At Home on Stage. Jill Clayburgh '66.
‘The good thing about Sarah Lawrence is that if you found what you liked to do, they gave you the room to really concentrate on it. So I did a lot of theatre.’
Lying back on a soft couch in the green room of the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, Jill Clayburgh seems completely at home. In a few hours, she’ll be taking the stage in Sarah Ruhl’s critically-acclaimed play ‘The Clean House.’ Clayburgh’s performance as Virginia has brought one of the most accomplished American actress of the last half century her customary praise. Yet if the theatre is a second home to Clayburgh, it’s one she hasn’t visited in a long time.
“When I had kids, I sort of stopped working for almost twenty years,” says Clayburgh, who is married to the playwright David Rabe. “I did a TV movie once a year to make money, but I really never worked in the theatre. Now my youngest is in college so I have some free time.”
Clayburgh is certainly making up for her long absence; ‘The Clean House’ is her fourth show in 2006 alone.
“For me the work comes in waves. It’s like the stock market: I’m having a good year, but who knows what will happen next year?” It’s too easy for people to draw conclusions about others’ careers, she says. “Things happen. And then when you look in retrospect, you can see a pattern there, but it wasn’t a pattern you decided on ahead of time. It’s a pattern that emerges only historically.’
In a contemporary American theatre scene often criticized for its dearth of quality new work, “The Clean House” has garnered critical praise; playwright Sarah Ruhl has been hailed as “a provocative new theatrical voice.” A surreal comedy, “The Clean House” details the interactions of a dreamy Brazilian housecleaner with the family of two American doctors. Clayburgh plays Virginia, a sister to one of the doctors who secretly takes on the housecleaner’s chores. The role provides Clayburgh the opportunity to display her gift for physical comedy.
“It’s hard to encapsulate this show,” she says. “It’s about the messiness of life, all its different flavors—and about how we’ve become compartmentalized, and our lack of much joy or satisfaction. I love Virginia. She’s a cleaner by nature, and she deals with her emotional stress and turmoil by working on things.”
Clayburgh’s voice grows strong and sharp during our interview. Her relaxed elegance is almost athletic and it is easy to imagine her dashing around a stage. What’s less easy to visualize is the gawky, too-tall girl who started doing theatre in high school to get out of taking phys ed.
“I did theatre because I hated gym. It wasn’t like now, when everybody is thinking about what they’re going to be. I went to an all-girls’ school in New York City and the theatre was at the boy’s school, so I went there to hang around with the boys – not because I thought, ‘I’m going to be ACTRESS.’ It let me get out of horrible gym, but it was no great, overwhelming drive to act. And then I got very tall and I kept getting the boys’ parts and I didn’t like that. So I stopped acting.
“At Sarah Lawrence, I started off concentrating in religion and philosophy, but then I did a summer apprenticeship at Williamstown – it’s a fabulous program that they have – and I just fell in love with the theatre.”
But it was her theatrical work at SLC, Clayburgh says, that brought her into contact with the talents who would help to launch her career.
“I did plays at Sarah Lawrence with Wilford Leach, who subsequently became a director at the Public Theater with Joe Papp, and I also worked with John Braswell. So I had Will and John and Brian De Palma [SLC/M.A. ’64], who was one of our first male students – in fact, he was one of the few men around. He directed and did some of his earliest movies there. I dated him and worked with him. We did a movie called The Wedding Party. It was a collaboration with Will and Brian. John was in it too, and Robert De Niro, who used to come up from the City and do shows at SLC. What Will was doing was so off the radar; it was as if he had his own theatre chemistry lab at the College.”
Clayburgh’s post-SLC years are familiar to many who prize good acting. She had featured roles in several Broadway productions, and landed her first major film role in Portnoy’s Complaint (1972). Her mid-70s film roster includes starring roles in Gable and Lombard, Silver Streak, and Semi-Tough, but the real breakthrough came with An Unmarried Woman (1978), for which she received her first Academy Award nomination; she lost to Jane Fonda in Coming Home. In 1979, she received her second nomination, for Starting Over. She married Rabe the same year. And then came the family, and more sporadic work, including I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can (1982)and Where are the Children? (1986). In 1999, Entertainment Weekly named Jill Clayburgh to its list of Hollywood's 25 Greatest Actresses. Her most recent film role is Agnes in Running with Scissors; of her performance Variety wrote that Clayburgh “brings a rich emotional life to the haggard, long-suffering Agnes. Her final scene…is immensely moving.”
But it’s her return to the stage - 20 years after she left it – that brings Jill Clayburgh at home again in a medium she loves. In the past two years, she has appeared in no fewer than four Broadway plays.
“It’s pretty amazing to have a relationship with a large group of people,” she says. “It’s so alive and it changes every night. It’s not just you and the camera and you and the other actors. You forget that you’re out there on a tightrope until something goes wrong. In this show there’s one part where the dialogue goes really quickly, rat-a-tat-tat, and all of a sudden, one of the lines got dropped – I think I was the one who dropped it – and then you look down and see how far you have to fall. Of course, you get back on track, but there’s that moment of panic.
“If you were doing a movie, you’d just say, okay, stop, let’s do this again. But on the stage, you realize that you’re really out there. And that’s thrilling.”