February 4, 2003
Beth Pierce, photographed by Mitchell Kearny
An interview with
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Beth Pierce is not your average ingénue. She started acting a year ago, and is currently playing Maggie in Theatre Charlotte's production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She imbues Maggie the Cat with all the calculating nuance that Tennessee Williams intended, and does a great deep south accent. Beth's parents are driving down from Pennsylvania this weekend to see her onstage for the first time. We sat down with Beth on one of those can-you-believe-it's-February afternoons, and talked about her newfound talent.|
You’ve only recently begun to act. How did it begin?
I had been in retail management for about 5 years, moved to Charlotte with a company, and realized that wasn't what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I was about 24. Then I got a job waiting tables for the first time, and decided to go back to school at CPCC. I took classes intermittently. I'd take one or two, then wouldn't take any for a semester, then take one or two. Working, taking classes - sociology, which I wasn't excited about; biology, not excited about; psychology, not excited about - all of these classes that I knew I needed to take, thinking maybe it'll lead to something I want to do. Just trying to find what it was that I wanted to pay attention to in detail. Then I said, I'm going to take an acting class just because I want to. It'll be fun. I'm taking all these classes that are a lot of work, and thought, why don't I do something fun?
I took Acting I at CP, with Tom Vance. It was his last semester of teaching there. I fell in love from the first class. There was an overwhelming number of things to learn and I wanted to learn them all. It was truly the first time I was able to pay attention to detail. Everything had been like touching on aspects of this field, parts of this one... I got into this and I could do it all day long: read a play, memorize a monologue, and never tire of it. So, through these things my friend Zack Lee introduced me to Lon Bumgardner, and I took a subtext film class.
What is that?
Lon runs the Film Actors Studio, and this is the first class that a beginner would take. It gives you some basic terms: subtext, objectives, obstacles, strategies. Basic things, in a controlled environment. We were given scenes to choose from, studied the script, and then got a partner and picked a scene. It started with filming my partner's face and my face, and we got our tapes at the end of the class. We weren't allowed to put any movement into it; it was supposed to be your face, your subtext, and the way you used your words, your script. My first time with the camera, and Lon said I didn't have a lot of walls with the camera. I was able to focus on the other actor. That was good. I loved it. I was very intent. I wanted to know what he was talking about, and sometimes it clicked and sometimes I would have to walk away from it before it would click. I'd come back and understand it better. Through that class, I met Blaine Miller, the director of Lysistrata, which was to be done at the Hart-Witzen Gallery. A couple of people had dropped out and she asked if I wanted to do it.
When was that?
It was a year ago in January.
What role did you play?
The leader of the chorus of women was split into two roles, and I started out with one of those roles. A week later, someone else dropped out and I assumed the role of Calonice, one of the Athenian ladies. It was a lot of fun to do. I was also still in the chorus. Singing, dancing, acting in my first show. Three week later and everyone is talking about their past shows. I said, "This is my first one."
This phrase is so overused, but I'd caught the bug. It was inside of me. I did a show, I had a taste of it, and knew I wanted to keep doing it.
What was next?
Sweet Charity, at Theatre Charlotte, was the next thing I did. Very difficult for me, because I'm not a dancer, and I would say I'm an actor who sings. I'd had no formal dance training, no formal vocal training. I'd just taken a couple of classes at that point and was running on instincts. Learning how dance in a Bob Fosse musical - I was just thrown into the mix. I tried my best, just focused, listened to what I was told and did my work.
What else have you done? Can you count everything on both hands?
I think this is my sixth show. I did Twelfth Night, with Chickspeare, which was great. I did the New Play Festival at Off-Tryon. I did a one-act that John Hartness wrote, and Stan Peal's Tales of Sex and Horror from the Bible, which was really very challenging for me. They called it a workshop piece. I was basically the monologue girl. I had three monologues, and one was this horrific recollection of the Virgin of Shiloh. She was captured by the Bejaminites, and her story is of a woman who was seized and raped and taken from her land. Every night, I had to spill that out. It was a turning point for me, learning that life feeds the art, not that art feeds the life.
What do you mean by that?
What I do during the day is going to feed what I do onstage. I try not to allow what I do onstage to affect what I do during the day. I find something within myself that I can bring to the stage. I live my life, and keep my life in balance, do what I need to do to be happy, joyous, and free, and that will feed what I do onstage. In that instance, doing Stan Peal's play, it was a very depressing role and my life became depressing. I found that it needs to work the opposite way. The stuff that happens onstage needs to stay there. I needed to let it go.
How did you make that happen?
I was miserable, and had an idea of not letting go of control, of the character versus me. Lon Bumgardner help me to come to a realization. I'm still taking classes with him. He's become a mentor, not just in acting. He told me that this can become an addiction, and my life would become more empty, and so would my acting. He told me I needed to take care of myself. That progressed into the idea that life feeds what I do onstage. If the character I play feeds my life, I'd be miserable. I need to assume the role, then leave it there and walk out the door as myself.
Are you able to do that completely?
I would have to say, if it does affect me, it's in a very small way. I'm playing this character of Maggie, who's manipulative and selfish, very self-serving. Everything she does is self-serving. If anything, what playing this role has done to me is to make me a little bit detached from things. I've found myself taking time to be alone. It's that whole idea of "I'm not letting you know what I'm thinking." That's the only thing that's carried over.
Where are you from?
I'm from Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, which is just north of Pittsburgh. I came from Slippery Rock to Myrtle Beach, then to Monroe, then to Charlotte.
What were your interests in high school?
I was an athlete. I was a jock. In my freshman year, I was on the track team, played volleyball and basketball. My sophomore year, I played volleyball and basketball, and after that I was a basketball player. Basketball was very big at my school. My senior year, it was standing room only. Our girls' team was really good. We were 19 and 4. We went to the play-offs. We had a 12 game winning streak. It's still a school record.
Do you think that has helped you with your acting?
Yes. I am a part of a team. If I'm not the top scorer, I'm still part of winning. With any show, I'm an integral part of making a show a good show. Putting in the work has to be another part of that. It's not something I think about, but the work ethic behind playing basketball in high school has trained me for hard work. And to do my best at being a part of a team. Everyone with Cat has been so wonderful. We had such an intense rehearsal process. 2˝ weeks of rehearsal, from 4 to 11 every night. Everyone had full-time jobs and came straight from work to rehearsal. We had only 2 days off.
What that because the director (John Paul Fischbach) was only here for that long?
Yes. I worked my lines with Allison Modafferi. I would come into the theatre and just run lines. I really enjoy working with her. She's like grace under fire. That's the best way to describe her. She had a hard job, and she's done it beautifully.
Let's talk about Maggie. This is your first lead. What do you think made you right for the role?
To be honest, I was a little overwhelmed. It had occurred to me not to audition because I wasn't sure I was ready for it. I felt confident that I could find what I needed to find about that character in myself, and heighten those things. It was more about stage presence, and the vocal tricks... her voice is so up and down, and I didn't know if I could pull that off.
Who encouraged you?
Matt certainly did. And I eventually said, well, of course I'm going to audition for it. I did my homework. I read the play several times. I read things out loud several times. I showed up for the audition prepared. When they gave me something to read, I knew just what was going on in the play, and John Paul later said that he cast people because of the choices that we made. It's gelled very nicely.
This seems to be an ambitious production.
There were very high expectations. John Paul had very specific vision of what he wanted to create. That being said, he also gave us a very safe and open place for the actors to build what they needed to build.
Did you have any problem with the accent?
No. I really didn't. I think of Maggie, and of Tennessee Williams, and think of this southern lady who's sultry, charming, alluring. That's what I went with. Something throaty and deep.
A lot of people who are pretty good at accents will have a word or two that just don't sound quite right to the native speaker's ear.
I spent a lot of time with our original stage manager, Donna Greenway. She broke her hip. She is a southern lady, who spent time with me on certain words, and gave me a few ideas, like how to say "anything" and "side by side." It was an enormous help.
We've heard you like karaoke.
I enjoy singing. I like to perform. I love doing Janis Joplin, because it's a feeling, it's not just a song.
Our next question is about the "Let ME Sing" talent competition and your song, "Another Little Piece of My Heart," and your Janis character. You won second place with that number. It's a song you've sung in public before, and which, happily, is from the musical Love, Janis.
What did you do to develop that character?
I watched a little bit of footage of Janis, just to get some of her favorite movements. But it's so easy to just let go when you're singing. You just go for it all. Even before watching her, you could tell that, and it was probably never the same twice. I like that cathartic experience. Anytime you sing Janis, it takes you on this journey where - whoosh - it's all or nothing.
You like punk rock.
Yes. I have some roots in punk rock. I have to cover this up (indicating tattoo) every night with makeup. This is from a punk band Face to Face, a symbol from their first album. They're from Orange County. Punk is a much bigger scene up north. What's going on here is the techno scene. I moved from punk to techno. It's the same energy to me. It's loud, it's a rhythm, it's got its own little climax and drop.
There's a feeling of nihilism in punk rock.
A lot of punk I listen to is politically motivated, and silly. People think punk and think, bad and nasty.
Like the Sex Pistols.
Not my favorite. There are a lot of very well put together punk bands. They climax perfectly, they have clever lyrics, some are silly, some are very funny, some are serious and dark. Added together with some strong drum beats going on, a very fast pace, and there's just this energy, this raw energy.
Name some musicians or groups that you particularly like.
I'm a big fan of Face to Face. One of my favorites. They're so clever, musically and lyrically. And they try different things. No Effects is such a fun punk band. Rancid. Op Ivy, one of the original ska bands. Fun, jazzed up punk. Bad Religion. To me, Bad Religion is like this controlled energy that comes off as raw. You can see that they're all so talented and so precise, but it comes off as wide open. You go to their concerts and hear great music, and they have a message.
What is the message?
The biggest themes with No Effects are racism and the government not helping the people. Bad Religion is more about stepping up to the plate. They ask questions in concert. "How many people out here voted?" "How many people know who your governor is?" They'll go through a whole list of questions that are politically motivated and it's all about prompting people to open their eyes. If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention.
Tell us about your work with Children's Theatre.
We just started with the violence prevention program. Last semester, I did the dating violence prevention program. That was more scripted than this, but wonderful. We went to all but 2 of the schools in the Charlotte Mecklenburg system, and that was because of scheduling. I was asked to this by Mark Sutton, who's the director of the violence prevention program, which is for eight graders. Funding only allows for 9 middle schools to get this workshop. It's such a great workshop. I work with Kim Brooks. She's my partner. It's wonderful. We get them all riled up and then just start to crack open their mind. We know it's not easy to say no to a fight. We know it's not easy to make that choice. Maybe you can. Here are some ways you can try. We let them tell us what happens in school and put it into different lists, and maybe they'll see that getting into a fight isn't worth it.
Is it a presentation or a theatre piece?
This one starts with a very short opening scene where Kim and I burst into the room with a fight about anything. One of them today was about a can of soda. When we stick our hands into the air, it signifies that you hit, kick, punch, shove, anything like that. It starts like that. We're facilitators, so we conduct a discussion. We have them fill out a "dream" sheet, we rearrange the furniture, which drives the teachers crazy. We clear out a space. We do a warm up. Then we use student volunteers to do a little tableau. We talk about it. I won't go through the entire workshop, but basically we facilitate role playing for them where they get into a conflict situation, no touching allowed, which is why we use the raised hands. Then we'll add an instigator, then we'll add the crowd. Then we challenge them to get out of the fight. We'll discuss alternatives. And if they don't, we'll take their dream sheet and rip it up. For effect. We do it at just the right moment, after we've challenged them once to get out of it. Then we challenge them again, offer them alternatives. If they don't do it then, we take their dream and tear it up. They never know it's coming. Very dramatic moment.
Is that your day job?
It will be until these end sometime in April. And I started teaching classes at the Children's Theatre on Tuesday nights.
What age are the children?
Anywhere from 3 to 11.
Let's talk about you and Matt Olin.
We met while I was doing Twelfth Night. That was last June. I played Sir Toby Belch, an old drunk man. Matt saw the show, and works with Anne Lambert, and asked Anne for my phone number.
Did you know who he was when he called?
No. The first time he called, we chatted for about half an hour. Then I knew he was Charlotte Rep's managing director, but really didn't understand what that entailed. He asked me out. We went on a date, then he called me the next day to tell me what a great time he'd had. He did everything right. Then he met me out at karaoke that Wednesday night. I think that was a little out of the box for him, a little out of the comfort zone, and we haven't been apart since. He became my best friend.
You and Matt have recently set up housekeeping. Can we talk about that?
Yes. My parents congratulated me.
You've adopted a kitten, and named it Toby.
Toby, after Sir Toby, for the way Matt and I met. And it's a girl kitty with a boy name, just like me playing Sir Toby.
What is the next role you're aiming for?
I'm trying for a role in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, at Actors Theatre. I really have my sights on that. What I want to do is Hedwig, and I'll wait for those auditions. I'll be fully prepared.
When are those auditions?
The were originally going to be the 15th of February, but now they're in early March.
What are you going to do after this show closes?
I'm going to take a little bit of time and learn to be a teacher for Children's Theatre. Matt would like to do a project over the summer, which is kind of hush-hush. He would like to do a show of 2 one-acts, with me and one other actor. That's about all I can say about it. He has an elaborate idea, and it'll be something new for Charlotte. And I still work with Lon.
You're taking a little break.
Yes, Matt and I are going to Jamaica. Between the violence prevention workshops, we have about a 5-day window and so we're taking advantage of that.
Have a great time. Thanks for talking to us.
~ Lydia Arnold