As part of our Broadway Buzz program, Buzz Extra writer Alicia Hansen will take you behind the scenes of each KeyBank Broadway Series show and interview a member of the show’s cast, crew or creative team.
As part of the 2015-2016 KeyBank Broadway Series at Playhouse Square, Steel Magnolias is making a stop in Cleveland. In this interview, Allison Layman, who plays Shelby in the show, discusses her background and what it’s like playing a role in the story beloved by so many.
Tell us about yourself.
I am the only child of two professional actors and was raised in Teaneck, New Jersey. I grew up tagging along to commercial calls and seeing my parents in productions at regional theatres all over the country. I loved the smell of the buildings, playing with the wig heads and staying up late after performances to “wind down.” Being inside theatres was a normal part of life for me as a child.
Though acting is in my blood, I took a circuitous route to finding it as my path. I majored in French Studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, moved to Vail, Colorado, for a year and after some time without acting in my life, decided that it was what I really wanted to explore. I moved to New York City and studied with Bill Esper at his studio while acting in and around the city. Then I studied at The Old Globe/USD program in San Diego where I received my MFA in acting in 2014.
My agents and the wonderful folks at Calleri Casting (James Calleri, Paul Davis and Erica Jensen), who cast this production, arranged for me to audition for Laura [Kepley, the director of Steel Magnolias], and I am honored she chose me to be a part of this production.
This story is well known to many thanks to the popular 1989 movie starring Sally Field and Julia Roberts. As an actor bringing the tale back to the stage, is there something that the stage version provides to (either you as an actor or to the audiences) that the film version did not?
I have to admit that I have never seen the 1989 movie of Steel Magnolias. I know that it is dear to the hearts of many people and I look forward to seeing it when we are finished with our run.
I can, however, speak to some of the differences without having seen the film. The story is essentially the same, but in the film, the men in our lives appear and in the play the audience never sees the male characters. To me, having only women tell their story is very important to the how the story is revealed. Also, in contrast to the many locations in the movie, the play is set in one, intimate space: Truvy’s Beauty Shop. It is a women’s space, a place “where they can let their hair down” to reveal their truest selves. The play invites the audience to eavesdrop on these women talking in the safest of places during important moments in their lives.
The relationships between the characters are the highlights of this piece. Can you speak to the process of the development of those relationships as you rehearsed with your fellow actresses?
Laura’s vision for Steel Magnolias has guided an incredibly talented and experienced cast to discover the surprising depth of character and relationship Robert Harlan, the playwright, forged into a very entertaining play. Many of the relationships are initially obvious (mother/daughter; childhood friends; etc.) but Laura has led us to deeper places in the situations presented, helping us to clarify and focus our characters and the story.
The piece features an all-female cast. What is the dynamic of the group on and off the stage?
We laugh a lot. I think it’s lovely how bits in the show reflect things we do in real life. Harlan is expert at capturing learned feminine communication. We recommend products to each other, articles that we’ve read and helpful things to share and borrow. Where the characters are talking about southern recipes and radios, we tend to chat more about political articles and Cleveland grocery deals.
This group is excellent at communicating – on and off stage. On stage, we are always listening and aware of nuances and changes in the evening’s dynamic. Off stage, we are usually group texting or grabbing a bite to eat.
I love to watch and learn from the work of my cast mates and when hang out after shows I relish listening to their stories about working in this business.
This production runs for three months at the Allen Theatre. What are the pros and cons of such an extended run like this one?
Often regional theatre productions (which last from 3-5 weeks) close as soon as we feel we are getting into the groove. With a contract this long, we will have the opportunity to really play with each other and live in the rhythm of doing this play in front of the audience. It will be lovely to see how the show and how our performances evolve. I am also looking forward to performing for the different subscription bases – Cleveland Playhouse and Playhouse Square. The audience is an essential part of this play; we listen and respond to an audience the same way we do with another actor. I hope we all have the chance to see some of the sights in Cleveland as well. I guess the downside is being away from friends and family as it always is when you go away.
Out of all the productions you’ve been involved in over the years, how does this production of Steel Magnolias stand apart?
For me, the great thing about every theatrical collaboration is that I have the opportunity to explore different elements of humanity. This is my first time working on this play and I have fallen in love with these women. Every production is an opportunity to learn, make new friends and grow as an artist and human being. At its best, a theatrical collaboration will contribute as deeply to the audiences’ life benefit as well.
Produced by Cleveland Play House, Steel Magnolias runs May 21-August 21, 2016 in the Allen Palace at Playhouse Square. For more information, please visit the show’s page on the Playhouse Square website.
Alicia Hansen is the writer behind Poise in Parma, a healthy balance blog for Clevelanders. A graduate of Baldwin-Wallace College’s theatre program, Alicia is a local yoga teacher, event professional, marketer and proud Northeast Ohio arts supporter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.