Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated? Were there any teachers who had a profound impact on you? When did you know you wanted to act?
Kathryn Erbe: I was born in Boston, and I grew up in Newton Center, Massachusetts, which has an arts-rich public school system. There have been lots of articles written about the famous actors who were educated there. In my junior year, I dropped out, and I ended up going to an alternative high school in Western Massachusetts called the DeSisto at Stockbridge School. I studied for two years at Strasberg and two semesters at NYU’s Experimental Theatre Wing, which was part of the four years I spent earning my undergrad degree at the Tisch School of the Arts. I have had many significant teachers along the way. My eighth-grade teacher, Ms. Crosby, was a formative influence. At that same junior high school, Mr. Richard Travers, who directed the plays and was the chorus director, was and is still a very supportive and loving friend to me.
I always loved reading books. They saved my life, and I think that reading had a lot to do with my wanting to be an actor. I just wanted to disappear into all the characters that I was reading about. At my alternative high school, there was a teacher working there named Greg Moffatt, who took all of us in the summer drama program to see the Steppenwolf production of Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead in New York City. All I had seen before then were tours of Annie and A Chorus Line. Here I was, this rebel teenager who was madly in love with Bruce Springsteen, so to hear his music played loudly in a play about these outcast characters, directed by John Malkovich—it changed my life and made me want to live and work in New York.
TS: Why did you want to play the role of Charlotte in Something Clean? What would you say the play is about?
KE: I really loved working on it when we did it as part of the Roundabout Underground Reading Series in 2018. My heart responded to Charlotte’s anguish and the position she finds herself in. As a parent of a daughter and a son, I’m keenly aware of the vulnerabilities for each of them, inherent in their genders and their respective positions in society. Being part of stories like this, one can feel a real responsibility to raise a fierce daughter and a gentle son. Hopefully they will become conscious people who will treat others kindly and justly. I’m also painfully aware of the fact that we’re human and imperfect, and things don’t always go the way we wish. So all of that added up to me really relating to this character’s plight. I agreed to do this play after a period of really not wanting to do any plays. There’s a part of me that questions what is wrong with me each time I do a play, because they’re so scary and so hard, and you’re so vulnerable. But I really love getting in the trenches with people, especially artists like Selina and Margot, the director.
TS: So the events dramatized in this play have affected you personally?
KE: I can’t say they haven’t. It really is a cautionary tale. It makes me feel even more strongly that I want to try to just pay attention. I have had things happen in my personal life that have made me realize that I had better be more present, and listen better, and try to stay as conscious as possible regarding my children and what’s going on in their lives. But I was the kind of kid that didn’t want my parents to know anything—so they didn’t.
TS: What will your process be for this piece?
KE: Well, I’ll have to memorize the lines. There’s that hurdle to get through. We got so lucky because Roundabout was so generous. I personally find that the longer you have with the project, the better the outcome. It was a year ago February that we read it, and then we had a workshop to decide about the blocking. In three days, we blocked it two different ways because we needed to decide in what way the audience would be right on top of us—since the Underground space is so small. We had to decide whether they were on one side or two sides. We had to move so quickly that there was no time to really think. We had to work purely on instinct and being in the moment. For me, that was incredibly freeing. As far as my acting process, it’s really just getting closer and closer to Charlotte and allowing myself to be more and more vulnerable. And then I will be trying to leave the work at work and not carry it around outside the theatre.
TS: Do you do a lot of research for a role like this?
KE: I will read Sue Klebold’s book A Mother’s Reckoning, that Selina read before writing the play, and I’ll watch Sue speak on YouTube. I don’t know that I’ll be looking for physical characteristics, but mainly for her mindset and her emotional state.
TS: What is the most challenging part of this role for you?
KE: The emotional burden of it. I have yet to experience doing a lighthearted comedy, and I long for that experience. It would be so nice to be a part of something where people are laughing all the time.
TS: What do you make of Charlotte’s relationship to Doug, her husband?
KE: I don’t know yet. I could imagine it being very difficult to avoid trying to blame what happens in this play on your spouse. I think in the course of the play’s storytelling, they actually do a remarkable job. That’s one of the things I find the most moving about their relationship. They are trying not to end their marriage. They are filled with grief and guilt and they are trying to coexist. We are watching them stumble along, separately and together, and their humanity is one of the things that is emotionally charged for me.
TS: How do you see her relationship with Joey, her co-worker? Do you see Charlotte’s desire to work at an office that deals with victims of sexual assault as mercenary?
KE: I don’t think it’s intentionally mercenary. It’s desperation. And Joey is such a great young person that it’s hard for her not to fall in love with him. I do think it’s her relationship with Joey that fills this hole, this gaping wound she has—she’s so hungry not to feel alone. I also think that when she’s with Joey she works at being a better mother.
TS: Do you see Charlotte’s lies to Joey as a betrayal?
KE: Absolutely. Their connection to each other goes so deep, and she didn’t have any idea that they were going to have this intimate, close relationship. I think it could have been different, but they do get so close—so when the truth comes out, it’s a horrible betrayal. Of course, it’s not that she intended to hurt him. It’s about how even well-meaning people can wreak havoc.
TS: What do you look for in collaborating with a director?
KE: I look for honesty. When I’m working with a director, I live in fear of people being afraid to tell me the truth. I really long for blunt honesty because you need an outside eye as an actor. I am not the kind of actor that wants to do things in a vacuum. I really love to collaborate, and I love being directed. I love trying things differently and seeing what works. I don’t feel precious about my work in the way that I used to. I’m really excited to collaborate with Margot, the other actors, the designers, and Selina.
TS: How do you keep yourself inspired as an artist?
KE: By going to see inspiring work. I also do as much as I can with Theater of War Productions. Bryan Doerries started the company. He translates the Greek war plays, and he developed this format where actors read an excerpt or a truncated, distilled version of a play. That is the launching pad for a discussion about any number of subjects. He has about twenty different programs covering PTSD among soldiers, suicide and its effects on families, domestic violence, prescription pill addiction, and alcoholism. The most recent production I did was his Antigone in Ferguson up at the Theater of Harlem, which was written in response to Michael Brown’s murder. That work just fills me up, and it’s what I wanted to do when I was in college, but I forgot about it as my life progressed. So I love that I get to be involved in the social justice aspect of this work. That’s what really inspires and moves me about being an actor. Maybe with Selina’s play, some people will take comfort or be able to refer back to what they learned watching it if they find themselves in a similar situation.
TS: What advice do you have for a young person who wants to know what it takes to be a successful professional actor?KE: I think people have different definitions of success. For me, success has meant having a rich family and personal life outside of my work. My commitment to my family has compromised my freedom to be ambitious. That’s not always comfortable or easy, but I am always deeply grateful that that’s how I have chosen to navigate this career. That’s what keeps me sane and grounded in the face of surface, shallow, or flashy things. That’s what works for me. And that’s really the advice I have to give.
Something Clean is now running through June 30 at the Roundabout Underground.
Photos by Joan Marcus.