IRT AUDIENCES HAVE SEEN KIM STAUNTON IN FENCES AND FINDING HOME. SHE HAS PERFORMED IN REGIONAL THEATRES ACROSS AMERICA, INCLUDING 14 YEARS AS A GUEST COMPANY MEMBER AT DENVER CENTER THEATRE. IN BETWEEN STAGE ROLES, SHE HAS ALSO BUILT A CAREER IN FILM, TELEVISION, AND AUDIO BOOKS. THIS MONTH AT THE IRT SHE PLAYS LENA YOUNGER—MAMA—IN A RAISIN IN THE SUN.
HOW DID YOU FIRST GET INTERESTED IN THEATRE?
I grew up in Washington, DC, and in ninth grade you had to choose an elective. I wasn’t particularly interested in visual art or music, so I ended up in drama. It wasn’t a passion. But I had a really wonderful drama and English teacher, Eunice McCorkle. I still remember her fondly. She was the one that said, hey kid, you’ve got something here, you need to stick with this. Luckily, the following year the Duke Ellington School of the Arts opened in Washington. That was 40 years ago, and I was in the first graduating class. The timing was really great. I had somebody behind me who said, you should take this really seriously and pursue this. I think we all have that person in our lives, and she was that for me.
Then once I got into the school, I had another supportive group of mentors who said, yeah, you are really good, you need to stick with this, and we’re going to help you pursue studies beyond high school. I had my mind set on Adelphi University because they’d offered me a four-year scholarship. But my mentors had their minds set on Juilliard: We want you to go this route, and if you get in and you can’t afford it, we will be behind you. You just get in. And I did. And with that support, that was four years of drama school. I guess everything else is history, but it started with an elective. I didn’t think much of it until a lot of mentors got behind me and were pushing me forward.
One of my mentors was the late Israel Hicks [the first director to stage all ten of August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle plays]. He was my high school principal at Ellington—he was a much younger educator and artist then. So he was my launching pad; but interestingly enough I never worked for him after that. And then 23 years later we reunited at the Denver Center. Eighty percent of my work at the Denver Center was directed by Israel. He became a very special mentor in my life and my career. That’s my full circle story, that we would come together all those years later to do this great, great work, and that I would work with him all the way up until his transition. A remarkable human being who not only gave me my start, but also helped me to believe that I could do things that I didn’t even know that I could do.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT ACTING THAT FULFILLS YOU?
I love the opportunity to be a part of an ensemble and an experience that allows us to communicate ideas and emotions. And we get to do that through these imaginary characters and circumstances that then have an impact on an audience. That’s the goal. That’s what I love. I get very excited by that. We have this great charge—that’s what I call it—a charge to take theatre and film and television, and in my case audio books, and I get to use these mediums for great storytelling. Sometimes what we do seems so simple, but I think if you invest and you commit, you can get into the truth of all those mediums. What a powerful platform that is! I have come to appreciate that as I’ve grown and evolved in this career of mine. So I like telling stories and being able to do it through all those powerful mediums.
LENA YOUNGER IS ONE OF THE GREAT ROLES FOR AN AFRICAN AMERICAN ACTRESS. WHAT ARE YOU FEELING AS YOU HEAD TOWARDS REHEARSALS?
I got to do Ruth for Israel in the year he passed, as a matter of fact. Then in 2013 Phylicia Rashad was directing the show in LA, and she was replacing an actress who was doing Mama, and I was sent in. And I thought, am I old enough to do Mama? I was still trying to be on the other side (laughing), I was having a bit of an ego trip! But let me tell you, when I surrendered to that, and when I understood what Phylicia wanted—she wanted a woman who was certainly age-appropriate, but who still had something inside. When her husband died—that feeling inside, being a woman and feeling as a woman, had not died with him. And it made perfect sense to me after I got on board, and we had a lovely, lovely experience. So to come back to it now several years later, being very settled in being on the other side (more laughter)—I’m sure that there is so much room to grow, to experience her and the beauty of this character on a whole other level at the IRT.
WHAT IS UNIQUE ABOUT COMING TO THE IRT?
Oh man, it’s just the best. I love IRT, I love Janet, I love the staff. I think that the passion and the welcoming and the personable kind of warm feeling—it’s a family at this theatre. And it doesn’t matter if it’s the administration, or the board, or any of the parts that we actors don’t have anything to do with—I think quite frankly all of that filters down into what actors feel. What I can speak to as an out-of-town actor is that when I come to IRT, I feel a warmth, I feel a hands-on energy that embraces me and anchors actors in the experience. Throughout the entire run of the show you’re treated well. All the things an actor could want on the road, he gets at IRT—and then you get to do fine, fine work with a great ensemble.
The people here want the best for you—they want you to be good. After Fences I wrote a letter to Janet. I have never written a letter about a backstage crew, but I had to tell somebody. This was so dynamic! Those young people were the most extraordinary—the whole crew, stage management, everyone. They took such great care of us. But it was the passion and the commitment! They were just as excited and engrossed in the work as we actors were. They were always there: Do you need something? What can I do for you? I had to write to tell Janet how extraordinary that experience was. That’s what an actor needs on the road, and that’s what the IRT does. The detail and the willingness to go above and beyond and accommodate actors’ needs in every capacity—on stage and off—is remarkable. And I know that energy comes from the top.
To this day it brings tears to my eyes, because my mother died while I was here during Fences. We had just gotten here, people didn’t know me, I was just an out-of-town actor here with a co-production. But the first thing Janet said to me was, we are family here; whatever you need to do, you put your family first. Don’t worry about us. We’ll figure this thing out. But it’s about family here at the IRT. And I’ll never forget that, for the rest of my life. I’ll never forget the importance of that grace and that love and kindness for someone they didn’t even know. It’s that kind of love and kindness and grace that you don’t find everywhere. You just don’t! And I’ve been to a lot of places and I’ve worked for a lot of companies. That’s what’s special about IRT. So obviously coming back is like coming home.
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