News & Articles

All in the Family

by Steppenwolf Literary Manager Aaron Carter

In Amy Herzog’s Belleville, ensemble members Alana Arenas and Kate Arrington play opposites. Abby—played by Arrington—is a free-spirited, even child-like, newlywed. Amina played by Arenas—is a practical business woman and mother. In separate conversations with these talented artists, I’ve found they have a lot more in common than the casting suggests. In both cases, the actors immediately put you at ease. With Arrington, the conversation flows on smooth Southern charm and sense of humor. Arenas draws you in with a sincere and sustained interest in your point of view: her focus on you triggers an urge for absolute honesty. I asked both of them what they considered their first big break in the business. KATE ARRINGTON: Well, you know you can just unroll the spool…The first big thing I got cast in in New York, I was an understudy in a play called Everett Beekin at Lincoln Center, and it was written by Richard Greenberg. We fell in love a little bit, Richard and I. He’s my child’s godfather now: we speak most days. For whatever reason, we took to one another. He can take it back to the moment when he was leaving and I said, why don’t you come here and kiss me goodbye like a normal person. (laughs) He’s very shy and reclusive, but for some reason that charmed him rather than alienating him as it should have! Greenberg wrote a role in The Violet Hour with Arrington in mind, and after a rocky audition process, she landed the role. Later, she got a call to audition the same role in Terry Kinney’s production, which brought her back to Chicago and began her relationship with Steppenwolf. Arenas “unrolls the spool” of her career start even farther: ALANA ARENAS: Years ago, I had a middle school English teacher that told my mother I should audition for Miami's performing arts high school. I wasn't that interested in the "idea" of the school but at the time I really wanted a bunny rabbit. I struck a deal with my mom, if I got into the school I would get a bunny rabbit. I got into the school and realized I had been duped, the house always wins! I didn't get the rabbit but I consider it my first big break because it was one of the best things that ever happened to me in my young adult life. Despite the fact both Arenas and Arrington joined the ensemble in 2007, Belleville is only their second show together. The first was The Hot L Baltimore, directed by Tina Landau in the 2010/11 Steppenwolf season. I couldn’t resist asking them what they liked about each other’s rehearsal process: AA: Hot L was my first time working with Kate and I admired the scope of her sense of play. She meets the rehearsal room with a large sense of abandon. You need fearlessness to make great discoveries and watching her reminds me of the fun of acting. KA: Our characters were pretty separate in the course of the play. But to work with Tina is to do a lot of ensemble work: you get to be very close with your cast. But Alana and I did have one exchange in the play… I think it will be interesting to see Alana do this role because the biggest thing I get from Alana is that she has this huge open heart, but the character of Amina has a certain reserve; she’s hard edged. Though we were weeks away from the start of rehearsal, I knew these hard-working artists would be preparing. I asked Arrington about her research for the show. KA: I don’t feel like this play requires a tremendous amount of research because it’s of our time and a generation I can understand. I’ve never been to Paris. I’m actually trying to figure out if I can go because I do feel like I just want to walk around the streets of Paris and especially that neighborhood. I think Abby’s feelings about her otherness in this place, and her feelings about being a privileged American are so pertinent to the play. I had been hesitant to bother Arenas about Belleville until Head of Passes was open and running smoothly. When we found some time mid-run to exchange email about Belleville, I asked Arenas what she thought the biggest challenge of her next role would be. AA: I'm nervous about honoring the French. Culture is everything. Sometimes I feel like I have driven directors crazy with this, but when I play someone that isn't easily identifiable to me, culture becomes extremely important. In my opinion, nobody exists outside of culture. Even if someone is a cultural anomaly, that is really helpful information if I have to play that person. I think the way people use language is a glimpse into the collective psyche of their culture. Given the significance of the expatriate and immigrant experience in Belleville, I wondered if either artist had lived abroad. AA: I have never lived in a foreign country but I've been blessed to visit a few. The longest time I've spent in a foreign country is about three and half weeks. I've had the great fortune of being a stranger and yet welcomed like a long lost relative. And I've also experienced the sore displeasure of feeling like I disrupted the comfort and order of someone's home. One hopes that the more you travel and the more you learn, you can shed ideas that create division. I remember feeling—in one particular instance—that the sentiment seemed to be, they would have preferred if they didn't have to see me in their country at all. Not a happy feeling and yet, they were entitled. It is their home and they have a right to preserve and protect its integrity. Though I understood that intellectually, I was deeply sad in my heart because in that moment I allowed myself to believe that divisions between humans would never subside and our attempts to struggle against human nature are futile. Kate talked another fundamental aspect of human experience: family. KA: There are some things about Abby I can really relate to generationally speaking. Her relationship with her family is very familiar to me. I’m of a generation, as is Abby, whose parents did a remarkable thing. They managed to be different parents than their parents have been. As a parent now, I realize how incredibly hard that is. I love the line that Abby has, where she asks Alioune if his parents told him that, “It doesn’t matter what you do when you grow up as long as you’re happy.” And he says, “No” and she responds: “I am increasingly convinced that is the worst thing you can say to a child.” I really relate to that. How confusing it is to walk into a therapist’s office and say, “I don’t think I have anything I can talk about because my parents were really supportive and fantastic and all they wanted was for me to be happy. And I still can’t figure out how to be happy.” As I’ve gotten to know some of Steppenwolf’s ensemble members, I’ve learned that part of the ensemble’s success is found in how it answers many different kinds of artistic needs: repeated collaborations, family, developing new skills. Asking an artist to define “ensemble” can be a window into what she gets from—and gives back to—Steppenwolf Theatre. AA: "Ensemble" is almost synonymous with "humility." The actor in an ensemble is called to serve their part in supporting the whole. I've even come to learn that self-doubt is a direct attack on the collective. KA: Well…the first thing that comes to mind is a quote of Anne Bogart’s. I’m not sure if she’s defining ensemble. But she says something like, “The first step to working with a group of people is to fall in love with them.” To me, that’s the most important aspect of ensemble. It may not mean you love the way they are behaving every moment. But you love them the way you love family.