March 24, 2003
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Richard Ridge: … This one-woman show, about the life of legendary stage and screen star Katharine Hepburn, features a tour de force performance by Kate Mulgrew who is welcomed back to the New York stage for the first time since finishing her seven year run as Captain Kathryn Janeway on the hit television series Star Trek: Voyager. We recently caught up with Miss Mulgrew, Mr. Lombardo and director John Tillinger. "Tea at Five" is currently playing at the Promenade Theater.
Matthew Lombardo: It's been a long process. We started in Hartford, we went to Cleveland, we went to Boston and we're just really, really happy to be here right now.
Interviewer: Talk about the challenges of writing this. How did this all come about for you?
Matthew Lombardo: Well, I was sitting on the bed of a dear friend, Nancy Addison, who was in Ryan's Hope, who was also Kate Mulgrew's best friend. We were flipping through channels and Star Trek: Voyager came on. I said, God, she looks like Katharine Hepburn. And I thought I'm going to write a play about Katharine Hepburn and it's going to be for Kate Mulgrew. So when her season in Star Trek: Voyager finished in 2001, Nancy called me up and she said "Are you still going to write that play about Katharine Hepburn?" I said "Yah." So I went down to Miami and in three days cranked out a first draft. So I sent it to Kate Mulgrew and the Hartford Stage Company on the same day, and the very next day I got calls from both of them saying hey, we want to do it. So it just worked out really well.
Interviewer: So it was that easy.
Matthew Lombardo: This was easy, actually. You know the re-writing and re-writing and researching and you know… that part wasn't especially easy, but getting it set up was relatively easy for us.
Interviewer: So let's talk about how you structure the play. Talk about the first act and the second act.
Matthew Lombardo: Well I knew I wanted to show Hepburn at two different points in her career and her life. I thought it would be interesting to… I thought it would be interesting to show the first act when she had a lot going on. She was labeled box-office poison, she was banished from Hollywood, her brother Dickie was writing a play about her, and a hurricane was coming. So I thought there were a lot of dramatic elements that would make the first act work. The second act is more reflective than the first. It… she's through with her career. You know, she's older. She has no interest in Hollywood any more, and she just reminisces a little bit about her life. But I knew if I was going to make this a vehicle for Kate Mulgrew, I wanted to make it as difficult as possible for her. So she would have to play thirty-one in the first act and seventy-six in the second. And she does a remarkable job.
John Tillinger: Why she's such an American icon… I mean I'm a passionate admirer of her work, is that she is so feisty, that she is a true American spirit in the sense that she… she really had some troubling times when got fired a lot, or where she was dumbed down by people in Hollywood and in New York, and how she said, "No you're not going to put me down, I'm going to fight back, and I'm going to do it." And she also had this great talent that she knew she had to nurture. She knew had to… but she was prepared to work at it, which is so different from, frankly, from the new generation. And she worked at that voice. She and Olivier – they created their voices. They had probably not very good instruments when they started, but they created those voices and made them distinctive and made them very, very telling. And that is, I think, what impressed me most about her.
Rosie O'Donnell: I loved it. I thought Kate was unbelievable and Katharine Hepburn's life was unbelievable and you know it was brilliant, it really was. And I learned a lot of things about Katharine Hepburn that I didn't know, even though some things I'd read in the book. But to watch somebody like Kate perform it, and the depth of it. It was really beautiful.
Interviewer: Were you a big fan of Katharine Hepburn's before this?
Rosie O'Donnell: Yes. Yes. I'm an even bigger fan of Kate Mulgrew. She was on "Ryan's Hope", Mary Ryan. I was in seventh grade… the show started. It was … that was it. I used to write letters to the show saying I can be the niece that's a runaway, you know, I'm sixteen, I love your show! So she was always it for me, and I've been a fan of hers and now lucky to be friends with her for the last couple of years.
Interviewer: Interesting that you say that because I watched the show early on because Helen Gallagher was on that show, because I knew her from the musical…
Rosie O'Donnell: Maeve Ryan!
Rosie O'Donnell: You know who else is here tonight? Ilene Kristen. Delia Reid Ryan Coleridge. And sadly, Nancy Addison, who was Jillian Coleridge - she died in the summer. But that's how I actually met Kate – through Nancy.
Interviewer: Now talk about your project. You're bringing the Boy George musical to New York, aren't you?
Rosie O'Donnell: Yes, it's called "Taboo", and the book's been rewritten by Charles Bush and we open November 13th at the Plymouth. Directed by Chris Renshaw. It's going to be faaaabbb! All about the London nightlife in the 1980's.
Kate Mulgrew: Well, Matthew Lombardo the playwright was watching me on a series I did called Star Trek: Voyager, and he thought I was very reminiscent of Hepburn, and he went down to Miami and wrote this wonderful script in three days, sent it to my dressing room at Paramount and I recognized immediately the excellence of the piece.
Interviewer: So what was your initial reaction when you first read it?
Kate Mulgrew: I just… I knew. I said to myself, this is wonderful. The construct is perfect. The polarity between the thirty-one year old Kate and the seventy-six year old Kate - it's all perfect. And I said, let's meet and have lunch. We've been having lunch ever since.
Interviewer: Now did you have some trepidation about this early on about returning to live theater after doing television and all?
Kate Mulgrew: No… not… I had no trepidation about making the segue from television to the theater. But one always has …a wariness about the theater. It's live. It's … unruly. It's wonderful. It's real.
Interviewer: What were some of the things you discovered about her when you were working on this show – about this remarkable woman?
Kate Mulgrew: Her vulnerability. Her great courage. Her wonderful sense of humor which was both quixotic and self deprecating and… You know there's a reason why people love Katharine Hepburn as passionately and profoundly as they do. She represents the American spirit. Particularly in a time when I'm afraid our administration has not … done much to help in that regard. So…
Interviewer: I knew her from the movies and all and I read some about her, but I knew nothing about the family life – I knew nothing about her brother, and you know you look at the toughness of the side that she had and you didn't realize the vulnerability about the woman inside.
Kate Mulgrew: No. It's very key. And that's what I use to get me through… that's really… what's the absolute foundation of the characterization.
Interviewer: Is the first act harder for you to portray when you were working on her than the second act was?
Kate Mulgrew: The first act was for a long time. And then when we came to New York, Mr. Lombardo and Mr. Tillinger, my playwright and director respectively, just helped me find a fluidity to it, so that now there are hooks. It's like doing the luge now, where as before it was the high dive, you know?
Interviewer: It was wonderful in the audience – it was such a beautiful mix of theater goers and a lot of Star Trek fans there last night.
Kate Mulgrew: Yes.
Interviewer: Would you just sum up what it was like playing that role on the series? You touched millions and millions of people.
Kate Mulgrew: It was a wonderful chapter. A brilliant opportunity. I felt honored and delighted to have it from the day I did it to the day I walked off that sound stage. You can't get… it doesn't get much better than this. I had Kathryn Janeway and now I've got Katharine Hepburn. I'm a lucky girl.