Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated?
April Matthis: I was born in Texarkana, TX — the birthplace of Scott Joplin and Ross Perot. I graduated from The University of Texas at Austin as an English Major with a minor in French.
TS: When did you decide to become an actress? Did you have any teachers who had a profound influence you?
AM: I feel like I’ve always been an actor. I knew I wanted to do it when I was 5 years old, but never thought about it as a real career until after college. I had taken a performance studies class that was cross referenced with Women’s Studies and English, called “Actual Lives.” It was taught by deaf, queer performing artist Terry Galloway, and it opened up for me the possibilities of what performance could be, and how we perform ourselves in the world every day. That experience encouraged me to audition for my first play in community theatre in Austin, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
TS: What was your initial response after reading Lydia Diamond’s play Toni Stone?
AM: I was struck by Lydia’s highly theatrical approach to biography. I've admired her voice for years and felt a connection to Toni’s peculiar brilliance. I got excited by how much there was to play in that.
TS: What do you feel the play is about?
AM: To me, it’s about the relationship one has to one’s life's work, which is intimate, essential, and personal. It's about choosing to believe and honor that calling in order to be fulfilled.
TS: Will you give us some insight into your process as an actress? What kind of preparation or research do you have to do in order to play the title role of Toni?
AM: In addition to diving into the Ackmann biography [Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone, the First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro League], right now I’m working on getting all these baseball stats under my belt.
"I’m interested in the philosophy and psychology of the game, and its historical context for black people in America."a
TS: Are you a fan of baseball?
AM: I have never really followed professional team sports, but I have great respect for the physical skill, mental focus, and strategy required. I’m interested in the philosophy and psychology of the game, and its historical context for black people in America. These ideas feel like questions the play is exploring, too.
TS: When a play is about a real person, does that make your work harder or easier?
AM: I think it’s harder, because there’s the responsibility to do right by the subject, as opposed to inventing a character from scratch.
TS: How is the character of Toni relevant to you personally? I realize the rehearsal process hasn’t begun yet, but can you share some of your initial thoughts about who Toni is with us? What makes her tick?
AM: I’m hesitant to say what makes Toni tick this early in the process, as I'm sure the answer will keep changing for me. I’m excited to explore her in the rehearsal room with the rest of the team. What I can say I am discovering at this point is that while she may seem naïve at times, she’s a good BS detector and a great advocate for herself and her abilities. I find her drive—contrasted with a certain lack of self-awareness—delicious to explore.
TS: Can you share some of your initial thoughts about the relationship between Toni and her husband, Alberga?
AM: I think there’s a profound seeing of each other they share, which unlocks new feelings in Toni that she can’t quite articulate or fully grasp. I’m curious to discover this in the rehearsal process with the wonderful Harvy Blanks, whose work I admire greatly.
TS: How do you understand the relationship between Toni and Millie at this point in your process?
AM: I think Millie’s a woman who lives in her body in a way Toni avoids. She knows the costs of earning a living using her body in a way Toni doesn’t, but they both have literal scars from what they do. I think she learns a lot about navigating the space of a cis female body from her.
TS: What do you look for when collaborating with a director?
AM: Someone who respects actors and the intellectual rigor of the craft of acting, and doesn’t dismiss us as needy or dramatic. Someone with a clear vision of what the piece we’re building is, and who can communicate that clearly and adeptly across disciplines, so that the design team, cast, stage management, and production team are all on the same page and complement each other. I’ve known Pam’s work for years, and I am honored she’s invited me to tell this story with her. I trust her insight and vision for this piece.
TS: How do you keep yourself inspired as an artist?
AM: I’m curious about the world, about human behavior. And looking at the world as an artist helps me make sense of it. I find inspiration everywhere in my life in New York. The theatre scene has so many fascinating voices, stories, points-of-view that challenge and feed me. I'm also a fan of visual and performance art and dance—that work really sharpens my aesthetic sensibilities and gives me new ways to approach my work. My family and my connection to them and home are an endless source of inspiration, inquiry, and exploration.
"Get really interested in yourself and what you like, even if you’re the only one around you with those interests."
TS: Students coming to see the play will read this interview and will want to know what it takes to be a successful actress — what advice can you give those young people who say they want to act?
AM: Be weird. Do weird stuff. Write. Make dumb videos. Consume less popular culture. Get really interested in yourself and what you like, even if you’re the only one around you with those interests. Take your ideas and interests seriously. Take chances and take advantage of the many resources for young actors here. Be kind to yourself. Observe human behavior without judging it. Why do people do what they do? What’s the story there? Stay very curious, and put yourself out there. Share with people who get you and are supportive. Don’t open your art to people or teachers that make you feel bad. Let yourself be wrong, be embarrassed, and then do it again. If you stay in touch with your own creativity, the right work will find you.
Toni Stone is now running through August 11th at the Laura Pels Theatre.