In the 1980s, Dianne Wiest emerged as a movie star, with memorable turns in Footloose, Bright Lights, Big City, Parenthood and Edward Scissorhands plus five Woody Allen movies—she earned three Oscar nominations and took home statuettes for Hannah and Her Sisters and Bullets Over Broadway. As movie roles became more scarce—and Wiest, who is now 69, has been outspoken about how Hollywood casts aside women of a certain age—she turned to TV, nabbing four Emmy nominations and two trophies between 1997 and 2009, and getting a regular series from CBS, Life in Pieces.
But that’s the celebrity take on Wiest’s career. And it kind of misses the point: she is a theatre actress through and through. She left the University of Maryland to join a touring Shakespearean troupe, made her Broadway debut in 1971 at age 23 and then spent four years at the Arena Stage in Washington in such iconic roles as Emily in Our Town, Honey in Who’s Afraid of and Virginia Woolf?, before returning to New York. She won an Obie and soon was on Broadway in major productions like Othello, playing Desdemona opposite James Earl Jones and Christopher Plummer, and the comedy Beyond Therapy.
Wiest’s theater career has continued to flourish in the last decade on Broadway (All My Sons) and off (Chekhov’s The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard). “If someone told me I couldn’t do a play again I’d feel like I was in forced retirement,” Wiest says. “It’s not that film isn’t rewarding, but film is like putting beads on a string, little tiny beads of only sixty or ninety seconds but in theater you get this whole huge necklace all at once. And there are more rewarding roles for women in theater.
In 2016 at Yale Repertory Theatre, Wiest took on the the epic role of Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, in which she must remain cheery throughout a first act in which she’s immobilized in a mound from the waist down and in a second act in which the mound is up to her neck—and except for a few words spoken by her husband, every line is hers. The play was a success and now Wiest is tackling it again, in Brooklyn at Theater for a New Audience Polonsky Shakespeare Center.
You’ve said that you first wanted to do this show back in the 1980s. What is it about Happy Days that drew you in?
Wiest: It was and still remains most impossible mountain to climb for women. It’s like Hamlet for women. You are so restricted but within the boundaries of what Beckett has written he provides you with incredible freedom.
I was gonna die with some big gap in myself if I had failed to do Happy Days. If I had my wits about me I would have done it twenty years ago.
What kept you from doing it back then?
Wiest: Terror. In a word, terror.
Wiest: I couldn’t figure out how to memorize it. Do you memorize the words and then go back and figure out where you put the toothbrush down and where you take the cap off and put the glasses on? Do you memorize the physicality of it and will that help you memorize the words? Do you memorize both at once? I didn’t know.
Two years ago, a year before I did it at Yale. I memorized both at once—as best as you are able without props, sitting at your kitchen table. If you didn’t bother with the physical actions you couldn’t do the words.
Did you feel more pressure when you moved from your kitchen table into the mound?
Wiest: My first time in the mound was my first feeling that this was possible, that I might be able to do this. Sitting at the kitchen it just felt humiliating and embarrassing.
What is it like being in the mound at first?
Wiest: James Bundy, the director, told me early on I was overcoming the obstacle of the mound—I would swivel in it and take all this freedom. Then when they close you in at the front and the back you really cannot move. That’s an incredible thing. You are trying to reach my husband, Willie, trying to reach anything and you can’t. And you ache, your neck hurts but still you have to reach.
In the second half, I am so exhausted from doing the first act, it’s kind of a relief—all you can move is your eyes. At first, I would take liberty and move my head but you lose something from the script—“Eyes left, trying to see the bag. Eyes right, trying to get Willie to answer you.”—it diminishes the power of that.
You stand in the first act and sit in the second, right?
Wiest: I’m standing in the first act on a rubber kitchen mat that chefs use it helps with shock absorption. It helps with the knees as much as anything might. And Jessica has this stool so my knees are lower than my hips and for the most part that gets me through the second act.
Everybody should sit that way you’re hurting your hip joints if your knees are higher than your hips.
Do you go through a lot of shoes?
Wiest: Zappos knows me so well. In my dressing room you can see them all lined up. During the Yale shows, I had Fitflops, but now I have to go up and downstairs to get in and out of the first act and I was so terrified I was going to lose the Fitflops; they made a sneaker and I bought them but after first run through my toes were numb.
For the curtain call I have to change to flat boots because I can’t have a heel or I’d go right through the mound.
It must be draining being in there.
Wiest: That’s why I should have done it when I was younger, before the arthritis kicked in.
Are you doing Pilates or yoga to help you?
Wiest: Only constantly. I’m always trying to get to physical therapy because I do have osteoarthritis. And there’s a brilliant Alexander Technique teacher from Yale, Jessica Wolf, who helped me so much.
Is it easier this time around since you’ve done it before?
Wiest: I’m more terrified here. You don’t want to repeat for the sake of repeating and you don’t want to do something new for the sake of doing something new—then you get actor-y. And I’m not home here yet. At Yale I looked out I was above everybody’s head. Here, it’s a different layout and I can’t look anywhere without addressing somebody and I don’t want to address anyone because Winnie is talking to herself. So I can’t get comfortable talking to myself, without putting an audience.
I have some work ahead of me.
You’ve mentioned that you read a lot to prepare for roles, so you can understand the characters and the time period. What did you read to prepare for the role?
Wiest: I haven’t been able to read anything other than books by or about Beckett for three years. The irony is that The New York Times asked me to do something choosing my favorite books but I have to say ‘I’m so sorry I haven’t read for three years.’
You could list Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett.
Wiest: Then I would have to admit that for the past two years I’ve had 100 pages to go. I won’t finish because I don’t want him to die. I’ll have to finish it eventually but just not right now.
What do you want to take on next?
Wiest: After you’ve done all the Chekhov, there’s nothing left but Beckett. Now, there’s nothing else that will ever be a challenge the way this one is such a challenge in every possible way. There’s nothing else I want to do. I just want to keep on doing Happy Days.