We hold these truths to be self-evident: If you want to be a stage actress, you go to New York, and if you’re over 30, you’re out of luck.
Yet somehow Anne Gee Byrd, 74, keeps showing up on L.A. stages.
“I’ve been on a roll,” she admits, sitting in the green room at the Colony Theatre, where in a few hours she’ll perform as Mary in Evan Smith’s “The Savannah Disputation,” directed by Cameron Watson.
Watson also directed Byrd last year in “I Never Sang for My Father” at New American Theatre and “All My Sons” at Matrix Theatre Company. Her roles earned her the 2011 L.A. Drama Critics Circle Awards for best supporting actress and best actress, respectively. She also won the 2010 best actress award from that group for her work in “Four Places” at Rogue Machine.
Are there more roles for older women in the theater than we’ve been led to believe?
“Not really,” Byrd demurs. “Look around. I’ve been a member of the Antaeus Company for a long time, but since we do classics, roles for women my age are zip, really. So I’ve been working everywhere else. I’ve had a string of great roles, so I’m not going to complain. Why aren’t we writing for ourselves?”
Byrd has, in fact, taken matters into her own hands. She first encountered “The Savannah Disputation” — in which two elderly Catholic sisters stage a theological showdown in their living room — in a reading she did for L.A. Theatre Works. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is fun.’”
She suggested it to the Colony’s executive director, Trent Steelman, and artistic director, Barbara Beckley.
“They decided to do it — and with me! They could easily have gone with anybody.”
Byrd is so convincing as the fierce, ill-tempered Mary that it’s easy to see why she was cast. Also, the prospect of meeting her is a little nerve-racking. What if she, like Mary, laces into a person for a foolish remark?
“Oh, I will,” she says, smiling. “Watch out.”
In fact, offstage she is elegant and gracious, with a frank, unpretentious manner, a mischievous glint in her blue eyes and a generous laugh.
“That’s my father!” she says of her peevish Mary.
Byrd was raised Catholic, although her father did not belong to the church, so the play’s subject matter resonated with her.
“Also, religion isn’t dealt with much in the theater,” she says. “We tend to be a rather secular lot, which isn’t true of our audience. We can’t even talk about religion at dinner! I almost destroyed a friendship once over it.”
Maybe there is more of Mary in Byrd than first appears. She certainly seems to enjoy playing hard-edged women.
“Oh, sure,” she agrees. “You get to say those things that we’re all too polite to say.”
Byrd has a long list of TV and film credits, but the stage is her first love.
She and her late husband, the actor David Byrd, spent about seven years working in repertory theater around the country in the 1960s. “It was like being grown-ups in summer camp.”
After their daughter, Jennifer, was born, they settled in L.A., hoping TV work would bring them a steadier income, and they put their itinerant days behind them — temporarily.
“We always thought, ‘Once we don’t have responsibility, we’ll go back and do the rep thing.’”
But David died of lung cancer in 2001.
“I went back and tried it myself,” recalls Byrd, “but it was no fun alone. I thought of going to New York, but it would be like starting over again. And my daughter is nearby, so I just sort of determined that I was going to make it work in L.A. It means doing a lot of free theater. The Colony has a nice salary, but at the equity waiver places, you don’t get anything. Half the time you’re paying to keep it going.”
“But TV has been kind to us — both me and my husband,” she says. “He was very pleased that he was able to leave Jennifer and me well provided for. So I can afford to work in the theater.”
And grab those rare plum opportunities when they come.
“Each time I think, ‘Oh, there aren’t anymore good roles for women my age, so this will be the last one.’”