Estelle Parson and “Re-Entry: Actors Playing Jazz” in Wolfeboro
By Kathi Caldwell-Hopper
A chat with Estelle Parsons is like a lesson in local history, conservation, childrearing, keeping healthy, race relations, the prison system, how to live a creative life, and a play called “Re-Entry: Actors Playing Jazz”.
Most people know Estelle as the feisty, blunt character she played on the wildly popular television show, “Roseanne”, and now, “The Connors”. There is also her Academy Award winning role as Blanche Barrow in the 1960s movie “Bonnie and Clyde”.
However, when you talk to Estelle, her movie-star status is not the first thing she wants to speak about. Rather, it is her lifetime of work in theatre and her love of live performance that is first and foremost in her thoughts.
A great deal of a conversation with Estelle is focused on a play in which she is deeply involved - “Re-Entry: Actors Playing Jazz”. The thought-provoking work will be presented on stage at the Village Players in Wolfeboro on August 23 and 24 (and also at the Bank of NH Stage in Concord on August 22).
How did the play make its way to Wolfeboro, far from New York City, where it has been receiving great reviews? “I’ve been coming to Wolfeboro since I was four months old,” Estelle explains. “My grandfather had a farm here and my family has a long history in the area.” That history includes an association with the Village Players Theater in Wolfeboro. Thus, it seemed like the perfect place to perform “Re-Entry: Actors Playing Jazz”, which is directed by Estelle.
It is a very different sort of play and you won’t see Estelle on the stage, but rather she will be speaking and answering questions with the cast at a Talk Back after the show. A synopsis of “Re-Entry: Actors Playing Jazz” is fairly straightforward: eight formerly incarcerated men come together after their release from long prison terms and start a theater group to help them stay on the “straight and narrow.” (Each developed a love of theater during their prison sentence.) Using free-form theatre, each man’s experiences outside the walls are explored, including how they feel about being free, and how they use their creative and theatrical work to transform their responses to society’s biases against them. The depth of each performance is anything but simple and straightforward. Estelle says the play covers race relations, prejudice, starting over, and trying to find a place in a world full of suspicion when it comes to those who have served prison time.
Estelle got involved in the play after visiting Sing-Sing Correctional Facility in New York State; she talked with prisoners and others there and heard many stories about what former-prisoners face when re-entering society. Although far removed from Estelle’s life as a well-known, Caucasian female actress, the very-human stories resonated.
She recalls having a meal with her extended family and explaining about the prison visit, the prisoner’s stories and the idea of a play. She says, with a wry smile, that she wasn’t too keen to do it at first. “I just wanted to get back to Shakespeare or other theatre that brought me joy and move away from how bleak and depressing the prisoner’s stories were.” Her niece, a public defender, challenged Estelle and told her she had to do the play even if it wasn’t the sort of thing she was used to tackling. Clearly, Estelle could not turn her back on the subject and soon, she had gathered a group of actors to perform “Re-Entry: Actors Playing Jazz.”
“The idea was that if we could take a play and perform it around the country, it might make people realize that former prisoners are human beings,” Estelle says. She says “Re-Entry: Actors Playing Jazz” is not really a play, but rather a piece utilizing a road map that allows the story to happen by itself. With five to eight male actors in the cast, the story is free form. Each actor plays a former prisoner telling his story of re-entry into society.
“The premise of the play is that these guys form a theatre club to keep them out of trouble,” Estelle explains. “They aren’t memorizing a script but just getting up and performing. Some of the actors are telling the stories of their relatives in real life.”
Although Estelle is there to direct, she is modest about her role, saying the actors (or “the guys” as she fondly calls them), pretty much do the show without any needed direction. Estelle may downplay her part, but it is clear the work has become an impactful performance night after night, wherever it plays, because of her expertise and ability to bring the subject to theatregoers.
“We want to show that theatre is nourishment and also that the former prisoners are human beings. If everyone could see what I am witnessing with these actors; they have taken the work so much further and it is astonishing. Audiences love it and say it is riveting. For example, Alec Baldwin (the actor) keeps coming back to see the show because it is so good,” Estelle adds.
After the performance in Wolfeboro, there will be a Talk Back, with the cast and Estelle and Carroll County attorney Michaela Andruzzi answering audience questions. (The cast, all members of the Actors Studio, has numerous New York stage, TV and film credits. They are Leland Gantt, Ron Scott, Marcus Naylor, Javier Molina, Erick Betancourt, Ryan Johnson, Justin McManus and Victor Almanzar.)
“Re-Entry: Actors Playing Jazz” has become an important project for Estelle and she also mentions it coincides with the 400th anniversary of the start of slavery in Jamestown, Virginia. While this anniversary is certainly no “celebration”, it offers a moment of reflection for Estelle in how far we have come, and how far we still need to go concerning race relations and humanity.
As the conversation continues, Estelle speaks of her love of the Lakes Region and her long history in Wolfeboro. And of course, that leads to talk of her family. Born and raised in Massachusetts, the family had the beloved farm in Wolfeboro. Estelle’s parents and other family members spent many summers in the Lakes Region.
Estelle’s mother had hopes that her daughter would be a writer, and in some ways, that wish was realized. Early in her career, Estelle worked as a writer and producer for “The Today Show”. Also, Estelle was a talented singer and performer and that is the direction her career took her, with extensive work in theatre. One need only search online to find a long list of Estelle’s film and theatre credits, as well as her television work.
Of all the performance work Estelle has done in her career, it is clear theatre is where her heart lies. Her talk is peppered with the names of plays and writers, and one realizes Estelle is deeply entrenched in theatre in all its forms.
“When I was 4 years old,” she says, “I saw my first live theatre performance at the Barnstormers.” (The Barnstormers Theater is still in existence in Tamworth, NH today.) That early experience impressed the little girl. She saw how magical theatre could be and years later, she still believes theatre has the power to impact people’s lives. “As I have said, theater is a kind of nourishment,” she reflects. “You can’t get that nourishment any other way. It is important to me that it continue.”
In a conversation that spans her love of theatre to her belief we should conserve the Lakes Region for future generations to her role as a mother (“my kids are adults, but I find I still want to tell them what to do!” she laughs) and finally, to her excitement in bringing “Re-Entry: Actors Playing Jazz” to Wolfeboro, Estelle Parsons has no plans to slow down. And for that, we are all very lucky.
“Re-Entry: Actors Playing Jazz” will be at the Village Players Theater on Glendon Street in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire on Friday, August 23 and Saturday, August 24 at 7:30 pm. For tickets, visit www.village-players.com or call 603-569-9656.