“Sometimes people leave you / Halfway through the wood / Do not let it grieve you / No one leaves for good / You are not alone / No one is alone”

These poignant lyrics written by Stephen Sondheim for his 1987 masterpiece, the stage musical “Into the Woods,” were sung in a haunting reprise by Joanna Gleason, who deservedly won a Tony Award for her captivating performance. Her role of the Baker’s Wife was one of many faerie tale characters who find their sense of normalcy upended by a sudden catastrophe that kicks off the play’s second half. The protagonist in Gleason’s marvelous directorial feature debut, “The Grotto,” Alice (Betsy Brandt), finds herself in a similarly bewildering nightmare. Her fiancé of eight years, Nick (Larry Sullivan), commits suicide, leaving her a nightclub in Joshua Tree called The Grotto, where she meets the current owner, Victor (Jonathan Del Arco), who turns out to have been Nick’s lover of over two decades. 

The Virgin Mary statue inside the club, along with the venue’s frequent screenings of Henry King’s 1943 classic, “The Song of Bernadette,” suggest a spiritual layer to the film that reveals itself with deft subtlety. Though the pain of loss weighs heavily upon Alice, she finds solace in her friendship with Kip (Dan Bucatinsky), a man mourning the death of his husband, and the attention she receives from the club’s handsome chef, Gideon (Steve Kazee). I related to Alice’s journey as she found the things that matter most to her starting to stick, which Gleason told me on my 37th birthday this year—via a Cameo video ordered by my wife Rebecca—is what tends to happen when people reach my age (Gleason was, in fact, 37 when “Into the Woods” premiered on Broadway). 

Little did Rebecca realize that mere months later, she would be serving with Gleason on the Narrative Feature jury of the Heartland International Film Festival, where “The Grotto” had won the Best Narrative Feature prize in 2022. Throughout her career, Gleason has displayed astonishing range in roles as diverse as a disillusioned wife in Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” a governor celebrating the influence of her titular high school music teacher (Richard Dreyfuss) in Stephen Herek’s “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and the bitter mother of a rising porn star in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights.”

It was one of the great honors of my career to interview Gleason, a childhood hero of mine, early last month about her extraordinary work and how it has led her toward helming her first feature, which will have its Philadelphia premiere on Sunday, November 19th, at the Fringe Arts Building (tickets are available here).

Joanna Gleason, writer/director of “The Grotto.”

You previously spoke in an interview about how “theatre begins as a kind of therapy and haven,” which is precisely what it was for me in high school.

That’s the thing about adolescence, isn’t it? We constantly have to find out who people think we are and the expectation of what the family puts on you. Then you try to reinvent yourself, but you can’t totally because people will say, “Who do you think you are?”, and when you go home, you’re somebody else. It’s often not until you go off to college where nobody knows you that you can try on different identities, but that’s what theatre allows you to do too.

Performing “Into the Woods” in my high school drama club during the spring of 2002 was the best possible therapy for us to grapple with the horrors of 9/11. 

In our lifetime, which is of course just a blip on the timeline of the world, there have been these marked events. My parents lived through World War II and all of that, but for me, it began with the Kennedy assassination, where we realized that nobody in power that you think is immune is actually safe. Of course, there are political assassinations happening all over the world, but Americans have been particularly blessed, by and large, with being able to feel a sense of expansion and freedom. But when these events happen that galvanize us—the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Challenger explosion, 9/11, the pandemic—they make us see that we’re in this together, which is what “Into the Woods” is all about. And if we aren’t, no matter if you’re Cinderella or the Prince or a baker, you’re finished. Do you guys have kids?

We’re still figuring out whether we will.

When someone says that she doesn’t have kids in “Into the Woods,” Jack’s mother replies, “That’s okay too!” But if and when you do, “Into the Woods” will mean something different.

To me, “The Grotto” is a celebration of the warmth and belonging one finds in a community, especially when you don’t feel that you need one. 

Right. There’s a theme in the movie that is articulated by the Baker’s Wife when she says, “I’m in the wrong story.” It is actually a line that I gave Stephen and he credits me with giving him it. Alice looks around and thinks, ‘I was with the wrong guy, and this temp job I’ve had that has gone on forever is wrong for me.’ What do you do when you find yourself in the wrong story? That is what I found out myself when I was in my 40s. So many elements of the film are drawn from my life, though there is, of course, dramatic license in some areas. With “Into the Woods,” a Tony award and all these things that looked so shiny, I looked like I had my life all together on the outside. But that was when everything fell apart—my personal relationship, my home and my financial stability. 

Things just collapsed, and that’s when I realized, ‘I don’t even think I have been authentically in my own life on my own two feet, certainly not in my real life.’ Of course, your work is part of your real life, but it’s your work and the life I wanted to build had absolutely no foundation. I had to start putting the pieces back together. Who comes into your life to help you do that? Well, in my particular life, the support, intelligence, guidance and love from my friends, particularly my gay male friends, was a very big part of it because there’s no agenda there. There’s no coyness, no seduction and none of the games that you have to play with men. Alice should have been best friends with Nick. His need to cover his real life and still be under the thumb of his parents even in his 50s is a tragedy. 

Somebody said to me, “Oh, that doesn’t happen anymore,” and I said, “Yeah, it happens all over the place.” The trauma that comes with being a gay person in this country, never mind the trauma of being a person of color in this country, is very real. That was Nick’s personal tragedy and he took her along with him because she didn’t have any greater sense of herself and what she thought she was worth. Things got cut in the movie, including Alice mentioning in passing that her first marriage had failed. She’s at this point where she’s in her late 40s and the window for having kids has passed. It never even came up. All these decisions she made were based on her being someone else’s temp and not being her own boss, literally. 

Actor Betsy Brandt and filmmaker Joanna Gleason on the set of “The Grotto.”

How did you find Betsy Brandt for the role of Alice?

My husband and I just watched her on “Breaking Bad.” We binged all five seasons, none of which I had seen when I offered the role to Betsy. She had been brought to my attention by my casting directors Libby Goldstein, Junie Lowry-Johnson and Josh Ropiequet. I watched a clip of her in some other project, and when I talked to her on the phone, she read from the script and I thought, ‘You’re my Alice.’ Somebody in the casting world who knows her quite well recently came to a screening we had in Los Angeles and said, “I did not know Betsy could carry a movie frame by frame.” I said, “Yeah, she goes everywhere this story needed her to go.” 

I like it when smart people are not afraid to be unfiltered and spiky. I like it when they go, “This pisses me off and I’m not afraid to say so.” She understood how Alice was exhausted after the death of her fiancé. She thinks that she has nothing, and she can’t even grieve yet because she’s angry. It was brave of her to play angry and a little bit spiky so that the grief doesn’t really pay off until Act Three. The grief pays off when she runs back out into the night, rather than loading the film with scenes of weeping. There’s a little bit of it at the beginning, but mostly it’s the shock and awe that is running through her mind as she asks, “What the hell just happened?” 

I loved Alice the more that she resisted being lovable, which is also true of many characters you’ve played. 

I’m glad you said that. Billy Wilder, the great director, was told by Ernst Lubitsch, “Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.” When something dawns on you, when you see something that isn’t spelled out for you, audiences will appreciate it. Unfortunately, the modern day studio mentality, especially when you’re trying to sell something to a mass audience, requires everything to be explained and no character to be unsympathetic. And I say, “The hell with that.” Why do you think “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” were hits? Because no one in them is playing lovable. 

It’s that very mentality that likely would’ve frowned upon the Baker’s Wife having her intimate moment with the Prince, which leads to her unforgettable solo, “Moments in the Woods.” 

It’s so tiresome. What she had with the Prince wasn’t an affair. It would’ve been an affair if it happened again with planning. This was a case of her just getting caught up and then going, “Woah! What was that?”, because she didn’t have time to think. I have no fucks left to give about people who sit in judgment of that moment. I just think that it makes for good drama because it allows her to travel from the question of, “What was that?” to concluding, “Oh, I want to go home—I want my baker.” 

How did you go about finding your own voice as a director?

The voice was really in the writing. The direction was in seeing the light bulb go off over a production designer’s head as they go, “Oh, is this what you mean? Look, I have this idea,” and I reply, “Yeah, bring it,” or when an actor says, “I hear you, I get this,” and I watch them work through it to find it. For me, directing much of the time consists of sitting back and watching these people who are so gifted bring you their gifts. It was a joy. Yes, there were some bumpy things that happened—we could’ve used more time and money, we lost two locations, we had a sandstorm and we had a meth lab down the road. [laughs] When I do my second feature hopefully next year, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to catch that lightning in a bottle again, but it depends on who you surround yourself with. I knew that most of these actors signed on because they’re my friends, so I feel very blessed in that regard. 

I had been talking to my DP, Gabe Mayhan, about “The Grotto” before I even met him face to face. We had been talking to each other on the phone for two years prior to getting a green light for this movie, so we already had a palette in mind and knew how we wanted the film to look and feel. He eventually directed a short that I wrote as a way of making that first pancake to see if the griddle is hot enough. We did it with the same production team and my friends, who are great actors. It took two and a half days to film, and that’s when I realized that Gabe was able to shoot whatever idea would come to my mind. When those discoveries happen is what I find most thrilling. You always have a clock ticking, but we managed to get some stuff that we hadn’t planned on just by being in each other’s rhythms. 

I particularly loved how the moment when Alice kisses Gideon is lensed through a window, which resembles an old-fashioned iris shot.

We didn’t have another room we could use for the kitchen, so they gave me a door and I said, “Put a porthole in it. That way, we never have to go in there because everything that we need to know that happens behind it, we can see through this.” The shot is from our point of view and it’s something that we want to see happen. I worked with Woody Allen twice and he’s not big on going in for close-ups. I don’t like it either, though you have to at times, especially with Alice so that you can get closer to her and care more about her. However, there are scenes where I deliberately did not want to go in for a close-up. 

When Alice’s mom and Kip are splashing their feet in the pool, I did not need to get coverage of them looking at each other. The scene is about twelve seconds long, and we get to stand back and view them in their world. We’ve just been in the bedroom with the two of them very close to one another talking and having a very personal conversation. Now we’re outside and when you’re in The Grotto for much of the film, which was a set that was built from nothing on a warehouse floor with no windows, you’re inside a lot, and I needed to find ways to be outdoors. I needed to find water and some other elements to cleanse the palate. The interior set of The Grotto appears to have windows that look outside. The morning light you can see filtering in when they are just cleaning up was created by Gabe in a big dark warehouse. That is magic to me. 

People might look at that moment by the pool and think, ‘Who do you think you are? You’re not experienced enough to not be doing coverage!’ The next movie I make will have more coverage because it will demand it. It’s a different kind of story. But there is currently a certain laziness in the viewing world, since we now watch everything on our small screens and not in movie theaters. The first time I saw “The Grotto” on the big screen was at the Heartland Film Festival, and it turned out to be more than I thought it was. I had already started to pre-apologize about how I could’ve made better choices about this and that, but on the big screen, the film is a whole different experience. I’ve now seen it three or four times on a big screen with the sound design cleaned up, and I’m really happy with it, but it’s likely that most people will not see it on a big screen. 

Woody Allen was heavily influenced by Ingmar Bergman’s aesthetic, where the camera would sometimes be peering at an empty door as the characters fought in the next room. 

That’s right. I just had the privilege of going to a screening of Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro.” How he went about shooting some of its scenes containing real, raw people was phenomenal. 

Joanna Gleason on the set of her directorial feature debut, “The Grotto.”

Did the location of Joshua Tree itself have a significance for you?

Yes, I went to Joshua Tree with my mom and sister. My mom had read the screenplay years before we made it, and we went to a barbecue place called Pappy + Harriet’s near Joshua Tree. As we sat there, my mom looked around and said, “This looks like it’s in the inside of The Grotto.” It had a little stage, and when the waitress came over, she had a tattoo of the Virgin Mary on her forearm. Over the kitchen, there was a sign saying, “We need a miracle,” and mom said, “This is a sign that you’re going to get your movie made.” We ended up shooting the exterior of The Grotto in Lancaster, California, and you might recognize it as the church in “Kill Bill.” We had a week where we only shot exterior scenes. 

Everything inside The Grotto was shot in downtown Los Angeles, so in one scene, we have Alice walking to the exit, and then we pick up a week later, and she walks outside in the same clothing as if no time had passed. As for envisioning the interior of the space, I just let my production designer Zach Bangma and the art department team show me what they felt. I had a little input into what the statue of the Virgin Mary would look like and the fake rocks that would accompany it, but they found the statue—which was red—and they repainted it. All the choices Zach made, from the posters on the wall to the placement of the piano, were inspired. He created a place that was beyond what I could’ve expected. 

I enjoyed how Kip pokes fun at the “petting zoo” notion of gayness that has been perpetuated in so much of our pop culture.

In speaking with my gay male friends, I’ve learned how there’s a lot of protective coloration that they need to get through the world safely. For the most part, the gay men and women that I know are wickedly smart and tremendous observers of humanity. They also have to have their head on a swivel because they don’t know where the next threat is coming from. If you are a member of the BIPOC world or the trans world, you literally don’t know where the next assault is coming from, verbally or otherwise. Kip is incredibly smart, as is Victor, but Victor has shed his need for protective coloration with humor, and it’s not out of fear. He has found his place in the world and is totally happy there.

Nobody in The Grotto has to put on a mask, they are who they are. Kip is very authentically who he is too, but he comes from the city, which is a different environment. I just wanted him to be metabolically different from Victor, and no two people—gay or otherwise—are exactly alike anyway. When talking about the portrayal of gay men in film over the decades, I must mention the iconic, Oscar-nominated performance of my husband, Chris Sarandon, as Al Pacino’s lover, the wannabe transsexual, in 1975’s “Dog Day Afternoon.” Talk about being brave in the 70s! That was a brilliant performance. 

It sure was. I also appreciated how Kip isn’t just there to help Alice, as noted in his line, “You dragged me into your story, and I found the next chapter in mine.”

I let the audience put two and two together. He’s at The Grotto because he sees Victor is still there, it’s a place that he remembers from his days when he was married to Leo, and he likes Alice. He’s been lonely and he’s found a friend in her. The audience can put this all together and realize that’s why he’s gone back there and is lugging an amp. He’s suddenly found a community that he can be a part of. 

The film’s witty dialogue never feels grafted on, but comes from the truth of the moment.

My writing is just an extension of how I talk. I see the world as cockeyed and I also come from a family where at some point, you have to laugh. We’re Jewish, and there will eventually be something that you can’t say in words, so you just go, “Oy…”, which has the underlying meaning of, “This is what it is. Let’s try to regroup and hang onto each other,” or, “Let’s fight and get through this together.” We moved a lot when I was a kid, which meant I had to frequently be the new kid at school, so my protective coloration was to be funny. It’s disarming, especially in a young person, to be smart and funny. It calmed everybody the fuck down and they went, “Okay, she’s cool.” 

That was similar to the armor I had in high school. When someone asked me where my date was at a school dance, I explained matter-of-factly, “I’m the comic relief.” I didn’t see myself as being worthy of having a date. 

That’s exactly it. The clown is laughing on the outside, crying on the inside. There’s so much that you don’t get to process when you’re young, and again, that’s what theatre is for. That’s what listening to beautiful music and having it make you cry is for. It’s for catharsis. 

Does Jennifer Jones’ performance in “The Song of Bernadette” hold a special meaning for you? 

Yes. First of all, she is remarkable in that movie and won an Oscar for it. I saw the film as a young person who felt connected to something that the world wasn’t seeing, just as Bernadette was. People asked her, “Who are you to think that you’re so special that the Virgin Mary would appear to you?”, and nobody believed her. As a kid, I was full of invention and spirituality—not religion but spirituality, which is something you come to on your own. Yet I couldn’t communicate it to anybody around me because I didn’t know how to. I couldn’t verbalize it, so that movie spoke to me. When I tried to not be the comic relief and was more heartfelt and sweet, my parents would be like, “What are you talking about?”, if the spiritual connection I had wasn’t attached to something that was specifically Jewish. 

So the film appealed to me not because of its Christianity or Catholicism, but because of how it portrayed the experience I had at age twelve of not being believed when I found my spiritual core. It mattered to me no matter where I found it, no matter if I wanted to go and see the beauty of a church or listen to Greek plainsong chanting. The nun that goes up to Bernadette and says, “Who do you think you are?” was basically my mother. There was a part of me that I couldn’t translate to my parents. It was the other language in the house and only I could understand it, and that’s why that film moved me so. 

I eventually realized that obsessing over the next life is a waste of this one. 

Nick leaves her clips from the movie as if to say, “Alice, I can’t be happy in this life. I can’t promise you happiness in this life.” It’s his way of telling her, “I’m checking out, but here, I’m leaving you this place and these people who have meant so much to me.” Do you sense him in any other part of the movie?

I noticed upon my second viewing how the flickering neon sign of The Grotto spells out different words at various points of the film, such as, “He”, “Her”, “Go,” “Hert”—meaning “Hurt”—and “Heal.” There’s also a scene where a St. Nicholas decoration lights up as Alice is speaking out loud to the deceased Nick, which seems to suggest that his spirit is somehow present in the electrical current.

You’re not alone in that interpretation at all, and it was intentional. If you scroll through the movie to the credits at the very end, it says, “For Marilyn in the lights.” That’s my mom. When she was dying, she said, “I’ll be in the lights,” and she has been in the lights as anybody associated with this movie can tell you. In the film, it’s just Nick’s way of going, “Yeah, I know you’re hurt.” When she comes to The Grotto for the first time, the sign reads, “Her,” meaning, “She’s here, do your magic. Do the thing you did for me that I couldn’t accept enough.” I was prepared to win the potential fight in editing against people who would want me to have the camera hold for a longer period of time on the sign.

If I had my druthers and we hadn’t recorded the music first, I would’ve timed the film’s final moments differently so that the camera wouldn’t have stayed as long on the shot involving the spring. I would’ve moved past it faster, but we were tied to the musical score at that point. Sometimes you have to put these things together in disparate parts and you have a clock ticking. So I’m happy with it, but when I see that shot, I think, ‘Eh, I would’ve made that shorter just so the viewer knows it’s there, but doesn’t have to be told it’s there.’ We didn’t get a clear enough shot of the sign reading, “Hert.” You see it in the background when Alice is storming past it and there’s another time very far in the distance when she’s out in the desert and throws Nick’s ashes as if to say, “You want to be home? Fine.” I’m delighted that you saw it!

There’s also a sign in the club that says, “Do what you love,” which foreshadows the direction that Alice will ultimately take. 

I did not create that sign. Zach Bangma and the art department found it and put it up and I went, “Let’s leave it.” It just shows you that they were totally engaged in creating this world.

Rebecca and I were both struck by the dreaminess of the sequence where Alice feels as if she sees Nick on the dance floor of The Grotto.

The guys are at the bar with Alice and they’re talking about the old days, which makes her uncomfortable because they involve the real Nick that she never really knew. She’s had three drinks by now, and when she turns, she has a kind of nightmarish vision of what his life must’ve been. She sees him, he sees her, and it’s a very alarming moment for her. This is when the place was alive and when he was alive. It’s in her imagination, but it propels her back outside, and that’s when she goes and sits on the bench. 

Are there any actors or films you grew up with that serve as your North Star?

I grew up mostly loving the black and white films from the 40s. In black and white, you really focus on the feeling of the place and the performances, which are not over the top. They are mostly very subtle, but what color has done is make everything so literal, distracting and overcrowded. In terms of direction, I like smaller, quieter movies that move me. What I wish I had done in the film, if I had more time, was have a great nine-shot of the ensemble in scenes such as when Alice first comes into The Grotto. I originally wanted her sitting at the table ringside, so that everyone including the act onstage, Mrs. Norman Maine, would’ve overheard her confrontation with Victor. I ultimately decided that it worked better traffic-wise to have them a little bit further away from one another.

So there wasn’t a North Star. I’ve just worked with so many great people who know how to let you bring your best. Just bring your best and the camera will find you. At one point, I had Gideon sit at the lip of the stage and sing with the guitar, and Mrs. Norman Maine sings with him for a second, but she is sweeping. I gave each of the people in the scene a bit of business to do. “You are going to get her a cup of coffee eventually, you are going to be cleaning menus, you are going to be mending your boot for tonight’s performance, you are going to be at the bar cleaning up, and Victor, you’re going to be in the corner doing receipts. Find your life and go.” Good actors will know what to do. I said to Betsy, “If somebody puts a plate of scrambled eggs in front of you, eat the food. I hate when there is food in a scene and nobody is eating. You haven’t eaten since yesterday.”

I would gladly watch a whole evening of the acts featured at The Grotto, such as Mrs. Norman Maine and the Coalmine Canaries. 

Carly Sakolove plays Mrs. Norman Maine and was the first person I asked to be in my movie. It was about twelve years ago when I saw her act and asked if she would meet me for lunch at the Grand Central Terminal. I told Carly that I had a part for her, a ventriloquist who is focused on vocal impressions rather than not moving her mouth, and she said, “I’m in!” She is wildly entertaining and a dear friend. I recommend looking up her work online. As for the Coalmine Canaries, our producer Tim Kirkman went on a kind of a reconnaissance mission in LA. The son of our producer and investor, Laure Sudreau, is in the music world, and he sent footage of these two young women singing in harmony, which is how we found them. The group Volamos is comprised of the Red Pears, a very hot Chicano group in LA. 

What aspects of your collaborations with James Lapine, who directed you in “Into the Woods,” and Paul Thomas Anderson do you continue to carry with you? 

James wrote a fantastic book for “Sunday in the Park with George,” which is a musical that I love so deeply. The audition workshop I had for “Into the Woods” was very funny. I came to realize that James has pictures and sounds in his head that he can translate to the stage. His ideas are clear and smart. He is gifted, quiet and never needs his personality to be the biggest thing in the room. Paul Thomas Anderson was 26—a puppy—when he made “Boogie Nights.” For the scene he wrote where my son played by Mark Wahlberg comes in and I start yelling at him and tearing up his room, we blocked it out. Everything I said, including every cuss word, is verbatim. Mark was fairly new to this part of the entertainment industry and he had to throw me against the wall. He had control and he was in it. I wanted to scare him, and I did. [laughs] We did maybe three or four passes at it and do you see much coverage in that scene? Do you need to? 

Not at all. The scene is a whirlwind.

That’s what it should be. Don’t stop and linger. You don’t need to know more about her story because it’s all in there. She’s jealous of her son. You don’t need more airtime, you don’t need more dialogue. In a good script, it’s all there and an actor doesn’t need more. Show me that, and I will put two and two together. 

Lapine’s production, which is thankfully preserved on film, was so much richer than the big screen version from Disney, which I found disappointingly humorless.

It was beautifully done, but the stakes were lower because all the characters were already so present and together. The thing about ours is that in Act One, everybody is enchanted by the idea of a prince and magic. In Act Two, everybody is scared, disenchanted and lost. Somehow there was a real sense of collaboration and community onstage. Bless the gorgeousness that is Bernadette Peters, a supernova in the theatre, but the play was still very much a piece of all of its pieces. There was a lot of irony, but there was no sarcasm. Sarcasm has killed honest responses, empathy, kindness and intelligence. Sarcasm is lazy. Unfortunately, we pass off sarcastic personalities as having some sort of cache when actually, they’re just tearing at the fabric of what it is to be a true human being. They get a lot of airtime and a lot of click bait, and you go, “You’ve ruined everything, just go the fuck away!”

“Mr. Holland’s Opus” is an extraordinarily meaningful film to anyone who, like my father, has had a career in education, and your monologue is the heart of the film. When I interviewed Richard Dreyfuss, he felt that teachers were the last great heroes of our culture.

Richard Dreyfuss and I went to the same high school and we had a drama teacher named Mr. Ingle who was our Mr. Holland. He had that big an influence on us, so it was very fun to see Richard again when we made that film. Today, everything is being thrown in the way of teachers to prevent them from being able to really open the world to their students. It’s a result of the fearful, craven, cynical minds of the stupid, loud idiots who seem to be proliferating everywhere because they’re scared little entities. They’re scared of everything and if their lives aren’t happy, they want to make everyone else’s lives unhappy. But Mr. Ingle was the one who said to me, “You’re playing all of these character roles now—the spinster sister and the ugly person whose heart has been broken—because your career will have no expiration date. If you were just the pretty blonde little ingenue, I think your days would be numbered.” 

The actors I admired while growing up were playing character roles in the 40s. It used to be that the adults like Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis—even if they weren’t matinee idol pretty in the traditional sense—were the leads. Then there was always an ingenue and a juvenile, a young girl and a young guy, to give you something pretty to look at, unless you were Teresa Wright, who was brilliant as a young woman. Then what happened in our culture is the ingenue and the juvenile became the leads, and parents and older people became interfering, clueless and the butt of the joke. I’m so sorry that it’s come to that. It’s hard to find real adults in a movie these days instead of delayed adolescent characters. 

Heidie Dunn, who directed our production of “Into the Woods,” was my Mr. Holland. I feel that a big strength of “The Grotto,” apart from its refreshing sincerity, is the fact that every character has a fully realized life, regardless of their screen time. 

Thank you. Everyone at the club is very gently saying to Alice, “We love you.” They are the sort of family that we create along the way in our lives. The theatre, which is full of its own disparate kinds of characters and hierarchies, gave me that. They said, “We love you. You can come be a part of us for the rest of your life. No matter where you live, no matter what’s going on in your life, no matter how many movies or TV shows you’ve done, you can come do a play and be a part of its embrace.” That is why it has really been something for us to watch our brethren suffer during the strike. I hope the negotiations will result in a satisfactory deal that will protect us.

Is there anything more you would like to say about Stephen Sondheim, who was born on my birthday of March 22nd?

Well, I’ve said this many times before, but Stephen Sondheim stamped my passport. Once you’ve done a Sondheim show, you really can go anywhere because there’s a bar that has been set. You have to be correctly cast, good enough and smart enough to get it quick enough. When we’ve done reunion concerts, I look around at the illustrious company that I’m in. We did a birthday concert the New York Philharmonic for Stephen when he turned 85, and another at New York City Center where all of us who had been in his shows were in the wings watching. We were holding each other because every person who came onstage was someone we had all grown up admiring. I realized that this was the family he had made for himself. When I got to introduce him for an award, I said, “For a man who doesn’t have children, you have quite a large family here of people who feel like they are related to you.” He was extraordinary. I loved him, and he is missed beyond belief.

“The Grotto” will have its Philadelphia premiere at 6pm on Sunday, November 19th, at the Fringe Arts Building, 140 N. Columbus Blvd., with Joanna Gleason and producer Todd Shotz in attendance. The event is a collaboration and fundraiser for The Women’s Film Festival and the LGBTQ+ film festival, qFLIX. For tickets, click here.

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