Q&A: Penny Fuller

An actor for all seasons—and all stages, Fuller shines this month as teacher and performer at the O'Neill Theater Center's Cabaret and Performance Conference.


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The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s 2011 Cabaret and Performance Conference runs Aug. 3-13. For further info, call (860) 443-5378 or visit theoneill.org

How long have you been involved with the Cabaret Conference?

Well, Michael Bush was selected to be the artistic director when they revived and reinvigorated it. This is our seventh year. Michael knew that I had, by some freaky circumstance I can't even explain, that I had met a man from Rome, Alessandro Fabrizi, who wanted me to come and teach musical theater. This was 1997. I had initially told him "Thanks, but I don't teach; I don't know what I'm doing." I mentioned a teacher I had had, a great teacher named David Craig, who was Nancy Walker's husband. He really changed the face of musical theater in the 1960s, '70s and '80s.

Anyway, Alessandro sort of kept on and I changed the subject, and said, "Oh, do you want to come to the theater tonight? I'm going to see a play starring Maria Tucci—we'll do an Italian evening." After the theater, he asked, "Can I come and talk to you tomorrow?" So he comes to my house the next day and says he's going to pay me, and fly me to Rome. So I thought to myself, "Why don't you say 'yes?'" It's not going to happen anyway.

And the next thing you know I'm up in Williamstown [Mass.], doing a play. The phone rings one day, and it's Alessandro, who wants to know, "Can you come on the 15th of October?" I said, "Alessandro, that's too far away, I can't . . ." He said, "How about in three weeks?" So I said okay, and the next thing I knew I was on a plane to Rome with a bunch of music, not knowing one word of Italian. I landed, and we had an audition for some more students and I realized, "I do know something." I didn't know what I knew until someone pointed it out. I spent two weeks with these Italian students—Alessandro translated every word that came out of my mouth—it was fantastic.

I came back to the States, and Michael Bush and I were already friends. He had brought me from L.A. to New York City to be in some plays at the Manhattan Theatre Club. And he thought that was great. Then I went back to Rome a couple of years later and taught some more. Then David Gaines—who is one of the musical directors at the O'Neill and is musical director of my Cabaret Conference show this year—told me, "I've been asked to find a singer to do a cut on a CD with Jamie Deroy"—she's a producer, but she also had a TV show called "Jamie Deroy and Friends." So David Gaines said, "I can pick whoever I want; would you like to do it?" So, we picked a couple of possible songs and we went over to Jamie's place and there was this guy Barry Kleinbort. And I had heard of Barry, that he was this fabulous cabaret director. He was producing this CD. We do these two songs, and Barry says to me, "I would really be interested in doing cabaret with you." He said, "Why don't you talk to Michael Bush or André Bishop about a Monday night at Manhattan Theatre Club or Lincoln Center?"

The next day, Michael Bush calls me and says, "I've just been made artistic director of the Cabaret Conference. I want you to teach, like you did in Italy." I mentioned Baryy Kleinbort, and he said, "Barry Kleinbort? Bring him to our planning meeting. Bye." When we met, Michael said, "Okay, here's what's gonna happen. You'll do a cabaret show on the first Friday night of the conference, Barry will direct it, and the two of you will teach together. Now I have to go." That's how it all started.

So Michael threw you in the deep end.

Threw us in the deep end; and the two of us start working on our show, and we got to Waterford and realized we had forgot to talk about teaching. So the next day—which was the first day of teaching—we just decided to jump in. And it has been like synchronized swimmers. I don't think you could actually put it together on purpose. It was a freaky accident. He comes at it from one direction—how to create a cabaret show—and I come at it from how to present the songs. We've never disagree or had a different interpretation of something somebody's done. And it's a beautiful collaboration, all from Michael Bush's gut instinct.

But you and Michael had had a longstanding relationship at the point this all happened.

In 1995, I traveled from Los Angeles to New York for the Broadway opening of Love! Valour! Compassion! And we met, and he asked if I'd ever be interested in coming back to New York to do theater. I said, "As soon as my daughter graduates from high school, I'd love to come back." About two months later he called and said, "We need to replace somebody in this show called Three Viewings, by Jeffrey Hatcher.  It's three monologues." I agonized, as my daughter had two months left of school, but the play was so good. So I came. And because of the singing I had done, I was not intimidated about what they call "doing it in one"—doing a monologue. In nine days I'd memorized the whole thing and opened in the show. That's how Michael and I became friends, thanks again to his gut instinct. And then I did another play for the Manhattan Theatre Club, and Michael had me come down to Charlotte, N.C. when he was the artistic director of the Charlotte Rep to open his tenue there—because I was a North Carolina girl—doing The Glass Menagerie.

What makes cabaret distinctive as a form of theater?

Amy Sullivan—who was the one who kind of started the revival of the cabaret Conference at the O'Neill and got Michael and all of us together; she died a couple of years later—said, "Cabaret is the most personal of all the arts." It's like a play, that one person performs, that is universal, but the audience is so much a part of it. As a performer, you're saying "This is what I want to say," but it's through the work of other lyricists and musicians, so it has a universality.

As you're talking, I'm thinking of the time I saw Elaine Stritch at the Café Carlyle in New York City.

Right—that's really specifically Elaine. But when she does "Ladies Who Lunch," it goes into another mode. It's Elaine, but filtered through Stephen Sondheim's commentary. So you, the performer, are the vessel. When I'm singing, what I'm singing about is something very specific to me, but you don't know it. I'll sing a breaking up song, and you'll relate your breakups to it. I'm not saying that this is "when Johnny and I broke up." I'm tapping into my personal feelings, but communicating it in such a way that you can relate. It's storytelling.

Q&A: Penny Fuller

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