Actor Diane Kondrat, well known throughout central Indiana and beyond, will soon star as free-wheeling newspaper columnist and best-selling author Molly Ivins in Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-ass Wit of Molly Ivins.
Directed by the equally illustrious Martha Jacobs, the play will be presented by Cardinal Stage Company in Bloomington at the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center at the Rose Firebay Auditorium. It will run from Oct. 28 through Nov. 13.
Kondrat, who recently won a $10,000 Creative Renewal Fellowship from the Arts Council of Indianapolis, will use her prize to attend a monthlong Shakespeare intensive in Lenox, Mass.
This spring will find her playing the lead role of Barbara in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play August: Osage County at The Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis
Kondrat is the mother of Nick, 29, who lives in Seattle. He is a managing editor of an independent newspaper. Her daughter, Anna, is 24 and lives in Portland, Ore. She is a Montessori teacher for 3- to 6-year-olds.
Recently, Kondrat spoke by phone with knotmove.com from her home in Bloomington.
Frankly, I had not heard about Molly prior to learning you were doing a show about her.
You’re not the only one. It’s been very interesting to me. I knew Molly because whenever I saw her byline in the paper. I knew I was going to have some fun and that I’d agree with her. She had a career as not only a liberal journalist, but she also did a lot of public speaking around the country, especially for organizations like the ACLU and all kinds of First Amendment crusading.
She came from a wealthy family. She went to high school with George Bush. And her dad was in the oil business, and she was raised in Texas, and her dad, I guess, was a really mean man. He was an alcoholic. They called him General Jim. He was, rich, controlling and I think pretty upset that she was not a boy. She did have one brother and one sister, but people say that was like her biggest sin, was not being born a boy.
Her mother was a southern lady. She went to Smith College. She went to Europe. She lived in Paris for a while. They had a lot of money, and so one of the most interesting challenges was to figure out what accent to use for her. When she went to Smith College, she was able to completely do away with her Texas accent. And, you would talk to her and not even know she was from Texas. When she did her public speaking, she would use a deep Texas accent or a slight one. Even on YouTube, you can see her on Letterman and you can see her talking at Tulane University, and she’s speaking two different ways, depending on what she wanted to do with it.
You’re kind of regarded as the Helen Hayes of Bloomington, aren’t you?
Did Randy White (Cardinal Stage artistic director) choose this place specifically for you?
I think he did. He didn’t ask me about it before it was on the schedule, but he talked to me about it. He might have talked to me about it before they announced the season. I can’t remember.
How do you like having someone actually choose something with you in mind?
I like that. It used to happen when I lived in Norfolk, Va. The first time it ever happened was with Paul Dicklin, the producing director at The Old Dominion’s University’s Riverview Theatre. It was a combination of a university theater and one which paid community members. He called me up to his office and said he was planning the next year’s season and asked me what shows would I like to do. It has happened before. I liked it, and I think everybody should do it.
How long have you lived in Bloomington? How did you happen to move there and so on?
I came here in 1987 following a man with a job. I’m married to Tony Ardizzone, a fiction writer who teaches fiction at IU. Anything you want to know about him – he’s got a website with all seven of his books on it and everything.
So Tony had a book, I had a brand-new baby and a 5-year-old, and I started a company named Oasis Productions. And I did probably about 35 shows. I produced 35 shows in Bloomington and would often take them also to Indianapolis so we would have a longer run. I would run it at the Phoenix, and at TOTS (Theatre on the Square) in honor of my mission, which was to do small-cast shows with great roles for women.
Martha Jacobs worked with me early on. Martha is directing this show, and she’s my acting teacher. She is tremendous. I worked with Martha for a long time.
My father died and I had $2,000. I spent and made back that same $2,000 for 12 years doing shows. Nobody got paid. I was not equity at the time.
So that’s how you became known in Indianapolis, through Oasis Productions?
Oasis, yes, but also through Marcia Cebulska (playwright). Marsha put me in a car at Christmas time in maybe 1989 and said, “You have to come to this theater,” and she took me to the Phoenix. My first show at the Phoenix was The Marriage of Bette and Boo, which was directed by Ken Bush, an ex-faculty member at IU School of Theatre & Drama. Lebron Benton played Boo. Gayle Steigerwald was in it. Jack Randall Earles and Suzanne Fleenor. Oh my God, Jon Lindley played my son. What a great cast. After that, Bryan (Fonseca, Phoenix managing producer) cast me a lot.
And I think probably people came to know me more in Indy because of Bryan casting me. He paid people, so I didn’t have to feel like an idiot driving all that way for nothing. So yeah, I worked at the Phoenix a lot. And then I would do at least two-a-week shows a year, because I had two little children, and I had to work more.
Oasis did great scripts. My God. We did a lot of Naomi Wallace, such as One Flea Spare and The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek. We did Gertrude Stein and a Companion by Win Wells. We did beautiful, beautiful shows, and I just needed to work or I would’ve gone crazy. So that’s what I did.
So tell me about your experience with Cardinal Stage.
I think one of the first shows Randy saw me in is when I turned 50. In order not to think about turning that age, I had a staged reading of Hamlet. I played Hamlet, and I invited people to take part – a lot of people from Indianapolis – Jon Lindley and Adam Crowe were Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They were adorable. Karen Irwin was Laertes. Sharon Macdonald played the father. Martha Jacobs was Gertrude. Bruce Burgun was Polonius, Bill Simmons was Hortatio and Patricia McKee, my best friend and a fabulous director, played Ophelia.
Randy saw it, and he was like, “Wow, I had no idea there were so many good actors in Bloomington!” But actually they came from other places, right?
We didn’t even have rehearsals for that show. I counted on actor’s egos to make sure they did their job, and in some cases that worked and in some cases it certainly didn’t. I won’t name any names, but a lot of people came down because it was just fun, and they only had to come that night and it was no big deal.
Randy met with me early on, and frankly I told him that what he was planning was impossible. Bloomington is a music town, you know? I worked at the Brown County Playhouse a little, but I never had any luck even borrowing a gel from Indiana University. I gave up asking, even though I was a faculty wife. My experience did not lead me to expect cooperation or assistance from IU. And I thought, you know, this is a university town and it’s a huge music town. The music school is in the top three in the country, if not the best. I think it’s even rated higher than Juilliard.
And so to have an important regional theater in Bloomington is a lot to ask of a small town. I’m not a marketing person. I just try to do my work, so thinking big is not something I do. But Randy clearly is a marketing wizard, and he does think big. So he started the Cardinal. I’m the associate artist with Cardinal. I’m not on the board or anything like that, because I don’t do well on boards.
I was in his first show, which was Our Town. I played Emily at the Riverview in Norfolk, Va., which I talked about earlier. It was one of the roles that Paul Dicklin asked me what I would like to play. Emily certainly was one of them. So I got to play Mother Gibbs in Our Town. And I’ve done about one show a year with Cardinal.
Would you admit you were wrong about Cardinal and whether Randy could pull it off?
He’s pulling it off, and my hat is off to him. I think it’s a miracle.
Let’s get back to the play. How do you like working with Martha?
It is an actor’s dream come true, working with Martha. She is specific and tireless. Boy, she works. … The amount of work she puts in outside of rehearsal. Sometimes you can come to rehearsal, and you see the director is just kind of making up stuff as they go along and start looking for the dramaturge to answer the question. Martha works like a demon.
We also share our vocabulary and way of working, because she was my teacher for two years with the neighborhood playhouse technique. We not only speak the same language, but she knows every bad habit I have and is more than willing to call me on it. It’s really wonderful, because in this particular instance, pretty much the whole script is Molly’s writing. Molly is very funny. She’s so funny and so smart. Her persona, the character work I have to do for this show is quite different from me. Molly is cheerful.
That was my next question. How are you similar and how are you different from the character?
Molly is brilliant. I’m smart, but Molly is brilliant. She has wonderful comic timing; we share that. And I’m very grateful for that fact that I have good comic timing, but she’s also a great comedy writer. She used to write down and refine these lines. I can go on YouTube and see her telling some of the same stories that I’m telling in the show.
She worked very hard on her presentation as a public speaker, so I’ve got great material. The huge difference is that she was brought up as a high-class southern lady, and I’m from Newark, N.J. I was not brought up poor, but I sure was not brought up with money. I barely know anybody with money.
Did you study Molly’s accent while watching her on YouTube?
Oh, did I ever. I had to give up sliding into an Indiana accent, because that accent and Molly’s accents are cousins, but they’re not friends.
She grew up in East Texas. When she says the word “author,” she says it like “Arthur” – like the man’s name. I mean, it’s profound. What I’ve chosen for her is a real middle-of-the-road, pretty mild Texas accent that she would use in a public speaking situation. So, it’s a lovely accent.
Have you done any other one-woman shows?
I did Beckett’s Happy Days, directed by Martha, which is practically one-woman. I was buried up to my waist in the first act. Up to my neck in the second act. There was a small, small part for Winnie’s husband, played by Mike Price. That was about six years ago.
So how does it feel doing a one-woman show?
I don’t like one-person shows, because what I live off of is a shared fiction – the energy of a shared fiction between two or more souls. Even though I get to work off the audience, of course I’m alone.
How does it make you feel emotionally?
It’s a lot harder work. The work is much harder because the audience is not reliable. I mean, I’ve worked with some bad actors who are likewise not reliable, and that means I have to do more work so that no matter what happens, I’m still delivering something worth seeing and something worth experiencing.
You of course are aware of the actor’s nightmare of going on stage and completely blanking out. Does that ever cross your mind?
I will forgive you for bringing that up (laughs).
You probably know your character inside and out, don’t you?
I know a lot about Molly Ivins. I’ve read her favorite book, which is Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts. And I go online all the time now just to keep doing research about the places that she mentioned, because I don’t know about Smith College, and of course, she knows all about it. I really don’t know anything about politics.
What do you want your audiences to take away from this play and your performance?
Molly’s desire was that people be involved in being American. She loved this country, and she loved our history, our struggles today. She really wanted people to be involved and to understand that politics is not something you could just ignore, because it is part of your life.
She would tell people, “Yeah, do this. Fight for the First Amendment rights. Fight for what you believe in, but have a great time while you’re doing it, because why else would you want to do it if it’s not going to be a good time?”
So really, the message is one of such joy. Period. It’s to have a good time. She could be talking about something else than what she’s talking about, which is her life and Texas and politics, but really it’s having a good time. It is so lovely.
The show is being picked up all over the country because not only is it a wonderful role for a woman of a certain age, but it’s funny and so well written, oh my God. She’s just a wonderful writer.
So what do you have to say to your friends, colleagues and anybody in Indianapolis regarding why they should drive down to Bloomington to see you in this play?
Well, I would say good theater is rare enough that an hour and 15 minute drive is not a lot, and also there are great restaurants in Bloomington, so the idea of eating out here before the show is a wonderful thing. You know, that’s all I can say. I’d rather drive an hour and a half to see really good theater than drive 15 minutes to see … maybe you shouldn’t quote me on that (laughs).
Speaking of driving to see good theater, you were nominated for your role as Bea Ball in The Gospel According to James (which debuted at the Indiana Repertory Theatre), which you played in Chicago at the Victory Gardens Theater last spring.
Yes, a Jeff Award (Chicago theater award) for best supporting actress. I am so excited.
When will the announcement of the winner be made?
At the awards ceremony on Monday, Nov. 7. Of course, it’s right in the middle of a run.
How does it feel to have conquered Chicago?
(Laughs.) I don’t think I’ve conquered it, but, man oh man, the response to that beautiful role was overwhelming. Even before this Jeff Award. It is a beautifully written role, and people were so complimentary. It was shocking. It was shocking.
Were you approached by anybody up there? “Hey I want you to do my show?”
No. Isn’t that too bad? No agents either. Some agents gave me their card when I left there, and I was really hoping I might get an agent, but no. People said wonderful things and …
But if you win that award, it could change things, right?
It might. I’m always open to miraculous intervention.
For tickets and information about Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, presented byCardinal Stage Co., call (812) 323-3020 (Buskirk Chumley Theater box office) or visit www.cardinalstage.org.