Wednesday, May 18,2011
Talking with Michelle Meredith
The actress and MSU graduate makes her Williamston Theatre debut in ‘Eleemosynary’ this week
With the maturity that Michelle Meredith displays in every role she plays, one could easily assume she is older than 22. Virtually typecast as mothers and grandmothers, Meredith is a graduate of Michigan State University; she performed alongside Carmen Decker in “Kimberly Akimbo” at Stormfield Theater earlier this year. She makes her Williamston Theatre debut this week in “Eleemosynary,” her second collaboration with director Lynn Lammers.
Audiences may also remember Meredith from MSU productions such as “Kid Purple,” “You Can’t Take It With You” and “Plaza Suite.”
How did you get started in theater?
MM: I was kind of a late bloomer in theater. I auditioned for a play in eighth grade and didn’t get cast. I was so devastated that I sort of wrote off my dreams of being an actor for good.
And then I pursued music for a long time. I was going to play bassoon in an orchestra for the rest of my life. And my friends were in drama — my junior year of high school, I was really irritated because during the spring musical, they were always in rehearsal and we couldn’t hang out. And they said, "Well, just audition with us and we’ll all be in the chorus and it’ll be fun."
So I auditioned just so I could hang out with my friends, and I ended up getting a lead role.
And it sort of reawakened this passion and excitement for performing that I had sort of pushed into the back of my mind. And once that happened, I did two shows in a single year. I went to college and I was a theater major my freshman year and I never changed.
What kind of preparation do you do in developing a character beyond reading the script?
There are sort of two different approaches that I have. If I’m playing someone a little older than I am who has had a lot of different life experiences, then I usually work from the outside in. I try to come in with the voice and the physicality because otherwise I can’t fully connect because I don’t know what it’s like to be homeless or a con artist. (Then) I slowly develop a better idea of what kind of person does that. If it’s something like "Kid Purple" or "Eleemosynary," I work from the inside out because I have more in common with that person. It can be the littlest things. Being the same age as (the character) or coming from a similar family background. It’s much more emotional and internalized, and then I can kind of work my way out into how we’re different. I spent a lot of time in college doing a lot of mothers and grandmothers and aunts. I mean, I’m 22, so I’ve always had to find a way to bring them closer to me and it was usually a roundabout way. But I’m getting to play more characters that are closer to me. I was 17 when I started college and the first show I did, I played a mother and the wife of a 34-year-old grad student. So it was very jarring. I couldn’t even sign my own release form because I wasn’t 18 yet. I started off playing very maternal and wacky women. It’s almost like I’m aging backwards in theater. I’m playing a 16-year-old in the Williamston show.
Were there certain stage habits that you were taught to unlearn in college?
Yes, absolutely. A lot of it was challenging my comfort zone. I remember one scene where I was playing Nora in "A Doll’s House" in a scene in class. My professor said, "There are two things you have to do in this scene," and it was already challenging for me because Nora is such an ing’nue type character. I mean I would just never play her. But she goes, "I also want you to find the place in the scene where you sit in his lap and kiss." And I mean those are two things I’d never do. I’m always playing the mothers and the crazy characters. I’m never the romantic lead. Kind of just a challenge of being able to let go of all of your inhibitions and really go for it and embrace the character without thinking about how silly I look as a person.
Have you worked with directors or teachers that you did not connect with? What do you do?
There have been a couple of times where you have to work a little harder to find common ground. I’ve had directors who were very long-winded, and I’ve never quite been able to grasp what the note was. I’m more of a forward person. It’s just like, "OK, you want me to go sit by them is what you’re saying." It would just be this long pedantic explanation of what their idea was. Once you get used to it, usually the rehearsal process is long enough that you’re able to eventually grasp how they work.
Is there a particular style of direction that works best for you?
Yeah, I definitely prefer collaborating. I don’t mean to go back to Lynn Lammers but because we’re doing "Eleemosynary’" it’s all fresh in my mind. We speak the same language, so I’ve been very lucky to sit down and she can always tell on my face after we’ve worked a scene if I had a problem with it or if I feel like something wasn’t right. She’s always kind of meeting me halfway and even if it’s just me being a neurotic actor. It’s constant collaboration and constant trust. And I always have to trust her that she’s not going to let me make myself look like a fool. And she has to trust me that I’m going to be able to interpret what she is looking for without her just coming up to me and telling me how to say a line.
What has it been like transitioning from collegiate theater to professional theater productions like Stormfield and Williamston?
It’s actually not as jarring or different as you might think, because the faculty and the program at MSU really prepare you. I was lucky enough to do a lot of Summer Circle, which I think bridged the gap a lot for me in terms of professionalism and a backstage working environment. In terms of getting paid, once money becomes a factor, you really bump up your game and want to make sure that you are as professional and reliable as possible. I think that MSU really prepared me for that.
What was it like working with Carmen Decker in Stormfield Theatre’s "Kimberly Akimbo"?
It was phenomenal. She’s an incredible actress just in an of herself. But when you factor in the age and how much you would expect that to limit her, it doesn’t at all. And on top of it, in the context of the show, her playing a teenager just made it that much more fun because she’s so lively anyway. She has such a strong spirit and she’s so funny and so creative. I mean, her memory is better than mine.