Theater Spotlight: Interview with Kate Walsh

Funny, Fearless & Back On Stage

Kate Walsh

Photo By: Jenny Anderson

Most know Kate Walsh from her confident Dr. Addison Montgomery character on Grey’s Anatomy that spun into Private Practice, not to mention her recent turn on the Fargo TV series and her early days on The Drew Carey Show. But many may not know Kate Walsh started off doing a combination of comedy as well as theater. The delightful Walsh returns to the stage in Steven Levenson’s- (Dear Evan Hansen) If I Forget, appearing at the Laura Pels Theatre and opening February 22 with a limited engagement until April 30.

Centering on a Jewish family of two sisters and a brother gathering for their father’s birthday celebration, co-starring a collection of character actors, If I Forget is a blend of drama and comedy with snappy dialogue and all the madness that comes along with a family reunion, incorporating everyone’s own history and feelings and ideologies.

Kate Walsh took some time with New York City Monthly to talk about working with playwright Steven Levenson, why she enjoys the challenge of theater work, and the reason If I Forget is relevant right now.

This show is about family, two sisters and a brother celebrating their father’s 75th birthday. Can you share more about the story and your character and why you were drawn to this material?

Well I think it’s a great character, the writing is incredible. By the nature of the story, the circumstances of the story are sort of heightened when you come home for a birthday or a holiday, it’s a comedy. Also, what’s happening politically in our time is interesting to say the least. Religion, politics – just the dynamics from generation to generation, one generation being more conservative and one being more liberal. And the idea of keeping or losing one’s faith as people get older, so all these issues are in there in terms of family dynamics. It’s just delicious.

In the first act, it’s August of 2000 on the eve of the patriarch’s 75th birthday, before the election of Bush/Cheney, so there’s a lot of political discourse. The way Steve introduces this, you know who these people are right away but you also don’t know. It’s the best of both worlds. I know them. And then it reveals as the play goes on there are weird idiosyncrasies and things that come out, everyone has their own game going on, their own agenda, and there’s family history. And then there’s a big piece of information that’s revealed – then it jumps forward to February 2001 and things have changed in the country and the family.

It’s everything: it’s dramatic, it’s heavy but it’s very fun too. It’s very dark, but it’s very funny to me. One of the things that appealed to me about the role of Holly is she really had no editing device, no filter, she’d probably be diagnosed with ADD by now. She just goes everywhere in conversation all the time. You really get to explore these characters from lots of different facets. Steven Levenson does a brilliant job of encapsulating all that.

So you started your career in Chicago and later moved to New York . A lot of people might not know about your comedy background, and you were in a comedy troupe in called Burn Manhattan in the 80s. What was this like then? It seems like the 80s and 90s were a great time for comedy.

I moved to New York from Chicago in like ’95, so I was there only for four years. I was going all over at that point for work. We went through this mass exodus where people left summer of ’95, Adam McKay (SNL) and Dave Koechner (Anchorman). Adam had been hired to write on SNL, that was the season Will Ferrell got hired. I went to the Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston, so I kind of traversed those worlds in Chicago and the straight theater world in New York and got my equity card. I also did the Improv Olympics, a little bit of Second City, The Annoyance Theatre.

Chicago has this amazing history, it really is the mecca for improvisational comedy and otherwise, so once I got to New York City I got involved in Burn Manhattan and UCB, it was a really exciting time to be in New York but I always did both. I started doing television and indie films and going back and forth from LA. Grey’s Anatomy is what most people knew me for but I did a lot of stuff before that. Comedy was much different than television, even before Grey’s, it was a single camera, and so it all changed and became this whole other beast and to get involved with Private Practice, I had a great time doing Fargo and that was a great role. Story and characters is what drives me to do different jobs.

Also, what was it like living in New York in the 90s as you continued to pursue your acting career?

When I was in Chicago that was like the apex. I knew Second City was there, but there was so much underground there, and Improv Olympics was massive. And Amy Poehler and Matt Walsh and Matt Besser started UCB. What was in New York before that was sketch comedy, but long-form comedy – this was a different thing, humor based more on reality, different than sketch.

We were hanging posters all over the city in the East Village or in a little hole-in-the-wall bar. It was just fun, it was a community, it was a very romantic time, I was waitressing, acting, waitressing, acting. Andy Richter – I would do sketches on Conan. So this was just like this whole crew, we were coming up together doing our day jobs and quitting our day jobs and on and on. Working hard was paying off and we had a great community. UCB was a thriving business but really an amazing place to empower storytelling and make it fun and make people laugh.

You have done a lot of stage work, TV and film: Dr. Addison Montgomery on both Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, The Drew Carey Show, the Fargo TV series, The Perks of Being A Wallflower with lots coming up, a Netflix series and a movie, Girl Trip, Felt. What is the biggest difference to you about work on the stage vs. being behind a camera?

Either way, like I have been in line rehearsals here, so I don’t forget my lines. But beyond that, the crazy thing about theater is you can explore and have a process and it’s important to make mistakes and be courageous. That’s what is most interesting is not having it all plotted out. One of the things I love about having a sketch background in Evanston and Improv Olympics, it’s great to acknowledge what’s happening in the moment, where more often than not you’re shooting a lot of material in a day.

For most films and TV shows you move pretty fast, 5-8 pages a day. Improv gives you this great ability to bring yourself to the role and so I love that about TV and film in moving so quickly. You really listen to your scene partners. In theater you have more time, it’s that simple, yeah only 3 or 4 weeks to rehearse, but there’s a process as artists, to make changes and it’s so important to explore and be fallible and have the courage to mess up. This cast is incredible, I get to work with Gary Wilmes (Irrational Man) which I’m so excited about, he’s an old friend from Chicago. We’ve been dying to work together. I feel so excited and so supported.

If I Forget is a brand new show. There are a lot of great productions right now on Broadway, Off-Broadway. Why should theater-goers come check out this one?

Oh gosh, it’s really – it’s so fucking funny, it’s so dark, it’s so insane. It’s got a little bit of God of Carnage in there. It’s just the madness of families when they get together. It’s got this amazing relevance of what’s happening politically in this country, in this curious, impactful way, dealing with all the minutiae of life.

It’s got all the existential things like what it’s like to be a human on this planet and having an ailing parent and kids acting out or not acting out and marriages that may or may not be working and big religion issues and politics and our country, and you know, that’s just really massive and really important, it’s huge. I just feel like this is a perfect play anyway, but a perfect play for this moment.