Among the great challenges an actor can undertake—and there are a hell of a lot ofthem—the two trickiest endeavors might be the playing of an historical figure and the playing of a beloved literary character. I know actors who have done one or the other, and I even know a couple who have done both; but in the time I’ve known Stephanie Swearingen, it seems like that’s nearly all she does. That’s an oversimplification, of course. In point of fact, she does a lot more than that. But, when I first saw her on stage, it was at the Station Theatre as the title character in an original adaptation of Willa Cather’s My Antonia. Then, not too long after that, I had the great pleasure of appearing in Or, a play in which Swearingen portrayed the infamous (and very real) Nell Gwyn. And now, in a new production opening this week at Parkland College Theatre, she’s back on the literary end of things, playing Jane Bennet in an adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice.
I got to talk to Ms. Swearingen a little about this show and all the other things she does in the local theatre scene. As it turns out, I was lucky she had time to talk to me at all.
Smile Politely: I’ve always admired people in the theatre who are true multi-taskers. In addition to acting, I know you sing, dance, build sets, construct costumes, paint… In the last twelve months, how many shows have you worked on, and in what capacity?
Stephanie Swearingen: In the past year I’ve sung solos in The Messiah, I have acted in two shows, I’ve done costumes for three shows. I also assistant directed Freud’s Last Session. I’ve done choreography for a show, painted marquees for three shows…
Smile Politely: Not to mention your local film work. And…?
Swearingen: I also upholstered a pouf! [Editor’s Note: This was a large, round bit of furniture used in The Station’s production of Or, by Liz Duffy Adams.] It’s probably the most lasting thing I’ve done. You will also hear recordings of me at the piano throughout Pride and Prejudice.
Smile Politely: There’s a famous story about an actor who played a supporting role in A Streetcar Named Desire. This particular actor was playing the doctor who comes in at the end of the play and escorts Blanche DuBois to the nuthouse. One night he’s chatting up a woman in a bar, and he tells her he’s in the new Tennessee Williams play on Broadway. When she asked what it was about, he told her, “It’s about a doctor who is called to take a delusional woman to the nuthouse.” With that in mind, tell me the story of Pride and Prejudice, from Jane’s point of view.
Swearingen: I think she would say this is a love story. Jane, being probably the most humble of the Bennett sisters, would not necessarily say this is about her. If asked, she would probably say this is the story of her dearest sister and the best friend of the man she loved. She might also say it’s a show about teaching her sister to see all sides of a story, and to “not be hasty in censuring anyone.”
I honestly don’t think Jane would say it is a show about her.
Smile Politely: You were working in the local theatre community (and far beyond) well before I became aware of you, but I know you’ve worked with some very good local directors. Gary Ambler, Kay Holley, Joi Hoffsommer… What have you learned from your experiences with these directors? How has it helped shape your craft?
Swearingen: I have had the opportunity to work with amazing directors and actors. As an actor, I’ve gotten to learn so much more about finding something deeper and more emotional and not just the surface aspects. With My Antonia, it was learning to really be a storyteller and fully embody that character. With Or, it was to find that I can be funny, and to get out of my comfort zone and play a sassy, perversecharacter. Pride and Prejudice is a little different. We spend so much of the time worrying about these characters masking their feelings because that was appropriate for the period. Jane has to wear the mask, but she wears it very poorly. So trying to find that happy balance has been something to work on.
Getting the chance to assistant direct Freud’s Last Session for Tom Mitchell was a great experience. Looking at the actors from the audience perspective and trying to see what the audience will see and wanting the actors to convey the character in a certain way so the audience understands was such a great experience. It was so interesting to have a chance to manipulate one little phrase in a scene and see how it would change the entire flow.
More than anything else, they have inspired me to want to do more. I had never been in a play before I was cast in My Antonia. I had only ever done musicals. I was never really asked to act so much as dance my fanny off and sing the pants off people. Getting to work with these directors and some fantastic actors, I want to learn and study more. I devoted my summer to reading 100 plays. It made me realize that number is a drop in the bucket for the amount of great writing there is out there. I would love the chance to really devote time and study to the craft and be better.
Smile Politely: What is the most difficult aspect of rehearsing this show? How have you overcome it…or have you?
Swearingen: The difficulties with the show are there so many actors that have to be present and we’ve only had that maybe a couple of times in rehearsal. Also, not laughing out loud and breaking character in rehearsal has been quite an accomplishment for some people. For me, personally, it’s just driving back-and-forth and the late nights. I’ve been struggling with allergies and illness almost the entire rehearsal period.
Smile Politely: I know you’re a big reader. Are you an Austen fan? Did the book play a part in your preparation?
Swearingen: I am a big reader, but… I am not a fan of Austen. I tried reading Pride and Prejudice in high school and never got very far. I have also not seen any of the movies or the miniseries. Dave Weisinger, who plays Mr. Bingley, has also never read the book or seen the movies. I like the fact that I can work strictly from the script and not be influenced by outside sources; especially since not everything is completely grafted from the novel. It gives me the chance to put my own spin on it and not feel I have to play it any certain way.
After doing this play I may have to give Ms. Austen another chance. She does have an agreeable sense of sarcasm and wit that has been fun to see go from script to stage.
Smile Politely: Opening night is looming. What moment in the show are you most looking forward to an audience seeing?
Swearingen: The proposals—and there are a lots of them! They range from ridiculously funny to almost angry to quite sweet. I think most people will walk in expecting some staid, straight-laced play that is long, drawn-out, and verging on boring. This isn’t that play. The players are constantly in motion and constantly shifting and changing the set. It’s very lively and humorous and gives you a greater appreciation for Jane Austen’s work. I admit I will probably read the book after the play is over and I have no costumes to help build.
Parkland College Theatre’s stage version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice opens Thursday, November 14 at 7:30 p.m. under the direction of Joi Hoffsommer. For more information, including ticket reservations, please visit the Parkland Theatre website.