Christina Hall | Performer of the week
Wed Sep 26 2012
Photo: Gregory Hollimon
On a tight deadline for 40 pages of “erotic entertainment designed for women,” screenplay writer Charlene has a bad day that only gets worse in Paula Vogel’s Hot ’N’ Throbbing. Christina Hall is breathtaking as Charlene in Interrobang Theatre Project’s exhilarating, 5-star production, giving an emotionally exhilarating performance as she deals with angry ex-husbands, stubborn children, and her subconscious made flesh. Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Hall began performing at a very young age and studied theater at Southern Methodist University. Partially inspired by the success of The House Theatre, founded by SMU alumnus Nathan Allen, Hall chose to come to Chicago rather than moving to New York or Los Angeles after graduation. Hall speaks to us about her initial reactions to the intense script, the challenges of playing Charlene, and how audiences have reacted to the provocative piece.
You’re playing the mother of two teenagers in this role, was that difficult for you considering you’re not near that age?
Well, I found myself in a really interesting place after I graduated. Now it’s a little better because I’m older and wiser, I suppose, but I’ve always read a bit older than I am. And at 22 to show up in town and read 35 when there are actually 35-year-olds who can play 35 was really hard. And it seemed extra silly to try to believe that kind of work would come knocking on my door from the Goodman, because I’m not going to be playing those parts, people appropriately aged will be. And I’ve had the opportunity to keep working because companies will take a risk, it’s not one big commercial gamble. This role in particular, I’m 29 and I’m playing the mother of two teenagers. Which is feasible, I guess, but stretching a little bit, especially since the people playing the two teenagers are much older than the roles they’re playing as well. I feel very fortunate that Chicago has afforded me the opportunity to keep working while not necessarily in the right time of my physical timeline.
What was your first reaction when you read the script? Did you read it before your audition?
I did. And I wasn’t actually familiar with it prior to the audition itself. I knew some of Paula Vogel’s work, but this was a piece I hadn’t read yet. The commentary in it, it’s really grisly. I didn’t want to touch it. And then when I picked it up for the audition, I was in a different place myself. Domestic violence always seemed something really far removed from my circumstances. I came from a really volatile household, but it never erupted into anything physical. So it just seemed really far-fetched, like that’s something other people do. Not real people who I encounter every day.
But I had a friend a couple years back, she was my age, a women’s studies major. She was a super feminist, a strong, tough-as-nails gal. I remember coming to the city green, and she’s the one who showed me the ropes. Liked to go out to parties, got in fistfights, tough broad. And this woman who didn’t take shit from anybody, I watched her get involved with a man, and within three months he was beating the hell out of her. I came and rescued her one night when he had tried to kill her. I walked in on a scene where there was blood smeared on the walls and bruise marks around her neck and it was—it made me look at domestic violence in a completely different light because that was my best friend. It happened to someone just like me, same background, same education, same strong will and feminist character, and it happened to her and it happened more than once because she stayed, which was such an eye-opener.
So when this script crossed my path before auditions, I was like, “Yeah, let’s look at that.” Because I guess I was ready. And reading it, I saw so much—I had a mom who worked really hard to make sure we were taken care of. I saw so much that I related to from my own life experience, and then there’s just this added element. Normal people, and then suddenly something went a little wrong where they fell into that circumstance. It could happen so easily to a lot of folks, and the ending, it’s just this depressing kick in the gut.
The actual action is so apocalyptic emotionally, but there’s other stuff throughout the play that really struck a chord with me as far the themes we’re calling on. How this sort of behavior gets slowly bled into our culture because of what we watch on TV as voyeurs, or see commonplace on the internet and YouTube. Crazy, violent stuff like Jackass that makes us desensitized to the actual feeling on the other side of watching someone get hit. There’s so much at play, and then to take on pornography, and how that culture—especially because I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been exposed to pornography at some point in their life. Much less, a lot people who are exposed to it a great deal on a regular basis in their life. And it takes a toll on the psyche after a time. It’s hard to recognize when you’re actually in the heat of trying to relieve yourself through porn.
In your bio, you thank people for keeping you sane during this process. What was the most challenging part of this role?
The hardest part is that Charlene starts the show extremely stressed out. She’s under a lot of pressure from moment one, and all you see is that escalate. It builds and builds and builds, there’s never a moment of relief. No one ever cuts her a break. And she’s trying so hard and balancing so many problems and ideas at the same time, it’s just [deep sigh] it’s a marathon. And in my real life, especially the way she behaves at the beginning of the play, that’s the way I deal with stress. Her reactions are very similar to my reactions: “I’m cool, I’m fine. I’M NOT FINE! I’M NOT FINE!” And the hardest part about this has just been letting go of the stress when I leave the show, not letting it actually be my life. Because putting a play up on top of carrying a job is stressful in and of itself. Lots of artists are doing it and we all say, “Oh, it’s fine, it’s fine,” but it’s exhausting, no doubt.
With fantasy and reality bleeding together and jump cuts moving the action at a very quick pace, how did you work with director Jeffry Stanton and the cast to make things clear for the audience?
Jeffry, a wonderful, beautiful director of a man, he was so giving in his time and open in his mind. We just hammered everything out, and there was never a point in our process when we couldn’t say, “This isn’t working. I don’t get this. What are we all doing together?” It’s difficult stuff, and we all had to let our guards down and have other people help us figure some things out. It wasn’t all there and accessible for any of us. There were a lot of brains working on each moment, massaging them, finding out what really was going on. Especially with [the characters of] the Voice-Over and The Voice, they’re quoting literature from obscure references, they’re giving screen directions, they’re really blurring the lines. They probably have the toughest job of all in terms of dictating the mood and reading where we’re headed. But we really took the time to be specific, especially once we added the scenic elements. Chris [Kriz] and Claire [Chrzan], the sound and lighting designers, oh my god. Their work made everything especially specific. You can run the lines and say it means this, but all the drama that we were able to create from moment to moment is really due to the design. They really helped pinpoint every moment of tension and shift of thought.
What is it like having the two voices on stage with you the entire time? You don’t interact with them, but how does it effect your performance?
Paula wrote in a lot to help, so there’s a lot you can think about when you’re reading the script, but it’s a different thing to feel your subconscious breathing down your neck, literally. It’s so fueling. Casey [Wortmann] especially, who plays the Voice-Over, the woman, she’s got such a strong voice. And Charlene has such a strong voice in her mind, such a strong will, but she’s been broken and so the strength of her voice isn’t always unwavering. She really channels a lot of her strength from the characters she imagines; they take on the parts that she sees weakness in, and she does the patchwork on herself through those roles. So Casey adds fuel to everything I should be feeling. Takes it up to volume 11.
How have audience reactions been?
It’s kind of varied because of the nature of the show. It’s really intense, there’s been a tendency to be quiet. (Laughs.) So it’s not necessarily easy to read how they’re feeling by the sound, which is usually the cue, but because of the lighting design, there are so many moments where it is as bright in the audience. I can see their faces, and even though I can’t hear their support, I see it. They are as distressed as I am. I have a very long time at the end of that play on that couch, and man oh man you could hear a pin drop in that theater. People are with us, but it’s annihilating work. It’s difficult stuff to watch. People have said they’ve had to look away, they chose to look away, and that’s something Jeffry really made a point of in his direction. Really putting the audience on the spot as voyeurs, creating that atmosphere that I’m a caged animal, look at me in my habitat. And it draws on all the themes that Paula Vogel is dealing with as far as our roles as voyeurs and how that sort of stuff leaks in and we get numb to it. I think what Paula Vogel and Jeffry’s direction are trying to do is put it in your face, where you can’t look away, or if you do, you know you’re doing it.