How Cheap Rent Allowed Jayne Houdyshell to Become a Broadway Actor | Playbill

My Life in the Theatre How Cheap Rent Allowed Jayne Houdyshell to Become a Broadway Actor

The Tony-winning actor shares her journey from regional theatre powerhouse to one of Broadway’s best.

Jayne Houdyshell knows how to find artistic fulfillment. Born and raised in Topeka, Kansas, she was a highly respected force in the regional sphere for the first half of her career, appearing in more than 200 shows throughout the United States before treading the Broadway boards.

“The first 25 years I was in theatre, I was working all over the country, I did classic plays, modern plays, farces, tragedies, and everything in between,” Houdyshell shares, her warmly resonant voice unfolding her life story like a well-practiced fable. “I even worked in summer stock theatres, doing musicals and light comedies. They were great years.”

Today, Houdyshell is back on Broadway, appearing in the starry new interpretation of Uncle Vanya at Lincoln Center. To see her peel back the curtain on her legendary career (including how her brief stints playing Madame Morrible in Wicked were like “being shot out of a cannon”), check out the full video above.

Jayne Houdyshell photographed at Alchemical Studios Vi Dang

In the era between the economic upheaval of the 1970s and the city's overhaul in the early 2000s, it was not uncommon for working artists to maintain a modest New York residence, utilizing relatively inexpensive leases when compared to today's sky high rates. “The whole time I was doing regional theatre, I had an apartment in New York, but I just used it between gigs,” says Houdyshell. 

After several decades of dedicated work across the country, having that apartment allowed Houdyshell to kickstart the next, New York-centered phase of her career.

“In about 2000, I decided to commit to staying in New York,” Houdyshell says. “I was doing an Off-Off-Broadway play, and while I was doing that, two women came to see the show because they were looking for an actress to do a workshop of a new play that they were developing. They were Leigh Silverman and Lisa Kron. And that play was called Well.”

Well, which featured Houdyshell playing Kron's mother onstage, became one of the biggest hits of the 2005–2006 Broadway season, catapulting Houdyshell to a whole new level of public acclaim. It earned Houdyshell her first Tony nomination.

Jayne Houdyshell photographed at Alchemical Studios Vi Dang

In the nearly 20 years that have passed since her debut, Houdyshell has become one of Broadway’s most popular actors, treading the boards in starry revivals of Bye Bye Birdie, The Importance of Being Earnest, Follies, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, and The Music Man. Plus, she's made an impact on the original productions of Dead Accounts, Fish in the Dark, The Humans, and A Doll’s House Part 2

Along the way, she’s picked up five Tony nominations (winning for her heartbreaking performance in The Humans), a special commendation from The Drama Desk Awards (“for her artistry as an exceptionally versatile and distinctive Broadway and Off-Broadway performer”), and an array of additional accolades.

While Houdyshell is rightfully known for his powerful performances in plays, she is also a musical theatre lover. When she appeared in the 2011 Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim's Follies, she treasured one particular moment of musical bliss above all others.

"I would stay down on the deck and listen to the show every night, because it was so blissful," Houdyshell shared, referring to the significant downtime her character Hattie has following her Act One song, "Broadway Baby." "I never got tired of it. And James Moore [the production's music director] noticed that I was sitting there. I explained that I loved listening to the score, and he said, 'Would you like to come down to the pit sometime?' And I said, 'Absolutely!' So I had the privilege—the orchestra was very cramped but they made this little space for me, I went down and sat in for the second act, in the orchestra. And I've never felt anything like the rush of what it was like to have that sound all around, and to get a feeling of what it is to be a musician. It was a wonderful, wonderful experience. It was such a gift."

Now, Houdyshell is back on Broadway, this time in the highly anticipated revival of Uncle Vanya. Playing the doting Maria, Vanya’s mother (who is played by Steve Carrell), the piece offers Houdyshell the rare opportunity to work on a classic that had not already entered her repertoire. She isn’t taking the experience for granted.

“It’s a play that I've never done!” Houdyshell shares, chuckling. “Everything's fresh. Everything's new. Everything's possible.”

My Life in the Theatre is filmed at New York’s Alchemical Studios.

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