Stephen Wallem & Ashlie Atkinson Offer Bedroom Secrets at the Fringe Festival
By Iris Wiener
Intimacy, humor and realism set the framework for Bedroom Secrets, one of Fringe Festival’s most intriguing pieces this year. Through allowing their audience to witness the exchanges between a psychotherapist and her patients, Fringe Festival’s 2013 Audience Favorite winners Thomas and Judy Heath’s dramatic comedy offers a peephole into the human psyche in all matters of sex and communication. Stage and screen talent Stephen Wallem (Nurse Jackie) portrays five vastly different clients of the critically lauded Ashlie Atkinson (Fat Pig) in the role of the therapist.
The actors first met while working on a workshop production of Bedroom Secrets earlier this summer at Threshold Repertory Theatre in Charleston (aside from a quick wave when shooting an episode of Nurse Jackie), but the pairing of the two seems to be kismet. Spend only a few moments with the actors, who share similar compassionate sensibilities, humility, wit, and overall joviality, and it’s clear that their coming together would have to make for undeniably unique and thoughtful theater. On the eve of the play’s opening the actors sat down with Theaterlife to gab about their memorable partnership while teasing at the secrets behind Secrets.
What was your first thought when you heard the title Bedroom Secrets?
Ashlie Atkinson: I thought, "Well, am I going to get naked?"
Stephen Wallem: That’s always your first thought, with every script you’re given…and your first question.
AA: It is true. It could be The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and I would be like, "Am I getting naked?" (laughs)
SW: And strangely my first question was, "Will this actress be getting naked?"
AA: Really though, at first I thought, "Bedroom Secrets, that’s awfully intriguing." Then I read the script and I thought, "Wow, I don’t see female characters like this very often," and immediately wanted a shot at it.
SW: When I first saw the title, not knowing anything about it I thought, "Is this an English farce? Maybe it would be like Private Lives or something." Truly, I had no idea. Then all I had to do was see that one actor was playing a number of different roles, and immediately I thought, "Okay, I’m there." It scared me to death, but in a good way, so I knew that’s why I should do it. I enjoy challenging myself, and I’m glad that I followed my instinct. And what actor doesn’t want to originate a role?
Stephen, you aptly switched back and forth between multiple characters in The Mystery of Irma Vep at New American Theatre years ago. Did that feat feel familiar to you when taking on Bedroom Secrets?
SW: I always thought that if I could do that show, everything else would be a breeze afterwards. It was kind of true, but the difference between Irma Vep and Bedroom Secrets was very zany comedy from beginning to end. What’s so different and wonderful about Bedroom Secrets is that there are absolutely elements of comedy in the script, but it’s all grounded in truth. All of these characters are identifiable, realistic people. What a challenge to have to instantly switch from one persona to the other while on stage! I am in front of the audience with minimal props and costume pieces going from one to the other.
AA: Stephen has done an immensely great job at distilling these characters down to the essence of them so that they have recognizable traits and qualities. We see each one more than once, so you immediately start recognizing them by the tambour of their voice or their mannerisms, but it never plays like a stereotype or a caricature. It’s very real.
Were there initially any graphic lines in the play that were awkward to say?
AA: Less than you would imagine. Stephen has a character that curses a lot. The one time I curse in the play, the character that I’m with at the time says, "I don’t think I’ve ever heard you curse before." And I’m like, "Oh, no. I curse."
SW: Obviously, that’s not far-removed from her personal life.
AA: (Laughs) I curse like a sailor every day. But what I think is more risqué to a general audience is the subject matter. We are talking very clinically and openly with a great deal of vulnerability with these clients about topics such as internet pornography addiction and the triumphs and tribulations of same sex marriage, that aren’t discussed all that often on the main stage. It looks at how same sex couples are embarking on this bright new day and now settling into these legally nuclear units, so what does that do? Now they’re having shitty straight people problems! We’re examining all of this. There’s a character that is unable to get herself off of Match.com and I think all of that is really interesting.
SW: It starts in the writing because [co-author] Judy Heath is a professional therapist, so that makes it so unique. What I instantly found from the first read through with Ashlie is that I would totally go to someone like Ashlie for therapy, and that just came instantly. Feedback from audiences in Charleston revealed that I was not alone in that. You’re going to have the people that have been to therapy that will immediately identify with the process, and there’s going to be people who have never been to therapy and they’re going to get this extended look into what the process is like. It’s all authentic. Everybody can identify with any of the graphic language. It’s great theater because it points out that we are all basically the same, looking for the same thing.
How familiar were you with one another’s work before meeting for Bedroom Secrets?
SW: I had never seen her, but I had heard about her, especially with Fat Pig. My manager, who is not easily effusive about other performers, immediately said, "Oh, you have got to work with her. You will love her, she’s fantastic." That’s all I needed to hear.
AA: He oversold me.
SW: Really oversold (laughs). When she does show up to rehearsal, it’s pleasant, but that’s it…
AA: I make my entourage wait outside.
Did the writers recommend that you do any research in the bedroom before getting started on the play? (Laughs)
AA: Oh my god! No, but they didn’t really have to!
SW: Yes, she especially has done everything that we talk about. And all of us [actors and writers] have sex with each other too, so that helps.
AA: (Swatting Stephen) What’s funny is that from the get go there were characters that I recognized immediately. For example, the girl on Match.com. I have a very good friend who is that girl. The other day she was going to meet a guy for the first time whom she had met on a dating site. They had only texted with one another. She was going to have him meet her in front of her apartment. At midnight. I said, "You cannot do this! Go up to the bar."
SW: You never tell him where you live!
AA: And she said, "He seems really nice." I got his name from her and I went on Facebook. I screamed! The guy’s cover photo on Facebook is from the movie Saw. No joke.
SW: Is it too late to put that in the play? That’s so brilliant!
AA: (Laughs) People are so interested in being liked that there’s no critical evaluation past hotness. They don’t ask themselves, "Is this person good for me?" "Is this person a match for me?" Instead it’s, "Is he hot and does he like me?"
When it comes to Nurse Jackie, people have trouble categorizing it as a comedy or a drama. Bedroom Secrets is also both funny and dramatic. How do you feel about its status being outside-the-box?
SW: People love to put that one word on a piece, but you cannot do it with this play. I love when something is not easily definable. I think the structure of it is so unusual because it doesn’t have a traditional narrative. It’s these little slices of life that are all connected, and it takes a moment to sort of figure out what the journey is that my characters are going on. People came up to Judy at the workshop and said, "I think I might have that problem that that one character had." If that’s not good theater, I don’t know what is. If it gets people to start thinking, I love it! I fully anticipate that our performances at the Fringe are going to keep inspiring discussion one way or another.
AA: I think Thomas and Judy don’t shy away from things that people might find uncomfortable. And I think Thomas has drilled into us from day one that this is about finding truthfulness, and everything that is the truth is something to be embraced. As long as you’re getting at the truth of the moments there is nothing to fear.
SW: If all theater were comfortable to me, that’s not art. I enjoy purely entertaining theater and bubblegum, but I am also a diehard fan walking into a theater and being challenged. That makes vibrant theater.
Tell us something interesting that you have learned about one other through working on Bedroom Secrets.
AA: I found out that I am the second woman that Stephen Wallem has kissed since high school. The first was Lea DeLaria.
SW: Not just kissed, made out with. Both on stage.
He saves it for the good ones.
AA: I know.
SW: I do. And they’re both excellent kissers! (Winks)
AA: He’s not so bad himself.
SW: Ashlie is an expert at finding obscure, wonderful music that I never would have found. She’s got this very eclectic taste in music which I just love. The other day she found tUnE-yArDs’ "Real Thing". I’m obsessed with it now.
What is your favorite psychotherapist-client relationship from pop culture?
SW: The first one that comes to mind is Agnes of God. I saw the play in Minneapolis and coincidentally that was the first time I saw a female therapist on stage in the theatre. And I love the fact that that character was written with flaws from the very beginning. She’s a chain smoker and she talks about it. There’s nothing worse than seeing a character in a profession of helping others painted as enlightened and untouchable. That’s not the way it works. I know through my own personal relationship with therapists that I connect with people that have been through their own stuff, and they can bring that to the table in trying to help you.
AA: For me it’s Lorraine Bracco in The Sopranos, not only for her relationship with Tony, but for her relationship with her own therapist. Her own therapist tells her, "You need to watch your ass." There is this lure and glamor to what Tony Soprano does, and so she’s attracted and simultaneously repelled by what his life is like. I like seeing the little chinks in the armor of therapists.
SW: We see that with Ashlie’s character, Robin. We see her lose her patience, and she has these moments of reminding us she’s still a human. It never goes overboard or unprofessional, but you see the human aspect in every single scene. She’s not just a professional robot. She’s still a human being at the end of the day. (Pauses, laughing) Unlike Ashlie. Who is a robot.
AA: It’s true.
What’s the best advice about the bedroom that you have been given or that you have heard?
AA: People stopped giving us advice a long time ago!
SW: I also gave up trying to be matchmaker. You think you know what people are attracted to or into and you just don’t. I think that’s okay. Bringing it back full circle to the play, our slogan is: "Do you really know who you’re sleeping with?" I see the things that we get so hung up on in this country, and I’m just so grateful that I don’t get caught up in it. I say, "If you’re consensual adults, go for it." It’s nobody’s business, and you shouldn’t waste your energy and time on someone who judges it. They bring that up in this play. It’s all about communication. Some of these issues would never snowball the way that they do if the two partners involved just talked to each other about what they need and what they want.
AA: I was thinking about an interesting piece of advice. I’m still sort of testing the waters on this one. It definitely applies to a character in the play. Someone once told me they were getting a divorce, and it was later in her life. She said, "The thing is that men marry women thinking they won’t change, and then they do. Women marry men thinking they will change, and they don’t." I think about it a lot and wonder if that’s what’s going on.
What advice do you have for New Yorkers when it comes to Bedroom Secrets?
AA: See it! Everyone will find themselves in it…
SW: …and because it’s starring two phenomenal actors!
Visit www.fringenyc.org for more information about purchasing tickets for Bedroom Secrets, which runs through Saturday, August 16th.
Photo: Dixie Sheridan