Jean Stapleton: On Theatre

When Jean Stapleton talks about "the series," there's no need to ask her which series she's talking about. She was part of the amazing ensemble in All in the Family, and her work in it not only earned her three Emmys and three Golden Globes, it ensured her Edith Bunker an enduring place in television history. Of course, Stapleton's career extends far beyond "the series," both before and since, stretching from roles in early television series such as Philco TV Playhouse and Dr. Kildare to guest stints on Caroline in the City and Everybody Loves Raymond today; from Fifties films such as Damn Yankees and Bells Are Ringing to the recent Hollywood hits Michael and You've Got Mail; and from the Broadway premieres of In the Summer House and Rhinoceros to Broadway revivals such as Arsenic and Old Lace.

Her recent stage work reveals an impressive range, from classical comedy (Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard and Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker at American Conservatory Theatre) to musicals (Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella at New York City Opera) to modern drama (Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party and Mountain Language, for which she won an Obie Award, at Classic Stage Company). She also has extensive experience with the work of Texas playwright Horton Foote, having appeared in the cable film versions of The Habitation of Dragons and Lily Dale, and stage productions of Night Seasons (Signature Theatre) and The Death of Papa (Hartford Stage). In this brief phone interview conducted while the actress was in Syracuse, Stapleton discusses her feelings about theatre and a few of her favorite roles.

Austin Chronicle: Do you think your stage work has been eclipsed by your television work?

JS: No, it's only helped. The reason I'm in this play [Eleanor: Her Secret Journey] and taking a tour and the box office is doing very well is that I'm well-known, and that's thanks to television.

AC: What is your favorite thing about working on the stage?

JS: There's more than one. First, you do a piece of material that begins and ends and has a flow; it's not chopped up as in a film, where in an extreme case you might be doing the last scene of the script the first day that you go to work, and you don't know enough about the character you're playing. In the theatre, it's a craft and you're going from beginning to end and you experience the whole flow of the play.

Then there's the audience, the live audience. Of course, our series, the first six years or so, it was enhanced by an audience. On the last day of our five-day work week, we did two performances and we had an audience. It was similar to theatre; we went from beginning to end, and it was very pleasing.

AC: Are there aspects of acting onstage that have changed for you over the years? Some actors may enjoy larger shows as opposed to smaller shows, smaller houses as opposed to larger houses.

JS: Well, it depends on the material, what is most suitable for it. Now, for this play, a smaller house is much more desirable. Anything between 500 and 1,000 -- that should be the limit.

AC: Do you like doing solo shows?

JS: Well, I love this because of the quality of the writing, as well as the character. But I think it's more fulfilling to be working with people. Lots of colors appear when you're working with other people. It's a more natural form. That's why I wouldn't do this forever.

AC: Are there any stage roles you consider especially memorable?

JS: One comes to mind immediately because I did it up here at Syracuse Stage: the mother-in-law in The Show-Off. It's by George Kelly. You know it? You'd be surprised how few people even know his name, and I say one of our great playwrights. This was a lesser-known play than some of his others, but it's a marvelous play.

AC: Am I remembering correctly that you did an operatic version of Julia Child?

JS: Oh yes. It started out when I was doing a monologue that Ruth Draper wrote and performed [The Italian Lesson], and Lee Hoiby set it to music -- that's how I met Lee Hoiby. We did that monologue around at different benefits and dinners as a short entertainment. Then we thought, "Well, why don't we have a full evening?" And then the idea came from Lee's librettist: Why not do one of Julia Child's cooking demonstrations? So that [titled Bon Appetit] became our second act. I did the demonstration of making a chocolate cake. And it was very successful. That was 20 minutes long, the other was 45 minutes long, so we had a nice evening.

Somebody brought that up recently. I listened to a little cassette I had of it, and I thought, "My word, did I do that?" And then the idea of reviving that came to me. So yes, maybe I'll do that again. It would be great fun.

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    Based on her physical appearance alone, Jean Stapleton is a natural to portray Eleanor. But it turns out that the accomplished actress' resemblance to the first lady doesn't end there. It extends to her idealism, her feminism, and even her awakening to activism.
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