Anne Kanengeiser on Playing Janna in ‘The Personal(s)’ at No Rules Theatre Company by Joel Markowitz

There are some performances that you just never forget and Anne Kanengeiser’s performance as Fosca in Signature Theatre’s Passion in 1996 is one I will always remember and cherish, so I was thrilled when Anne was coming to town to appear in No Rules Theatre Company’s The Personal(s), because I had my chance to catch up with Anne on her career and preparing to play the role of Janna.

Joel: How did you get involved with The Personal(s) at No Rules Theatre Company, and why did you want to appear in the production?

Anne Kanengeiser.
Anne Kanengeiser.

Anne: I actually got called in to audition by Casting Director Judy Bowman, who had cast me in Passion at Signature Theatre. I read the script, was inspired and then read about No Rules Theatre Company, Brian Sutow, and Josh Hecht, and I knew I wanted to be a part of this journey.

Why did you want to play the role of Janna and how do you relate to her?  What personal experiences did you bring to the role and how did these experiences help you shape your performance?

I connected and empathized with Janna’s journey. Although many of our life experiences are different I do feel there is a depth of pain, humor, desire for life and longing for true connection that I share. I often find that I learn a great deal about myself as the women I play ‘reveal themselves.’ They are teachers for me. I also find that as I learn more about Janna my capacity for going to very deep and risky places is increasing and my capacity for compassion for her and myself grows exponentially.

Michael Kramer plays your husband Don in the play. Tell us about Don. What does Janna admire about him and how would you describe their marriage?

Don is a retired magician/comedian who is desperately trying to ‘re-find’ his marriage after the death of their daughter. He is charming, vital, smart and witty but only knows how to communicate through his charm and humor. I think Janna fell in love with all of these attributes and especially his ‘joie de vivre’ (joy of life). She still loves her husband deeply, however she needs a deeper connection around their tragedy that, to date, Don has not been able to provide.

What do you like most about working with Michael and how would you describe his performance?

Besides the fact that, like Don, he is charming, funny and very intelligent, as an actor, Michael is passionate about fully investing everything he has into the work and finding the truth. It’s been a tremendous learning experience to watch and share the work with him. Because both of us must go to some very intimate and very emotional places within ourselves, what I’ve appreciated the most about Michael is that I always feel safe and supported to go to those places, to do the most thorough work I can do. I feel that I’m doing the best work I can because working with Michael demands it. I know that his performance will be specific, poignant, funny and heartbreaking.

Don (Michael Kramer) and Janna (Anne Kanengeiser). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Don (Michael Kramer) and Janna (Anne Kanengeiser). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Spencer Trinwith also appears in the show. Introduce us to his character.

Spencer plays Henry, the bartender and Don’s employee. This was a role that Brian created and expanded for the play. He’s sweet, wise beyond his years having lost his father and imparts his specific wisdom to both Don and Janna. Because Don and Janna have such difficulty in really expressing their needs to one another, they can safely communicate to Henry their longings and fears. I love what Spencer has found with this character. He’s simple, honest, and endearing and is committed to finding the truth of his story.

How do ‘Blind Dates’ play an important role in this play?

Don and Janna attempt to reconnect after 12 years of estrangement, through a personal ad (‘Blind Date’) that Don places in the paper. It is an exact duplicate of the one he placed when he and Janna first met. The play becomes a series of personal ads that each of them place to hopefully rekindle the marriage they had before their tragedy.

Have you ever been on a blind date, and what happened?

I have only been on one blind date many years ago and it was less than stellar. I went out with a friend’s very cute brother. He was nice but rather like a Doberman puppy … all paws. Not my idea of a stimulating evening. I like a lot between the ears and that’s NOT what was on his mind.

Have you seen the two films – both called ‘Blind Date’ – one by Stanley Tucci and the second by Theo Van Gogh – that inspired Brian Sutow’s new stage version? How is your character in this stage version similar and or different from the film versions?

I did watch Stanley Tucci’s film with Tucci and Patricia Clarkson. I found the performances very subtle and intimate. I could hardly breathe as it progressed. Brian’s piece is a bold departure from the movie in that theatre demands that it be more expressive and bigger in movement. The relationships are at times disturbingly internal. The play has the potential to sweep you up and take you with it. My Janna is more extroverted or heightened than the film counterpart and yet the undercurrent is as deep and subtle. My energy must fill even a smaller house like The Ark whereas in film, you have a camera on the smallest blink of an eye.  We have one very cinematic scene where we’re dancing and it’s very intimate but our physical and vocal energy still has to carry to the back row. It’s a fine balance to maintain the tension and internal conflict going on in each of us and yet communicating to 100 or more people. However, unlike film, we have the joy of communicating to living breathing people that are only feet away from us. That’s exciting.

Have you worked with Director Josh Hecht before? How would you describe his style of directing and how has he helped you shape your performance?

This is my first time working with Josh Hecht and I consider myself very fortunate that he’s been at the helm of this project. He has a very specific knowledge base and vision that he brought to this play. He invited us to be partners in creating the telling of this story. Josh was always open to hearing our thoughts about what worked and didn’t work for us but we ultimately depended on what he felt served the story the best .

(l-r) Spencer Trinwith (Henry), Michael Kramer (Don), and Anne Kaneneiser (Janna).Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
(l-r) Spencer Trinwith (Henry), Michael Kramer (Don), and Anne Kaneneiser (Janna). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

How long has the rehearsal process been and how has your performance and feelings about the characters evolved or changed since you began rehearsals?

We fortunately had 4 weeks of rehearsal. Developing a new work is always a challenge because it’s being done for the first time. You get to try different things in an effort to find what you feel to be the best version of a moment, the version that tells the story in hopefully the best way possible. And this is a hard story. As we’ve progressed I’ve really fallen in love with these two people and their desire to change their lives. I resonate with the tenacity with which they ‘stay in the game.’

Since you have appeared in many musicals, do you find there are different challenges when you are now preparing for a lead role in a play? 

I would say the preparation is much the same but the demands are different. I find my approach is similar in terms of asking the basics, what is this story? who am I? what does my character want? what is she willing to do to get it? Etc. What I find different for me working on Janna, is that there is no hiding. There’s no music to ‘ride on’ or to allow you to ‘escape’ or ‘deflect’ the darkness. I went to very dark and  raw places as Fosca in Passion, but there was still the music to carry you into and perhaps above the darkness. With this play, I’ve experienced an uncompromising and uncharming demand to go places that expose some of my underbelly that I might’ve otherwise been able to avoid when enveloped in the strains of beautiful music.

What scene or scenes in the play are the most difficult to play and why?

I would say the first scene has been the most challenging to negotiate because there are so many layers to it. Past, present, and future are intricately woven within this scene as it sets up the rest of the play. Don and Janna are creating their ‘game’ via the personal ads. They’re nervous and aware that this is potentially their last chance to come back together as a vital married couple. We slip from the ‘role play’ to revealing our characters inadvertently. The audience is privy to seeing not only Don and Janna’s ‘game faces’ but who they are, their difficulty in communicating and the love and fun that brought them together and hopefully makes you want to go on this journey with them.

Is Brian still making changes to the script and have you made suggestions to him that he has incorporated into the script?

As we just opened Brian has stopped making adjustments to the script, but it’s possible he may see some things in the 3 weeks to come that we might adjust when we move the play down to Winston-Salem. The first day we started rehearsal we had a completely different version of the play than the version I had read in preparation for my audition. Then throughout our rehearsal process, Brian saw things he wanted to change, and Josh, Spencer, Michael, and I made suggestions as well. We had a few changes up until opening and that is the way of new plays and musicals. We can rehearse as much as we want ,and then once we’re in front of an audience, we get new information that informs us as to what works and what might not be so successful.

You won 2 Helen Hayes Award for Musical Roles playing Fosca in Signature Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Passion and for the musical Eleanor: An American Love Story at Ford’s Theatre, and you returned to appear in 1776 in 2003 at Ford’s as Abigail Adams. So it’s been a while since you’ve been back on a DC stage. It’s so nice to have you back!  What were some of your fondest memories appearing in these two productions?

Lewis Cleale and Ann Kanengeiser in '1776 ' at Ford's Theatre. Photo by Stan Barouh.
Lewis Cleale and Ann Kanengeiser in ‘1776 ‘ at Ford’s Theatre. Photo by Stan Barouh.

All three of these plays hold dear memories. I’d say that Passion was my maiden voyage to my dark side  and singing Sondheim’s score was gloriously challenging. It was an amazing production and Eric’s vision was impeccable. I loved the intimacy of the old Signature space and performing Passion taught me about the value of silent moments. Every night there were moments where we could hear a pin drop. I learned then, that silence can speak louder than any words.

Eleanor at the Ford’s Theater was a highlight of my career. I was creating a new role and from Eleanor I learned about ‘doing life’ in spite of fear, following your passions, striving to live in integrity. And performing at the Ford’s … what can I say. To perform 1776 and Eleanor – there was a dream come true. 1776 is one of my all time favorite musicals, and I enjoyed playing with Abigail’s insightfulness, strength and humor.

My experience in the DC area has always been rich and meaningful. I was originally drawn to DC because my sister lives here, but I’m rediscovering the vitality of the DC Theater community, and I hope to be down here more often.

What ever happened to Eleanor: An American Love Story since Ford’s and did you get another chance to play Eleanor after Ford’s?

My hope was, of course, to see it have a longer life possibly in NY,  but it would’ve required, like all new pieces, more work and backing. We had several theatres in the USA and in the UK interested but it hasn’t happened yet.  One never knows. I still love Eleanor’s personal story and I’ve always resonated with ‘the phoenix rising from the ashes’ quality about Eleanor Roosevelt. Perhaps I’ll produce it one day.

Anthony Cummings (Franklin Roosevelt) and Anne Kanengeiser (Eleanor Roosevelt). Photo by Stan Barouh.
Anthony Cummings (Franklin Roosevelt) and Anne Kanengeiser (Eleanor Roosevelt). Photo by Stan Barouh.

What roles that you have performed since you were here in DC last were some of your favorites?

A few would be: Mrs. Potts in the national tour of Beauty and the Beast, Mme Giry in the national tour of The Phantom of the Opera; Lili Vannessi/Kate in Kiss Me Kate, and my most favorite at this point is my Shakespeare work.

Any roles that you would love to play that you haven’t played yet?

Oh my …. Musically,  I’d love to do Desiree in Sondheim’s A Little Night Music and Margaret in The Light in the Piazza. Dramatically, a whole new world is opening up. Right now my dream is do Shakespeare. I grew up with a grandmother who directed, studied, and lectured on Shakespeare’s life and plays. I never thought I would perform these works and now that I’ve been studying the Bard, working on such roles as Lady Macbeth, Elizabeth in Richard III, and Emelia in Othello. I’m ready to do it.

What do you want audiences to take with them after seeing The Personal(s) at No Rules Theatre Company at Signature Theatre?

I’d like the audience to experience the enduring power of love and what we can learn about humanity, compassion, and our own frailties. It takes great courage to be in this world and to open up to others. Hopefully they will understand how the lack of communication with others can be truly devastating and to recognize how our love and vitality arises from honest and clear communication. Compassion for these people and admiration for their struggle bonds me to the intricacies of the play and I hope that those watching will see this as well.

The Personal(s) plays through May 18, 2013 at No Rules Theatre Company at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 820-9771, or purchase them online.

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Joel Markowitz is the Publisher and Editor of DCMetroTheaterArts. He founded the site with his brother Bruce to help promote the vast riches of theatre and the arts in the DC Metro area that includes Maryland, Virginia, and DC theater and music venues, universities, schools, Children's theaters, professional, and community theatres. Joel is an advocate for promoting the 'stars of the future' in his popular 'Scene Stealers' articles. He wrote a column for 5 years called ‘Theatre Schmooze’ and recorded podcast interviews for DC Theatre Scene. His work can also be seen and read on BroadwayStars. Joel also wrote a monthly preview of what was about to open in DC area theatres for BroadwayWorld. He is an avid film and theater goer, and a suffering Buffalo Bills and Sabres fan. Joel was a regular guest on 'The Lunch and Judy Show' radio program starring Judy Stadt in NYC. Joel founded The Ushers Theatre Going Group in the DC area in 1990, which had a 25-year run when it took its final curtain call last year. Joel is a proud member of The American Critics Association.


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