May 2015 “Actor Stealing the Spotlight” (ASS)
Hiya! Welcome to a regular feature at TBO. Every month we highlight an Actor who is currently Stealing the Spotlight (or, the ASS). This is someone from our community who particularly stood out for their performance or body of work the previous month (obviously from the shows that we actually reviewed). We think it’s fun to shine some light on those who continue to make the Baltimore theater scene just fucking great.
AND THE ASS FOR MAY 2015 GOES TO:
Natanya Washer is a fucking Baltimore treasure, y’all. She caught my eye and attention in this March’s The Mesmeric Revelations of Edgar Allan Poe playing the dark souled Virginia in that creepy, crawly, theatrical/performance art mashup and then I got to see her again doing her opera thing in Annex’s The Magic Flute. She’s a “can’t take your eyes off her” delight, at once strong and trembling, vulnerable and confident.
I had nothing but praise for Natanya in my review of Flute: “I just saw Natanya Washer in The Mesmeric Revelations of Edgar Allan Poe and was struck by her singular beauty and almost ridiculously wide-eyed innocent air, here she plays it to the hilt as the sweet Pamina. She’s the real deal, too, a genuine opera singer with a bio that makes me feel super unaccomplished. Her voice sounds like a million fucking dollars, which is probably what you’d have to pay to hear her sing in any other context, so this is a damned steal. It’s about as close to perfect as you can get.”
I lured Natanya into an interview, so here’s what she spilled.
Let’s start easy – describe a day in the life of Natanya. What do you do to make money? You’re in school, I think?
That’s very complicated, there are lots of things going on at once. I’m still a student at Peabody, I have my Bachelor’s degree and now I’m continuing on to my Master’s. When I’m not in school I tune and repair pianos as one of my sources of income and when I’m not doing that I work at Brick Bodies as a personal trainer. So, school, work, training.
I first noticed you in The Mesmeric Revelations of Edgar Allan Poe, that insane and fabulous immersive theater thing I saw in March. You were the ghost (I guess?) of Edgar Allan Poe’s wife, Virginia. Can you talk about that experience?
Yeah, I can. Mesmeric started as a Ruby grant project. I was actually brought onto the team last. I collaborated on the research stage of Virginia, Susan Stroupe [director] brought me onto the project. I had little direction on the character at first, I knew she was thirteen when she got married and then she got very ill. From that point it was a lot of workshopping. For me, a lot of the devising was the research process because I was the only one in the cast not trained in theater, so I soaked it all in. The most useful thing was doing the research on the character, how I understood the innocence with the darkness of Poe and how that tied into mesmerism. I don’t think I actually had my path set until we opened, I hadn’t run through the whole thing. The character evolved throughout the run.
Did you feel like the format was closer to performance art than to theater? It certainly wasn’t the sort of experience I’m used to seeing in Baltimore (although there is precedent for it, of course, in Sleep No More, the Punchdrunk jam in New York)?
Um….yes. And no. Yes because the show was very different from traditional theater in terms of how the actors interact with the audience, the way that you have to activate the muscles. They aren’t just staring at you from one angle. But no because I think theater as a whole is starting to go in the direction of immersive theater, even opera is, although that’s a little later in the game. People are more interested in a more activated form of acting, activated as in every single angle is active for the audience. So yes in the old sense, but no in the new sense.
You are an incredibly accomplished artist. And you have a list of operatic accomplishments. And you were recently in Amadeus at Centerstage, too, weren’t you? Was that your first professional acting gig?
Yes, it was. I’m so new and I don’t ever want to disrespect those actors who have trained for their whole lives, I’m not at that level. But the acting classes at Peabody interested me. My dad used to give me these scenarios and get me to act them out and then he would tell me if he believed me, you know, how geniune I was. It was a game. So I was always interested in doing more than opera, but I didn’t jump into that world in Baltimore until I got an e-mail asking me to audition for Center Stage. Kwame (Kwei-Armah, Artistic Director at Center Stage) was very kind to me. He made it a point that I knew I was being hired for acting, when I walked in, he really liked what I brought to the audition room. And he said it was “a plus that you can sing as well” and that was very encouraging, hearing that. I thought, “Okay, maybe I just need to try it out and learn as much as I can.”
With all that training and experience, what makes you want to take on a role like Pamina [in the recent The Magic Flute] for a small company like Annex? Does that at all seem like a come down, or is it freeing in some ways?
No, no, it was not at all. Not at all a come down. I loved it – I still love it, we have one more children’s performance on Sunday. No, it definitely wasn’t a come down. I really do love experimental theater. I didn’t think it was small at all. I was surprised when they gave Pamina to me, it was very humbling, and not at all any lesser of a gig than Poe. It was exactly what I needed, actually, after doing such a dark show. I was working with such dark images, tuberculosis, death. I was in that mindset for an entire year. And then I also did Mansfield Park, the American premiere, and I played Maria. She’s so often a bland character to make her seem sort of suspicious or sneaky. After doing Poe I made her very flirtatious and silly, and that helped a lot. That’s when I realized I needed some balance. I don’t want to lose sight of either world, opera or theater.
So, in some ways you would say you came back to the light?
Yeah, exactly. Pamina was such a funny character. You don’t really get to play that kind of damsel for very long and I probably wouldn’t have gotten to ever play that part in the big world of opera. It was fun.
Talk to me about Flute. What did you think about the changes that Evan [Moritz, director] made to the script to make it less fucking sexist, for a start?
I was pretty on board for a lot of it. I didn’t go into that opera treating it like I would working with a big name opera company. That’s not me being offensive, it’s just a matter of what the audience is looking for. I was completely on board with shedding some light on the tropes on an opera very, very frequently done in a similar way. Usually, they’re just accepted, those things are not really highlighted because the story is so familiar in that world. But in modern society it does read differently and I like that Evan addressed that. We joked a lot during the process that the show is like a video game, a little dialogue and then you advance to the next level, that’s the way it’s broken up, it’s so silly. I’m used to listening to it with big orchestras, full sound, all of it. It was condensed to be more accessible, which I thought was appropriate. It was originally a vaudeville, something brought to a small theater to perform for poor people that may be drunk, may not have the same manners as higher society.
Wanna talk some shit about anyone in the cast or crew and have it attached to your name forever on the internet?
That’s funny. Ah…actually. No. I don’t. I think I lucked out with both of those shows. It was pretty funny, though, to work on the premiere [of Mansfield Park] in between them. I’ve never been the stereotypical, sassy, prima donna kind of soprano, so I found it kind of hilarious the way that some of the opera performers behaved in contrast to the small theater casts. I’m like, “Oh my God, we are bitches!” So that was funny. But specific people to talk shit about, not, I don’t think so.
What’s coming up next for you?
I’m taking a few weeks off and then I’m preparing for a duet recital in July. After that I’m going to spend some time with family and then I have to start preparing for my graduate recital. I want to find a way to truly represent both worlds that I’m a part of, the opera and the theater. I would like to do something with electronic music, a performance art type of piece. And then it’ll be back to Poe, we’re extending the run into next year, we just signed the lease. Busy!
Got someone you’d like to nominate for next month’s ASS? E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.