Los Angeles theatre goers have had the thrill and privilege to watch actress Deborah Strang on our stages for more than thirty years, most often as a favorite company member of acclaimed repertory theatre, A Noise Within. We caught up with Strang at ANW’s beautiful theatre in Pasadena where, on the eve of opening night of All’s Well That Ends Well, we discussed her career, memorable roles and her forthcoming retirement as box office manager and what it has all meant to her.
Deborah Strang has piercing blue eyes. We’ve seen them on various show posters through the years, but in person they are striking and there’s a depth and twinkle that engages when she locks you in her gaze. She’s an observer of people and her performances always reflect that empathy. She hails from the Appalachian mountain area of Virginia where she says “there was no thoughts of being an actor – that wasn’t even in my realm of possibility.” Growing up she had been in church plays and local community theatre so once at college, she found herself in the theatre department which eventually led to the MFA theatre program at University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. She spent her early acting years in Boston where she did theatre and earned her Equity (theatre actors union) card and at 30 years old she set her sights on New York City.
She loved New York City and spent the next several years working in the city and in regional theatre, and became a full-fledged New Yorker. Her then boyfriend, now husband, actor Joel Swetow, had moved to Los Angeles to pursue film and TV. After closing a show at The Roundabout, Strang flew out to LA for a visit. She recalls it was a sunny day in November and, armed with a rental car and Thomas Brothers Guide, she unexpectedly fell in love with Los Angeles. “I never would have expected that. I had a New York view of Los Angeles” she says wryly, “but the sky was blue, the wind was blowing my hair and the radio was on… and I just fell in love!” In 1989, they moved to LA permanently and both worked extensively in film and TV. After appearing in role after role of what Strang describes as “distressed women”, she wanted more. It came by way of A Noise Within. Located in Glendale at the time, she was asked to audition after her husband had been working with them. She then became a company member and the rest is history. Although at the same time, “more” also meant going back to school for environmental studies as she was keen to get involved in the environmental movement that was happening in LA at the time. For a while she juggled both and says it really could have gone either way. Luckily for us, theatre won out in the end.
“This is what I would have always wanted,” Strang explains, “it’s what drew me to being an actor to begin with…it’s being in a community, working together to put on plays, being able to do lots of different parts, and being able to do more than act; it’s being able to be a real part of something and helping to build something.” In the early days, all company members wore several hats and for Strang, managing the box office became her thing. She has continued in this capacity to this day and will be retiring from that position in the Spring. ANW will be honoring Strang with the Chuck and Bette Redmond Legacy Award, which recognizes the extraordinary generosity of a supporter that continues to impact ANW, at their gala in May. She says that having that box office interaction with audience members has been just as meaningful to her as acting and even helped her as an actress. “I think it’s made me a better actor because it’s not just about me being on stage. I know all the different stories of the people who are in the audience. So when I’m up on stage, I don’t have to worry about ‘how do I sound? How do I look? How do I say this word?’ I just have to worry about making sure that person in the audience is having a really good time and understanding what I’m saying and are they getting the story. It was a real gift that was given to me.” Although she says it will be strange to no longer be in the box office, she welcomes this next chapter of adventure and says the pandemic brought her clarity. “Life is short. I’m getting older and I want more time with my husband, so that when I’m not in a show we can travel or just go to the beach for the day.”
Strang has played a myriad of great roles in the past 30 years including what she says was one of her most challenging roles to date in “An Iliad”. It was 90 minutes of acting alone on stage and it was staggering to watch and, as she says, to do. “I thought ‘I’m too old, I don’t have the stamina, I won’t be able to memorize it, I just want to get out of doing it.’ But of course I had to do it, had to memorize it and I worked really really hard. It was so empowering to find that at my age, I could do it. To be alone on stage with those words and that play and the audience and this fantastic cellist, Karen Hall, was very fulfilling…to know that if I work at it, I can do it.”
Ubu Roi was another standout role for her because she says she didn’t “get it” and told the directors not cast her in it. Luckily they didn’t listen to her and cast her anyway. “It was one of the greatest experiences of my life” Strang exclaims. “Julia (Rodriguez-Elliot) directed and she was so imaginative! I got to wear this fat suit with these big, wonderful breasts, and swing from a lamp pole, sing on a piano, go into the audience and sit on people’s laps…it was a bizarre, wild experience and it brought home to me the idea that you don’t know what’s on the other side of that door. So just say yes!”
One of her most profound experiences at ANW was doing William Inge’s “Come Back Little Sheba”. “Something about the people in his plays has always moved me so strongly,” she explains, “and on that one I got to do with Julia directing, Geoff (Elliott) played my husband, and it brought up so much of my own background, my own memories. It touched me deeply.”
Now she’s taking on the role of the Countess in Shakespeare’s “All’s Well That Ends Well”, a role she’s always known she would love to play. “Helen is a spunky young woman” says Strang of the main character played by Erika Soto, “who, even though she’s a little bit lower class than everybody else, falls in love and decides to pursue the guy she wants against all odds. It’s a very modern story. The Countess is the mother of the young man that Helen pursues but she’s also adopted and taken care of Helen so she has these two relationships, with her son who she adores and this spunky young woman who she adores as well. It’s hard for her to know which one is dearer to her. And although her son, Bertram, doesn’t behave well – her son is her son and Helen doesn’t really have the right credentials to marry her son. So who does she support? That is her personal dilemma in the play.”
Strang knew she would love the role but says it’s been even more exciting than she thought it would be. “The play starts with her grieving her husband and her son is going off to be a ward of the king, but even in that moment of grief, she’s excited for the son, she’s excited to be in charge of her household. There is a joie de vivre that she has.” Strang points out that with Shakespeare you have a lot of father figures and frequently the mother is missing or dead. “So it’s very interesting in this play that the mother is very present.”
Strang hopes audiences have a really good time and believes they will. “What we’re finding so far is that people are just so happy to be back out again. We have patrons coming back into the space for the first time in two years; seeing our house manager Melody, who is a fixture here, seeing her again is exciting, seeing people excited to come back to their usual seats.” It’s a sumptuous production with a cast full of many ANW resident artists. “For people to see all of us together on stage is really exciting and the surprising thing I think they will find is that people don’t expect to enjoy this particular play. It’s thought of as a “problem play” because of the despicable young man pursued by a really intelligent, interesting woman and people have a problem with that, even though we see that all the time don’t we?” Strang says with a laugh. “But I think (director) Nike Doukas’ take on it reveals new things about it and people are finding they understand it for the first time and are finding it funny for the first time.”
“Every single day is a new discovery” says Strang of the rehearsal process. “This is my first time working with Nike – I’ve known her for 30 years – she is very imaginative and is one of those wonderful directors who directs by asking questions. She’s totally collaborative so we’re constantly playing with it and making new discoveries.” Fellow resident artist, Soto, joined the company five years ago and has played Deborah’s daughter in four plays. “We’ve got the mother daughter thing down at this point,” says Strang, “she’s so much fun, always present. We were doing one scene and doing it the way we had been doing it from the beginning, and then one day it was like wait a minute, this doesn’t feel right. “Let’s try this”, Erika says. And so we start swinging it around, doing it a different way, and just… sparks and excitement and Nike loved it. I have so much respect for both of them so I think the three of us just playing with each other has been the most exciting part of doing this play and it’s been magical.”
Single ticket prices for All’s Well That Ends Well start at $25 and are available at anoisewithin.org, by phone at 626-356-3121, and at the box office located at 3352 East Foothill Blvd in Pasadena, Calif.