A Conversation: Olympia Dukakis and Charlayne Woodard

In her solo show “The Night Watcher,” Charlayne Woodard talks for nearly two hours, sharing stories about her heartfelt relationships with other people’s children.

In “Vigil,” Morris Panych’s 1995 dark comedy, Olympia Dukakis utters but 12 lines during her nearly two hours onstage as an elderly recluse visited by a loquacious loser.

Dukakis, a supporting actress Oscar winner for “Moonstruck,” and Woodard, a Tony nominee for “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” sat down with The Times in a downtown rehearsal room recently to discuss their plays, both of which are being presented by the Center Theatre Group. (“Vigil,” which also stars Marco Barricelli, runs through Dec. 18 at the Mark Taper Forum. “The Night Watcher,” directed by Daniel Sullivan, opens Nov. 20 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.) Even though they had never met before, the veteran performers had plenty to say when it came to acting, audiences and the challenges of speaking — or not — for a whole show. Here are excerpts from the conversation:

Tell us about your plays.

Woodard: I call myself a storyteller. I come from storytellers. I write from my life. “The Night Watcher” [which premiered in Seattle in 2008 and ran off-Broadway] is my fourth solo play. The first was from birth to 11. The second from 12 to 18. The third was about coming to New York from drama school and starting off in the business. This one is about me, right now. I live in L.A. My husband and I have no children. We love that. We suffer from it because people say, “You’re selfish —"


Dukakis: People say that? It’s none of their business.

CW: — but I’ve been a godmother 13 times. I have nieces and nephews. I introduce myself to these kids in their infancy so I’m a part of their life…. They end up sharing things with me they don’t share with their parents. My play is about that. And that there’s another way to have children. My play is really about “Attention must be paid.” There’s a new kind of kid because of technology. We were served the world in little teaspoons. Nowadays, kids have it coming at them like crazy. There is a new village that has to help them through this… Aunties and uncles, we have a place.

OD: I play a woman who has rejected and moved away from life. She lives in the top floor of her little house with the relics of her history hanging from the walls. She’s immured herself, built walls around herself. The door opens and this man comes in and she’s terrified. You learn he’s her nephew and is responding to a letter she sent saying she is dying and would he come. He, of course, has an agenda…. These two unlikely people, in the course of the evening, accept each other, acknowledge each other and permit the other to affect them.

Why take on a role with 12 lines?

OD: Carey Perloff at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco came up with this play. I liked it. What cinched it was Marco was going to be in it. And I thought, “I’ve never done this before.'… It turned out to be much harder than I expected because I am a language person. I enjoy language — language is used to persuade, to incite, to move. So here I am without it. [Onstage, Dukakis’ face and body speak for her.] Sometimes I overdo it and Morris has to pull me back. [Panych directed Dukakis in ‘Vigil’ at ACT last year and is directing the L.A. production.] I’m still learning and exploring....

How hard is it to perform alone?

CW: It’s tough, this solo work. I wasn’t going to do it again because it usually takes me about a month to recuperate, it is so physically, emotionally and psychologically challenging. I prefer to work in other people’s plays because nothing is as challenging for me as coming to work every night and my scene partner — the audience — changes. It’s like a free-fall.

OD: I do a one-woman show, “Rose” by Martin Sherman, about a survivor of the 20th century and the Holocaust. I did it first at the National [in London in 1999] and then in New York. It changed me as an actress. I’d never been on a stage alone for two hours talking directly to the audience. Seventy-four pages. (It ended up 67.) Memorizing it was only the first problem. [Dukakis recounts the role’s other challenges; later, she muses on an actor’s relationship with the audience.] You can tell when they get silent. When they laugh. You can tell when they are restless.

CW: I can tell when they drop in. First of all, I start my plays with the need to tell the story. It’s in the writing. “What makes this night different from all the rest?” “I got a phone call.”

OD: But they’re strangers.

CW: But I see them. I have what I call anchors. Right away, I look for the eyes that don’t leave me. When I find that one, good, we are sharing the story. Then I move to the next one.

OD: I did “Rose” in Ocala, Fla., which is very conservative. This woman says she stopped believing in God at a certain point…. She goes off with a young man and other things happen. I could feel people go [her body stiffens]. They were not having any of it. They were not going to be wooed or won over by Olympia Dukakis. I thought, “You know what? You could have any experience you want. You put your money down. You want to laugh? Cry? You want to pay attention. You don’t want to pay attention. But I’m up here and I’m going to have mine.” And in giving up manipulating an audience, you stop manipulating yourself.

Is it difficult to reveal so much of your life onstage?

CW: When I wrote the first play, the first time I told the first story in front of people, was at a retreat for 450 women. The pastor’s wife asked me to sing 20 minutes during dinner and I couldn’t. I had just lost my grandmother. So I wrote a story about her and how she tricked me into being an actor. I didn’t care about exposing anything about myself. I was in mourning and needed to talk about my grandmother.…These women finished my sentences and waved napkins over their heads. I saw that in sharing my very personal feelings I was doing something that everybody could relate to.... You have to be brave — and give yourself to the story. If it’s not scary to you, then, so what? I like to see plays where people are giving it up. That’s what I love in theater. Those are the parts I like to play.