Phylicia Rashad encourages Ten Chimneys’ actors to soar

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

When Phylicia Rashad was filming her first scenes as Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show in 1984, she had no idea she was a few years away from Emmy nominations for the role. A decade away from an NAACP Image Award for her follow-up role as Ruth Lucas in Cosby. Twenty years from her first Tony Award for playing Lena Younger in the 2004 revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.

After a 39-year career as a performer, director and educator, this matriarch of screen and stage will bring the acting lessons she’s learned to her students at Ten Chimneys’ Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship Program, as the 2015 master teacher.

The annual program offers a week of intense training for 10 of the country’s best regional theater actors at the Genesee Depot summer home of legendary acting couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Milwaukee-born actor Nathaniel Stampley, a Broadway veteran who still frequently returns to roles at the Milwaukee Rep and Skylight, will be a member of this year’s class.

“We only go after the most highly qualified and accomplished individuals to serve as master teachers,” says Randy Bryant, Ten Chimneys Foundation’s president and CEO. “When you look at Phylicia Rashad’s credentials, she stands apart from the rest.”

Rashad began acting in the late 1970s, filling a variety of understudy roles and playing a Munchkin in the Broadway production of The Wiz for more than three years. She stepped more fully into the public eyes as publicist Courtney Wright on the TV soap opera One Life to Live. But it was The Cosby Show, in which Rashad played an attorney married to Bill Cosby’s Cliff Huxtable, that brought her more fully into the public eye. 

Many roles on TV and film, including roles as a voice actor, followed. Yet Rashad never left the stage behind entirely. In addition to A Raisin in the Sun, her stage work includes roles in August: Osage County, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Jelly’s Last Jam, Into the Woods and Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death. She made her directorial debut in 2007 with the Seattle Repertory Theatre’s production of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean and has since explored more of the African-American playwright’s work.

“Being a director requires a more intense focus and expanded overview than acting does,” Rashad says. “I have to hold a vision, galvanize all the creative energies, move them in alignment and make them live in ways that I hadn’t imagined so that everyone has a sense of ownership in the outcome.”

Rashad, whose sister is director/choreographer Debbie Allen, also has taught acting at Fordham University, Howard University and the Carnegie Mellon Institute. She will draw on her experience and observations during her weeklong classes that she says will focus on casting and acting against type.

The first step for all actors, she explains, is helping them overcome their internal hurdles.

“We’re all people and we want to be liked, but for actors that’s an obstacle that gets in the way of going as deeply as you can into your characters,” Rashad says. “You can explore more about the character and relationships to other characters and what’s happening in the moment once you free yourself of the notion that you have to do something to help the audience ‘get it.’”

Acting is hard work, Rashad acknowledges, but you don’t have to “lose your mind or suffer for your art.” Moreover, the notion of success also can be an obstacle for actors who confuse fame and fortune with the ability to fully embody a character and make that character come alive for the audience.

“For me, it’s the quality of work and finding the heart of the character that defines success,” she said. “The work never ends and we strive for that with every single rehearsal and every single performance.”

Actors able to overcome the desire to be liked open up a whole new well of possibilities within themselves, Rashad says. The younger the actor, the higher the hurdles, but the greater the reward will be in the end.

“Actors are like eagles — unfettered and unbound,” Rashad says. “Or at least they should be, because it’s more fun that way.”

ON STAGE

Phylicia Rashad will take the stage twice for public performances during her stay at Ten Chimneys. On July 17, she will share stories about her life and career and on July 18 she will be joined by the 2015 Lunt-Fontanne Fellows to explore the work the group had done the previous week. Tickets range from $40 to $150 for each performance. Call 262-918-4610 for more information.

Rashad on Cosby

“Having fun” during performances was something Rashad says she learned from Bill Cosby, who she has continued to be a staunch defender of even in the wake of more than 40 allegations that he drugged and raped women from 1965 to 2008. 

Rashad (who was interviewed prior to the recent disclosure by the Associated Press that Cosby admitted to drugging women with Quaaludes in a 2005 deposition settled out of court) credited the 77-year-old comedian with helping her develop the “Clair Huxtable stare” and called him a consummate performer. 

“He is spontaneous, unselfish and very generous in his work,” Rashad says. “He was very keen, very intelligent — the absolute best.”

As of press time, two lawsuits have been filed against Cosby, one relating directly to an alleged assault in 1974 and another for defamation of character. Most of Cosby’s accusers are beyond statute.