get them to read the phone book. (You could probably sell tickets to watch them brush their teeth.) In general, I would say that most people are cautious about putting out the price of a theater ticket unless they are reasonably sure it’s going to be worth it ... hence, the cult of stardom. I do recognize the impracticality of this idea, however, and doubt that it’s going to happen.

          Beyond that, I haven’t the slightest idea. Do good theatre? Sure — but it’s no guarantee. Do well-known plays and musicals? They’ll be sure-fire hits ... unless they aren’t. Do new and exciting works? Create buzz? Great! But will it actually translate into ticket sales? THERE IS NO ANSWER TO THIS QUESTION. If there were, theaters would be filled to capacity for every performance.

You do the best theater you can, get the word out as best you can and hope for the best. It’s a hard fact to accept that a great many people just don’t care for live theater. If we’re lucky, a few of them will give it a try and develop a taste for it, but most won’t. What seems magical and meaningful to us just isn’t attractive or interesting to most people. I think it feels like it’s going to be too much work or something.  That’s how it is. 

          Still ... more local media coverage couldn’t hurt. 


Think of all the shows you've done at the Civic — rehearsals, onstage, backstage, in the green room, the fiascoes, the relationships, all of it. Please specify your three favorite exact memories from your years at the Civic.

            One: On opening night of the very first run of Nunsense, during the last number of the first act, I did this little jump and pulled a muscle in my calf — I swear I could hear a “ping." I really couldn’t put any weight on it at all. I hobbled through the rest of the number in a blur. During intermission, we iced it and wrapped it and someone found me a cane. I really don’t remember who, but I owe this person a debt of thanks, because from that moment on, the cane became an integral part of Mother Superior as I play her.

During the second act of Nunsense, there is a scene in which Mother Superior is very angry at the other sisters and orders them to follow her offstage — presumably to do some kind of penance. At that precise moment, I remember thinking, “I’ve always wanted to do this.” I fixed them with a serious stare and said, “Walk this way.” Then I turned and limped off thinking, “If they don’t pick up on this, I’ll kill them!” They did. They limped off after me. The audience laughed – a lot – giving me a reason to whip around and almost catch them at it.  They – Marilyn Langbehn, Deanna Stover and Jennifer Jacobs – played it perfectly. We kept it in, and it always got a wonderful laugh, but there was something really cosmic – almost magical – about that first time.

          Two:  Watching my daughter play Maria in West Side Story in 1995. I think I was there for all but two or three performances. I had choreographed a production of WSS in Montana about 10 years earlier. She went to a lot of rehearsals with me and saw the show several times. I didn’t know it at the time, but she dreamed then of playing that part someday. I was thrilled and proud and awestruck by her performance. 

          Three: Every summer for the past 13 years, we have done summer camp shows at Civic. Several years ago, I began to write an original script for the Main Stage camp show each summer.  The first truly and completely original script I wrote was called Portrait of Love. It is still my favorite of all the scripts I have written. It involved paintings in a museum coming to life after-hours and interacting in the lives of the “real” people. During the show, there is a moment when the Woman in the Red Dress, who has spent the day in the “real” world, must now return to her painting. As Alli Standley moved back into place behind the painting, the lighting effect worked perfectly so that the portrait appeared to go from being flesh and blood to paint and canvas. The audience gave a collective oooh-aaaah. It was such a thrill! 


My guess is that you're very well read.  So what's on your night stand now?  Last good book you finished?  And what, in all her extensive free time (ha!), does Jean Hardie do in the way of hobbies?

            I am not well read at all. In fact, I am appalled at how little I read now compared to my younger years. So my stack of things to read is enormous and I will never work my way through it. I am particularly fond of biographies. Most recently, I finished a bio of Stephen Sondheim and have worked my way through most of James Lipton’s memoirs. I devoured the Harry Potter books and cannot deal with the reality that there won’t be any more. I read Entertainment Weekly every week. Right now, I’m reading the script of String of Pearls every day ... so that — and keeping up with all the dancing shows on TV — keeps me pretty busy.

Other hobbies? Well, honestly, theater is my hobby and my greatest passion; but I also love to do some crafty things with beads and decoupage when I have a little extra time. Oh, hell, let’s be really honest ... if it wasn’t for Spider Solitaire, I’d have time to take over the world!    


You get to meet your 18-year-old self. What advice do you have for her? Would she listen to you?

Well, aside from the obvious — eat less, exercise more and don’t forget to floss — I would say:

          Make bolder choices. Don’t be so afraid of failure: “Stink with authority.”

          Learn to handle rejection better. Don’t get so upset. Don’t take it so personally: “Deal with it and move on.”

          Learn not to care so much about what other people think of you. Don’t be afraid of making a fool of yourself: “To thine own self, be true.”

          Deal with who you really are, not who you wish you were: “Know thyself.”


She would want to listen — she would recognize the truth and wisdom of the advice — but since she is still struggling with these issues even today, I’d say it’s unlikely that she would be able to implement the advice in any practical way. 


Please describe the half-dozen characters whom you play in String of Pearls. What do you know about one (or some) of them now that you did not know before rehearsals began?

Four of my characters are quite small in terms of lines and stage time. I play a down-to-earth housekeeper, a Tunisian woman who pretty much leeches off her niece, a judgmental Jewish mother and a knowledgeable jewelry store owner. These four are really just snapshots in the stories told by the other women in the play.

In rehearsal, we have talked quite a bit about how these minor characters are, metaphorically, some of the grains of sand which cause the irritation in an oyster that ultimately turns into a pearl. It’s a lot of fun to put on a costume and turn into someone else for less than a minute. You have a lot of freedom to make bold choices. You are the stuff of memory; and memory has distilled you down to what is most vivid to the rememberer. 

          My other two characters are ones who get to tell their stories. One is Ela, a Wisconsin divorcee and the other, Dora, a cultured New Yorker.

Each character tells of a set of experiences that bring about big life changes and which are, in some way, affected by the almost mystical power of this particular string of pearls. Since both women are, I think, very different from me, I’ve learned almost everything I know about them since rehearsals began. Before the auditions, all I really knew was that there were some pretty freakin’ long monologues in this puppy.  Now that the monologues have become stories, I’m surprised every night by how quickly the time goes and how soon I have to say goodbye and leave the stage. As always, I have also learned — again — that no matter how different someone may be from you, you will inevitably find something you have in common with the character.

I can certainly relate to Ela’s wounded self-esteem and her need to hibernate for a while. And like Dora, I fear the hidden power of the past. There are things we both want to keep at bay; and when they bubble to the surface, that’s going to be a difficult day.

There is both joy and agony in doing such a challenging piece as String of PearlsIt’s a joy to get to immerse yourself in the world of these characters, but an agony to have the fear that you won’t do them justice on the stage. But I am seeing a quality of work in this cast and crew that makes me very proud and happy to be part of this show.

[photo: baby Jean]
[photo at top: Jean Hardie and Robert Wamsley in Barefoot in the Park, at the Civic, Jan. '08  -- "a picture that actually I really like a lot" ]

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At October 29, 2009 8:28 AM , Anonymous Marianne McLaughlin said...

Bravo Jean!

At October 29, 2009 1:24 PM , Anonymous Jean said...

I need to correct myself...the production of WEST SIDE STORY was in 1993 and the production in Montana was more like 13 years earlier than that. I looked at those numbers and they didn't add up!

At October 30, 2009 8:44 AM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

Jean, thank you so much for being such a trooper with this interview. Your descriptions of your favorite memories at the Civic; of your post-divorce relationship with Peter; and, especially, your concise list of advice for young and beginning actors (or, at least, your list of what they should avoid doing) were wise and funny. Break a leg with String of Pearls!

At October 31, 2009 5:13 PM , Anonymous Maria C. said...

Thank you, Bobo, for this opportunity to hear from one of my favorite actresses in this part of the world!

I'm looking forward to String of Pearls!

At November 04, 2009 11:30 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amazing woman as always.

At December 15, 2009 3:12 PM , Anonymous Robert Wamsley said...

I have had the good fortune to work with this GREAT actress numerous times. BRAVO JEAN!!! is one of my favortie photos too!


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