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“I want people to walk in and then walk out and not feel the same”

Portland Playhouse recently conducted an Q&A with Andrea Whittle, one of the stars of the theatre’s production of Christina Anderson’s play pen/man/ship

PORTLAND PLAYHOUSE: You are playing the pivotal role of Ruby Heard. How did this all come together?

ANDREA WHITTLE: When I first found out they were doing pen/man/ship, I was super excited because I’d read the show… They announced the season and I was still an [Acting] Apprentice. I read it and was like, ‘Oooh, I hope I get to read for it, or I’d hoped they’d at least keep me in mind. I was with [Playhouse artistic director and co-founder] Brian [Weaver], watching auditions for people that we wanted to audition for the season. And he said, ‘Yeah, write her down for pen/man/ship.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, OK.’ I tried to be modest, to play it cool but I was super stoked.

PP: Did you think something like this was possible when you became an Apprentice? It’s a big deal, especially in this play, where there are four key roles, including yours, and you play the sole woman.

AW: I always dreamed of having a “lead” role but coming to Portland, I didn’t know what to expect. [Front of House Manager and former Acting Apprentice] La’Tevin [Ellis] was like, ‘Come do this program— it’s a cool thing.’ I knew they liked me and I knew I jelled really well with the people at the Playhouse, but I didn’t know they would trust me enough to carry out a role this large. I’m extremely honored and extremely grateful. It’s everything I ever wished and hoped for.

PP: So, how beneficial was being an Apprentice? Is this possible without that experience?

AW: I honestly think it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Because they know who I am as a person, and because they know how I work, I kind of…in the Apprenticeship, I laid the groundwork.

PP: You’ve been working a lot around town—is that more affirmation of the Apprenticeship? If so, what did you learn here that you use elsewhere?

AW: It taught me how to be an artist. It taught me how to find my voice and what I want to say. It taught me to choose the art I want to be a part of that means the most to me—that’s how I get the most out of it and how the audience gets the most out of it, too. It taught me how to be vulnerable, and that was something I struggled with for a very long time. In shows like this, and other shows around town, this experience really helped me access that.

PP: You weren’t always vulnerable?

AW: In class, they always preach vulnerability, but it was a class, and that was that. But here, when it was an everyday thing—class, everyday life assignments we were given… Here, it was like an artist retreat being in the Apprenticeship. It really made me focus, and I’m so far away from my family so I had to cut all of them off and really hone in on, ‘Damn, why am I not vulnerable with people? Why am I so afraid to tap into that?’ Being in the Apprenticeship, it kind of forced me, pushed me towards that so it has been super easy for me to access it now.

PP: Basically, you’re comfortable being uncomfortable.

AW: Yep. And that’s important in acting, so important.

PP: Do you see much of yourself in Ruby, who is mysterious and headstrong?

AW: [Pause] Yeah… Hell, yeah. [Laughter] I was watching “Inside the Actor’s Studio” with Viola Davis—my favorite!— and she said when you play heroic and strong characters it’s so easy to just want to play into it, to play up to, to play the strong hero. And she said your job as an actor is how much of that you can play against. What makes Ruby human is, yes, she’s strong, but she’s also aware enough to know that her emotions don’t make her weak. She’s able to be vulnerable, and she’s able to tell her story— she’s human.

PP: Tell me why this show matters, why everyone should see this.

AW: It’s extremely relevant for me, and it’s extremely relevant at this time because I have family members that have been put away, in jail, for petty crimes and they’ve been in there, like, forever. I have a cousin now that has 10 years probation for the pettiest things, but I think this play speaks to mass incarcerations and how America is really…mass incarceration is slavery. And it’s extremely relevant, and I don’t think a lot of people realize that. 13th brought that to my attention, so when I saw that, I was like, ‘Oh, shit.’ After the emancipation set us free, they pretty much tried to find something else, systematically…

PP: So there are heavy themes involved, yes?

AW: A little bit. [Laughter]

PP: How do you think it will be received?

AW: Honestly, I don’t know how it will be received here. The audience here is predominantly white, affluent people. They see theatre about these kind of stories and they feel so educated. They feel like, ‘Yes, I’ve experienced this.’ I don’t want it to be seen as… I want people to come and be changed and be charged to do something. After the show, I hope they take action. I hope it sticks with people. I want people to walk in and then walk out and not feel the same.

PP: So, what’s next? What’s the end goal?

AW: Confrontation Theatre, for sure. We’re trying to get our first production on its feet, so we’re hitting the ground running with that. But then I want to break into film. I want to find an agent and break into that. And the Playhouse—for sure. The Playhouse is home. Hopefully, more with the Playhouse.

PP: Would you urge others to follow your route, specifically as an Apprentice?

AW: I’d tell them to do it. You get to see professional artists at work so you get to see how to be a professional artist. You get to grow as an artist because these professional artists are teaching you. You get to mingle with all types of folks. People from New York, wherever. You get to make all sorts of connections. You get to work with great people in a family-oriented environment… I wasn’t completely sold on Oregon until I met [education director and co-founder] Nikki [Weaver] and I felt a genuine care, felt like I was a part of her family. And during the first meeting, how everyone took me in, I felt extremely supported and extremely nurtured. And that’s the kind of environment I came from in undergrad, so it was an easy transition.

pen/man/ship runs February 8 – March 5 at Portland Playhouse.