Mary Lou Rosato, Sandra Shipley, Rita Wolf, LaTonya Borsay. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Q&A: Mary Lou Rosato

The celebrated actor stars in Caryl Churchill's "Escaped Alone" at Yale Rep

Written by:
Nella Vera
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Renowned actor Mary Lou Rosato is known for an extensive and impressive body of work filled with powerhouse performances in classic roles, including a memorable Mother Courage, which she performed to great acclaim at the young age of 29. She went on to numerous roles in theater, film, and television, as well as work as a director—and to prestigious assignments teaching at legendary acting programs such as Yale, Cal Arts, NYU Tisch, Stella Adler and more.

Rosato currently appears in Caryl Churchill’s “Escaped Alone,” the boundary-pushing dramatist’s new play at Yale Rep.  She took some time during previews to chat with Culture Vulture.

You are on the faculty at Yale and also performing in this show at the Rep. When and how did your association with Yale come about?

As an actress, I had been at the Rep twice in the past. I came to teach at Yale six years ago. Over the years, Yale reached out to me because I had been recommended as a teacher by Ron Van Lieu, who  knew me from NYU where I had taught in the ‘90s. However, I was out in Los Angeles until 2015. When I came back Yale reached out again and at that time I was available.

Mary Lou Rosato, Sandra Shipley, Rita Wolf, LaTonya Borsay. Photo by Joan Marcus.

As an actor, what is most the exciting thing about working on a Caryl Churchill play, particularly one that is fairly new?

I had never worked on a Churchill play, always wanted to, I’d always been fascinated by the way she writes layers of images and words, and extraordinary characters and harrowing situations – time traveling. I’d seen them of course on stage and I had worked in the classroom with actors who were interested in working on a scene. It’s difficult language to read, and also learn and when I read “Escaped Alone” it reminded me of her play “Skryker” – those words stumbling over each other – So right away the  play of course was fascinating as far as language is concerned, the world to me is exciting and immediate, and also fascinating in the role that I was being offered, Vi. I fell in love with the role. Doesn’t get more exciting than that for an actor.

Although Churchill is still writing, so many of her plays are in the theatrical canon that we think of her work as classic.  What does she have in common with some of the older classics? 

Everyone says Churchill reminds one of Beckett.  I saw that but I think it goes beyond that. I also saw the under-tow of Chekhov because of  the subtext and hints of shattering events. Sometimes so mundanely conversational but trembling underneath. I could say there is an almost Greek aspect in its fore-boding and it’s in reach. The humor is sometimes reminiscent of Commedia or of a 17th Century play. All woven together in her own way, her distinct voice. Classical, yes, I said I’d say it is, and will be. I expect this play will be done a hundred years from now.

How does your own history preforming the classics inform how you approach Churchill?

It’s true I have been performing in the classics since I graduated from my training program. The process of working on a play of complicated and elevated language which “Escaped Alone” certainly is, of course, really begins with just looking at that language and deciphering or trying to understand the world that’s being created with that language, what’s in it, what’s there. Because of my background I am attuned to language and how it works. This particular one is so dependent on the flow and precision of language –  the sounds of words and the nuance of the play structure – I have tools from my training that I rely on to help me ask questions and research my role. It doesn’t come automatically, it takes work, but you can recognize what’s afoot  and begin to unravel it, to help me understand the world of the play and find its reality. And then of course this is a great playwright who has crafted a play of emotional depth and reality. That’s what you’re after and the point, isn’t it.

You have a background of working in hybrid academic settings.  How is working on this play at Yale, with Liz Diamond as director (who is also the chair of the directing program) different than working on a production at a regular theater that is not attached to a school?

Yes, this has been a pattern in my life where I have worked with actors in training and also engaging in my own work as a professional actress. It is different in that I am aware of how important my process is to be seen – observable -, and that my work is, in this situation,  a teaching tool and a touchstone for a potential artistic journey. I have been in this situation as a Director as well as an actress, and I have worked in many programs including NYU Tisch, Juilliard, and at Cal Arts in California. To me it’s important work, because actors need to work in a professional arena eventually and they need to be with professional actors with experience to show them the way, to allay their concerns, to help lead them to places they were unaware they could go, to answer questions, to understand what the process is, or could be, or will be for them,  so for me it’s essential and also thrilling to work in this way because –  if you consider your work to be a craft,  part of an artform – and I do believe that –  you want that art form to continue and expand to future generations.  By the way, Liz Diamond and I worked together four decades ago, at the beginning of both of our careers, and it is extraordinary and thrilling to be participating in her artistic journey once again.

You were a founding member of the Acting Company.  Tell us about that experience and how it prepared you for your career.

I felt that I was extremely lucky that the Acting Company was formed from my class, and that John Houseman and Margot Harley were the one’s to do it. They responded to a need, and also the excitement that my class generated when it debuted. I was lucky to be playing magnificent roles, playing in repertory which is an experience that many actors will never experience – it was a whole new phase of learning, plus we were in demand. Our work generated excitement. It shaped me in ways that have spanned my entire life. It made me a little fearless. It gave me scaffolding and strength.  Nothing is more challenging than being in a bus for several months at a time, going to unknown towns and venues, in all kinds of weather, and once you’ve traveled across the country playing a range of plays from Mother Courage to The Three Sisters, to The Way of the World or to The Robber Bridegroom, you don’t fear for much. It gives you “chops”, as they used to say.

You were also in Juilliard Group 1. What was it like to work with John Houseman and Michel St. Denis?  Did anyone there at the time have a sense that it would go on to become a legendary program that would on to introduce the theater to some of our most gifted performers?

Well. It is almost impossible to explain how fortunate I felt as a young actor to have been part of that incredible legendary Group One. We were the last class of actors to know Michel Saint-Denis, who had created several other (now legendary) training programs, and who is now being  rediscovered and recognized for his seminal and pioneering work which has led to our present way of training for the theater, and of course John Houseman, who created the Mercury Theater with Orson Welles – who’s impact on the American theater was far reaching and immeasurable. Juilliard was a significant milestone in both of those men’s careers and somehow we were aware of a kind of pressure that was always there – we felt its weight. And it’s true, many of my classmates have gone on to make a great mark on the theater, or in film. It’s funny to say it now, but we all knew what was happening. We knew it was a big deal. But we were unaware  – how could we be –  of how much of an impact it would have on future theatre training and the acting profession. By the fourth year that we were together, in our last year at Juilliard it started to dawn on us what we had been doing in that program, and what they expected from us and wanted to do with us. It is gratifying that all these years later there is renewed interest in what took place there, and what we did.

With the Acting Company and Juilliard, you’ve been part of two groundbreaking programs for training young actors and have also now taught and run acting programs as well.  How has training changed since the time you were starting out?

I think training and training programs have become more aware that most actor’s careers will encompass film and television, there is greater focus on that now. The theater itself is always changing, opportunities for actors’ skills are everywhere Also there is more acknowledgement that actors will wear many hats, that self-generated work is an opportunity for an actor, and that that an actor needs to have more input into where they go with their skills and talent. That is a huge change from my early days as an actor.

Over the past four decades you’ve appeared in so many landmark productions opposite incredible actors such as Derek Jacobi, Kevin Klein, Tony Randall, Mark Rylance – is there a play or appearance that is particularly meaningful or memorable?

All the performers you mentioned, and many others, have made indelible marks on my heart, and in my memory. I would say, perhaps, that it was pretty sensational to be dipped to the ground at the end of “The Way of the World” in the arms of Kevin Klein.

“Escaped Alone” runs through March 30, 2024.  Tickets and information at YaleRep.org.

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