Actress Elizabeth Parrish is old school, not that there’s anything wrong with new school. But there’s a certain drive, an inner core, a need to reach inside the soul, that I think of as old school, and Parrish lives it. Onstage and off.
That drive, that need, that inner core is what prompted actress, teacher, and writer Parrish to create “Every Soul’s a Cabaret,” running at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse this weekend. “The show started out with my need to say something,” Parrish reflects. “I love teaching, but performing comes first. I have an urge to speak, to try to discover the moment of being behind the cotton wool of life.”
Working with music director Mark Fifer, and eventually adding director Paola Styron, Parrish created a team to explore material that piqued her interest. Styron relates, “When Betsy and Mark first invited me in to see and hear what they were working on with ‘Every Soul’s a Cabaret,’ I loved it. I was not just entertained, I was really moved. We started to work together to shape and develop it. As director, a main task of mine was to transform it from a more traditional cabaret form into a work of theater and help highlight its humor, inherent emotional impact, and relevance to today.”
Parrish echoes the sentiment, giving it her own twist. “Cabaret is its own form. It’s not a play and it’s not a musical, or maybe a better way to say it is that it’s both. You can do anything you want. In ‘Every Soul’ I explore artists and why art is essential. But it’s still show biz. Don’t want to frighten people away.”
The combination of art and entertainment is an important distinction, and something that can be deceptively difficult to achieve. This team brings a common nucleus to the endeavor in their collective connection to the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, where Parrish is a longtime master teacher and Fifer is also on the faculty. Styron and Parrish previously collaborated with another Adler Studio artist, Margi Gillis, on “Bulletins From Immortality … Freeing Emily Dickinson,” which was developed with the Margie Gillis Dance Foundation and the Adler Studio. “Every Soul’s a Cabaret,” developed by Parrish with Fifer and Styron, was recently seen at Manhattan’s Guild Hall.
Vineyard audiences may have seen Styron in Paula Josa-Jones’ “Ride,” or performing duets with Margi Gillis at the Yard. Both are known for a theatrical sensibility in their movement work. Styron, who was in the original 1984 cast of MacArthur Fellowship recipient Martha Clarke’s legendary “Garden of Earthly Delights,” has worked with Clarke for 25 years. She believes this experience with Clarke is a key ingredient in the path she took in adding directing to her wheelhouse.
Elizabeth Parrish may not be a household name in the general population, but with her position as a master teacher at the Stella Adler Studio, she holds a well-deserved distinguished place in the art and craft of acting. Adler, a working Broadway actor, joined the Group Theatre in 1931, and in 1934 studied with legendary Russian actor Konstantin Stanislavski. While Lee Strassberg and his Actors Studio may be the name you more commonly connect with Stanislavski in American acting, Adler, who developed a unique acting technique at her studio, based on her study with Stanislavski, has been equally influential in the field.
Parrish was coy when declining to state her age, saying “Do I have to tell you?” Suffice it to say, she’s been around. Styron has too, for that matter, but came up a generation after Parrish. The Adler Studio, one of the country’s great theater institutions, counts as alumni Marlon Brando, Salma Hayek, Jerome Robbins, and Elaine Stritch, to name a very few. In 1972, the studio became the first professional actor training school to become affiliated with NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Parrish, a Broadway and screen veteran actor, began to teach based on her association with Adler. Early on in Parrish’s career, Adler, while making plans for a summer getaway from New York City, “asked” Parrish to run the studio during Adler’s absence. Adler then handed Parrish all of her notes and promptly left town, clearly a mark of respect and faith from one distinguished actor and teacher to another.
About acting, Parrish says, “Since high school, I’ve always just done it.” She’s a born and bred New Yorker, with its easily accessed variety of performances. This environment, and study at Bennington College in Vermont, where she says, “Martha Graham came and changed my life,” have supplemented her natural abilities.
When discussing what’s important about singing, Parrish immediately responds, “You have to have something to say, to interpret the meaning that underlies the words. You have to understand what you are saying, what you are talking about, what the song is trying to convey, and why it was written in the first place. You have to communicate.” About acting, she adds, “It’s the same answer, but in addition, has to do with transformation, behavior, becoming someone else. The actor has to have a reason to do what the character is reacting to and why. You must have an ability to imagine and internalize what the character is experiencing and how this propels action.”
My favorite comment by Parrish, who is unfailingly enthusiastic and optimistic, but also a real pro, goes like this: “Just being a sensitive young man is not Hamlet. The imagination of the actor isn’t enough. The actor doesn’t live in a castle. It has to be the imagination of the actor channeled through the reality of the character.”
Parrish, Fifer, and Styron have a mutual admiration society going, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t approached the creation of their project with clear eyes and rigorous discipline. Styron says, “I love collaboration, and this piece is steeped in the kind of work I love to do. I have a deep interest in discovering the emotional truth in text and how it is expressed through the body in movement and gesture.” Styron describes the piece as a weave of storytelling, humor, poetry, and song, admiring the way Parrish transforms into multiple characters seamlessly, “like quicksilver.”
Parrish laughs when she talks about Styron’s discriminating direction, harkening to the challenge of art as entertainment. “At times I can lead myself astray in my need to communicate. Styron, who is always diplomatic, won’t let me get away with anything, no playing for laughs, no tricks. Which is good, as we’re after the same thing — the underlying genuine core.”
“Every Soul’s a Cabaret,” starring Elizabeth Parrish, directed by Paola Styron, with music direction by Mark Fifer, part of M.V. Playhouse’s Spring Solo Shows Series, Friday and Saturday. May 24 and 25, 7:30 pm. All seats $30. For information and tickets, visit mvplayhouse.org or call 508-696-6300.