Deborah Strang works with Katie Marshall (left) and Torie Adams, who will play Helen Hale and the maid Marie in this summer’s ‘Trail of the Lonesome Pine.’ PHOTO BY GLENN GANNAWAY. Click Here
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Stage and screen adaptions of books often stray far from the original, but John Fox Jr.’s Trail of the Lonesome Pine has been a touchstone for Deborah Strang.
Strang is artistic director for the 50th season of the outdoor drama based on Fox’s 1908 novel. The season begins Friday, June 21, with the musical pre-show at 7:15 p.m. and the outdoor drama at 8 p.m.
After a professional career in theater and in movies and TV spanning four decades, Strang still recalls the “beautiful and magical” first years of the outdoor drama.
And as she’s prepared her volunteer cast for opening night since rehearsals began three weeks ago, Strang has often returned to the novel for guidance.
“I love the story,” Strang said in a recent interview at the outdoor drama’s Jerome Street office. “I love the book, and I think that’s the biggest key for me. I just finished reading it for the second time in the last couple of months, so whenever I’m in doubt about something, I go back to the book.”
Actors have the same responsibility as novelists, only in a different medium. One of Strang’s first “notes” to her outdoor drama cast on the first day of rehearsal was to tell the story.
The actor’s voice is one of the things that makes live theater unique and vital. “When it’s film or TV, it’s the director telling the story with editing . . . but on stage, it’s all about the actor telling the story and communicating with the audience,” Strang said. “These things I didn’t know when I was young; it was all about feeling. That’s why it’s important for any of us on stage speaking to communicate with the other actors. To not let the character consume the story, but to let the language consume the story.”
“Sometimes if you get involved in developing a character, you forget that you’re telling the story,” Strang said. “Or if your character gets so emotional they can’t say the lines and the audience can’t hear what they’re saying, then the story is lost, so it’s all about communication as far as I’m concerned. The language tells the story through the character.”
Strang has done extensive film and TV work, with credits including “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Castle,” “Cold Case,” “Close to Home,” “Carnivale,” the “X-Files,” “Deep Space Nine,” “Kiss the Girls,” “Things To Do In Denver,” “Eagle Eye” with Shia LaBeouf, and just recently “Body of Proof” on ABC. She can also be heard as the voice of Aunt May in the animated series “The Spectacular Spider-Man.”
But she counts her long association with A Noise Within, a classical repertory theater company, as her greatest professional success.
She has been a resident artist with A Noise Within for the past 20 years, performing in more than 60 productions including Ma Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath,” Queen Margaret in “Richard III,” Mrs. Alving in “Ghosts,” Gertrude in “Hamlet,” Paulina in “The Winter’s Tale,” Maxine in “The Night of the Iguana,” the Nurse in “Romeo and Juliet,” Amanda Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie,” Mrs. Antrobus in “The Skin of Our Teeth,” Regina in “Little Foxes,” and as Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in a co-production with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the famed Hollywood Bowl.
Also at A Noise Within, Strang has co-directed Moliere’s “The Learned Ladies” on the main stage as well as productions of “Comedy of Errors” and “Twelfth Night” for the Summer With Shakespeare teen program. She currently teaches an Acting Shakespeare course and coaches the Interns in the A.N.W. Conservatory, conducts frequent master acting workshops and a Shakespeare Intensive Class for educators.
“What I would find most successful about my career is the fact that I am a member of this really incredible theater company. We do seven shows a year, and they rotate. We put up three shows, then alternate them every couple of nights. So I can be playing two or three characters at a time in different shows,” Strang said, adding that she typically performs in three or four plays a year. In addition to her acting, directing and teaching, Strang manages the box office.
“What’s so interesting is that it’s not so dissimilar to what I learned right here,” she said. “It’s a community of people putting on a show and trying to communicate with an audience.”
“Film and TV is well paying and very exciting,” Strang said. “I’ve worked with some incredible people, such as Morgan Freeman, and great directors, and I always enjoy it while I’m doing it. But what happens in film and television is you are frequently type cast — they like to know exactly who you are and cast you as that.”
As a film character actor, Strang often draws the “crazy” or distraught woman part. “If I know an audition is for a screaming person, I can pretty well book that,” she said. “As a stage person, I’m not afraid to try something really bold. On the other hand, if I get called in to do a normal person, I’m not usually going to get cast in that.” Especially if she’s competing against “name” lead actors, whose fame brings a higher viewership.
“There are choices in choosing a life as an actor,” Strang reflected. “A very small, small percentage of people who are actors are the wealthy ones. I think the average income in the Screen Actors’ Guild from film and television is probably $3,000-$5,000 a year from your film and TV. Anybody making more than that is doing really, really well.” Actors depend on other things, such as doing voice overs, teaching, recording audio books and performing in commercials.
“I don’t know of anybody who has a more interesting life than I do,” Strang said. “I wake up every day pretty excited about the day in front of me. I’m never bored.”
Strang counts travels, spending time with friends and hiking among the joys of her life. “And I get to do really fantastic plays with really great actors for audiences whose lives might be changed,” she said. “I just did ‘Grapes of Wrath,’ and audiences were so moved every night.”
But as a professional actor, Strang enjoys escaping from work to travel, hike and catch up with her family. “I try to tell young actors this too: it’s really important that you have a life; that you travel, that you fall in love, that you have your heart broken, that you read, that you study other things. If an interesting door opens, walk through it — you can always come back and act. But if your life is consumed by the next (acting) part, you’re not going to have a life.”
The volunteer efforts that make the outdoor drama possible continue to impress Strang. “One of the interesting things about this play is everybody does have a life,” she said. “Everybody’s got their job that they go to, so they have this full life they bring with them every night. I think it makes them more interesting people,” she said.