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A Living Work in Progress : Charlayne Woodard has been through the mill of TV and movies. She came out battered, but wiser. The wisdom seems to have helped her tackle her complex role in ‘Good Person of Setzuan.’

<i> Jan Breslauer is a Times staff writer</i>

Charlayne Woodard perches on the edge of her chair, her bright yellow silk skirt draped between dancer’s legs. Her toned arms make sweeping gestures, her smile and eyes are impossibly wide and her laugh is an infectious cackle.

She’s almost got the Spunky Girl Heroine persona down cold. But then, ebullient as she may be one minute, she’s contemplative the next.

That yin-yang comes in handy. These days, Woodard plays two characters of different temper and gender in the Tony Kushner adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Good Person of Setzuan” at the La Jolla Playhouse.

The parable tells the tale of a prostitute named Shen Te --whom the gods deem the one good person on earth--and her alter ego, a male cousin she masquerades as named Shui Ta. Woodard spends most of the play’s three hour-plus running time onstage.

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“I needed somebody with a larger-than-life personality who was giant onstage, has power and could grasp the humor,” says director Lisa Peterson of her lead actor. “She has a huge presence. She’s a perfectionist. She actually transforms her worries into positive things.”

Yet as much of a positivist as Woodard may be, she’s never been carefree. “Theater was my life, my church, my everything,” says the veteran actress, who appeared in the original Broadway company of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” of her New York days. “I was obsessed. I didn’t have the capacity to be a good friend, a good sister or the kind of daughter I would like to be and do my jobs.”

All wasn’t solved when Woodard took the trek west five years ago. “When I moved to Los Angeles and went to the first auditions, I thought I would slit my wrists,” she says. “The mistake that I made was that I complained a lot.”

The problem here hasn’t been a surfeit of work, but a dearth of the right stuff. “Rarely do you get something that makes you say, ‘I have to work on this,’ ” says Woodard. “The roles for me that are wonderful are so few and far between, and they tend to (cast) the same people over and over again.”

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And while roles are even fewer for actresses of color, Woodard is loath to blame it on race. “One thing I’ve never done is that thing of saying that because I’m black, this is not given to me,” she says. “I always feel that my being an African American woman is an asset and that’s what I take into my meetings.”

What’s unusual about Woodard is not her predicament but her remedy. “I said, ‘No more lamentations, Charlayne. Create for yourself. Join your theater groups. That’s the thing that drives you to write.’ I will never stop doing theater, never. The new challenge is, ‘Can I make a living in film and television?’ It’s a different animal altogether. And I’ve stopped beating that animal. You’ve got to get on it and ride it.”

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Woodard is best known to L.A. audiences for her 1992 one-woman show “Pretty Fire,” which premiered at Hollywood’s Fountainhead Theatre, went on to run at New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club and is about to be published by Penguin Press.

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An autobiographical solo focusing on the first 11 years of the actress’s life, “Pretty Fire” was Woodard’s first writing venture. She did not, however, set out to create a long-running show, nor even one for public consumption.

Her motive was anything but showcasing. “I did the one-woman show because of my frustration, because I realized that I’d been in L.A. and I hadn’t worked,” says Woodard. “I had jobs. I made enough to support myself. But I didn’t feel like I’d gotten a workout.”

So Woodard cut a deal with the Fountainhead, a 99-seat house on Hollywood’s theater row, that in return for her appearance in a play, she would have the chance to use the theater for her own purposes later on. On closing night of the play, “Out of Our Father’s House,” she reminded the theater of their agreement and found that the calendar was wide open.

“They said, ‘Show us your play and we’ll talk,’ ” says Woodard. “And I didn’t have a play! So in a week I put together my stories. Then I started rehearsal. I had the keys to the theater and worked around the clock. It was an incredible experience. I still can’t put it into words.”

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Woodard didn’t even want press coverage. “I did it as a work-in-progress, only for my own personal workout,” says Woodard. “I even told the Fountainhead, ‘No critics.’ But after a few performances I said, ‘OK, just promise me you won’t read anything to me.’ It never occurred to me that people would get into it. But it worked, to my absolute surprise and shock.”

“Pretty Fire” details the actress’s Albany, N.Y., youth, from her precarious, premature birth through girlhood. In it, the actress, who refuses to reveal her age, portrays not only a younger version of herself, but also an array of other characters, including her own parents and sundry neighbors.

It is a notably sunny five-part tale--by contrast with most autobiographical solo shows--although Woodard also depicts such disturbing experiences as trips down South in which she saw crosses burned. Still, the overall picture Woodard paints is upbeat.

It’s not hard to imagine the girl of “Pretty Fire” taking a relatively quick road to success once a high school teacher piqued her interest in theater. Woodard went on to train at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, and then went straight from there to New York, without even waiting for her graduation ceremonies.

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She arrived in New York in the summer of 1977, Equity card already in hand, and within two weeks had landed a Broadway show--"Ain’t Misbehavin’,” for which she garnered both Tony and Drama Desk nominations.

And Woodard just kept working, collecting such Off-Broadway credits as “Twelfth Night” at the New York Shakespeare Festival and the lead role in George C. Wolfe’s staging of Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle.”

In addition to her stage gigs, Woodard also made occasional trips to California. “People would come to New York and audition me, and I’d get a job and come out here and work,” she says. “So I only knew L.A. as a person with a job.”

She was one of the lucky few New York actors who was actually making a living onstage. “New York worked for me for a long time,” says Woodard. “But for most of my friends, it didn’t, so they left right away.”

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Some of those actor friends who left landed in Los Angeles, where the work was more plentiful, at least during the 1980s. “I’d come out here and they’d be living up on big mountains, doing well in film and television,” says Woodard. “And I thought, ‘Here I am working eight shows a week--I mean working --and they have weekends off.’ So I thought, ‘Maybe it’s time for me to do this.’ ”

Woodard, who is married to attorney-screenwriter Alan Harris--the man who took her to her high school senior prom--moved to Los Angeles in 1989. “I saw that there was more to life than eight shows a week,” she says. “I did that L.A. thing that we all laugh about, getting in touch with your spirituality. My whole value system changed.”

At first, she decided to go cold turkey on stage work. “When I first came here, I decided I would leave theater behind,” she says. “I didn’t even want to go do any regional theater.”

Yet Woodard soon found she missed the boards, from the first step of the process on. “What I love about when you audition for theater is that time is spent,” she says. There’s a fine actor who reads with you. Then the director stops you and gives actable direction and the atmosphere is such that work can be done in the audition.”

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She also has confidence in a fair outcome. “In New York, you go into the audition and you know that no matter what, whoever did the best audition--no matter who knows her or who doesn’t know her--she’s the diva, she got the job. And you bow to her.”

Auditioning here in Los Angeles, however, is another matter. "(With film and TV auditions) you sit there and do this thing for two minutes and you leave,” she says. “Sometimes it feels like a rape. In L.A., you won’t get a job for every other reason besides you were not working well that day. And you will get a job for every reason besides you were working well.”

But Woodard is not a quitter. “I decided to make the adjustment,” she says. “I decided, ‘OK, Woodard, you’re the one who said “I would like to try and tackle film and television,” Accept it. Act like you’re in Paris and just be as Parisian as you possibly can.’ And as soon as I changed my mind-set, I started to live in Los Angeles.”

It worked, although not yet as fully as Woodard would have liked. She did a 1991-92 stint on the soap “Days of Our Lives” and has had recurring roles on “Roseanne” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” She has also had roles in films, including “One Good Cop,” “Meteor Man” and the recent “Babyfever.”

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And after a few years, Woodard also rescinded her ban on the theater. “In the beginning, you’re just young and ignorant and foolish, and you set up these rules because you’re protecting yourself,” says Woodard. “That’s what I did.”

She gave the regional stage a go and liked it. In 1985 she played Beneatha in “A Raisin in the Sun” at the Philadelphia Drama Guild. She also appeared in the 1986 La Jolla Playhouse production of the musical “Shout Up a Morning,” directed by Des McAnuff. “Everyone said, ‘You must go to La Jolla. It’s like the South of France.’ And I realized there was something to working outside of New York. Theater is theater.” She went with “Shout Up a Morning” when it traveled to the Kennedy Center.

There have been demanding parts, but perhaps none so much as her current dual role. Playing Shen Te/Shui Ta would already be twice the workload of a normal part, even if the script weren’t so long. “The main challenge of this role was the time factor,” says Woodard. “This play was (originally) four hours long. You have a four-week rehearsal period. Normally in four weeks you rehearse a two-hour play.”

Then there’s the matter of Brechtian acting--the playwright’s own stated preference for an un-emotive performance style. “I chose to try and make two three-dimensional characters, as opposed to just indicating them,” says Woodard. “When you’re surrounded by all that representation, there’s room to be human.”

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Her strategy is to avoid being “too intellectual” about what’s Brechtian and what’s not. “Immediately in the rehearsal process, directors start putting all that stuff on you,” says Woodard. “You don’t even have a person yet, but there you are with all that Brecht business. Then it’s up to you to handle it all.”

“She was the only actor (who auditioned) who even approached the ability to play Shui Ta,” says “Setzuan” director Peterson, who has been associate director at the La Jolla Playhouse for the past three summers. “We came up with some prototypes from her life--some strange Detroit uncle of hers (for example)--for her characters and she works quickly.”

“She’s fearless,” Peterson continues. “She would do anything in rehearsal. She didn’t balk at smoking a cigar. She’s a team player, very generous. She’s primarily a technician, although she does also have this secret process to fill something out. It may be because she’s a musician (a singer), she learns to play the notes first and then figures out all the other stuff.”

Ironically enough, the conscien tiously upbeat Woodard finds a kinship with the famously cynical Brecht. She is drawn to the moral impulses and imperatives underlying the action.

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For Woodard’s money, the playwright said one thing about his plays--namely that they were not about such human emotions as compassion, but strictly Marxist in their analysis--and wrote quite another. “Brecht gives his actors such a journey,” says Woodard. “He likes to say, ‘Do this, do that,’ but he has you say things that mean so much--like the speech about, ‘You’ll never find more reliable tenants than people who’ve been at the bottom of the barrel.’ ”

It is a poignant truth that hits home with Woodard. “I know about that,” she says. “Those things mean so much to me. I come from a people who’ve just been reaching for centuries.”

The message that Woodard hears is one of care and cooperation. “In the end, the gods just sort of abandon this person who needs help,” she says. “But (Brecht) wants us to focus on each other and get our strength from each other. That’s interesting to me, because I’m pretty religious.”

But then again, ethical concerns are central to Woodard’s theater work. She did not, after all, write “Pretty Fire” only to stretch some artistic muscle. She was also spurred on by the sad state of racial relations in Los Angeles.

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Woodard believes her adopted home is a dangerously divided city. “I would go to these dinner parties and realize that the place was so segregated that the people who were there didn’t know anybody like me,” she says. “I would be in a room full of artists and I’d realize I was the only woman of color there. In New York, when you get a group of artists together, the whole world is there. But that wasn’t happening in L.A.”

The picture can be particularly monochromatic in the entertainment industry and other elite circles--including the tony bistros in which deals are brokered. “Where are the black waiters and waitresses?” asks the actress. “There are none in a certain area--a huge area. This segregation has really kept everybody apart and that’s why there’s so much madness. Nobody knows anyone. You see them drive by in their Lexus, but nobody’s coming together.”

So Woodard wrote her solo in order to show audiences an aspect of American culture other than their own. “If I hadn’t moved to Los Angeles, I would never have written ‘Pretty Fire,’ ” she says. “There would have been no need.”

It’s a project she intends to continue. “I’m writing more, not necessarily for myself,” says Woodard of her current effort, a play with four characters. “I use my life because I’ve had a very rich one, but this time I probably won’t even say it’s autobiographical. I try not to think too much about what I’m doing, because when I intellectualize, it gets in the way of my process. When I treat life as if it’s an improv, it’s much more rewarding.”

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Vital Stats

“The Good Person of Setzuan”

Address

La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Center, UCSD campus, La Jolla

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Price

$19-$32

Hours

Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m. Ends next Sun.

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Phone

(619) 550-1010


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