Performer of the Year

by Robin Abramson and Carlyn Aquiline, City Theatre Literary Manager and Dramaturg

Less than two weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette printed critic Christopher Rawson’s annual designation of Pittsburgh’s “Performer of the Year.” To our great thrill, actress Robin Abramson received that top honor, and for her performances in two plays presented by City Theatre: Mary’s Wedding and Blackbird, both of which were directed by Stuart Carden (who was not mentioned in the article, but should have been). Read Rawson’s article here. I might be wrong about this, but I believe City Theatre gave Robin her first professional job out of college when she was cast as the earthy Laurel-and-Hardy-obsessed Ellen in Outlying Islands, David Greig’s Darwinian coming-of-age story set in the Scottish Hebrides. Robin has also joined us twice as a company member in the Young Playwrights Festival.

Robin in the poster for David Grieg's OUTLYING ISLANDS (2004-05), with Lea Coco (left) and Michael McMillian (right), directed by Tracy Brigden.

When I called Robin to congratulate her, she agreed to write about her reaction to receiving the commendation—what was she thinking and feeling?—after she let the news sink in for a couple of days. Unbeknownst to Robin, I also invited her Mary’s Wedding collaborators—director Stuart and actor Braden Moran—to share their insights on Robin, as an actress, as a person, as a worthy recipient of this meritorious recognition. I was interested to see the symmetry among what they all chose to talk about and how, sometimes even speaking in the same vocabulary.

Robin’s thoughts follow, written in the first-person—Stuart’s and Braden’s comments (along with some of my own) are indented and in italics, and inserted where they seem to be responding to what Robin is talking about.

I officially learned that I had been named “Performer of the Year” from a 5:45 am voice message from my Mother. Mr. Rawson had interviewed me during the run of Blackbird and although we had since then discussed my accomplishments over the past few years, I still was not expecting to be the main feature of his annual article. My gratitude to Mr. Rawson for this recognition is immeasurable.

After having been asked by the wonderful City Theatre to offer some thoughts on being honored “Performer of the Year,” my initial response is “Well, what is there to say? It’s all very simple, it’s extremely validating to be recognized in this way for my work.” But there’s more, this honor has inspired reflection on the year: the challenges, the doubts, and above all, I am humbly reminded of the achievements of many of my fellow artists and collaborators.

That modesty, self-reflection, and eagerness to acknowledge in her own success those who shared the work with her is typical of Robin, a point made by her Mary’s Wedding co-star Braden: “It’s always an honor and a joy to work with an actor who really approaches the work from an ego-free perspective. A true collaborator. That’s Robin.”

Robin and Braden in 2008-09's MARY'S WEDDING by Stephen Massicotte, directed by Stuart Carden.

Although many may regard it as mere coincidence that both Stephen Massicotte’s Mary’s Wedding and David Harrower’s Blackbird were produced by City Theatre, I do not. As many Pittsburgh theatre-goers are well aware, and I have experienced firsthand, City Theatre often produces thought-provoking and adventurous new works by both up-and-coming and acclaimed playwrights. Many of these “push the envelope” plays offer lush, challenging roles for women, which can unfortunately be a rarity in the world of a struggling actress. So, thank you to City Theatre.

Thank you, Robin, for such high praise! The issue of challenging female roles was not lost on Stuart, who also generously mentioned City Theatre in his comments: “I also want to congratulate City Theatre for choosing plays with such complex roles for women.  Robin’s recognition owes much to City’s willingness to program fascinating plays with fascinating female leads.”

Memory is a funny thing because, in retrospect, what I recall most is overcoming apprehension and uncertainty during rehearsals—right up until closing day. Both Mary and Una required a raw sincerity that, initially, I was not convinced I would be able to embody fully. This is where Stuart Carden comes to the rescue.

And here we turn to Stuart. He commenced talking about Mary and Una from the reverse angle, from the perspective of their differences, saying, “On the surface Una and Mary could not be more wildly different. Mary is an innocent who has just tasted loss for the first time and Una has lived with the bitter taste of loss and suffering for more than half her life. Mary is idealistic, spirited, open, and pure while Una is scarred, jaded, closed, and filled with rage.” Then he broached what they have in common: “their need to understand what they have lost and how they deal with that loss in order to find some way to heal and move forward.” And he reveals why he cast Robin: “It is this emotional vulnerability that drew me to the idea of Robin playing both roles.” Which is another way of saying that he cast Robin as both Mary and Una precisely because he was confident that she could embody their “raw sincerity.”

As director of both shows, Stuart bestowed upon me his never-ending knowledge, immense trust, and limitless encouragement. But what I learned most from Stuart is the true art of storytelling: “I am not standing on this stage to merely display my talents, but to tell the audience a true and honest story”—which is easier said than done.

Braden addressed Robin’s dedication to true storytelling, and how that unpretentious approach ends up actually shining a light on her talent: “She’s very interested in looking at the story and the character and finding out how to be a storyteller through the character—not how to draw attention to herself or her abilities. In doing so, her tremendous abilities easily shine through.”

While the end of many rehearsals sent me walking to my car wondering if I could pull this off or if I had been miscast, I always returned the next day determined to overcome whatever challenge Stuart had presented me with, because… I knew he was right, and that if I could just do it, it would work.

Stuart applauded this willingness on Robin’s part to trust in the process with him, and commended her for the honesty and openness she can then offer to audiences: “Robin has the rare ability to be completely emotionally naked on stage. She rends her heart open in every rehearsal and performance in order for us to examine its contents. This is an exceptionally brave act and one that I’m always amazed that actors are willing to do for audiences. And Robin is fearless, once you have gained her trust she is willing to go anywhere with you. Whether that is transforming into Sergeant Flowerdew while wearing a frilly nightgown in Mary’s Wedding or plumbing the raw and agonizing depths of a wounded young woman seeking answers in Blackbird.”

Braden, too, commented on Robin’s commitment to the rehearsal exploration and how that translates to her stage performance, on her determination to face all challenges head on, and on the trust that’s so important among collaborators. He even uses the same metaphor of “emotional nakedness” that Stuart did. In Braden’s words, Robin is “diligent, extremely intelligent, insightful and passionate in the rehearsal hall and carries all that playfully and generously onto the stage. Knowing you have a partner you can trust and rely on allows you as an actor to go to places you might not with someone less willing to be vulnerable and naked out there with you. Her imagination and emotional depths are a joy to witness as an actor. And—most impressive—is her desire to continue to grow—as a human and an artist. Any challenge that was before her she was willing to embrace and try to work through—not run from or hide in a realm of comfort.”

Robin as Una with Steve Pickering as Ray in 2009-10's BLACKBIRD by David Harrower, directed by Stuart Carden.

Stuart expressed best the idea that, in a collaborative art like the theatre, no one can go it alone—actors have to support one another onstage: “An actor is only as strong as their stage partner and I would like to give a shout-out to the two phenomenal Chicago actors that shared the stage with Robin, Steve Pickering and Braden Moran.” And, of course, Robin did not neglect to talk about her co-stars, in glowing and personal terms, bringing up those crucial issues of trust and honesty once more:

Braden Moran, who co-starred with me in Mary’s Wedding helped me understand that you can make a best friend in only a few weeks if you trust each other on stage. I want to apologize to all the designers during tech week who endured hours of Braden and me laughing hysterically through our endless cue to cue rehearsals. Never have I had more laughs. Steve Pickering, my Blackbird boxing mate, never gave me one dishonest moment to work with and can really terrify the front row with just one kick!

Stuart and Braden share the last words on Robin, since, combined, they beautifully summed up the sentiments of all of us who know her: Braden said, “It’s wonderful to see true talent recognized—and I could not be happier for Robin to receive this much-deserved attention. She’s not one who seeks it—so it’s nice to know it’s found her regardless!!” to which Stuart added, “I’m thrilled by Robin being named Performer of the Year but not at all surprised. The range she showed in these two productions was rivaled only by the risk that she took in revealing their complex hearts. Brava Robin!”

Knowing that no theatre event is complete without the audience, Robin’s final expression of gratitude includes you.

Thanks to City Theatre production, cast, crew, and audience. I hope to be back soon!

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