Today we introduce Renata McAdams, who plays Lisa Morrison. Renata has been in several HPCP shows, including Arcadia, Proof, and Clybourne Park, as well as several staged readings. She would have made her directorial debut with The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart this season, had we been able to get the performance rights.
Q. How did you get interested in theater, and what brought you to the Hyde Park Community Players?
Renata: I’ve always enjoyed acting, and did some theater in college and just afterward—but when I moved to Chicago 3.5 years ago, I hadn’t done any acting in several years. I knew I wanted to get back into it… and as I was walking along 57th, I saw an HPCP flyer for Arcadia auditions, starting in 20 minutes. I immediately changed direction, and was lucky enough to be cast as Thomasina. It was a wonderful reintroduction to the theater!
Q. Sadly, we were not able to do the show you proposed for this season, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart. Can you tell us something about why you were drawn to that show? Do you think you will propose it again?
Renata: I do plan to propose Prudencia again; I was so excited that the Players had chosen it, and we even had some community partners ready to host us by the time we found out we couldn’t get the rights. I’m interested in the way the show moves back and forth between prosaic and mythical worlds, and also interested because the mythical side of it is both dark and sort of softly romantic. And, of course, the music—Scottish border ballads—is so beautiful. And what fun, to do a show in a bar!
Q. When I describe Collected Stories to other people, I sometimes refer to it as “basically All About Eve, but with writers instead of actresses.” In fact, though, I wonder if this is comparison is really fair to your character. What do you think draws Lisa so strongly to Ruth’s writing in the first place? Why does she develop such an attachment to Ruth herself?
Renata: Interestingly, we never hear any of Ruth’s writing, or even the plot of one of her stories. There are just a few vague references, so we’re left to imagine what sort of thing would attract Lisa so powerfully. Of course, we assume the stories are beautifully written. Beyond that, I imagine some of them deal with dysfunctional families, because that’s a theme Lisa connects to very powerfully, but that the families in Ruth’s stories are nonetheless very different from the people Lisa grew up around. As to why she’s so attached to Ruth, I think that begins in Lisa’s disdain for her own parents; she’s looking for a mother figure. And Ruth nurtures that attachment—she responds warmly to Lisa’s craving for closeness, and it’s really a mutual bond.
Q. Questions about autobiography and authenticity in writing are central to this play; they also come up a lot in debates about acting. Do you find that, in playing Lisa, you are drawing on your own experience, or are you creating her character through other means?
Renata: I don’t feel very similar to Lisa, beyond the basics of our ages and educational level. That said, her emotions are familiar, because they are ordinary human feelings and responses—even if the context is different, we all know how it feels to be caught out in an awkward social moment, or to argue fiercely for something, or to revel in hearing a wonderful story told well. I think part of the joy of acting is that you draw on what is familiar to you and place it in a new and different moment; you get to imagine, “What if I were someone who reacted this way to that kind of question?” Or, “What would it be like to be someone who was this successful yet this uncertain?” In creating Lisa, I’ve focused on creating a physicality for her that is distinct from my own and that (of course) echoes her character as it is written in the script.
Q. The scenes are spread out over a number of years, and your character is going through a lot of changes. How do you mark those changes in performance?
Renata: Lisa goes through a lot of changes over the course of the play. By the end she’s older, more confident (at least most of the time), and more comfortable with Ruth. I’ve made her a lot more fidgety near the beginning of the play, with worse posture and a higher-pitched and less authoritative voice. In the middle of the play and toward the end, her physicality is more relaxed, and I let my voice deepen into more like my normal pitch—but we still occasionally see gestures and tics from the earlier stage. In the first scene, Ruth comments on Lisa’s questioning intonation in declarative sentences (otherwise known as upspeak), and Lisa tries to get rid of that. Since commenting on and complaining about upspeak in young women was such a common thing in the 90s, I decided, as my own little commentary on that issue, to push Lisa’s voice into a bit more vocal fry by the end of the play—since that’s the thing people love to deplore in women’s voices now.
Q. You and Laura worked together once before in Arcadia, as a mother and daughter. Do you think any of that has carried over into your teamwork in Collected Stories?
Renata: Arcadia feels like a long time ago. Laura and all her family are wonderful, and I’ve appeared in various familial relationships with her and her children over the last few years, in staged readings and full productions. I think we’re used to the shifting roles by now!
Q Is there anything else you want people to know about your character, or the show?
Renata: I had a revelation about Lisa very late in the process: I don’t think she’s ever shown her writing to anyone whose opinion she respects prior to the beginning of the show. There’s an early reference to her “undergraduate work,” but what sort of work that was or what she majored in is never discussed. I went along for a long time assuming she’d been a creative writing major in undergrad, but now I think that’s wrong; I think she’s been writing a long time, but never had the courage to try to make something of her writing until very recently. I think she applied to graduate school in writing, knowing Ruth taught at that university, in a rush of nerves and will, and once she gets in she’s a bit terrified. The early scenes make a lot more sense that way!
Susan Harris with Renata McAdams