Butler MFA student Elisabeth Giffin will take the stage this weekend as Ivy, the middle sister in the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning play August: Osage County. The show runs Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through March 1st at Carmel Community Playhouse. The actress and playwright also teaches writing and acting to children.
Congratulations for earning such a prestigious role! What do you love about this play and role? What’s challenging?
I am absolutely thrilled to be a part of such an incredibly talented ensemble of actors. August: Osage County is one of those dream plays every actor wants to be cast in—it premiered at Steppenwolf in Chicago in 2007 and swept the Jeff awards before moving on to Broadway and winning several Tonys, Drama Desks, and then eventually the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2008.
The play has all the elements of a great drama, with the family dysfunction and intellectually laced dark comedy being reminiscent of American classics like Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The playwright Tracy Letts dedicated the play to Oklahoma poet Howard Starks, whose poem “August: Osage County” obviously lent itself to the play.
Poetry becomes a major element of the play, which begins and ends with T.S. Eliot quotations. Beverly Weston, the patriarch whose disappearance sparks the events of the play, was an “award-winning poet” and professor, and so references to academia and poets abound. Other characters work at universities such as University of Colorado in Boulder, and my character, Ivy Weston, is said to work at the University of Tulsa.
Portraying Ivy Weston, the middle sister, has been a life-changing experience. Ivy is an incredibly compelling character, and has quite a few secrets and struggles to overcome (or not overcome) throughout the course of the play. The character does not fall into my traditional “type,” so it has been such a joy to stretch myself as an actor. The biggest challenge for me with this role has been the character’s age; as written, she is 44—and so in addition to emotional work I have taken on a lot of supplemental physical work to portray Ivy as authentically as possible. It has been a challenge—but I am so grateful that the director Doug Peet and the assistant directors saw something in me at auditions to take such a risk.
How to you manage time between acting projects and being a student?
I found out sometime in high school that I was not only happiest when I was busy but also my most productive and inspired. I quickly learned how to balance schoolwork and rehearsal time, and have thrived in these “conditions” (if you will) ever since. I obviously allow myself breaks in taking on productions—last semester, for instance, I told myself I couldn’t audition for anything—but overall I feel the most complete as a person, an artist, and a writer when I have several things on which to focus. It’s a process of constantly being in discovery—I will commit a happy accident in a rehearsal that will spark something that connects to the play or novel I am working on at the time, which will in turn then help inform me about an acting choice I could make, etc.
How does acting strengthen your playwriting?
When I was a senior in college and trying to figure out where to go next, I struggled with the choice between acting and writing—but I was comforted knowing that they are not mutually exclusive. The beautiful thing about being an actor is the ability to not only live out the experiences of great characters and experience and their stories—but to actually live the structure of a literary work. It’s impossible not to become intimately acquainted with a work once you are cast in it—you become the work. Scripts, while the great ones can be and are often celebrated as masterpieces of dramatic literature, aren’t in actuality meant to be read. They are meant to be seen, heard, and felt. So acting is perhaps, in many ways, the best way to learn playwriting. As an actor, you can tell when a script isn’t working—when something doesn’t jive well, when there’s an awkward bit, etc. Acting and performance is a hands-on editorial process.
Does Indy provide many opportunities for acting?
I never realized until I came back [to Indianapolis] after having been in Ohio for 5 years just how many theatres Indianapolis has. The Encore Association, which is the association of community theatres in Indy and surrounding areas, includes ten local theatres (Carmel Community Playhouse being one of these); there are several semi-professional community theatres such as Theatre on the Square and the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre; and then you have your equity, professional theatres such as Actors Theatre of Indiana, Indiana Repertory, Beef and Boards, and the Phoenix Theatre. In addition to these, you have several independent theatre companies and groups, as well as performance venues that will host productions, outdoor performances, etc. Tons of new groups and companies are popping up all the time, it seems.
Carmel Theatre Company, where I am teaching and directing children’s musical theatre, for example, is in its inaugural season this year–it had formerly been Carmel Repertory Theatre. That brings up children’s theatre opportunities–which is another whole category of companies focused on providing opportunities for young actors. As someone who is involved in the Butler Bridge Program, children’s and educational theatre programs also really interest and excite me.
And then, of course, Indianapolis’s many museums are often offering great opportunities for actor-interpreters and roles in their in-house productions. To sum it up—Indy theatre is alive and well!
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY
By Tracy Letts
Directed By Doug Peet
A vanished father. A pill-popping mother. Three sisters harboring shady little secrets. When the Weston family unexpectedly reunites after Dad disappears, their Oklahoman family homestead explodes in a maelstrom of repressed truths and unsettling secrets. Winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and Tony award.
FEBRUARY 13, 2015 – MARCH 1, 2015
Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30PM
Sundays at 2:30PM
Tickets: Adults $17 / Seniors (62+) and Students $15
*This show contains adult language and subjects; 17 years of age and older advised.