“She hated getting old. It was devastating to her that her husband never cast her in his Shakespeare movies. She even says, “˜I’m 50 now and I will never put Shakespeare on film.’ Olivier ““ he had the power. This jealousy, this marriage of professionals ““ it was such a complex union. But she left her husband, and her new child, to become what she set out to do with her career.”
Judith Chapman is speaking about her forthcoming starring role in Vivien, a solo show that takes audiences on a journey into the triumph and madness of the actress Vivien Leigh, legendary star of stage and screen.
Herself a stage and television series regular (on and off for the past 36 years) Chapman portrays the fragile and mercurial leading lady in the Los Angeles premiere of Rick Foster’s play.
Vivien portrays one of the greatest actresses of the 20th century. Speaking in first person, Chapman as Vivien explores the acclaimed actress’ career triumphs and lows, her 20-year marriage to one of the century’s greatest actors, Laurence Olivier, and the madness that tortured her throughout her life.
Produced by the Troubadours of Daytime, in collaboration with Rogue Machine, Vivien opens on Friday in a limited four-weekend engagement in a Rogue Machine production, with company co-artistic director, Elina de Santos, in the director’s chair. This production will mark Chapman’s third collaboration and fundraiser with LA’s Rogue Machine, a company that she co-founded four years ago. (Chapman was both a founding member and first president of the board.) Following its LA run, the production will tour Palm Springs, New Orleans and Atlanta.
About the play
Opening in a darkened theater, Foster’s one-woman play is set in 1967, just days before Leigh died of tuberculosis at the age of 53. Leigh has been cast in the West End premiere of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, prompting her to reminisce about her career. As her reveries unfold, she imagines she is being visited by Noel Coward, Winston Churchill and numerous other prominent people from her past. She also engages in make-believe, one-way discussions with Olivier, theater critic Kenneth Tynan, Katharine Hepburn and Peter Finch (the latter actor was, in fact, her paramour before Leigh and Olivier divorced in 1960).
As Leigh reflects on her tumultuous relationship with Olivier and her tragic battles with manic depression and tuberculosis, the very English star also expresses her insecurities, despite winning two Oscars for her “Southern Belle” performances.
While millions remember Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara of Gone with the Wind and Blanche DuBois of A Streetcar Named Desire ““ roles that won her Oscars ““ the play covers territory that isn’t as well-known — the ecstasies and jealous rages she exchanged with Olivier, her tireless vivacity as the hostess of stylish soirees, her career struggles after she turned 40, which led to years filled with fading-beauty roles that she apparently resented, and the manic-depressive attacks that frequently led to hospitalization and intrusive electro-shock therapy treatments.
Chapman takes a break from rehearsals at Rogue Machine to chat about the play. She offers me a seat opposite her on the sparse set, at present consisting of a backstage makeup table. In person, Chapman is droll and rather funny, occasionally adopting an amusing drawl for theatrical emphasis. I kick off my interview by apologizing for my unfamiliarity with her work on daytime television, admitting I don’t watch soaps.
“Neither do I, neither do I,” she murmurs. “That’s just my day job which allows me to luxuriate in my theater.” Chapman gives a low giggle.
Her road to the solo show
In 2000, Chapman portrayed a hard-drinking Vivien Leigh in the San Diego production of actor/writer/director Austin Pendleton’s drama Orson’s Shadow at the Old Globe Theatre. Says Chapman, “The two roles certainly are tied together. But I was always aware of Vivien. I had seen her on the stage when I was very young, in New York, when she was performing in the musical Tovarich (in 1963). She ended up winning a Tony for it. I do remember her performance, and I was so grateful to my parents for the experience.”
It was while immersing herself in Leigh’s life to prepare for Orson’s Shadow that she says she “fell in love with her.” A decade after Orson’s Shadow, Chapman decided to mount a one-woman show and, haunted by the research she had already done to prepare for her small role as Leigh, began to investigate further. She discovered that a one-woman play about Leigh already existed.
Chapman recalls, “I was looking for a one-woman show ““ I’ve done them before ““ and I found Rick Foster’s play online. I just called him ““ he called me right back ““ and I said “˜I’d like to read your play. I’m Judith Chapman, I work on a little soap opera” ““ and here Chapman seamlessly slips into character. Speaking with the distinctive clipped British accent and drawling vocal style of Vivien Leigh, she murmurs, “and I’d like to play Vivien.” Then she throws her head back and laughs loudly, as do I.Â “He agreed! Later, I started to think, “˜Am I out of my mind?!’Â He wrote this play for one of his dear friends [Janis Stevens] and here I am clamoring to do it. But she hasn’t done it in several years.”
Chapman elaborates, “Rick even said, “˜I think Janis is ready to pass the mantle. She’s going to sneak in to see what you do one night,’ and I told him I’d do the same damn thing.”
While Foster’s play was initially staged more than 10 years ago, Chapman says the play has been languishing since then. This production marks its first staging in LA.
When asked why she decided to revisit this real-life character, the actress replies, “My love for Vivien is ““” Chapman hesitates, then her adulation pours out. “She was this brilliant actress who won two Oscars for these iconic roles. She was married to one of the greatest directors and actors of the 20th century. Even though she became deathly ill with tuberculosis, and was mentally damaged as well, she was a survivor. She was a superstar before there were superstars. Remember ““ she was before Elizabeth Taylor; she came before any of them. As great as she was, she lived in the shadow of Olivier. And all those Shakespeare films he did? He never used her once!Â They performed Shakespeare together on stage, but never on film. It was the bane of her existence.”
Chapman says Foster’s play is “truly is the story of a marriage, of a love affair that slowly disintegrates into madness. And then, when she tried to exert herself by wanting to do Streetcar, by challenging herself ““ this frail, little woman took on these monumental tasks to the detriment of her health. She just had so much to prove. She wanted to be this stage actress, but Kenneth Tynan, the great and influential critic, just destroyed her!”
Tynan’s withering criticism of Leigh persisted over several years. He, along with playwright/broadcaster J. B. Priestley, denounced the West End production of Streetcar in 1949. Tynan wrote Leigh was badly miscast because British actors were “too well-bred to emote effectively on stage.” In 1952, Leigh and Olivier performed two plays about Cleopatra in rep; Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra. Reviewing the New York season, Tynan suggested that Leigh’s mediocre talent had forced Olivier to compromise his own. While Tynan was one of several critics to react negatively to Leigh’s reinterpretation of Lady Macbeth in 1955, after her death he revised his opinion, describing his earlier criticism as “one of the worst errors of judgment” he had ever made.
Chapman confides she has been inspired by Leigh’s career and struggles. “It’s a woman’s story, it’s the story of survival, of finding your place in the world, of a brilliant but damaged marriage, but above all ““ coming to grips with who you are and not just your public persona or what the critics had to say about you. This play explores who she was. It’s very much a play that women will love, even though men will enjoy it too.”
When asked if she was attracted to the feminist underpinnings of Leigh’s life and battles, Chapman’s response is emphatic. “Yes! Absolutely. On the one hand she was a good little Catholic girl, but she also chose to stand up for herself well before the ’60s. It was because of her mania that she drove herself to become “˜Vivien Leigh.’ When she read the screenplay for Gone With the Wind, she knew ““ she declared, “˜I am going to do that part.’ She said, “˜Nobody in America knows me but I will be Scarlett O’Hara.’ It was her pure will and drive. But she suffered the consequences, emotionally and physically.”
Born Judith Shepard in 1951 in Greenville, South Carolina, Judith Chapman is perhaps best known to fans of American daytime television, as she has appeared on half a dozen TV shows since the mid-1970s. The trim, glamorous American actress with piercing blue eyes is renowned for her villainess roles on various daytime soap operas.
A fixture in the daytime drama constellation, since the mid-’70s Chapman has appeared in As the World Turns, Ryan’s Hope, General Hospital, One Life to Live and Days of Our Lives. In the early ’90s, she took a 14-year sabbatical from Hollywood, sold her LA home and moved to Palm Springs. There the slender actress taught yoga locally and gave acting instruction at the College of the Desert in Palm Springs, also directing and acting in local theater productions. Chapman most recently played the coveted role of scheming Gloria Fisher Abbott (aka Gloria Bardwell) on The Young and the Restless from January 2005 until earlier this year.
The Troubadours of Daytime
Vivien is a co-production between Rogue Machine and the Troubadours of Daytime, a theater company Chapman founded with fellow daytime television actors. Together they utilize their time, talent and love of the theater to perform and raise money for organizations such as Kiva.org, a non-profit organization that strives to alleviate poverty through microloans. In 2008, Chapman rallied her fellow actors to participate in a staged reading of Daniel Berrigan’s play based on a real-life incident, The Trial of the Catonsville 9. The celebrity reading at the Palm Canyon Theatre in Palm Springs played to sold-out houses and proved a highly successful fundraiser. The troupe’s most recent project was a staged reading of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana (Nov 2009).
On the company’s creation, Chapman explains, “I came back to daytime television, after a long absence, when I was offered the part in The Young and the Restless. But I had been directing and performing a lot of theater, along with all the other things I have done since leaving daytime television 10 or so years ago. When I came back, I realized it was not only the number one soap opera, but that many of my co-stars were extraordinary actors. Most of them ““” and here Chapman leans in conspiratorially, “I mean, there are some dreadful actors on soaps, I freely admit that. But I started a company called the Troubadours of Daytime to use all of this wonderful talent to raise money for different charities. I’ve got some of Vivien’s manic energy, so to speak, in that I love to produce, direct and star and put on plays. It’s been a very successful enterprise.”
Daytime soap fans flock to Rogue Machine
Thanks to the massive, worldwide fan base from Chapman’s decades of work on TV, Vivien has the highest number of pre-sold tickets for any Rogue Machine show since the company was formed four years ago.
Clearly thrilled, Chapman tells me that fans as far away as Italy and France have already purchased tickets. The soap star explains that the run of the play was deliberately timed to coincide with a biennial international daytime television conference for fans being staged in LA later this month.
Meanwhile, Chapman is bracing herself for the challenge ahead. “I may be the only person on stage, but I talk to Olivier, I make love to Peter Finch and play Juliet making love to Romeo, and I portray her mental breakdowns as well, so it’s quite a physical role.”
**Production photos by John Flynn
Rogue Machine presents Vivien, by Rick Foster. Opens August 12. Plays Fri.- Sat. 8 pm; Sun. 2 pm; (except Saturday, Aug. 27 at 5 pm, Sunday, Aug. 28 at 3 pm, and an added show on Monday, August 29 at 8 pm.Â No performance on Friday, August 26). Tickets: $25-40. Through September 4. Rogue Machine Theatre, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., LA 90019. Call 855-585-5185 or visit http://roguemachinetheatre.com.