Bringing “Sylvia” to life

So what’s it like to play a dog?  Here’s fearless actor (and cat person) Lea Russell on finding her inner canine for A.R. Gurney’s hit comedy…

Lea Russell and two of her "babies" - Wally on the left and Henry on the right.

Q:        Do you have a dance or movement background or training?

A:        I graduated from Humber’s Theatre Performance Program, which is a predominantly Physical Theatre-based training program. However, we studied a wide range of classical and contemporary theory. Humber gave me the unique opportunity to study many forms of movement and dance with some of the best instructors in the business, including Catherine Marrion, Pam Johnson, Kelly McEvenue, Florence MacGregor, Heidi Strauss (Ballet/Modern Dance), Sharon Moore (Modern Dance), Patrick Parson (African Dance), Kelly Arnsby (Historical Dance).

Q:        What made you want to audition for this role?

A:        Actually, I was just looking at the Alumnae Theatre website and read the posting.  I think I had missed the submission deadline but Ramona’s [producer Ramona Baillie] contact info was there so I called and she gave me an audition. The rest is history.

Q:        What has been the most fun about playing a dog?

A:        The most fun part about playing a dog, as an actor anyway, are her animal intentions. Actually they are more like instincts than intentions: “Food, shelter, sex” – Gurney says it himself. I love that Sylvia can be in the depths of despair and bounce back a few seconds later, thanks to a treat or a pat.

Q:        What parameters or guidance did Maria give you as to how “doggy” she wanted Sylvia to be?

A:        Maria Popoff is one of those directors that actors love to work with. She will let you try anything and everything in rehearsals. Sometimes she will take an actor’s proposal and expand on it, or help us steer a scene in another direction. We tried the whole play as a literal “doggy” dog. Then we rehearsed the scenes again, keeping the physicality more pedestrian by putting the doggy feeling inside. This really helped us find “The Other” that Gurney talks about several times in the play. If you follow the clues in the script you will find that the “Other” is not a dog if it were a human, or a human if it were a dog, but both at the same time.  Confused yet? Come to the show and we will explain it to you!

Q:        Have you been observing real dogs during this process?

A:        There is a dog park right across the street from my place and I creep on the dogs all the time.

Q:        Have you spent a lot of time with [movement coach] Jen Jones?

A:        Jen and I have spent two amazing days together in rehearsals. She is fantastic.  She came in and was like, “Oh, a dog looks like this…” The entire cast and crew would be standing around in awe of her dog-likeness.  Jen was also brilliant at “going into heat” – her pelvic mobility is outstanding!

Q:        A funny stories from rehearsal?

A:        Well, I must say we all have a great time during the scene where Sylvia meets Phyllis (Kay Montgomery) and her crotch.  Kay and I are polar opposites, she is a Zen master and I am a bull in a china shop. Sometimes Sylvia’s energy would get the best of me and I would charge Kay when she wasn’t ready. Once she got scared as I was coming for her crotch and put her hands out to protect herself. I dove in and stuck myself in the eye with one of her fingers. Poor Kay felt terrible but it served me right, after that I was definitely more careful.

Blogger’s note:  the scene in which Sylvia meets Phyllis (and her crotch) was the first one I saw in rehearsal – see post titled “Sylvia says hello“.  It is absolutely hysterical.  Can’t wait to see the whole show put together!

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Filed under 2011/12 season, Sylvia

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