features + interviews

christine ebersole: “as you’re moving on you’re also moving in”

Edith Meiser Oral History series:
Christine Ebersole in conversation with Michael Riedel
New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center
Bruno Walter Auditorium, 111 Amsterdam Avenue
Monday October 22, 2012 at 6pm

Christine Ebersole. Crop of image shared by the League of Professional Theatre Women.

Christine Ebersole — Tony winner, mother, actress, and quick study according to her introduction by event producer Betty Corwin — spent an hour early Monday evening charming a packed auditorium at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts.  Theatre writer Michael Riedel fed her soft ball questions and sat back quietly while she delivered what might be long familiar anecdotes of early career, going on at the last minute in Camelot in a twist worthy of a movie plot (oh wait she played that plot on stage in 42nd Street), and surviving youth-obsessed Hollywood. Ebersole is long married with a large family of adopted children, her 94-year-old mother, and many pets, and has a gentle straight-talking style and humor that shines through in any topic that arose. She has glittery star power you can see when she decides to let it out, and a deep thinking earnestness that is there always.  Ebersole in conversation in this case is an exercise in life lessons, wisdom doled out in bits, and quite evident effort on her part to not totally and thoroughly speak her mind — on the producers of Grey Gardens, on politics, on a range of subjects that come up in questioning. She is totally appropriate and totally charming.

on Richard Burton as Arthur to her Guenevere in the 1980 Camelot revival.

  • “He was so generous and playful on stage.”

on her childhood in conservative and well-to-do Winnetka, Illinois.

  • “We were in the wrong political party for the town we grew up in.”

on being over thirty in Hollywood.

  • At 35 she was handed a script to consider and accepted, she now admits after reading only her own six lines amid the other dialogue — “bullshit, bullshit, my line, bullshit ..” A great description of something we all do when listening for our own cues, whatever they may be, and in this case she came to another realization of her character and how the Hollywood lens viewed her. In the show during filming, surrounded by anorexic women in their 20s, one of those skipped-over lines referred to her character as “the cow over there.” Aha, she mused, she represented yet another demographic. “Not only was I over the hill, but I was the over the hill cow.” She concluded the story, with perfect comedic delivery: “We got the last helicopter out of L.A.”

on warming up.

  • She quotes the great Ethel Merman. “What do you think first numbers are for?”

on advice to young actors.

  • Ebersole paused when asked the familiar advice question from the young hopeful seeking words of wisdom. A long pause during which I mused: I wonder if performers tire of this kind of question over time, and feel compelled to joke or to give a canned bit of “just work and be prepared and be ready for the opportunities when they come.” Ebersole responded deeply and succinctly. She reminded the room and the young hopeful that “as you’re moving on, you’re also moving in and discovering who you are” as a person. So much of what happens (auditions, favoritism, trends) is beyond your control as a performer, she reminded us. “I realized that what I could control is how I was going to be a steward to the gifts that were given to me.”
  • She shared her own perspective on her own belief system, a sense of resolve with what she can and cannot control. She looks upon her career as if “it has already been decided and I just have to show up to find out.”
  • She underscored the importance of a spiritual life. Not a specifically religious life, but a life that involves tending your spirit, your core. “Know yourself,” she noted, “know the truth, speak the truth.”

Ebersole concluded by highlighting a sense of generosity of spirit that she thinks is essential. Remember, she noted, that “your success is my success” — we are all in this together.

© Martha Wade Steketee (October 27, 2012)

This interview is part of the videotaped oral history project funded by the Edith Meiser Foundation, and produced by Betty Corwin. The interviews completed as part of the project are preserved in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts Theatre on Film and Tape Archive.

Betty Corwin introducing Ebersole and Riedel. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

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