With "Tea for Three: Lady Bird, Pat & Betty," Palo Alto Players is making the bold move back to in-person theater, while making the show available virtually as well.
Eric H. Weinberger and Elaine Bromka's one-act play, directed by Palo Alto Players Artistic Director Patrick Klein, gives three first ladies — Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon and Betty Ford, played by Gwendolyne Wagner, Gabriella Goldstein and Patricia Tyler, respectively — each a moment in the spotlight. Audience members have the choice of catching the production in an outdoor, masked and distanced performance on the patio of the Lucie Stern Community Center or via streaming video.
This news organization caught up with the show's three leading ladies to learn a bit more about their pandemic theater experience, thoughts on channeling big names from U.S. history, and getting in front of an al fresco audience. The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Karla Kane: How has the last year gone for you, in terms of theater or just in general?
Gwendolyne Wagner: In general, it's been up and down. Early in lockdown last year I was part of an online Zoom theater play reading-festival with Foothill College, which was a good way to start off this crazy pandemic adventure. In the fall I was feeling pretty low, when Patrick Klein sent an email to PAP (Palo Alto Players) alumni inviting video submissions for participation in their "Home Bound Cabaret" series. The timing could not have been more perfect. I love Halloween and Christmas so I jumped at the chance. What I've missed about theater is being part of a community project, working together and being creative together. … I am very grateful for the PAP family; being part of the cabarets really helped get through a rough patch.
Gabriella Goldstein: The last year has been brutal in terms of theater. The loss of live in-person theater has been really hard. That being said, I have had the good fortune to be involved in several Zoom theater productions. The production that stands out the most during this time is San Francisco Shakespeare Festival's "King Lear." They developed a new technique for live theater over Zoom called the Unified Digital Space. Each actor acted in front of a green screen at their home and they created a composite of the images together live so that actors looked like they were in the same space with each other.
Patricia Tyler: The two productions I was working on in the beginning of March 2020 came to a full stop and didn't start up again. I did a few Zoom readings, things like that.
KK: What made you want to get involved in this production in particular?
GW: One: It's Palo Alto Players — PAP's quality and standard of work; the feeling of family and community; and, I trusted PAP to set up and follow the strictest safety guidelines. Two: As actors, we are each individually on stage, outside, so I felt that this is a safe foray back to live theater. Three: I adore Lady Bird Johnson and am ecstatic to be playing her again! (Wagner played Johnson in PAP's production of "All The Way" in 2018).
GG: It is extremely exciting to be part of Palo Alto Players' first in-person live theater production since the pandemic. I think it is going to be very moving to gather as a community again for live storytelling.
PT: It's a great show!
KK: When preparing to portray a historical figure, how much research do you do, or try to imitate their mannerisms and voice as opposed to trying to put your own spin on a character?
GW: For any show I do a lot of research, including the time period the character was born into and grew up in — how those cultural influences might impact the choices the character makes. With the internet there are many resources for watching and listening to Lady Bird. My hope is that I can capture her essence, rather than give an impersonation or imitation of her.
GG: I definitely read up on the historical figure and watch any video recordings, if they exist. I steep myself in their essence and then let my own imagination take over. Ultimately, this will be a portrayal of my Pat Nixon.
PT: I listened to some old interviews she (Ford) gave just to get an idea of her voice, although an interview is very formal and very different than a conversational way of speaking, which this show is — she's having a conversation with the audience. So I had to modify that to sound more relaxed. The biggest take away for me was that she was from Michigan and I grew up in Wisconsin, so some of the idioms are very familiar to me. The use of "you know" or "yeah" before a sentence. Or using "she goes" instead of "she said."
KK: Has your opinion or understanding of your character changed over the course of working on this show?
GW: My admiration for Lady Bird has deepened, and I look forward to bringing out more of her playful side.
GG: I think it is interesting that she (Nixon) was such a private person. This play shows how deeply unhappy and affected she was by life as a first lady and Watergate, in particular. It is noteworthy that by prioritizing her privacy so much she reveals the most vulnerable parts of her inner life. Through her guarded disposition you see her desperation and sadness shine through.
PT: I think she (Ford) really leaned more to being a Democrat than a Republican. She had some very liberal views and spoke out about them.
KK: How about the other two first ladies in the show? Anything interesting you've learned about them?
GW: I knew absolutely nothing about Pat Nixon, so it was all new to me! I had no idea Betty Ford was a dancer and took lessons from and danced with Martha Graham!
GG: It is interesting to think about how much Lady Bird, and Pat Nixon, were living in the shadow of Jackie Kennedy. Mrs. Kennedy's style and class clearly still looms large over them.
KK: Anything you're particularly excited about? Nervous about? Do you have to adjust anything about your performance to adjust to the outdoor setting?
GW: Playing Lady Bird Johnson again and having the opportunity to tell more of her story. I am also excited about doing the show outside and being able to see and talk to the audience.
GG: Yes, we are going to have to deal with the elements, the bright sun, in particular, during the matinee performances.
PT: Excited about being on the same bill with the other two incredibly talented actors. Nervous about the sun in the courtyard for the 2 p.m. matinees. Nature's spotlight!
"Tea for Three: Lady Bird, Pat & Betty" will be performed in person, outdoors at the Lucie Stern Community Center patio, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Show times are May 12-23, Wednesdays-Saturdays at 7 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $40. The show will be streamed on demand May 19-23. Virtual access is $20. More information is available at paplayers.org.