As co-founder and co-executive director of The Theatre Lab, Deb Gottesman is a well known and respected director and teacher, preparing up-and-coming actors for a life in the theatre.
Now, after an absence of nearly 20 years from a professional stage, Gottesman has returned to acting and is starring opposite Claire Schoonover, a graduate of the Theatre Lab’s Honors Conservatory program in Keegan Theatre’s regional premiere of David Lindsay-Abaire’s comedy Ripcord.
Directed by Megan Thrift, the play takes place in the Bristol Place Senior Living Facility and looks at what happens when the cantankerous Abby (Gottesman) is forced to live with the way-too-chipper Marilyn (Schoonover), and the pair make a “harmless” bet that goes further than either expected.
“Ripcord is a wildly, inventive comedy with a strong emotional core,” Gottesman says. “It’s an interesting work. If you know David Lindsay-Abaire’s plays, in his early years, he wrote things like Wonder of the World and Fuddy Meers, really wild romps, and then became known for writing brilliant dramas like Rabbit Hole and Good People. This one is mostly a throwback to the romps, but it also has some real depth, so it’s a unique animal.”
Schoonover was part of the Theatre Lab’s Honor Conservatory in 2014 and Gottesman has loved watching her blossom in D.C.’s theater scene.
“We both have said we are cast in the roles the other person would play, as I tend to be more goofy and light, and she tends to be cast in more grounded, patrician kind of roles, so it’s been great fun discovering different parts of ourselves together,” Gottesman says. “She’s a joy. She’s so alive on stage and connects so completely.”
Gottesman doesn’t see Schoonover as “her student” anymore, so isn’t inclined to offer instruction. In fact, she’s learned from Schoonover.
“Every actor in a production should bring what they bring, and my job as a fellow actor should be to take that and do something with it,” she says.
So what has the teacher learned? Gottesman has been reminded of how much of preparing for a role is about “putting in the time” and not trying to jump to an end result.
“It’s about letting the process be about the discovery and letting the play come to you,” she says. “I’m playing someone who is close to 80, and that’s not where I am, so there were a lot of challenges about the physicality and the credibility of playing the role. In the end, I think a person is a person and I spent less time of the generational piece of it, and more thinking about the circumstances of a person living in a senior living facility maybe before they want to.”
Gottesman has loved the physical workout she’s getting. In one of the most inventive scenes in the play, Abby, tethered to a sky diving partner, freefalls through space, while carrying on her battle with Marilyn.
Abby is viewed by the other characters in the show as mean, but Gottesman doesn’t see her that way at all.
“I think of her as disappointed and a little isolated and shut down at this point in her life,” she says. “What happens is something of a reawakening for her.”
Gottesman’s professional life is full with directing, teaching and running the non-profit Theatre Lab.
With an MFA from Catholic University, her resume includes teaching drama at Round House Theatre, Woolly Mammoth and American University. She took home the prestigious Linowes Leadership Award in 2003 for her contributions to arts education, and has co-authored three books about acting with Theatre Lab co-founder Buzz Mauro.
“I really haven’t done a lot of acting since 2000. One of the last big shows I did was the premiere of Wonder of the World at Woolly Mammoth about 20 years ago,” Gottesman says. “I always hope I’m able to squeeze more acting into my life, but with my schedule, it can be tricky.”
But when the offer came to play Abby in Ripcord, she couldn’t pass up the chance to work on another of Lindsay-Abaire’s plays.
“It was kind of a perfect match in terms of being a really fun vehicle, with people I love at Keegan and the chance to have a really creative artistic experience,” Gottesman says. “It came in between directing gigs for me, so it worked out great.”
Ripcord closes July 6, 2019 at Keegan Theatre. Details and tickets
Gottesman always enjoys seeing her graduates succeed and many of her students are out and about performing now in places like Folger Theatre, Arena Stage, Ford’s Theatre and elsewhere.
“It’s really thrilling. We get a year together in our program and then it’s so much fun to see them take pieces of what they’ve learned, apply it in the craft and grow,” she says. “Right now, about 85 percent of our honors graduates are working professionally in D.C.”
Looking ahead, Gottesman is open to doing more acting, and plans to just wait to see what opportunities come her way. She knows it’s a hard balance to direct, teach, act and be there for her family, so she’ll weigh each opportunity as it comes along.
“I’ve been in semi-active retirement for a while, but if the right project comes along and the timing is right, I’d love it,” she says. “With me, I’m getting the chance to scratch an itch. I’m definitely game for more. But when I’m not acting, I feel like my life is already full.”