Ted Sod: Where were you born and what made you decide to become and actress? Where did you get your training? Did you have any teachers who profoundly influenced you?
Maria Dizzia: I was born in Belleville, NJ. I fell in love with acting one day in the third grade. I was in a summer arts program and we had spent the day doing improvisations. I was not very good at them—I would stand at the perimeter of the circle and ask the other actor a lot of questions. But I loved watching the kids who were good at it. I wanted to learn how to do that and be free and surprise myself and other people. I got my training at UCSD in their MFA program. The most influential teacher I had was Bob Pridham, my acting teacher in high school. He has a vision for actors and the theater—he loves Greek drama—the size, importance and ritual of it and he imported that sensibility into his other work. Spare with big gestures. He helped me see acting as both art and work—the work was the service you paid to the text and to the audience, the art was your interpretation, your point of view—what will that look like?
TS: Why did you choose to play the role of Sharon in Steven Levenson’s If I Forget? What do you think the play is about?
MD: I wanted to play Sharon primarily because I love Steven’s work. I’ve known him for a long time and wanted to have the chance to be in the same room with him for awhile. I feel that way about Dan Sullivan, too. I’ve seen so many of the productions he’s directed. So many different kinds of stories that he’s brought to life and I wanted to learn from him—to learn from the questions he asks. The role of Sharon, in particular, because she has so many feelings and has a hard time expressing them. I think in a lot of ways she is conflict-averse, but ends up feeling backed into a corner and getting very upset. The play is about whatever the people watching it think it’s about. Really, I don’t mean that in a flippant way. It’s about family and identity and culture and history and those topics are so personal. It’s about what it means to care—it’s about betrayal and loyalty. And about the ultimate betrayal—time. Do you feel that the passage of time is your friend—does it heal all wounds? Is it a relief that ”this too shall pass” or does it make our lives meaningless. And if time betrays us, does that set the terms for us all? Can we create something in spite of the threat of being erased or are we doomed to betray—to misinterpret, to ignore, to forget.
TS: What kind of preparation or research do you have to do before rehearsals begin in order to play this role?
MD: I have to learn more about Judaism. I don’t know Hebrew, I don’t know a lot of the stories of the Torah and I’m excited to read them and begin to study the way I believe Sharon is studying. I have to read the play every day to learn about the family dynamics and make sure I know their history.
TS: How is this character relevant to you? I realize the rehearsal process hasn’t begun yet, but can you share some of your initial thoughts about who your character is with us? What do you find most challenging/exciting about this role?
MD: What I find most challenging about Sharon is that she has been living near the threshold for so long. She was with her mother through her hospice and death, and now she is with her father as his health declines. She’s been standing at the door between life and death for so many years. I think that’s a hard place to be. I think the reality of it is overwhelming and relentless and a person needs to cope somehow.
TS: At the early stage in your work, how do you understand Sharon’s relationship to her siblings and her father?
MD: I think Sharon is devoted to her family. Preserving her family’s history is a way to honor the people who have shaped her. I think she has her own rules, however, about who is family and who isn’t. She’s the youngest and didn’t get to bond with her siblings when they were younger. They were already older and had their own sibling culture by the time she showed up. I think she feels a bit on the outside and wants desperately to be in the heart of it. She kind of is the heart now as first the primary caretaker of her mother and, currently, of her father. Maybe she sees herself as the new matriarch. I think about the line from August: Osage County: “I am running things now!” Sharon might like that, but she’s a little more dependent on others.
TS: What do you look for from a director when working a new play? What do you look for from the playwright?
MD: From the director, I look for support and clarity. Support in the way of nurturing things he can see, but that aren’t fully formed yet. And clarity in terms of saying what isn’t working. What things should be dropped to make way for behaviors that are more dynamic and truthful. In the playwright, I look for insights about where the characters and ideas came from. Guidance about what things are most important to a character.
TS: How do you keep yourself inspired as an artist?
MD: I try to pay attention to things. I try to learn new things. I look at art and watch movies and talk to people I like.
TS: Students reading this interview and will want to know what it takes to be a successful actress -- what advice can you give young people who say they want to act?
MD: Believe in yourself. Which is such a hard thing to do and so confusing because who is yourself anyway. I think it’s the most important thing, though, because it contains the idea that we are a work in progress. I don’t think it means unconditionally love everything you do. I think the belief part means you are not there yet. You are believing you can achieve something so, therefore, you are in the process of building it. So, I think the self you are believing in is the self that wants to learn, that is curious, that wants to do something it doesn’t have proof of yet. This is becoming a weird answer. I mean believe in yourself and keep learning. Take classes, study films and plays, learn about people, read a lot. Take all the opportunities that come your way and learn from them. One of my favorite quotes I read in Backstage Magazine—I don’t know if they still print quotes in the magazine like they did when it had more of a newspaper format—but it’s Thomas Edison’s: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
If I Forget is now playing at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, If I Forget, Upstage