[quirky downtown theater actor]
Susan Blackwell makes a name for herself in [title of show].
Fri Jul 11 2008
Susan Blackwell’s dressing room at the Lyceum Theatre, where she makes her Broadway debut this week in the musical [title of show], is not the latest word in backstage glamour. The walls of her closet-size compartment are bare but for a stuffed vampire-bat toy—a gift from her husband, musician Steve White—that hangs above her makeup table. “It’s pretty spare,” she admits. “I’ve got three boxes of tampons. I’ve got paper towels.” But the actor is keeping her modest digs in perspective. “It doesn’t matter,” she says cheerfully. “We’re not stars. We’re, like, just us.”
That attitude is at the thumping heart of the sweetly metatheatrical [title of show], whose four cast members play themselves in a musical about making the musical that they are in. In addition to Blackwell, they include Hunter Bell, who also wrote the book; Jeff Bowen, who wrote the score; and musical-theater trouper Heidi Blickenstaff. After beginning at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2004, [tos] has gradually moved up to the Great White Way (all the while chronicling the journey on YouTube).
Blackwell, 39, is a key ingredient in the show’s soufflé-like rise. At once homey and edgy, soothing and sardonic, she is a cool chick who also seems like a fundamentally warm person, and it is hard to imagine [tos] without her vital and distinctive humor. Yet before Bell and Bowen invited her to join them, Blackwell was set to give up performing for good. “I feel really grateful to my friends for rescuing me,” she says. “They airlifted me out of a very corporate ascension and plopped me down into this whole other experience.”
Born and raised in rural Ohio—“I literally grew up on a highway in the middle of nowhere,” she says—Blackwell spent two years with the Guthrie Theatre before moving to New York in 1995. For the next decade she performed in downtown venues like Dixon Place; she earned acclaim in a gender-crossed version of The Heidi Chronicles, and hosted P.S. 122’s Avant-Garde-Arama festival as part of the New Wondertwins. (Bowen was her musical director, and Bell a backup dancer.) But money was a problem. “I was doing temp work in offices during the day and doing these weirdo downtown extravaganzas at night, and I became burnt out,” Blackwell says. Slowly, her priorities shifted. “I stopped auditioning, and decided to take the Nestea plunge into the six-figure corporate experience.”
Meanwhile, her good friends Bell and Bowen decided they wanted her in [tos]. “Susan is incredibly smart and gifted and one of the funniest women I know,” says Bell. “She’s superspecial. So it was a dream of mine for as many people to see her as possible.” Blackwell had risen to a lucrative position at a consulting firm when the writers asked her to come on board. “I was like, ‘No! No! No! Fuck off!’ ” she recalls. “But, you know, happily.”
The version of herself that she plays onstage, Backwell says, is “a distillation” of her personality. “I’m quite a quiet, introverted person,” she notes. “But when I’m around people I really trust, I’m kind of a spaztard. So this show exposes me, and it has actually made me braver. I feel like it’s granted me permission to be more myself more of the time.” Facing up to one’s fears is a major theme of [tos]. “There are challenges that come with trying to be creative and express yourself, and this show speaks to that,” Blackwell says. “It’s more universal than just four actors who are trying to get their show up on Broadway: It’s about trying to do something in the world, and the joy of that, and the cost of that too.” Blackwell’s big number, “Die Vampire, Die!”—which she cowrote—is about the need to confront your fears head-on. (The metaphor of vampire-killing is based on a concept borrowed from the cartoonist and writer Lynda Barry.) “It’s something that I still have to go back to myself, because I’m filled with doubts and insecurities about many parts of my life,” she says.
For now, however, the vampires are at bay. At the musical’s first preview on July 5, [tos] superfans turned out in volcanic force, screaming their approval and mobbing the stage door afterward. After four years, the little show that could has made it up the hill, and although Blackwell still works 30 hours a week in an office, she is savoring her Broadway moment. “I’m just gonna drink it in and enjoy it, because it’s so surreal,” she says. “It’s like waking up into a dream.”
[title of show] opens at the Lyceum Theatre on Thu, July 17.