Stockard Channing - Awake and Sing! at the Almeida

There are those who confuse Stockard Channing with the First Lady of the United States, people who (no doubt given to wishful thinking) invite her to political rallies. She politely declines, pointing out that she was only acting Abigail Bartlett the humane, sophisticated medic who was the president’s consort in The West Wing. Although unlikely to muddle the real person and the invented character, I am aware of a sense of occasion as I await Channing’s arrival in the Almeida’s deserted bar on a Thursday afternoon. And suddenly, here she is, surprisingly diminutive for someone with such a powerful presence on stage and screen. Free of make-up, chestnut-brown hair falling loose on her shoulders and dressed simply in dark jeans and a black top, she is clearly not someone to waste time on celebrity airs and graces. Attractive, lively but focused - this is a woman in the middle of her working day.

Channing laughs readily and talks fast. Within minutes she launches into an enthusiastic conversation about Clifford Odets’ 1935 play Awake and Sing! which she is rehearsing with the Almeida’s artistic director, Michael Attenborough. She plays Bessie, the unflinching matriarch of a noisy Jewish family falling apart under the strain of the Depression in the Bronx. The dialogue seems surprisingly modern. Channing loves it: “It’s as accessible as EastEnders, a combination of Jewish street language of the time with the odd poetic thing thrown in. You have to say the lines exactly as written, then the rhythm becomes clear and you understand them perfectly. The play is about lots of people in close proximity under pressure which makes for good drama.”

She appreciates Odets’ multitude of character hints, including explicit notes: “These little details are exquisite. Not everybody is going to hear everything but they are incredible to work with, nuggets which help to round out character. I think of Bessie as a lioness with her little pride of husband and children, like a big cat licking her cubs and keeping them clean. She’s a realist in a very tough world... you could be 50 cents away from your furniture being thrown out in the street and no way of crawling back into the mainstream”. Bessie can be cruel in her pursuit of what she thinks is right for her family, but, says Channing, she is “a force for civilization and respectability.”

Last seen on stage here in Six Degrees of Separation at the Royal Court in the early 1990s - apart from a stint in The Exonerated (based on the testimony of wrongly convicted prisoners on death row) at Riverside last year - Channing frequently returns to theatre. A couple of projects in London came close to fruition during the West Wing period, “but I realised it was an awfully long commute”. She accepted Attenborough’s offer to play Bessie in three days: “I thought it was time to go back to the foundations of what I do.”

Channing’s potted biography - well-heeled New York childhood followed by Harvard, four divorces and an award-sprinkled career - is impressive. She is still putting heart into young girls as the rebellious Rizzo in Grease after almost 30 years (“I guess I’m quite proud of that now”), won a Tony for A Day in the Death of Joe Egg in 1985, received both Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for her role as socialite Ouisa Kittredge in Six Degrees of Separation and has won several Emmys.

But what about that colourful personal life? She looks momentarily weary at the prospect of discussing it for the zillionth time, but quickly links her own history to the play. Her father, Lester Napier Stockard, was a self-made businessman, somewhat older than her mother - he died when Channing was six - and, like Moe Axelrod in Awake and Sing! flew planes in World War I. “I was raised English-Irish, not Jewish, but my mother was raised in the Depression - she would have been the age of my daughter in the play - and I recognise her attitude towards money: she knew what a dollar meant to her but could be extravagant too. There was a certain kind of desperation, and materialism was important to her. I gleaned things like this indirectly; she would never talk about it.”

The divorces she admits look like “an appalling statistic but if I’d just set up house with them they wouldn’t be in the dossier - and I’ve been with the same man for 21 years.” She was already acting professionally at Harvard, married Walter Channing at 19 and “thought I could do it all, but everything collapsed a little bit”. The marriage fell apart and she took a general degree, deciding against a suggested thesis on Fourth of July orations. These days, although she’s “a gypsy at the moment, in love with the map”, she is based when not working in Maine with her partner and three dogs, living “a regular human life” only occasionally getting dolled up for parties when that’s unavoidable.

She enjoys the same domesticity when filming in California. Hollywood is not kind to women over 40 and at 63 she knows she’s “one of the lucky ones, but I don’t see a trend developing”. Her new film, Sparkle, pointedly features her as a woman having an affair with a man 36 years her junior, but this may not do much to change perceptions: she is not so much youthful-looking as someone whose age seems simply irrelevant. And, endlessly energetic, she’s preparing to direct for the first time - a movie, still at the scripting stage, gloriously entitled The Joy of Funerals.

Attenborough, whose father, Richard, appeared as Ralph in Awake and Sing! in 1942, aged 19, has wanted to direct the play for a couple of years but the rights had been sold to the Lincoln Center (there was a successful production starring Zoe Wanamaker in the States last year) and he had to wait. He is impressed with the way Channing has “slotted in seamlessly. It’s not easy fitting in with a director and actors who have a common frame of reference, common gossip. But she’s completely down to earth and practical.” As an actor, “ she’s a chameleon, changing hugely from role to role. And this one needs a particular flavour, enormous humanity.”

While “creating this world”, Channing prefers most of the preparation to take place in the rehearsal room with others and is careful not to “over think”. But she has enjoyed reading about the Group Theatre to which Odets, a some-time Communist, belonged, along with Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan and others. They were famously influenced by Stanislavski and thus, at one remove, by Chekhov, whose spirit (albeit in a rowdy manifestation) inhabits Awake and Sing!. Channing takes a “storytelling” approach to the material: “My instinct is to look at the whole and try to figure out where my bit fits into it.”

As we part, she says, “I hope we do this play justice. It deserves it.” And, leading actor rather than First Lady, she’s off, back to work.


©Heather Neill – originally published in What's On, Aug 2007