A Conversation with Karen Ziemba
May 3, 2000
Lincoln Center Theater's Platform series presents conversations with artists working at LCT before an audience of interested theatergoers. Admission is free and open to all. Platforms are held in the lobby of the Vivian Beaumont Theater. The following is a transcript, edited for clarity, of the May 3, 2000 Platform with Karen Ziemba:
THOMAS COTT: Good evening and welcome, Karen Ziemba! [applause] I'm Thomas Cott, Director of Special Projects for Lincoln Center Theater. Welcome to the latest in our series of Platform events. For those of you who have not been here before, it's an informal evening. I'll start by asking some questions and then turn things over to the audience, so be thinking of what you'd like to ask Ms. Ziemba.
To start out, I thought a little bio would be in order, so I did some research. Let me know if any of this is true! [she laughs] You grew up in the suburbs near Detroit...
KAREN ZIEMBA: Actually, I was born in St. Joe, Michigan, which is closer to Chicago. But yes, I went to junior high and high school in the suburbs of Detroit. It's sort of like Bergen County or Westchester. Only there was little or no public transportation. Everybody drives because it's so far from the city. Nobody can take a commuter train anywhere. They like automobiles. It's the "Motor City".
TC: You started studying dance from age six, and went to the University of Akron, where you majored in dance. You also studied voice.
KZ: Well, on the side. It was sort of extracurricular. I always loved singing. I sang since I was very young also, but I never really took it seriously. I really wanted to be a ballet dancer, a concert dancer.
TC: After college, you then had a stint with the Ohio Ballet, but, I believe you recognized soon after getting there that what you really wanted to do was musical theater.
KZ: Yes. I wanted to speak! I wanted to tell a joke.
TC: Boy, are we glad you did! Although, ironically, you're back doing ballet again in Contact.
KZ: Right. Thank goodness, I took all those classes! Who knew I'd be doing it again at this time in my life? It keeps me in shape. It keeps me maintaining everything like I should. Like I should be doing all the time but now, I have to, of course. I have no choice.
TC: For her role in Contact, Karen Ziemba has received some of the most glowing reviews of any performer this season. [applause] Karen, do you read your reviews? I know some performers don't like to...
KZ: I ask my husband to save them and I read them a few days later. You can get so self-conscious about what people say—sometimes it's best not to look for validation or criticism immediately, because you still have to show up every night and do your show. You can't just live on what somebody says; that you're fantastic or that you stink or your nose is too big, or whatever it is.
I also don't like knowing if somebody I esteem is in the audience… for example, Stephen Sondheim. Don't tell me Sondheim or Hal Prince is in the audience! Some people like to know. But I think it's better to just do your show, play your character, because otherwise the whole time you're saying, 'I wonder what Steve thinks!'
Sometimes with reviews it's better just to wait, but then you come into the theater and they say, "Congratulations! They really got what the show is about!" Then you want to go back and see what has been written.
TC: So you do read the reviews eventually?
TC: Okay, then maybe you won't mind if I read what one critic wrote about you: "Karen Ziemba is, quite simply, the best dancer on Broadway today. She brings such straightforward honesty to her work that you swoon with her as she experiences happiness, and you shed a tear at the piece's bittersweet finale." That's not so bad. [applause]
KZ: Thank you.
TC: And here's one more, from The New York Times: "You can feel how much the evening is molded to Karen Ziemba's personality. How much depth of character and feeling her presence has. She is a touchstone for the evening, and reminds us that what we are watching here is more than dance theater…it's dramatic art."
So that leads me to ask: do you think of yourself as a dancer? An actor?
KZ: What's so sweet for me now is doing this piece which is a little bit of speaking but primarily, it's dancing. It's so great for me because it's where I started, and yet, all that I've learned and all my experience that I've had just in living and becoming a more realized human being is now being executed through the dance. It's so much deeper because I'm older. I've had successes and I've had failures…It's just so wonderful to have this show, Contact, to display all that feeling, just revel in it. I'm so fortunate, I really am. It's a wonderful character that I play. So much of what I have to say, I get to say every night and I don't even have to say it in many words.
TC: The character was, in fact, created with you in a workshop. Is that a process that you're used to doing, or is that an unusual thing for you?
KZ: I have done workshops where things are created by individuals that are chosen to be part at an early stage. This piece started with the second act that you see in the show. The second act came first; the piece that takes place in the swing club. I was doing Chicago at the time at the Shubert Theatre, and I was invited to come see it. I was so moved by it! I thought, wouldn't it be wonderful to be up there dancing with these people?
I told Susan Stroman how marvelous it was—funny, touching and everything—and I guess she got the idea, maybe there's a story in there that Karen Ziemba can be a part of. So, she and John Weidman created this character from the 50's who also lived her fantasies through dance. That's how that was created. At least, that's how that idea was conjured up. Whatever I put into her came later.
I still try to come up with things. That's what's so great about doing it live. Things come into your head, or some audience member laughs at something you had never heard before and you go, 'Hmmm! I think I'm going to keep that in there.' It's great. A long run allows you to change things a little bit as it goes along.
TC: What's the longest you've played a role?
KZ: I did Crazy for You on Broadway for two years…almost three years, in fact. I closed that show. It was so satisfying to do. You sing George Gershwin every night with a wonderful cast. It was fun to go to work. It was a great time.
TC: Let's talk about the process of creating this character. Was there a script or what exactly did they hand you?
KZ: Yeah, there was a script and…I guess everybody's seen the show, I'm not sure...
TC: Have you all seen the show? [Most people raise their hands.]
KZ: Yeah, they've all seen it. Of course, everything was "Don't you fuckin' move!" [laughter] What? Who is this creep? Also, along with the scripts, Susan Stroman sent a cassette tape of classical music. Tchaikovsky and Puccini. [she laughs] I'm thinking, 'What's happening in this thing, you know? There's this guy screaming at this woman and there's this classical music...'
So I didn't really know what she had in mind. But I was game. Definitely game. Anything Susan Stroman asks me to do… The dialogue really didn't change. It was ten lines or so between these two people. What came out of it was this incredible story that didn't really need many words.
TC: You've worked a lot with Susan Stroman. Crazy for You, Steel Pier...
KZ: This is my sixth show with Susan.
TC: Wow. Has the process of working with her changed?
KZ: When I first started working with her, even though I was younger, I would say 'No, I don't think that's appropriate' or 'I don't know if I want to do that'. Now, it's 'Oh, sure whatever.' I just know that she is one of these people who takes risks, and she expects everybody else to take risks, too. It's much more enjoyable when you just jump off the mountain and try it.
TC: This time she was director as well as choreographer. Was that a different thing for you, as well?
KZ: It was different. What was nice in experiencing her work that way, was that, when it came to the dancing, it was all very large with these big visuals that she had. When it came to the acting, it was very much about the subtleties that she needed. So you saw her working in both ways. She's such a sensitive woman, and yet she has such a bombastic mind. She's got this wicked mind, it's great. It's funny and sexy and yet, she's a cream puff inside. She's very lovely and kind.
TC: So basically you don't like her. [laughter]
KZ: I want to marry her! [laughs] No, she has a lot of polarities. That's what's so great about working with her. She can bring you to tears one moment when she's talking about something, and then she gives you the confidence to…well, it wouldn't be take off your clothes, but it would be jump off a table or crawl under one, in my case.
TC: Which you do quite a lot!
KZ: Yes. A lot of physical comedy. A lot of big leaps and jumps, too.
TC: It must be so difficult to do eight times a week.
KZ: It is. But I have a really great partner, David MacGillivray, who originally worked with the National Ballet of Canada. He's a big guy. He used to partner Karen Kain, who was the prima ballerina there for many years. Everything came back to me from when I was 17 years old doing ballet. But I never got to be the star ballerina in a dance company.
TC: You sure are in this piece!
KZ: I'm sort of living it now, later in life and I really appreciate it.
TC: Okay. The workshop happened and at the end of those six weeks…
KZ: "Did You Move?" actually only took three weeks. Then they did "Swinging", which is the other part of the first act, as you know.
TC: At the end of that process, what did you think?
KZ: To be perfectly honest, I knew I was having a wonderful time, but I asked my husband and some very close friends—who would be honest with me—to come see it. I wasn't sure about this piece because it was so different from anything I'd ever done. It wasn't a traditional musical. Also, it ends very tragically. That was in my mind, too, because—gosh, it's so sad. How are people going to feel about the abuse? I just had to ask some questions.
My close friends came to see the workshop and they said it was moving, it's beautiful, you're terrific and, 'I think you might want to hang around, discover a little bit more and see what happens.' So I did. But I really had trepidation about it, because it was so unusual.
TC: Once you started performing at the Newhouse, did you feel reassured by what you were getting back from the audience?
KZ: Yes. It was clear they were 'with' me every second.
TC: And how has playing the Beaumont compared to the Newhouse?
KZ: What's nice is that when there's a moment of silence, you can hear a pin drop, it's so silent. There's a thousand people who are silent or clutching their throats because they don't know what's going to happen. And when there's laughter, it's tumultuous. It's great on either end, just because of the amount of people. We have more space to jump and leap in. That is wonderful, too. There's a vastness, yet an intimacy, in the Beaumont.
TC: Do you think audiences at the Beaumont react differently than audiences did at the Newhouse. I mean, now it's a hit musical at the Beaumont but at the Newhouse, the show was still being discovered...
KZ: Yes. You have to create your own confidence more when you're first proving yourself. Once a show has proven itself and you have the opportunity to display it, it's built in. At that point, it's just doing the work and concentrating and getting something out of it every night so everybody who is viewing it is getting something out of it, too. It becomes a sharing thing at that point, as opposed to needing approval.
When we're out there performing, I don't think it's so much about approval as much as afterwards, you're thinking 'Hey, did I get a laugh there?' or 'Was somebody yawning?' I think you can get distracted. But now I know I have something to be very proud of.
And the reaction varies at each performance. With an older audience, the reaction is going to be a bit more subtle. They're still enjoying themselves, but they're not stomping their feet. You have to believe that they're getting something out of it. Sometimes we get a bunch of students who gasp when something happens; they're more vocal.
TC: And speaking of the audience, are there any questions out there?
AUDIENCE MEMBER #1: What do you do while you're not on stage, during the other two pieces?
KZ: The first piece, "Swinging", is only ten minutes long so I'm putting on my costume, fixing my hair and make-up, doing finishing touches. Jason Antoon and I are down below, getting ready to enter, the minute the lights come down. We're back there warming up and stretching. I'm going over my lines to make sure I don't flub.
During the second act—it's amazing. At first I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I have to be here for the whole second act. I'm going to be bored.' But it goes by so fast. I listen to the music, of course, because it's played throughout the entire floor. But I am like a one-man ticket booth! So many people want to come see the show. I'm taking care of my house seats; I'm calling my friends. I do correspondence. I'm also seeing to my costume; if it has to be altered or if something was ripped from when I was crawling on the floor. I have to get my hair done because I am totally drenched in sweat after "Did You Move?" There are so many things. I take my costume off, and then I put another costume on. I have two dresses. Fix the make-up, of course.
TC: But you never watch the other parts?
KZ: I did watch "Contact" down in the Newhouse, because I was able to go up to the stage manager's booth to view. But I've watched it so many times… And, now we can also go down to the basement and watch it on a big television monitor. But, I don't do that too much anymore. I should start doing that, when people stop calling me for tickets!
AM #2: I have two questions. First, you said that you have student audiences here sometimes. Do you get to talk to the students afterwards?
KZ: Yes, we do. In fact Dean, who works in the Education department at Lincoln Center Theater, is right in front of you, and he could talk to you more about that. We love to have students come. They give them some theater training up front—how to behave when you are seeing a show. How to respect the people around you and be quiet. All that kind of stuff that, unfortunately, a lot of people don't understand today. They're so used to talking at the television set.
After the performance, Dean talks to them about what they got out of it. How do they feel after watching this? It's interesting as he goes across class lines and racial lines, asking different kinds of people what they get out of the show; what effects them and what attracts them. The guys always disagree with the girls about certain things!
This show is such great fodder for discussion. When anybody ever interviews me about Contact, I have so much to say. There are so many layers. I think everybody relates to the stories on some level or another, because they're universal. Just wanting to escape from your dull life or being rejected and you can't stand it any longer; what are you going to do about it? Somebody trying to make contact with somebody else. It goes on and on and on. The stories say so much.
AM #2: Thanks. My second question is, did you change the dialogue at all when the show moved upstairs to the Beaumont?
KZ: We added a bit of dialogue because the theater was larger, and it took longer to walk around and make our second entrance, so they gave some more dialogue to the headwaiter...
TC: While he's doing that, she is racing around underneath!
KZ: They also added a little bit more dialogue at the very beginning. My husband says to me, "You look good." Little things like that. John Weidman and Susan Stroman wanted to establish the couple's relationship: they've been together for a while, how much she wanted to please him, etc.
TC: Now let's talk about this character. Do you have a whole back-story in your mind about who these people are?
KZ: Not really. There's so many people that I know in this character.
TC: Do you have a name for her in your head?
KZ: Yes, her name is Donna. But she wants to be Dolores! [laughs] So when she's dancing, she's Dolores.
TC: The husband is so mean. Why do you think she stays with this creep?
KZ: Because it's 1954. Because she's Catholic. Because she loves him. Because they have a little boy. Which you hear about in the story in just ten lines; the writing is so good, so spare. I'm not saying that it's proper or it's politically correct that she stays. People who lived in the 1950s know that women reacted to men with submissiveness, trying to make things work, shutting up when they were told and keeping the status quo.
I think that it still goes on today, even though it's not cool and everybody knows it's not cool. We've all seen Oprah and Sally and everything else. It's in the media constantly. And it's in our laws. We know it's not appropriate, but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen. It goes on. Unfortunately it does.
AM #3: Would you like to tour in this show?
KZ: It would be a tough show to tour in, because of the maintenance.
TC: What do you mean by maintenance?
KZ: Physical maintenance. It would be interesting to see how this show works in different venues, because there are very few theaters like this in the country, that are built like the Mitzi Newhouse and the Vivian Beaumont. How they have to change it for a proscenium theater or a much larger theater. It's a possibility. I never say never.
TC: There it is. We have it on tape!
AM #4: Can you discuss the controversy over whether Contact is really a musical or not?
KZ: Like any kind of art, the musical theater has to change and grow. Depending on what the climate is, what the needs of the public are. There is no Musical Theater God that says 'It's got to be such and such.' Of course, if you are a musician, you would think that it should be played by live musicians and it should have an original score…it can get very, very deep.
But we need to discover new ways of presenting musical theater. For example, Les Miserables is a sung-through musical with no dance. Our show is a musical with no singing, but the story is told through dance and music that is supposed to be coming from the CD player of Michael Wiley, or from the phonograph of the wife in my piece. It's a different idea. It's the way the piece was conceived.
TC: It's not a trend.
KZ: It's not a trend, right. It's not trying to set a precedent of any kind. It's just a different way of telling a story.
AM #5: Do you have a different approach when you're originating a role, as opposed to when you're taking over one?
KZ: Of course, you can get so much out of watching an actor who originates a role, that it's impossible not to take on some of their mannerisms, or the things that almost could work for you from their performance. But it is a lot more satisfying to start from scratch, because it's something that you've created out of your own personality. I try to do that when I replace in a role, too.
In my experience, I've been able to bring a lot of who I am to a character, when I'm replacing in a role. I've never done a show where I've had to be a carbon copy of somebody else, though I know that does happen. In a lot of long-running shows, they want you to pause here, stand here, turn here, raise the hands, do the eyes…it's very much on a grid. I think that's unfortunate, though, because every individual can bring so much of who they are to a performance.
AM #6: Any talk about making a movie out of Contact?
KZ: Not yet!
TC: People already get our show confused with Jodie Foster's movie of the same name...
KZ: I wouldn't be surprised if somebody's thinking of it, somewhere.
TC: Well, first we need to have it play here for a long time. That's what I'm thinking. [laughter]
KZ: [laughs] He works here!
TC: Karen, you are one of the hardest working people I know. For example: other people went on vacation during the month or so between when the show moved from the Newhouse to the Beaumont, but you did two workshops!
KZ: [laughs] Yes, I did a reading of a new musical called The Big Time. In fact, they are doing another reading of it now, but I'm not going to be involved with it this time, because we're so busy here. But you always have to try to keep doing new things. I had a month off, so I figured I take a couple weeks off and then I'll do something new.
TC: When you were in And The World Goes Round, you were also doing The Most Happy Fella...
KZ: Yes. I was in the City Opera production of Happy Fella. I always loved that show. My producers at And The World Goes Round allowed me to take some time off to do that. The performances I did at City Opera were on Wednesday nights after I did a matinee at World Goes Round.
TC: Would you say that you're happier when you're at full throttle?
KZ: Definitely. The more you have on your plate, the more you get done. Because you really focus on things. As opposed to sitting around going, 'When's the phone going to ring?' It's better to have stuff.
TC: Now I know that your favorite role is the Wife in "Did You Move?" But your second favorite role might be…?
KZ: Oh, gosh! That's so hard to say. I did a production of 110 in the Shade over at City Opera, playing Lizzie Curry. That was a wonderful part. She's such a great character. It was one of my favorites. I'm also going to be doing—I haven't played this role yet—a benefit concert of South Pacific for Lincoln Center Theater at the end of the month. I'll get to play Nellie Forbush, which I've always wanted to do. [applause]
TC: That role, of course, was originally played by Mary Martin. I know that she's one of the people that you looked up to ...
KZ: I wanted to be Peter Pan! [laughs] I was always trying to jump off of something and ended up hurting myself. I remember thinking how Mary Martin was so unbelievable when I was a kid. When I see her now, I think, 'There's little Mary Martin, with her little chubby thighs!' [laughter] That's the way I look at her now. When you hear her singing, though, when you listen to her recordings, you can't help but get a lump in your throat, because she has something very, very deep. I really liked her. So this is sort of a dream of mine.
TC: Who are the other people you looked up to?
KZ: Oh, gosh. My Mom liked to watch movies. We watched a lot of movies together. Of course, I loved the dance movies, the movies with Ginger Rogers. Cyd Charisse. I always liked Shirley MacClaine, and Judy Garland and Judy Holiday...and Betty Garrett. I liked the funny ladies a lot, too. Carol Burnett, of course, I love.
TC: Have you ever worked with any of these ladies?
KZ: I've met them. I've met Carol Burnett and Julie Andrews, of course. Oh! I was taking a voice lesson and, a lot of the kids from Les Miserables also take voice lessons with my teacher. You know, when you're finished with your voice lesson, the buzzer rings and you let the next person in and then you write your check. I thought, someone's coming in, so I went to get it. And it was Julie Andrews!
I said, 'oh, it's so good to see you!' She said, 'it's so good to see you, too!' It was the first time I'd met her, and she was rehearsing Victor/Victoria, and she was in a little plaid suit. She's so beautiful. She's such a nice lady. She's exactly like you see her on the screen, and you've seen her on television. She's just a peach. Anyway, I was pretty excited to meet her. She's so lovely.
AM #7: Did you ever meet Ginger Rogers?
KZ: Yes. I did Babes in Arms with her at the Tarrytown Music Hall. I had been doing 42nd Street on Broadway and I was doing a lot of tap dancing in that. The guy who did the choreography for it, asked me if I wanted to play this role in Babes in Arms, because there would be a lot of tap dancing. He said, 'Ginger Rogers is going to direct it.' I just wanted to work with Ginger Rogers.
So I got be friends with Ginger Rogers. We lost her a few years ago, but she was still alive when I was doing Crazy for You, playing the role that she originated in Girl Crazy in 1933.
She saw the play in Los Angeles at the Shubert, and that was very exciting. She was a pretty cool lady, too. What a life. Also, she was a great comedienne. I think because she was so gorgeous—she was known as Miss Glamour Queen. But she was funny. She had great, subtle timing. If you go back and look at her films, you'll see how fine an actress she was.
AM #8: Can you talk about any other favorite shows you've done?
KZ: You have favorites for different reasons, and they all are kind of like stepping stones. Chicago, for me, was a stepping stone. I was doing Bob Fosse choreography for the first time. And I was playing a bad girl who shot people and only cared about herself!
TC: Was that your first bad girl?
KZ: Real bad girl, yeah. I mean, I might have given someone a dirty look once in awhile, but it was never like that. So Chicago was great. Of course, Crazy for You because of George Gershwin, and it was a big hit show. My first leading man on Broadway was Jerry Orbach in 42nd Street, now he's a star on TV.
All these different things lead up to something. All of them are good, even the failures and the things that are not successful are really great to experience. Not at the time, but in hindsight, you look back and say, I see why that happened or this is why I got into that. So they're all good for something.
AM #9: What about Steel Pier?
KZ: Steel Pier was a beautiful show. It had some problems, but it was an original musical, and to do something from scratch takes a lot of time.
It needs to be seen in front of many audiences before you throw it on Broadway. But even though the show was not a success, I still learned a lot. And that's why, right now, I feel so great. I'm in a successful show like Contact. This is that much more sweet for me.
TC: Well, we all love what you do, too, and we love that you're here with us tonight. Unfortunately, we have to let you go because you have to go do the show. But we thank you, Karen Ziemba...[applause] and thanks to the audience for coming here tonight, too. Good night!