Colleen Werthmann starred as 'The Storyteller' in the Off-Broadway musical Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson which played from 23 Mar - 27 Jun 2010 at the Public's Newman Theater.
7th Sep 1970.
Place of birth?
Saint Paul, Minnesota.
You now live in?
A brownstone in Harlem, New York, New York, with my husband, Gardiner Comfort, who’s also an actor.
Did you go to training school, if so which one?
I was a Drama major at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and did my studio training at the Circle in the Square. After that, I was an observer at The Actors Studio for a while, and then I studied with the legendary acting teacher Wynn Handman.
As an actor, do you have a preference for stage, TV or film?
I love them all, for different reasons. Theater is all about getting on a roll, the togetherness with the audience, and the ephemeral -- it disappears every night. TV and film are fun because you work in tandem with so many other aspects of production, and you can hold it in your hands afterward (the DVD, anyway). I kind of think of theater as like lap swimming and TV/film as like diving. With theater you get to build up endurance, and challenge yourself over a long time. In TV and film, you only get a few chances to do each angle, so you have to be prepared and precise, because everything shoots out of sequence.
Your first stage performance was?
I was a Townsperson and/or tree in 4th & 5th grade school production of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” I went to Catholic school, and I think we wore our uniforms during the play.
Career highlight to date?
I feel like I have a lot of career highlights, because I’m super proud of the things I’ve gotten to do and the people I’ve gotten to work with.
When I was 21, I got to work with Richard Foreman, the experimental playwright/director/designer. That’s actually how I got my Equity card. I got to be with a true genius every day.
Touring in Berlin with the experimental theater company Elevator Repair Service, which I helped found, was one of the most thrilling and validating times I ever had with those guys.
Doing my three solo shows, CATHOLIC SCHOOL GIRLS RULE, FIRE IN THE HOLE, and SHE HATES HER SUPERVISOR, at PS122, Westbeth, Joe’s Pub, and HERE. It’s an incredibly meaningful experience to perform your own writing and take control of your artistic life.
Being in Rebecca Gilman’s play BLUE SURGE at The Public Theater. One of my all-time favorite roles, playwrights, and casts, hands-down. I played Heather, a rowdy prostitute in a rural Midwestern town. Getting to do a show at The Public was huge for me. When I first came to New York as a college freshman, I was a total theater nerd and I knew the Public was where tons of great shows were born. I went over there, knelt down, and kissed the steps of the Public. I actually touched my lips to the steps and said to myself, “Someday.” (I shoulda said, “Help, my lips are now covered in GERMS.”) I’d been auditioning at the Public since age 19, and got BLUE SURGE there at age 31. It took so long to get a part there, I felt like an Olympic gold medalist walking up those steps every day to go to work. And doing BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON there, I still feel the same way.
Doing Melissa Gibson’s play SUITCASE at Soho Rep, technically and emotionally was one of the most difficult plays I’ve ever done, with a cast that was not only totally thoroughbred, but also totally delightful – Christina Kirk, Tom Ryan, and Jeremy Shamos. And Daniel Aukin is a great director.
Getting cast in MISS WITHERSPOON. When I was at NYU, we’d do Durang scenes in class, and they were so hilarious, delicate, and HARD! I would wonder, “What were these plays like when they were first done?” And then I got to be in the original production of a brand-new play of his. I got to be in the BLUEPRINT! His plays require an absolute depth of feeling and commitment to the characters’ truths, however loony they seem on the page. I felt like I had “arrived”. Getting to work with Kristine Nielsen was like a master class in comedy every day.
THE MISTAKES MADELINE MADE at Naked Angels. I played an uptight office manager who tries to have compassion for her crazy, hostile young coworker. Very unlike the characters I normally get to play (working-class, outrageous). Evan Cabnet, who directed it, made me feel so free and supported, and he is such a fabulous, fabulous director, I think it’s one of the best performances I’ve ever given. And I got to work with Tommy Sadoski, Laura Heisler, Ian Brennan, and Brian Henderson, all awesome people and actors.
Being part of The Civilians theater company has been a deeply rewarding experience: creating, touring, and being in the off-Broadway run of GONE MISSING at the Barrow Street Theater. I worked on that show for six years, on and off, and it holds a dear place in my heart, because we went all over the country with it, and it is the best group of artists and people. Generous, talented, kind, and smart.
And, not to be corny, but I am so proud of being in BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON. It is the funniest group of people I’ve ever hung out with, way funnier than professional comedy writers and standup comics. The show is a joy to perform.
What roles would you most like to play?
Extremely well-paid ones. (Just kidding.) (Not really.)
Honestly, people might scoff at this, because they don’t see me this way, but I’d absolutely love to do some classical theater, especially Shakespeare and Moliere. A role where I have to wear a huge wig and a big complicated dress with a bustle, and carry a lorgnette and/or fan. Totally old-school! I’ve really only ever done new plays, and contemporary characters, so the opportunity to do verse would be amazing -- to bring my comic sensibility (and my rigor) to a classic text. I’d love to be in THE ROVER by Aphra Behn. I’d especially love to do Chekhov, any of the roles in THE THREE SISTERS, my favorite play. Or Nina in The Seagull, because when I was in acting school, I had to play Arkadina. More musical theater, for sure -- I’d love to play Reno Sweeney in ANYTHING GOES.
I yearn to do things that require virtuosity. Pegeen in PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD. Anna Christie. Josie in A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN. A Noel Coward play, maybe BLITHE SPIRIT. I’d love to be in David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette play.
I actually just got an audition to play Blanche in STREETCAR, and I was thrilled. So many people see me as tough, butch, salty, and comedic, and I love that somebody’s like, No, she can be delicate and dramatic and fragile and feminine. Let’s give her a chance.
What is the best advice you have ever received?
When I was in 10th grade, I was babysitting for a lady in our neighborhood, Mrs. Glineburg. She was really kind and friendly, and I confided to her as she was driving me home, “I’m thinking about becoming an actor when I grow up.” Right away, very seriously, she said, “Oh, you should do it! It’ll be so FUN!” That she encouraged my dream so sincerely meant the world to me. And you know what? She was right.
What has been your most embarrassing moment on stage?
Whenever I’ve had a super-bad cold, and my voice is compromised, I feel so ashamed.
What is the most annoying part about your job?
Not working. I can’t stand it. I get very anxious and depressed.
Briefly tell us how you become involved with Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson?
Five years ago, I went up to the Williamstown Theater Festival to see the very first workshop version of BLOODY with student actors in it. Alex Timbers (the writer/director) and I had just done an SPF show together and we had a fun time. I thought BLOODY was terrific, bursting with great ideas, and I had a hunch he wanted me to play the Storyteller character, ‘cause it’s sort of in my comedic wheelhouse. Sure enough, after the show, we were talking, and he said, “What’d you think of the Storyteller?” I said, “Pretty funny.” He said, “I want you to play that part someday.” Then last year, when the Public decided to do BLOODY as a Lab workshop, Alex asked me to have a short chit-chat and read a couple pages of new Storyteller stuff they were thinking about putting into the show. The next day, the Public made me the offer. And he wanted me to do it again this year, and of course, I said yes.
Briefly tell us about the character you play in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson?
The Storyteller narrates the life of Andrew Jackson for the audience. She looks like a fuddy-duddy school librarian, and also, she’s in a motorized wheelchair. She’s sort of like the experts you see on The History Channel documentaries who call Abraham Lincoln “Abe”, like they know him. She’s pleased as punch to be onstage with all these talented young people, and especially with Andrew Jackson, who’s so handsome and exciting! She’s got some secrets of her own. But then Andrew Jackson gets a little tired of her... and to find out what happens, you’ll have to come and see the show! I love playing her, because she is constantly full of surprises for the audience. It’s 55% Alex’s great character, 35% Emily Rebholz’s hilarious costume design, and 10% me, but I bring my whole self to it. I actually channel aspects of my mom and my Grandma for the role. My mom is a super-charismatic Irish-American woman who lights up a room with her smile, and my Grandma was a charming doyenne who loved to throw parties and sit in her high-back chair watching the fun unfold. She died a few years ago, when she was 102, and it’s my little way of honoring her. When she was toward the end of her life, I went to visit her. She told me she had just seen my play (I was doing a show at the time), and that she had some flowers for me. It still chokes me up, when I think about it. I think she would love that I bring her onstage, inside me.
If you had not become a performer, what might you have done instead?
I’m kind of doing it already, actually, because I also work as a comedy writer. If I wasn’t doing that, maybe I would be a translator. Or a teacher. Or a cheesemaker? Maybe something food-related. My dad is a chef and I’m a major food nerd.
Who are your favorite actors/actresses?
Bea Arthur, Sean Penn, Lucille Ball, Judy Davis, Sammy Davis Jr., Doris Roberts, David Hyde Pierce, Hugh Jackman, Bebe Neuwirth. Meryl Streep, it’s a cliché to say, but it’s true. There are the hundreds of people I’ve worked with, whom I adore and admire greatly. And the people I don’t know but admire, like Jan Maxwell, Marian Seldes, Michael Cumpsty, John Douglas Thompson, Peter Frechette, Mary Schmidt, Rita Wolf, Lisa Emery, David Greenspan, Elizabeth Marvel. As theater makers and seers in New York, we feast every day at a sumptuous banquet. Pretty astonishing.
If you could meet anyone in the world dead or alive who would it be and what would you say to them?
Jesus. I’d ask him if he really rose from the dead/is the Son of God. Like I said, I went to Catholic school. That’s my #1 question from childhood.
Favorite after-show haunts?
By The Public: Swift’s for pub grub, Indochine for fancy drinks, Acme if Swift’s is too crowded, and Hecho en Dumbo for Mexican small plates. It’s a bit further, but the Anyway Café on 2nd St & 2nd Ave is great for infused vodkas and Russian food.
What was the last book you read, and name some of your favorite authors?
I just finished ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, a memoir by Piper Kerman, about the year she spent in jail. Fascinating and a real eye-opener. My favorite authors are Mary Gaitskill, George Saunders, David Rakoff, Alan Bennett, David Foster Wallace, John Cheever, John Updike, J.F. Powers, Alice Munro, Anita Brookner, MFK Fisher, Ian Frazier, and S.J. Perelman.
What was the last film you saw, and name some of your favorite movies?
The 1980 version of FAME. My favorite movies are Richard Linklater’s SLACKER; Fassbinder’s THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT; NETWORK starring Faye Dunaway, William Holden, and Robert Duvall; VAGABOND, the Agnes Varda fake-u-mentary starring Sandrine Bonnaire; and Jean Renoir’s THE RULES OF THE GAME. I also love all heist movies.
Favorite holiday destinations?
I love going home to visit my family in Minnesota at Christmas and on the 4th of July. I love traveling. I wanna go everywhere.
Do you have any hobbies?
Cooking, crosswords, and room escape games. That’s a genre of free Flash-based online games which involve solving puzzles and riddles, finding hidden items, and combining items to escape from a locked room. Check out escapegames24.com and get hooked.
Do you have any superstitions?
No, I don’t believe in anything, let alone causality (the idea that “everything happens for a reason” = ugh).
If you were stranded on a desert island, what three items would you take with you?
Some sunscreen (I burn easily), a Swiss Army knife, and a radio to communicate with the mainland so I could leave.
What are your future plans?
Do lots and lots of acting, keep writing, have fun doing the show, become a better and better artist and person, and have a great life with my husband, my friends and my family!