Unforgettable Sarah Marshall

The Hardest-Working Woman in D.C. Theater is Working Harder Than Ever

Interview by Tom Avila
Photography by Todd Franson
Published on November 12, 2009, 12:00am | Comments

There's a funny thing about Sarah Marshall. (That is, something besides the fact that, thanks to a certain movie, a Google search of her name produces an inordinate number of entries that include the phrase ''full frontal.'') If you were to sit down with the local actor – maybe in the slick glass-walled classroom of Woolly Mammoth's smart downtown theater just hours before she takes the stage – you'll meet an individual even more engaging than any of the characters you've seen her play.

Sarah Marshall
Sarah Marshall
(Photo by Todd Franson)

This is no small statement considering Marshall's D.C. stage credits span nearly 30 years and include roles in plays as diverse as Martha, Josie & the Chinese Elvis, Twelfth Night, How I Learned to Drive and a Helen Hayes Award-winning turn in Christopher Durang's Baby with the Bathwater. In Woolly Mammoth's current production of Charles L. Mee's Full Circle Marshall takes on three roles, at least two of which (okay, maybe all three) are men.

She's been nominated for 17 Helen Hayes Awards, two for her 2009 performances in Woolly's Boom and Maria/Stuart.

She has performed at such marquee area houses as Studio Theatre, Arena Stage, Round House and the Folger Shakespeare Theatre. But most striking is the fact that Marshall has carved such a formidable career in a kind of defiance of conventional wisdom. She's done it all here in Washington -- well, well off-Broadway. No triumphal march to New York. No hero's return back.

''I saw many a person go to New York and not work," she says. "They were perfectly good working actors here and they had jobs in good companies and they went to New York to do the New York thing and didn't work. I knew I didn't want that life.''

So Marshall stayed and devoted her energy and heart and talent to helping to create D.C.'s own thriving theater community. It's that passion, and the fact that she would probably never consider herself a trailblazer, that makes Marshall so completely unforgettable.

METRO WEEKLY: You grew up in the South?

SARAH MARSHALL: Sort of. My father was in the military so I grew up all over the country. I lived in New York and Washington state and Kansas, but he seemed to have a lot of tours in the South: Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Virginia.... And he was stationed here in D.C. for a while. I went to high school in Huntsville, Ala., and college in Birmingham. All my brothers and sisters ended up in the South and all their children were born and raised in the South.

MW: So you grew up in a big family and you have the "Army brat" status. Were you the kid that vanished into the background? Or were you front-and-center shouting, ''Hey, welcome me to my new school!''

MARSHALL: Oh, no -- background. I hated to move. I hated to make new friends. I think a lot of actors are like that. I'm pretty shy. Extroverted on the stage, but pretty much an introvert.

MW: If you were that quiet kid in the background, what got you to the stage?

MARSHALL: I was in an English class in junior high school and the teacher said, ''You know, there's going to be this citywide competition for monologue and you've got some talent. You should enter it.'' And I did. My mother and my family said, ''Don't think anything is going to happen with this.'' And I won it. I kind of got the bug and just continued it in high school. I was rewarded by people liking my work, so I kept doing it.

MW: Do you remember the monologue?

MARSHALL: I remember bits of it: A woman is in a waiting room with her child and there are a bunch of other children around, and her child is completely misbehaved. I was way too young for the role.

MW: In addition to your work onstage, you're teaching a lot. Is there some connection between getting that bug at an early age and wanting to work with student actors?

MARSHALL: It's probably karma. I told my parents I was going to school and I was going to be a teacher, even though I was taking all these theater classes. My father wanted me to be a nurse and I said, ''No, I'm not going to do that.'' So I kept saying I was going to be a teacher, but all the time thinking, ''I'm never going to do that.''

Then I got a company membership at Round House Theatre. Part of being in the company was you had to teach. Jeff Davis hired me to be in the company and I said, ''Well, I'll be in the company, but I can't teach. I don't know how. I haven't taught.'' And he said, ''You are gonna,'' and they just threw you into the classroom.

I have no formal training to teach, but now I teach at the college level and have been for many years, teaching at Georgetown University. So, it was my fate to teach. I've always said that acting is my calling and teaching is my fate.

MW: Was Round House your first company membership in the area?

MARSHALL: Yes. We have a company here at Woolly, but it's not like we had companies then. You were employed for the entire year. When they had a company at Arena, they had health benefits. Even if members of the company weren't in a show, they still had a salary. And we always had work, and we taught, and we were in children's shows, and rehearsing in the afternoon for the plays at night. We were really working hard for our money.

MW: How long have you been acting in D.C.?

MARSHALL: Almost 30 years. I came here as a kid and I watched the D.C. theater communi ty grow, grow, grow, grow. I remember Studio Theatre moving into a hot-dog warehouse and chucking out that crap -- I remember doing that. I remember when they moved into the Church Street Theater that Woolly took over before Studio bought, essentially, Logan Circle. [Laughs.] They've got the block now!

MW: Do you think people from the outside the area know this is all happening in D.C., or do they think of the Kennedy Center and that's it?

MARSHALL: I think there are even people inside this town that have no idea. When I say, ''You have no idea what the size of this theater town is,'' they're shocked when they find out. I came here thinking I would leave and go to New York, but I got work here and I kept getting work here. And I thought, ''I want to be a actor. What will New York do for me that Washington isn't?'' Nothing.

I knew I had work here. The work was good. It wasn't crap. It was reputable. If it hadn't been, I suppose I would have moved on, but it wasn't.

MW: What's the best thing about D.C. audiences?

MARSHALL: Well, they are fiercely smart. It also feels like there are different audiences for different theaters. Like the audience here [at Woolly Mammoth] is slightly different from the audience at Studio, slightly different from the audience at Round House. The audience at Round House is notorious for talking back and talking to and making comments during the whole thing. The audience here at Woolly is kind of fierce and younger. They come for the exciting kind of theater that this company does. Not that other companies don't do great, exciting work, too. People go to Signature for the musicals and they go to the Shakespeare for the costume dramas. They go to Folger for Shakespeare revised in different ways. There's a place for everybody.

MW: Let's talk about Full Circle, the show you're doing here at Woolly. You're an actor known for her great versatility and in this show you're tackling three radical transformations.

MARSHALL: This show includes one of my favorite men I've done. I haven't done a ton of men, haven't done a ton of drag kings, but, man, this one is my favorite. I did The Book Club Play at Round House recently and I played nine characters. Five of them were men. But those were just monologues whereas this is a man with scenes and a wife, and a place and things that he cares about. I don't think I've ever done that before.

With Full Circle the whole gender thing was interesting because a couple of weeks before we started I called [director] Michael [Rohd]. I started getting nervous about it and asked, ''Are any men playing women? Why did you want me to play this role? Was it because you had some vision in mind with your production? Or was it because we want Sarah in the production but we can't figure out where to put her and we thought maybe this would be fun?''

MW: I don't know that people generally think of actors questioning being cast for a part. I think the general idea is that someone tells you that you are Maria and so you go and dress up as Maria and you sing. Is that something you go through with every role?

MARSHALL: How do I fit? How does this person fit in this story? What is my job within the context of the play? What is my job in the context of the production because in this play they've chosen a woman to play men's roles? Is it arbitrary? Is it just for fun? What are they trying to say? What is being said? Anything?

I'm going to be the one executing it. I don't think I'm unique in that way. I will speak up more than other people. I will get in touch with the director and say, ''What?'' Maybe other actors would still be thinking that way but not question it. I want to know the answers and I will question. I will have a dialogue. I want to know why. Your impression of acting and actors as people that just sort of do what they're asked? There are some that do. I've not ever been like that and it's gotten me in trouble.

There are people who think I'm a difficult person to work with. I'm exacting, but it's in service to the play. Anybody who knows me would know that it's in service to the piece and not myself. What's the point of acting if you can't create character? I think less and less that's important to people. We can get the exact white albino midget we need for the role so let's do that. The films do. You don't need transformational actors in a film. There aren't that many. There are some, of course: Meryl Streep. But Harrison Ford is Harrison Ford is Harrison Ford. He's a "bazzilionaire," but he's Harrison Ford. The Al Pacinos are few and far between.

I'm a character actor. I like to transform. I enjoy that. That's a big challenge to me, to still be human and real and try to make a human being out of this character. I don't know why, but I don't think that this person [points to herself] would be interesting over an hour.

MW: You say "character actor" with a certain degree of pride but I think of how, and unfortunately it always seems to be the obituary, there's the line about "Joe being a character actor back in the golden age of Hollywood." And then you see him and think, ''He was the drunk guy in every Bewitched episode.'' You're taking the phrase back to its roots.

MARSHALL: Sarah Bernhardt played Prince Charming at 70 -- without a leg. She played Prince Charming! They did that stuff. That was what an actor was. Actors were playing Juliet in their 90s. Film has really changed the art of acting. People don't know how to talk, you can't hear them, everybody has to be miked in theaters. It's crazy.

MW: One of the things that has always struck me when I've seen you is that, regardless of how fantastic the character is, you seem to work to ensure that there is always a human element. That at the end of the day, this is a person who has to exist in the world. That seems to be very important to you.

MARSHALL: If I feel that [my character is] untethered, there's always a part of a process where it's like, ''Oh, that person has just gone off. They're off.'' They need to come back into the earth. It's important to me. I don't think the audience can connect otherwise.

We're connecting as humans when we're in the room together. We're connecting for the human element. You can be dazzled but you won't be as connected or moved if it isn't like that is a real person. I can step away and dismiss if it's not a real person. If that character's humanity is lacking, then I don't think there's the human connection.

MW: It's funny to think of the idea that you came here thinking in the back of your head that you would head off to New York. What is it like to not only have stayed in D.C. but to be considered by so many to be such an important part of this town's theater scene.

MARSHALL: I guess I'm still just acting.

MW: You're just going through it?

MARSHALL: I'm just an actor. I'm still struggling. I'm probably bolder in my speaking out, but I think it's still the same struggle. Work will come or it won't. And when I get the role I'm always worried, will I be able to do it this time? Every single time!

If your doctor was that way or your surgeon was that way, you wouldn't hire that person. What if a dentist thought every time they went back in there to take the teeth out, ''What if I'm not able to do it?'' You just wouldn't hire those people. Many, many experienced actors start rehearsals and say, ''I was able to do it that time. Can I do it again?''

MW: Do you warn your students of that?

MARSHALL: No, I haven't warned them of that. I teach beginning acting classes -- a lot of the acting students I have don't plan to go on. To the ones who are I would say, ''You really have to want to do this.'' It has to be a calling. A calling means that you have no choice.

If you have a choice, this wouldn't be the thing to choose. It's too hard. It's also a great life, but it's not an easy life. Of course, we could have an easy life but it might not be a good life, it might be boring.

MW: Let's talk a bit about your life outside of theater. You're smiling, so I'll ask: Is it a good life too?

MARSHALL: Yes, it's a good life.

MW: Are you in a relationship?

MARSHALL: My girlfriend is Mary Beth Wise. She's an actress too.

MW: How long have you been together?

MARSHALL: Everybody asks me that and I go kind of numb and cross-eyed. We became good friends during The Mineola Twins and it was after that. There were some complications. So, about a year after that. That's three or four years, maybe a little longer.

MW: How is it to be in a relationship with another actor?

MARSHALL: Oh dear.

MW: My partner's a musician and everyone always asks if I'm a musician, and I say, ''Oh, God, no.''

MARSHALL: Well, it is challenging. But then again, it's great because they can completely understand what you're going through. And she's so talented -- it's great to be in league with that.

MW: When you see each other in shows do you talk about it afterward?

MARSHALL: Oh, yeah. Sometimes it's like, ''You're not being supportive enough right now. I need more support.'' But we're usually pretty honest. ''Well, you can say if you didn't like it.''

She did that to me recently. She did a reading of The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later at the University of Maryland, College Park, and I saw it. It was fantastic. I really loved it. It was just so moving. Afterward she kept asking me about what I thought, but it was like a week later and I had been in tech for Full Circle and I was so not even able to remember what she was talking about. Then she said, ''You can tell me. You can tell me if you didn't like it.'' And I said, ''I loved it but I can't be articulate about it anymore."

MW: Do you read your reviews, the pieces about you?

MARSHALL: No. I stopped many years ago. Sometimes I would read them afterwards and then it would just bug me. Even when they're good there's something that's not right about them. And then I think, ''Oh, who cares?'' I'm frequently referred to as wacky. I'm tired of that. "That crazy Sarah Marshall." I think that's dismissive. My work is more substantial than that. So I can't read them because I feel that I'm being misunderstood or diminished.

MW: Do you read your girlfriend's reviews?

MARSHALL: Yeah, because she does. And she can get as upset as I can. A lot of actors get upset, but they still read them. I say I don't and I really don't. But a lot of people say they don't and then they do. I don't.

MW: I'll note that you didn't wink as you said that. We've talked about how the theater community has changed in D.C. Your mention of the new Laramie Project piece makes me wonder if you think the reception of gay-themed work has changed in this town. Is it easy to be out here and be working?

MARSHALL: I feel like it's been pretty open for the whole time, but I don't think that's indicative of the society. In theater we're in our own little castle, our own little world. I think that's partly why people go into the theater and become a part of a community that is so very accepting. It's the place to be, and be free, and be with the brethren, so to speak. And we can feel that the society, Maine excluded....

MW: My home state. It's been a rough week at our house.

MARSHALL: Ooooh. Younger people don't care! It's unfortunate, but it's like, ''You all gotta go, you all gotta get out, you all gotta move on to your next destination," because, really....

I was listening to PFW today driving down and it was troubling because gay marriage was up for discussion and many ''Christians'' were calling in. They were attacking the hostess, and other people were calling in and saying, ''You Christians, you're not being Christian.''

I wonder if D.C. will accept it. Will the conservative element of D.C. accept marriage? I don't know. And by "D.C.," I mean the people who live here. I don't mean the government.

MW: I don't want to assume you have a stand or opinion just because you're a member of the community, but is marriage equality a topic that gets you riled up?

MARSHALL: I'm for civil rights. I'm absolutely for equal rights and that's a part of my equal rights: to be able to be married. If being married or marriages will make the society at large accept the real world, then however it works.

I don't know that I will ever get married, but I do want to be able to have a partnership that I can share equally as any common-law partnership in terms of my rights as a citizen of the United States. That is important to me.

There are women's rights, which are, frankly, more important to me than gay rights. I think if women had rights, we would have gay rights. If there were really equality of sexes in the world, it would follow. I believe that, as a gay woman.

Imagine equality between the sexes and then I think it would all follow. People would be accepting. But if a woman is still being castrated and subjugated in the world -- a lot of the world -- the world isn't going to accept equality. I don't even know if the United States has equal rights for women.

MW: We've gone right up to the time where you need to be getting ready to head onstage. I know that you claimed otherwise, but I have to say that I for one would absolutely be entertained by you on a nightly basis.

MARSHALL: Oh no, no you wouldn't. Just ask those girls in the dressing room. They are much more entertaining. Kate Norris especially.

Full Circle plays to Nov. 29 at Woolly Mammoth, 641 D St. NW. Tickets range from $45 to $62. Call 202-393-3939 or visit woollymammoth.net.


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