NEW YORK — Theater acting is a career fraught with peril: insecurity, self-doubt and even stage fright. While most performers strive to conceal their foibles behind the veneer of their characters, Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell don’t. Indeed, it’s not an option, since the two play “Heidi” and “Susan” in the ingeniously funny meta-musical “[title of show],” which transforms their problems offstage into the stuff of art.
Costarring Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, who also scripted the musical, “[title of show]” chronicles the writing of itself. The show is filled with inside jokes about “Into the Woods” that only theater geeks might catch, but its portrayal of the exhilaration of artistic creation is universal. Much of that humor and spontaneity derives from Bowen’s and Bell’s far less heralded female counterparts. Late last week, Blickenstaff and Blackwell, now inseparable, were preparing for a rehearsal for the show’s return to the Vineyard Theater, after an 11-week run this spring. (A new engagement began on Friday and will continue through Sept. 9.)
“I was the last one brought into the family,” recalls Blickenstaff of the audition process. A theater veteran, she’d never created a role onstage until “[title of show]” and sings a canny musical number called “I Am Playing Me ” to that effect. “But it didn’t take too long to fall in love,” she says.
Blackwell, Bowen and Bell — all friends — had been looking for a fourth partner in crime when they came up with the idea for the show, which started its life at the New York Musical Theater Festival in 2004. They knew they’d found one when they asked Blickenstaff if she played any instruments.
“I told them I played the skin flute,” Blickenstaff says, laughing. “I thought I had overstepped my bounds.”
“Meanwhile, we thought it was hilarious,” Blackwell interjects. “You were cute and you sang like an angel.”
Needless to say, the off-color joke made it into the show, along with many of the quirks and insecurities of the performers themselves. Blackwell often jokes about the size of her nose (“My nose could take her nose in a cage match” is one of her lines), and her character, like her, suffers from crippling stage fright. One of Heidi’s numbers, “A Way Back to Then,” confronts her demons about her decision to make acting her career.
This story first appeared in the July 18, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“We had a rule,” Blackwell explains of the improvisational rehearsal process. “If saying something made you hot, it had to stay there in the script.”
“We all sort of suffer for our art,” Blickenstaff adds.
Though Blickenstaff is a full-time performer who occasionally picks up odd jobs to make ends meet, Blackwell was making her way up the corporate ladder as a “lady executive in a pantsuit job” when “[title of show]” came along. She continued to work through the first run. Blackwell still works days, but in a less time-consuming capacity. “I’ve taken a major pay cut, and I’m reprioritizing my creative adventures,” she says. “I just want to make art with my friends.”
“We’re all sort of separated at birth,” explains Blickenstaff. (They hint that a television show may be in the works.)
Although the two confess they hope their newfound theatrical fame brings them “more free things” — so far, on the theatrical benefit circuit, they’ve just gotten a few bottles of Alan Cumming cologne and free trapeze lessons — the rewards of performing are enough for them.
“I feel like I won a contest,” says Blickenstaff of finally finding her niche on stage, even if she’s playing herself. “After the performance, a lot of people are so moved they want to hold us.”
“Only sometimes is it in a creepy way,” confesses Blackwell. “I say, ‘Just don’t touch the bathing suit area.'”