The family that plays togetherby Marianne Combs, Minnesota Public Radio
There's an old adage: the family that plays together, stays together. There's evidence to support the proverb in the local theater scene.
St. Paul, Minn. — Rehearsal is underway in the basement of an abandoned Lutheran church in Minneapolis for the new play "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" All in all, the actors seem pretty relaxed. The man playing the husband gives the stage wife a backrub. Later, the young actress playing their daughter leans comfortably on her stage father's shoulder. It seems like one big happy family, which it should. In "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" the father is played by Stephen D'Ambrose, the wife is played by his real-life wife Barbara Kingsley, and their teenage daughter is played (you guessed it) by their teenage daughter, Maggie. Maggie decided at an early age she wanted to follow in her parents footsteps.
"I never wanted to do anything else," she says. "I never wanted to be the firefighter, the doctor, the veterinarian. I always wanted to act because I've always been around it. My parents are happy when they do this; it's something that they truly believe in and are passionate about. It just seems right."
On a break in the rehearsal, Maggie sits between her parents on a couch in the church basement, one arm lazily wrapped around her dad's shoulder, and a leg outstretched in her mom's lap. This despite a schedule that would drive most people into a frenzy. In addition to performing in this play, Maggie is a full-time high school student, on the debate team, and has just finished a slate of applications to arts conservatories.
It's not uncommon for actors who are married or otherwise related to each other to perform together. Maggie's paired up with each of her parents to perform in other plays around town, and so has her brother. But this is the first time these three have been in a play together, in the roles they actually share in real life. This play, which depicts a family in Cold War Germany, is allowing her to act with her parents in a different way.
"It's interesting," Maggie D'Ambrose says, "to do a play with this kind of depth with my parents and actually get to go home and talk about these issues and work on our lines together and see them not just as my parents but as actors. And I think we all respect each other in that sense."
Stephen D'Ambrose says working with people he loves makes a job he already loves that much more enjoyable. If there's a possible downside, he imagines that people might take them for a self-important family of actors:
"There's the three of us, you know, 'the Barrymoores,' up on stage. That kind of pressure. But that kind of thing you can just kind of pooh-pooh. We're doing this show because we believe in it and what it has to say and we're lucky enough to get to do it all three of us together."
"Do You Want to Know a Secret?" is set during the years before and after the reunification of Germany. Barbara Kingsley plays the role of Karin Berger, an activist reformer who is trying to bring an end to Communist rule in East Germany. But someone informs on her, and she's sent to prison for seven years, separated from her husband and child. Finally the Wall comes down between East and West Berlin, and she's released. But when she finds out who informed on her, it shakes the foundations of the family.
Pinkerton says his play doesn't have to be performed by actors who are related to each other, but it's certainly helped.
"Frankly," he admits, "I thought at first about it like a producer: 'Oh boy, we can get some ink in newspapers if we have a family playing a family!' But it's a very subtle thing. They are relating to each other in ways that seem to be slightly different from what I had originally thought of, in a good sense. They're bringing something fresh to it, that I think they bring not only as professionals but as a family."
Director Leah Cooper says for parts of the rehearsal process, it felt like she was cheating.
"You know there's an intimate scene in bed between Barbara and Stephen and," she recalls, "we really didn't have to talk about how couples sit intimately together; they just blocked that themselves. They're very very comfortable together. And in the mom/daughter scenes there's immediately that dynamic of a warm mother-daughter relationship and a certain teenage thing. I don't think I've ever seen an actress do the glare at her mother as well as Maggie does. I'm thinking she might have practice at it."
Cooper says the time she would normally spend on developing relationships between the characters she's been able to devote instead to the story itself. As for Barbara Kingsley, she says working with her husband and daughter has allowed her to push herself further because she trusts them enough to be vulnerable with them.
Kingsley says the last time she acted in a play with Maggie, they had only a two-line exchange. Soon Maggie will be heading off to college; they won't likely act together again for several years. So Kingsley says she's thrilled to have this opportunity to perform with her daughter in a meaty, complex role. But she shakes her head in disbelief at the thought that both her daughter and her 22-year-old son, Cooper, have chosen to pursue the elusive career of acting.
"There is that part of you that goes, 'Didn't you learn anything? You lived here with us; we're actors!'" But, she concedes, "I guess I only feel that way on days when it's really difficult for me as an artist. To think both she and her brother have chosen the same path and all I can say is 'I'll be there for you.' Because Stephen's been there for me and there are other people that have been here for us."
"Do You Want to Know a Secret?" opens tonight at Intermedia Arts and runs through March 26th. And maybe, a few years down the road, a play will open starring all four members of the D'Ambrose family.
- All Things Considered, 03/09/2006, 5:50 p.m.