In UMBC’s most recent Studio3 production, “Suddenly Last Summer,” the characters face critical decisions about one thing that could simultaneously help or hurt them: the truth.
In the original screenplay by Tennessee Williams and UMBC’s production directed by Hannah Kennedy, the mystery of Sebastian’s death makes its way into every aspect of his family’s lives. His mother, Mrs. Venable, played by Kathrin Bizzarro, is a very eccentric, very set-in-stone personality. His cousin Catherine, played by Leah White, a third year BFA in acting, was the only present character at the time of Sebastian’s death. Even then, she walked up to his body after the fact, introducing understandable doubt, confusion and denial from the other characters at her recollection.
Mrs. Venable hires a doctor, played by senior Ramon Burris, to evaluate her late-husband’s niece and to hopefully place her in a stricter mental hospital. After Catherine again explains in great detail what she experienced, Mrs. Venable still doesn’t believe a word she says — or at least, refuses to.
We were able to talk to Leah White and Ramon Burris to hear their version of the truth about “Suddenly Last Summer” and their acting experiences at UMBC.
The characters in the play are very intense. How do you prepare to go onstage and become someone completely different?
LW: Tennessee Williams is a remarkable writer and writes extremely rich and complex roles for women that I believe need a variety of rehearsal techniques to unlock. In my training at UMBC, we go through intensive courses that study Stanislavki’s method, Fitzmaurice Voice Work and Alexander Technique for Movement. During a show process, it is the actors’ responsibility to apply these techniques and rehearse with them. I do a lot of research on my characters and the world that they live in whenever I am cast, but I believe it is important to always seek their ‘human’ elements. I always ask myself ‘what makes them fragile?’, ‘What makes them strong?’, and ‘What do they want?’
RB: The preparation comes from the training we get. My main focus is making sure I’m very familiar with the script and familiar with the world of play. After that, I go about filling in my acting work with the information I’ve come across. I make sure that I know who I am in the world of the play, what I want, and what I have to win and lose, and from there – things such as intensity or happiness or sadness – those things happen organically.
What interested you in pursuing theater and, more specifically, this play/role?
LW: I think what drew me to this play in particular is the discussion and desperate drive for truth in the world. I think even in our modern world it is hard to know who to believe and it is interesting to discover what people are willing to believe. The show itself is abrupt, chilling, at some points comical, but has this beautifully fragile element. That is what I am always attracted to in theatre, the fragility of the world of the piece.
RB: My interest in theatre grew from my interest in film and finding out that many of my favorite film actors started out in the theatre. Most actors that have made a strong and diversified career out of acting have come from a theatre background and it’s because they have the tools to do so. In our program we don’t pursue specific roles. We audition and we play as cast but, it’s a good thing I did get cast in this play because it has been a blessing for my growth as an actor.
Did this play and these characters teach you anything that you hope to take into future performances?
LW: I have learned so much through this production about how to handle a role like Catherine. Most of all, I have learned how to prepare for inspiration. I have learned how to put in as much work as I can and then to let that work inspire me through a performance. I want to take that aspect with me into future productions.
RB: I had to put a focus on my listening, which is a skill an actor must have to do strong work. Going into future performances, I’ll remember how important it is to hear everything the other person is saying and doing in order to propel me forward in the action of the play.
Editor’s note: Ramon Burris is a former Retriever staff member