Judith Rosen and Don Matthews recently performed together in a charming production of Neil Simon’s “Same Time Next Year” at the Randall Theatre in Medford. Both actors have played in numerous productions at theaters throughout the Rogue Valley. Both actors have successful full-time careers. Matthews is classical music director and host at Jefferson Public Radio and a voice instructor at Southern Oregon University. Rosen is development director of the Jackson County Sexual Assault Response Team and writer/dramaturg for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We met at Liquid Assets in Ashland. This is a first of a two-part column.
EH: Were you in theater before you came to Ashland?
JR: As a child, yes. People often come from one of two directions. They’re the constant exhibitionists and performers or, as I was, excruciatingly shy. So I could hide in a role and do things I could never do (as myself) in public. As you mature a bit, you realize that you can’t hide in a role.DM: You’re actually exposing yourself more than hiding.
JR: In the beginning it was definitely a place to do things that I could not do in my own persona. Then I was in academia for a chunk of time. When I moved here, I wanted to get up on skis, learn to read biblical Hebrew, and get back to some acting.
DM: For me, I graduated from high school and went to college with the idea of becoming a performer in opera.
We met at a reading of a play called “Bodies” at the Camelot Theatre. The play was about two couples, who had each slept with the other’s spouse, and the consequence of that cross-relationship. At one point, Judith unleashed this verbose torrent upon her hapless partner, and I thought, “This is interesting. I want to get to know this woman better.” Then I saw her in the production of “The Rainmaker”; this was a woman that we would recognize today as having a strong will and a strong mind. It showed a sense of humor as well as passion. That, for me, was really something.
EH: How do you manage acting and working full time?
DM: The balance of being employed full time and trying feed that other part of the soul can stretch the hours of the day and can stress the voice. Sometimes when I get up at 5 in the morning, I think, “Why am I doing this?”
EH: Judith, how was your experience performing in “Death of a Salesman” at the Randall Theatre?
JR: You get to the end of a work day, and you’re exhausted. Then you have an emotionally wrenching play to do. And we would all look at each other and say, “I don’t know how we can possibly do this.” And then we would step on stage and speak those words, and you were so glad, lucky to be able to speak them. That would carry you through. As a non-professional, when you get to do that kind of thing with a good solid cast, you just feel lucky.
DM: And you’re bringing your own weight (The fact that we’re running; we come home; we wolf down dinner; we’re exhausted; we’re not professionals). We zip up to the theater. We have thrown together costumes and make-up. We do the best we can within those limitations.
DM: It’s a complicated thing. To communicate the success of the play, whether it’s great literature or just OK, and to have the responsibility of knowing that you don’t know who you’re touching and how you’re touching them. Because it takes both actor and audience member, it’s the communication that makes it work.
EH: What separates the medium of theater from all the other arts?
JR: All of its roots are in ritual and community and communal gathering. There is something electric that happens. There seems to be a focusing of energy that brings people all together to a very similar point. It may only happen a couple times in a run, but you just feel everybody on the same wavelength.
There is the other side too, that has nothing to do with an audience. That’s the power in that communal creation of something that starts as flat words on a page and becomes alive. And it’s always going to be different depending on who’s there, and who’s directing. It’s bringing alive those words that will never happen, that particular way, ever again. It always takes another leap when you get it before an audience, because you get that missing dimension. But there’s richness in that first stage. It’s magic. Poof: Something that wasn’t there is there, and no one is in complete control of it. Something happens that you could never expect.
DM: For example, just in a very honest expressive way, to actually be Sweeny, and to be able to get away with murder. To let those dogs loose in a way that you simply can’t in society any more, unless you want to spend a good amount of your life behind bars or in a padded cell. To be able to have the freedom to do that — and then adding an audience, and if they come with you, and they take that journey with you, they’re drawn into it. And they allow themselves to discover something about themselves.
Certainly part of it is just raw entertainment. But if you’ve got good literature, great language, and well defined characters, then someone who doesn’t understand all that, can nevertheless understand the real humanity that’s there.
It’s a privilege to step into a character like “Don Quixote,” to make a person see a part of life, a possibility of life that isn’t there in the day-to-day. We can go into the theater, and we can say, “We’re creating a new world now, and maybe the world we’re creating isn’t perfect,” but really great plays tell a truth about humanity that, when the audience gets to the end of it, the human condition is a little lighter.
JR: Even if it’s not a great play.
DM: If people come as an audience, and they let themselves into the play, they can let the play, and the way that the actors embody the characters, mean something to them that changes their lives, and for the good, we hope.
As we start to recognize both the great joy of doing it, and the limitations of what we have to deal with, it comes down to the basic formula: Does this story touch you? Do the people that embody the characters strike you as true? And will you let yourself go into that world?