Austin Native Starla Benford Returns to Town as the Star of a National Tour
Every season sees a handful of actors who have distinguished themselves on local stages take their final bows in Austin and set off in search of theatrical careers elsewhere. Most are never heard from again, at least by the folks in their old hometown; they may find work -- even steady work -- as actors, but it's in the small professional companies in New York and resident theatres scattered about the country, and theatre's generally low profile nowadays insures that their accomplishments aren't enough to raise a blip on the celebrity radar deep in the heart of Texas. It's only once in a blue moon that a Marcia Gay Harden makes her way back to Austin, Academy Award in tow, to show the city where she once trod the boards how well she's fared in her chosen profession.
Earlier this year, prior to Harden's homecoming as commencement speaker for the College of Fine Arts, another onetime local actor made her triumphant return as the star of a national tour. Austin native Starla Benford was a memorable presence on the local theatre scene in the late Eighties, and longtime theatregoers still recall her stirring turn as Blanche in the 1986 production of A Streetcar Named Desire at Capitol City Playhouse and the jazzy, smoky life she breathed into the solo work Sonnata Blue, one of Sharon Bridgforth's first poem-plays to be staged locally. Benford left Austin in 1990 to study acting at Harvard, and since graduating from its Advanced Theatre Training program in 1993, she has acted professionally at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., the Guthrie in Minneapolis, the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, and several Off-Broadway theatres in New York. And though the run of the show was brief, she has also had the distinction of working on Broadway, in the production of Macbeth that starred Kelsey Grammer.
For more than a decade, Benford has been one of those dearly departed thespians whose fate was unknown to Austin audiences (save for those who caught one of her brief appearances on Law & Order, One Life to Live, or As the World Turns, or in the feature film A Perfect Murder). But that changed once the Austin Theatre Alliance booked the national tour of The Vagina Monologues. The wildly successful show, based on playwright Eve Ensler's interviews with women about their vaginas, was making its way across the country with Benford and Alley Theatre company member Sherri Parker Lee as two-thirds of its three-woman cast. (A guest artist is plugged into the cast for each stop on the tour; for the January dates in Austin, it was Linda Ellerbee; for the return engagement this week, it's Jerry Hall). With her name adorning the Paramount Theatre marquee, Benford had clearly come home a star. This week, the tour is back, and the Chronicle took the opportunity to talk with Benford about her days at Harvard, making her mark as a professional actor, and her nine months on the road with The Vagina Monologues.
Austin Chronicle: Was there any culture shock for you when you got to Harvard?
Starla Benford: It wasn't really a culture shock to me. I was ready. I was so wanting to be in some type of conservatory or school environment where I was learning the craft. I really wanted to go, and I was focused on that. "Boston, one of the most racist cities in the country" -- that's what I grew up hearing, but I didn't really experience that first-hand because I was wrapped up in the program in the ART (American Repertory Theatre) Institute. That was my life, and six days out of every week was devoted to the institute and the process and learning my craft.
Actually, when I first got up to school, I was in a lot of world premiere and American premiere productions. I was very lucky. I worked with Christopher Durang and David Mamet, and I was working with the company a lot, I guess because they felt I had what it took. I came to them with a lot of experience, and they looked at me and said, "Why are you interested in getting back into school? You have all this on your résumé. You're ready. You're there. Go to New York. Do it." I said, "I think I need a way into the classics. I need to know what's going on really with Shakespeare. I just need some more ammunition under my belt." That's what I asked them for and that's what they gave me. And I don't think I would have been able to get through some of the doors that I got through in New York if I hadn't had that. I knew I was going to need agents, so I was learning about the business, the business side of it, and how I would need to function in New York.
It was amazing. It was incredible. I would do it all over again. I had one of the best experiences of my life working there. And I think they dug me. They asked me to be a company member of ART. It never came about because I went to New York, and you start working and gigging, and they don't want to deprive you of that. But I would have loved to work with that company.
AC: When you finished school, did you have an idea of where you wanted to go, what you wanted to do? Did you want to do regional theatre? Did you want to stay in New York?
SB: I didn't go right to New York. I came home for a year when I got out of school. I took a little break and went home to be with family. Then they called me back up to school, as a professional, to do this role -- they gave it to me on a silver platter -- and I went back and performed, and once I left there, I went to New York and picked up with the agencies that had contacted me while I was in school. Thankfully, they were like, "Where have you been? We have all this stuff going on." Eventually, I signed with a couple, and I've been working ever since -- knock on wood. I've been truly blessed.
Film was definitely on the horizon for me, since I'd had a taste of it in Austin and found it very, very exciting, but my heart belongs to the stage and I wanted Broadway more than anything. That was where I was heading when I went to New York. That's where the true challenge lies for me. I've wanted to do Broadway since I was about 16 or 17, working with Joe Sears and Jaston Williams, who were two big influences for me in theatre. Austin gave me a strong foundation for the arts and I'm so, so grateful that I had people surrounding me who loved theatre and were willing to teach the newcomers, the babies. Who knew I'd end up doing Shakespeare on Broadway? I was psyched, I was so psyched. I thought, "This is it. This is it."
AC: How did your participation in the Broadway Macbeth come about? You had done a production of Macbeth with Theatre for a New Audience not long before that, right?
SB: The director for the Theatre for a New Audience production was one of my professors at ART. He simply called me up and asked, "Do you want to do some Shakespeare?" And I said, "With you?" And he said, "Yes, with me." So I said, "Of course." He's one of the most passionate and fierce directors that I've had because he's so honest and so passionate about what he does. I ended up working with a lot of my peers in New York, and that was a great, great, great experience, but it had no connection with the Broadway show because when I went in to audition for it, they didn't know anything about me. The casting director, after I did my thing for him, was like, "Where the hell have you been?" So he obviously didn't know me from Adam -- or Eve. I said, "I've been trying to get in your office ...," and he said, "Well, you're here, and thank god you walked through that door." And that made me feel good, and that was pretty much it. He extended a warm hand to me specifically. He may have done that with everybody, but he was really great to me. I was so excited and ready and champing at the bit, I think he saw that.
AC: What did you do when you got the news that you had the part?
SB: My stomach just kind of exploded, I laughed, and then the tears came. I said, "It's about time. I need to be here. It's where I want to be." And I'm so hungry to be back on Broadway, it's not even funny. But this show has assuaged a lot of that, because it's all about that and more. It's about doing something bigger than just doing Shakespeare on Broadway. It's a world piece. It's a human piece. I'm totally satisfied with where this is taking me. It's feeding me. Completely. I'm still evolving with all the things I'm learning from it. My consciousness is raised with every city.
AC: How did you get this tour?
SB: I was going about my merry way on the streets of New York, auditioning and running around, and I got a call and was told that they were getting ready to launch a national tour for The Vagina Monologues. And they were like, "We want you in on that. We want you to go down and pick up a script. Your audition is not until next week." That week I was in the process of going through four callbacks for films and other things, so I thought, Okay, it's the beginning of this week, so I don't have to worry about it till next week. I have some time to get the script and read it. I kept trying to go down and get the script and for some reason it wasn't there. I went down to the theatre three times. I almost blew it off. I was focused on the callbacks for these lovely projects that I already had going. I called my agent and said, "There's no script. I've gone down. I don't know what's going on." Someone had taken it actually. [The envelope holding the scripts] had my name and their name on it, so they took both scripts inside the envelope. And I thought maybe it wasn't meant to be. Then the casting director called and apologized profusely, and it was after hours, there was an eight o'clock show, and it was three days before my audition, and I thought, Okay, I'll go down and get it, and there was a script there, and I was just exhausted by that time. Then I started reading it, and then I started crying, and I thought, Oh my god! So I had less than 48 hours really to prepare for it, and I was kind of pissed about it, and there was a piece in the show called "Angry Vagina," and thank god I was doing that piece, because I put all of that anger and frustration into that piece, and I did a couple of other pieces and, long story short, they called me and said, "Pack your bags." And that's kind of how it went down.
AC: Did the fact that this tour was going to last months cause you any concern?
SB: No. I knew I'd never gone on a tour this long -- the longest tour I did was with Zachary Scott [Theatre Center], touring the [Project InterAct] shows for four months, and we'd still come back to Austin every once in a while -- but that intrigued me actually, visiting all these cities, seeing all these new faces. I love traveling, so that was one of the things that drew me to it. And the fact that it was the piece itself and what it did to me, just sitting there in the room when I almost slammed the door on it: Within half an hour I was in tears, tossing the script on the desk, going, "I can't read the rest of this show." This piece is very important. Eve Ensler started a social movement, and I'm like, "I want to be a part of that." And it was scary and intimidating to some extent, but I was more excited and proud to be asked to be a part of it.
AC: I've looked up some of the reviews around the country, and it doesn't sound like you encounter indifference very often when you do this show.
SB: No. We've played to some amazing houses. The response has just been overwhelming, both from men and women. Obviously, most of our audience, percentage-wise, will be women, but men are very, very vocal to us. They actually come up and start conversations and thank us for bringing it here. They're with women who brought them to the show, and they're glad they were brought or asked or forced or whatever it was. The end result is, they're enthusiastic, they're overwhelmed, they're shocked, they're pleased, and they'll never look at human issues, women issues the same again. It's a very positive response that they've been giving us, and I'm real pleased with that, when men run out of restaurants, with fork in hand, going, "I just saw you! Oh my god, oh my god!" It touches me, and I feel like I'm really doing my job and justice and getting the message out there and opening up this dialogue when that happens.
We've had some experiences where we were told, "Okay, this city is very democratic, everybody's very open, they're liberal," and you get there and it's completely the opposite, and we have to adjust how we say certain things to the audience. People yell things out to us sometimes. Most of the time, they're screaming, "You rock! We love you! Do it again! Encore!" We scream out things like "cunt," and we're doing orgasms, and they get revved up. And men stand up, they applaud you, they step out into the aisle and bow. It's just amazing, and it just makes me laugh. I giggle so hard, but I'm touched if we can move them to do that. It's good.
AC: Is this type of response something that you have experienced before as a professional actor?
SB: I don't think so. Doing Broadway kind of overwhelmed me -- not in a bad way, but it was an amazing experience, being surrounded by all those veterans of the craft. That was a highlight, but nothing [in my career] has taken the process to this level and communication. I'm just spreading the word, it's just passing through me, I'm just delivering the message. 'Cause it's not about me; the piece is much bigger than me or anyone who performs it. Lot of issues, lot of social issues and human issues that this play deals with that are still needing to be dealt with.
AC: Where does Austin fit into that? How was it coming back to Austin in this kind of show the first time this year?
SB: It touched me. I spent so much time with family and friends when I was there, and they were so pleased and so proud. All my high school teachers came, and Austin Community College professors came, and people that I knew from the University of Texas came, and all my family, and some of them were shocked, but they were pleasantly shocked and pleased and proud. The people that taught me, the people that led me through it, that took my hand when I needed them most, they showed up and they were there for me. I felt really proud to be showing them that I stuck with this because I believe in it and because you told me that you believe in me doing this. It all came together in this heartwarming kind of community-global-activist kind of a way, and that's what it's about. That's why I do what I do. I've got a lot of people to reach. I do have a message, and a lot of what I want to say to people, about being a woman and being a human being and how we treat each other, is in this piece, and I think I'm doing that with this work, and I'm beginning to show that to family and friends. I mean, how much better can it be? That's the best thing, making 'em proud.
The Vagina Monologues runs through June 10 at the Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress. Call 472-5470 for information.