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In late 2019, now-retired Education Dramaturg Ted Sod spoke with Debra Messing about her work on Birthday Candles in anticipation of the planned 2020 production of the show. Messing responded to an additional question about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2022.

TED SOD: Why did you choose to play the role of Ernestine in Noah Haidle’s play Birthday Candles? What do you find most challenging/exciting about this role?

DEBRA MESSING: When I read the play, it moved me in a way that I don’t recall any play had done before. I don’t know if it's perhaps because of where I am in my life, but playing a woman, a universal woman, not set in time or place throughout the course of her entire lifetime felt profound. I recognized myself in parts of her life, and the exploration of her life that I have no reference for felt incredibly challenging. The most challenging part of playing Ernestine, of course, is aging from 17 to 107 without ever leaving the stage and without the help of external transformation.  

TS: How did you go about finding the physicality for that age range? What kind of preparation or research did you have to do in order to play this role? 

DM: Well, I am just in the midst of that exploration, but I felt it was important to explore, vocally, how the tone, timbre, and pitch of a voice changes as you age. I am working with Liz Caplan, who helped me prepare for my role in Dirty Dancing, and I am learning so much physiologically about the voice. I want to explore gravity within my body and hopefully have the opportunity to meet and sit down with people who are in their advanced ages. Ultimately, because there is a beautiful, lyrical quality to the world in which Ernestine lives because there is no designated time or place, I feel there is more freedom for interpretation.

TS: What do you think Birthday Candles is about? How is the character of Ernestine relevant to you?  I realize the rehearsal process hasn’t begun yet, but can you share some of your initial thoughts about who Ernestine is with us?

DM: Birthday Candles is about our quest to discover our place in the universe. It is about time and love and family and the inevitable change that happens that is pure mystery and out of our ultimate control.

I have a feeling any actress who plays Ernestine in the future will probably answer in a similar way that there is something universal about her journey. As a young girl living in a small town, she had a curiosity about the world, a passion to explore it, and a determination to do something big with her life. And then life happens. Love, marriage, motherhood, loss, disappointment, beautiful surprises, lost opportunities, death, and a lifelong meditation about what it all means.

TS: Will you talk about your understanding of the relationship between Ernestine and Matt? What do you think binds them to one another? 

DM: Matt is the handsome, powerful football player from high school that Ernestine has a crush on. They were born and raised in the same town and young love prevails. However, they don’t have the same wanderlust. Ultimately, it is their family, the life that they built together, that binds them forever.

TS: How do you see the relationship between Ernestine and Kenneth?

DM: Kenneth is Ernestine’s harmless, awkward, sweet neighbor. He wants nothing more than to be around Ernestine, be helpful in any way she needs, and she is simply annoyed by him. They aren’t friends, but they have grown up together. They had their first kiss in her backyard at the age of seven, and they are neighbors for most of their lives.

TS: What do you look for from a director when you are collaborating on a theatre role? In what type of atmosphere do you do your best work?

DM: The atmosphere in which I do my best work is one that is celebratory of risk-taking, which is free and collaborative, where everybody discovers the play together. I love directors who are great communicators, who have a facility to poetically drop little gems into your ear and then say, “Fly!” One who is honest and clear about what they want and what they are not seeing, and someone who can be a support and champion when I am at my most vulnerable.

TS: Where were you born and educated? How and when did you decide to become an actor? Did you have any teachers who had a profound influence on you?

DM: I was born in Brooklyn, New York and grew up in a small town in Rhode Island called East Greenwich. Our neighbor had horses, and we would run over through the woods to see the colts being born. I went to public school my whole life, went to Brandeis University in Massachusetts for college; I spent my junior year in London studying acting and immediately continued my education in the master’s program at NYU. It was a three-year program where the 15 of us who ultimately graduated spent 70 hours a week with each other. Vivienne Benesch, our director, was my classmate.

I feel like I knew I wanted to be an actor from the time I was born. My mother played Broadway albums nonstop, and I had dreams of being Barbara Streisand in Funny Girl. I took dance class and ultimately singing lessons and became obsessed with the TV show Fame. I just wanted to grow up fast so I could finally be on stage.

The first teacher who had a life-changing effect on me was Jimmy Metcalfe, my high school drama teacher. His musicals were renowned. Our cast of Annie, I think, was a hundred kids. He was tough, serious about theater, hilarious, demanding, and my biggest cheerleader. He was the one who made me believe that I should follow my dream. In college, Ted Kazanoff, the master acting teacher for both the undergraduate and graduate acting programs at Brandeis, took everything to a whole new level. It was a straight acting program. No dance, no singing, and he treated the few undergrads studying under him the same as his graduate students. We spent an entire semester deconstructing one scene from Golden Boy. I think it took me one full month to get past the first four lines in acting class. He was a Method teacher which I had known nothing about before I came to school, and he was my mentor. I wanted desperately for him to believe in me, and when he thought it was a good idea for me to apply to graduate acting programs, it was the greatest vote of confidence. 

At NYU, every teacher had a profound impact on me and my growth. Ron Van Lieu, the master teacher at the time, became my North Star. He went on to become the master teacher at Yale Graduate Acting and now runs the Columbia Graduate Acting program. He was the one I auditioned for along with Zelda Fichandler. My three years of intensive study with him were excruciatingly hard. He had this ability to make you feel safe and seen and respected while being brutally honest and never letting you become complacent. We all had our bad habits and crutches dismantled so we could be open and ready to expand, learn anew, and ultimately trust that we had everything we needed within us.

TS: What or who inspires you as an artist?

DM: Laurie Metcalf, Cherry Jones, Michelle Williams, Glenn Close, Meryl Streep, Cynthia Erivo, Jeremy Pope, Tony Shalhoub, Frances McDormand. I can go on and on and on. I love actors and being inspired by their performances. I admire actors who have had a rich, fertile, diverse career in the theater, in all mediums. I love any actor who is fearless.

TS: What advice can you give young people who say they want to act?

DM: Study. I’ll say it again: study, study, study! Acting is an art form. Yes, you will see people on YouTube who become famous as personalities, or beautiful young actors who are plucked up and given the world because they are beautiful and lucky. If you really want to be an actor, you need to learn that your body is an instrument, that text needs to be broken down and analyzed, that you will spend most of your time not doing the thing you love. Do plays; buy a monologue book and work on them on your own. Grab some friends and sit in the living room and read a play out loud and be patient.

UPSTAGE GUIDE: How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed how you see or approach Birthday Candles?

DM: I think the pandemic just intensifies the poignancy of the play. It will be experienced, perhaps, in a more potent way. Most importantly, I think it will be incredibly healing for the audiences.

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