Penny Fuller Balances Acting With Being Acted Upon

Balance. It’s a word that comes up often for Penny Fuller.

“Rose’s world is out of balance,” said the auburn-haired actress. She was describing the character she plays in Jon Robin Baitz’s “Dutch Landscape,” the turbulent story of an American family in contemporary South Africa (opening tonight at the Mark Taper Forum). “There’s excess . Excessive aloneness, excessive waiting. And what happens to a person who waits? What happens to a society that waits? Anything in excess throws something out of whack. So the journey of the play is to get that balance back.”

When their children were young, Rose and her husband were Peace Corps volunteers, committed to changing the world. Now he’s a corporation executive--and often away from home. Her sons are grown. She does not fit in with the other executive wives. There is nothing left to redecorate.

“Take a usual family crisis,” Fuller said. “Add to that feeling of ‘What am I doing with my life?’ the horror and scariness of Africa, then put her on mood elevators, blow the whole thing up 50 times--well, that’s where we start off. Then things go a little wonky.”


One cannot help but wonder how much of Baitz’s story--like his previous “The Film Society” (Los Angeles Theatre Center, 1987)--was inspired by the many years he spent in South Africa as a child.

“The specifics of what happen (in the play) are not autobiographical,” Fuller said carefully. “But yes, he did grow up there, so he’s using elements of what he knows.

“It’s the same with me. Like everything else you do, you bring a compilation of life (to the play experience). I think actors are sponges. You see something and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to use that some time.’ Often it’s not even conscious. Unlike the painter, whose colors are on a palette, you’re the palette. You’re the sculptor and the clay. And everything you bring to it is your own.”

Fuller (reared in North Carolina and New York) loves the idea of her unconscious working overtime. She recalls with delight a dream from the night before, in which she was wrapping herself in a lavender scarf, then throwing it to Rose’s eldest son and unraveling it--an image echoing their relationship in the play. “It came to me because that’s what my life is consumed with right now,” she said simply. “We’re at the point in the play now where we’re birthing this child.”

Nevertheless, the actress also devotes time to practical concerns.

“When I’m driving to the theater I do my vocal warm-ups, doing triplets on vowels. I also do ‘Meeeeeee’ (up and down the scale). After that, I want a few minutes of peace, so I turn on some classical music. Then, since we have to park in a lot that’s far away, I get in six minutes of walking--since I don’t have time to do my exercises.”

Not surprisingly, Fuller (a single mother to 11-year-old Heather), prefers over-work to joblessness.

“When I’m not working, I say, ‘I have to do something .’ So I kill myself taking on too many projects, too many things. The trickiest thing to being an actress in this town is the balance between causing things to happen and being the commodity: ‘We’ll call you if we need you.’ You can’t just sit by the phone. You have to participate in some way, create things for yourself. Even if it turns out to be a blind alley, it puts you in a working mode, as opposed to a passive one.

“When I was young, I thought that being an actress was like being a dancer: You spent eight hours at the barre , then danced at night. I didn’t know it was about finding ways to get jobs. Whenever I speak to kids, I tell them, ‘As an actor, you’re the head of your business, the chairman of the board. You are the product and the salesman. Now, if you can get out of feeling overwhelmed and victimized by it, it’s a very exciting concept.’ But it’s hard to be all those things and a person too--and a mother, a lover, whatever else. Sometimes I’m very good at it, sometimes not so good.”

Fuller (whose local stage credits include “Chekhov in Yalta” at the Taper, “Applause” at the Dorothy Chandler and “The Elephant Man” at the Ahmanson--a role she later reprised in its television filming) takes that philosophical attitude towards her work assignments too.

“No, it’s not always a love affair,” she said wryly. “But I think you have to find a way. If you’re doing something that is theoretically a bit less creative, then you have to find another thing that turns you on about it. It is, I think, impossible and wrong to do it if you hate it. So you’ve got to find a way, find something. . . . Anyway, what could be so bad? It’s not an interesting part? So make it interesting. It’s a small part? OK, but you’re getting paid a lot of money.”

When it comes to choosing her own entertainment, however, Fuller is a tough customer.

“Lately, I go to theater and movies less to be entertained than to learn something,” she said. “I seem to be in a more serious vein in my life. Maybe it’s being older. You start getting older and you want to know more about it all.”

She speaks of visiting an ancient theater in Greece. “Theater was born out of a need to help heal. That may sound a bit large or noble. But I do believe, whether it’s by laughter or to give us insight about ourselves or the world, that theater is a healing thing.

“For me, the continual attraction of theater is that it’s really about your participation as an audience. One of the reasons ‘The Elephant Man’ was so exciting was because the audience had to imagine the way he looked. We tend to be a very visual society today--we watch things, rather than participate in them. Theater makes you participate. Right now, this play belongs to the playwright and the director and the actors. Eventually it will belong to the audience and the actors. Somewhere between the stage and the audience, in that ether between the two-- that’s where the play really takes place.”