Category: Archive

School of life

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

This is the role the veteran Irish-American actress Kathleen Chalfant is playing so compellingly in Bed Among the Lentils, one of six playlets by Alan Bennett now on view under the umbrella title, Talking Heads, at the Minetta Lane Theater in the West Village.
For an actress who seems to be working constantly, with long runs in Margaret Edsons Wit and Tony Kushners Angels in America behind her, not to mention her ongoing role in the CBS series The Guardian, it seems surprising how little formal theatrical training shes had.
In a sense, although she graduated from Stanford with a degree in Classical Greek, the drama school, which prepared Chalfant for a theater life came in the form of boarding houses operated by her mother, her maternal grandmother, and, eventually, her father, in the San Francisco area.
My mother was the illegitimate child of my grandmother and an Irishman named Edward Ford, she said. It was about 1906, and she had run away from her huge family in England and gone to Dublin. She got a job demonstrating merchandise in a shop, and thats where Mr. Ford saw her. He was a sportswriter for the Irish Times and Ive always suspected that he was already married.
Ford, Chalfant said, was offered a job at the New York Herald Tribune, and he and the actress grandmother and their baby would have migrated, except for the fact that fate intervened.
My mother was born in February 1907, she said but my Irish grandfather contracted the flu and died in about June of the same year. So my grandmother, aged 31, with an illegitimate daughter, returned to her family in London and then migrated to Canada.
The next move took her to San Francisco, where she opened her first boarding house, where Chalfants mother grew up. Her father, an Irish-American farm boy from Iowa who had ventured west and joined the Coast Guard, knocked on the boarding house door, looking for a place to house military personnel in the event that the war that loomed as a possibility became a reality.
The boy from Iowa stayed on and married the girl from the boarding house. By the time Chalfant was in sixth grade, the family was operating a vast establishment that had been a hotel.
Chalfant worked there in summers until she graduated from high school, and thats where much of her education took place.
I really grew up there, she said, and I learned to do everything that Ive ever known how to do there. I learned to ride a horse there because somebody in the boarding house took me horseback riding. I learned to play chess because somebody played chess. I learned to speak French because there was a French stonecutter who taught me the language and who always took me to the annual Bastille Day celebrations in San Francisco.
And her passion for the theater was kindled there, too. We were very close to a small town called Alameda where there was a good community theater, and one of the boarders, a woman named Florence Lonergan, took me there. I was 14, and I became the theaters slave, the way kids do at that age. I did whatever had to be done there, and my father used to come and haul me out of there at midnight night after night after night.
Chalfant got her big break when the theater was doing a musical revue in which someone had to sing both Shine On, Harvest Moon, and By the Light of the Silvery Moon.
Whoever it was, she said, fell ill or something, so they asked me to do it. That was fine, except for the fact that I cant actually sing. But I was 15 by then, so I was undaunted and did it anyway for two days. That was my theatrical debut.
When the actress was about to graduate from Stanford she met Henry Chalfant, the documentary filmmaker she married in 1966, before her professional career began, which explains why shes known as Kathleen Chalfant rather than Kathleen Bishop.
When I came to New York and joined the unions, I was told that Chalfant was an impossible name, so I tried Ford, my mothers maiden name, but somehow I couldnt answer to it, she said. I never tried Bishop, my real name, but I went back and told the union people that wed deal with Chalfant somehow.
Like many actors known for sterling stage work, Calfant, who is 58, has had the experience of losing a part she created to a performer better known for movie work. In Chalfants case, its happened twice, in both cases to actresses she admired.
When Wit was filmed for television, Emma Thompson played her part, and HBO recently completed filming Angels in America with Meryl Streep in the role Chalfant had created for Broadway.
The worst part about losing Angels in America,  she said, laughing, is that they shot it right in front of my house, and I had to walk through it every time I went out.
She admits that theres pain involved in such losses, but she faces the problem realistically and philosophically, as she seems to do with everything else.
Its difficult, she said, but you dont do this as long as I have without developing a realistic attitude, so I didnt really expect that I would do either of those things.
Chalfants seasoned, balanced attitudes extend to the craft of acting as well. The more that I act, she said, the less I think I have any control over it. I feel like an idiot savant, if Im a savant at all. I dont know what makes it good. What I can do is show up, trying to understand what the play is about, learn the words, figure out where to stand, and listen to the director and the other actors. . . . The magical part, the part that turns it from recitation into a form of communication, which is what I think acting is, is something that I dont understand.
Perhaps, if youre as good at your craft as Kathleen Chalfant is, you dont really have to understand the mystery.

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