Faye Butler describes herself as an actor who sings, not a singer who acts. She’s a theater and musical star in Chicago and nationally and has won many awards and honors for her work. She currently plays the cleaning lady, Cassandra, who knows the source of her name only too well, in the current Goodman production, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” We interviewed her about that role and her other stage and cabaret work. She let us in on a few secrets about her voice, her vocal practices—and her dreams.
First of all, where did you grow up? Are you a Chicago native?
Absolutely. Born and raised right here on the south side. Born In Lake Meadows, lived and went to school in South Shore. All my neighbors were Jewish and there were very few African Americans then. We lived right across the street from the South Shore Country Club, now it’s the South Shore Cultural Center. Cassius Clay was my neighbor; he lived right next door to me. That was before he was Mohammed Ali. It was hard for me to call him Mr. Ali. I always thought of him as Mr. Clay. Yes, that’s where I grew up. I still live in Chicago and still live on the south side.
And where did you study acting and theater?
I have a BFA in acting and theater from Illinois State University. I finished my work at the Goodman School of Drama. I was in the last class at the Goodman School, just before the school was separated from the Art Institute and became part of DePaul. The school was sort of in no-man’s land then, so you couldn’t get a degree, just a certificate. That was in the early ‘80s while the school was in transition.
Does everyone call you E Faye? What does your family call you?
Some people call me Faye. Some call me E. I didn’t want to give up any part of my name. I’m the fourth generation of Elizabeth Fayes. Anyway, as long as you pay me, I don’t care what you call me.
Let’s talk a little about “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” first. To me, the Cassandra scenes were the highlight of the play. I’m not just saying that because I’m sitting here talking to you. The voodoo doll scene and the weather report are especially strong.
Cassandra is an unusual character in the play. Unlike other characters, she has no background and she’s just this person. It worked out because I had such strong collaboration with [director] Steve Scott to find out where she fit in this puzzle. I didn’t like the fact that she was this character that came out once in a while and gave a speech. It took me almost the whole rehearsal period to get her on a road I was comfortable with.
Did you create a backstory for her?
I had to, yes. That was the problem that I had. Just sitting at the table going through the readings, I kept thinking. She can’t just be from nowhere.
I thought perhaps she was from New Orleans.
I decided she was from many places. Even in her language. Sometimes she’s a little African. Sometimes she’s Jamaican. Sometimes Brazilian. Sometimes African American. Sometimes she just speaks like Faye. She’s eclectic.
Same thing when I sat down with Amy [Clark] to do the costuming. She said, do you have any ideas about Cassandra? I said, I just know she’s eclectic, from many places. She’s a secret costume designer. She reads Tarot cards and designs clothes. She takes everything she sees and doesn’t throw anything away. She takes a beautiful scarf and tears it open and makes a skirt.
Do you think Christopher Durang’s script makes Cassandra a comic character? I guess I’m asking how much you tried to emphasize the humor?
No, I didn’t read her as a humorous character. I had to find out what she was doing. One thing I constantly said she has a big heart. She cares about these people, she’s connected to all these people in many ways. When she gives them these warnings it’s for their benefit. She wants them to know about things to come, because she wants to protect them. In my first entry, when I make that first speech, I say, I was riding down the road and I saw your sister in her green Mercedes and she’s got a guy with her and I don’t know who he is. He’s a young man so you know they’re having plenty of sex. Cassandra is kind of nosey too. That was why she says beware the ides of March. They’re coming, they’re coming. I know all of these things. I hear the phone call and I know what’s coming.
Did you see any other portrayals of Cassandra? Do you seek them out or avoid them?
Never saw any of them. People said to me, Oh, you’re doing Cassandra? I always thought of her as a very young woman, in her 20s or 30s. So I’m probably the oldest Cassandra ever. To me, she’s such a nurturer and a mother, I can never imagine her being so young.
Did you study the character in Greek myth, theater?
Of course. That was part of my classical theater training. The beauty of Christopher Durang is that he puts so many things in this play. Lots of Chekhov, Greek theater and other stage references.
Court Theatre is doing “Agamemnon” this year. Cassandra is one of the characters, of course.
(Laughs.) I should call up Charlie [Newell[ and say, Hi Charlie, this is Cassandra.
You’re known mostly for musicals. You played two jazz icons — Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington, both of which started at Northlight. (“Ella” and “Dinah Was.”) Was it daunting to play those two women?
Absolutely. Especially with Ella. Ella’s story is her music and that was daunting. She never talked much. That was why she came up with scat. She felt lost in speech. She started as a dancer, but she was considered unattractive so they told her she would never make it as a dancer. She was asked if she could sing and she did!
She would scat when she couldn’t remember the lyrics. She would listen to the instruments and scat along. She considered her voice an instrument. That was why you would see her in the center, among the musicians, or at the piano, so she could feel the music and hear them.
Have you often performed in straight plays?
I love Kaufman and Hart. I’ve done “You Can’t Take It With You.” “Once in a Lifetime.” I did “Caroline or Change” at Court. It’s more of an opera, although it has spoken dialogue. Tony Kushner’s book and Jeanine Tesori’s music were wonderful. What makes “Caroline” so unique is the continual story. Jeanine had to fit the music in. Not “write songs” to place in the story. You don’t get a script for that play; you get a score and the dialogue is incorporated. It was a very unique piece to do.
I did “Pullman Porter Blues” here last year. That was a play with music. A labor of love really.
I was so happy to do “Vanya” because it’s such a great script. Steve kept teasing me that I was going to need to do a song. If it wasn’t funny, he says, that’s where you have to sing. He teased me about that every day.
There’s a video clip of you with the voodoo doll.
Yes, at first the voodoo doll was just a basic doll. And I said, no, no, this doll has to look like Masha in the Snow White costume, with all the accessories. I have to have my accessories.
It must have worked because it had a great effect on Masha.
It did. It made all the difference.
Do you often perform in concert?
I have a cabaret show and I do that quite often. I’ve done it all over the country. I’m doing a jazz thing Sunday at the Du Sable Museum in between shows. (Her performance is part of the museum’s 41st annual Arts & Crafts Festival, connecting Black Art and History.) I’m doing the New Year’s Eve event at Northlight again.
What kind of music do you prefer to sing?
Lots of jazz, blues, show tunes, standards. I grew up in a house with lots and lots of music. My audience likes that music. It’s not just people my age though. Millennials are getting in to listening to jazz and blues too.
What’s your preferred accompaniment? Jazz combo or full band?
I can do from just a piano up to 11 pieces. Depends on what you want. If I can squeeze in a couple horns, I’ll do that. Depends on the venue. I do a lot of benefits for theaters. Last year at Northlight I auctioned off my services and a board member pledged $10,000 for me to perform in a home concert.
Are there recordings of your music?
I have two CDS. One CD is a Circle of Firsts. It’s on YouTube and you can get it on my website. www.e-fayebutler.com.
What’s coming up for you? What shows would you like to perform in?
Yes! I want to do “Gypsy.” I want to play Mama Rose in “Gypsy” so desperately. Somewhere! I will sell l my first grandchild to play that role. I have a great idea for doing that. I want all the kids to be from an orphanage. It would be a diverse group of children. I love that whole concept. I keep saying that to everyone. All the directors I know. Somebody! I want to do Mama Rose!!!
Let’s go back to your childhood. How old were you when you started performing?
I did sing in the choir at church. I was from a Baptist family and I didn’t have a choice. You just did. My mom and dad were very instrumental in getting us interested in the arts. Every week we had to do something in the arts. We had to go to a film or a museum or the ballet or the symphony or opera. I ‘m not saying I liked all of it. But my sister and I were very exposed to all the arts.
What did your parents do?
My father was a dentist. My mom was a clinical psychologist. My mom planned something for us to do together every Saturday or Sunday. We took walks on the lake. The first time we went to the Fine Arts Building was so amazing. It was a movie theater then.
I took dance from Ruth Page in the Fine Arts Building. Ballet, jazz and tap. We were always involved in anything children should do. We belonged to the Jack and Jill Club.
The first play I ever saw was at Drury Lane at Martinique. It was a children’s theater performance. And I said, I want to do that. And 25 years later I broke a barrier by being the first African American woman in Chicago to do a nontraditional role. I did “Hello Dolly” on that very stage. With a mixed cast. I took a minimum Equity salary on that role because I told them I wanted them to put the money into the costumes and stage set.
Did you have formal musical/vocal training as a young person?
I was a classically trained actor, as I said, with a degree from Illinois State. I didn’t have any formal musical training. When I got out of school, there was nothing for an African American woman to do in theater except to carry a spear or be a maid. I couldn’t get any decent roles. Then someone said, Can you sing? And I said, I’m a classically trained actor, not a singer. And then I heard you can make more money in musical theater. So I started auditioning and finally got some parts.
I think I got parts because I never said no. I never said I couldn’t sing that high or low. I couldn’t sustain that note. I just did it. Someone said, do you understand your range? And I said no. I just sing. Now I coach singers too. And people say I have chords of steel.
If I can’t understand the story, I can’t do the song. That’s because I’m an actor who sings, not a singer who acts.
You sang the national anthem at a Washington Nationals baseball game.
It gives me great pride to do that. It’s a great song. I don’t want to do something new or weird with it like some singers try to do. I just sing it. It’s not about you. It’s about the song. You just need to stand there and sing it and feel it and let Americans all around you hear it and feel it. It has nothing about you being fancy schmancy.
What steps are part of your daily life to keep your voice in shape?
Sleep. Water. Basic stuff. If I have a concert coming up, I don’t do a lot of dairy because it coats your throat. I’m big on olive oil. Olive oil keeps your chords lubricated, keeps your throat from being scratchy.
In opera houses, you’ll find big vats of olive oil. If I’m tired, I’ll take a tablespoon of olive oil. It stops you from doing this – hack hack hack (clears her throat). Olive oil stops you from doing that. But don’t drink water afterwards. Drink water first, then olive oil.
Anything else you’d like to talk about? Any final comments?
Come see our show! We want good ticket sales because we’d like to extend past the end of July. It’s a great cast, really great people to work with. We’re all available for the extension. [Note: it’s now extended until August 2.]
What’s next for you?
I have concert stuff planned through December. Then I’m going to Paramount Theatre in Aurora, a beautiful old restored theater. I’m going to do “Hairspray” there. It’s going to be a lot of fun. And then after that I’m going to Fulton Theater in Lancaster, Pa., and then to Maine State Theater for the summer. I’m going to do the Whoopi Goldberg part in “Ghost the Musical.”
Then I’m looking for another play. I went to Los Angeles for a while and did movies and it was ok but it really wasn’t satisfying for me. My goal is theater. As long as I’m a working actor in the theater, I’m fulfilled.
That’s a great line to end this interview.
This interview was previously posted in gapersblock.com/ac/.