200 Years of Experience, and Still Learning Onstage – The New York Times

Posted: December 18, 2019 at 9:43 pm

I am rarely cast as an ingnue anymore, Lois Smith was saying on Monday afternoon. It was a joke, obviously, and her fellow actresses Estelle Parsons, 92, and Vinie Burrows, who recently turned 95 but rounds that up to 96 burst into laughter.

At 89, Smith was the baby of this bunch. Between them, they have more than 200 years of performance experience, including the film Lady Bird and the title role in Marjorie Prime (Smith), the movie Bonnie and Clyde and the sitcom Roseanne (Parsons), the American premiere of Jean Genets The Blacks and experimental work with the director Rachel Chavkin (Burrows).

Theyre still busy adding to their rsums: Parsons currently at the Public Theater in Tony Kushners A Bright Room Called Day, as a character whose name translates to The Old One; Smith on Broadway, with a talky role in Matthew Lopezs The Inheritance; Burrows back Off Broadway next month in Chekhov/Tolstoy: Love Stories, at the Mint Theater Company.

In the room with them, youd never guess their ages from their appearance, only from the discussions vintage details as when Burrows and Smith tried to figure out what they might have worked on together, and the closest they got was a play each of them did on Broadway with Helen Hayes. (Burrows was in the original 1950 production of The Wisteria Trees, Smith in the 1955 revival.)

The shyest of the group was Burrows, while Parsons and Smith had the comfort of old acquaintance. Gathered around a table in a Midtown restaurant, they spoke about perseverance, longevity and improving with age. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

So many people count down to retirement. Was that ever a goal for any of you?


ESTELLE PARSONS I dont think people in the theater are like that. Edward Albee said the reason we live so long is because we never retire.

VINIE BURROWS The work satisfies us, recharges our batteries.

PARSONS Also, when youre an actor, youre like retired a lot of the time because youre waiting for the jobs to come along. Theyre always talking about women have jobs when theyre young and then theres this trough.

BURROWS It was slightly different with me because as a young black actress, I didnt have the quality or the quantity of roles that I wanted, so I created my own one-woman show, had a New York Times review that said I was a magnificent performer. It was in the 60s. I went on the college market. More than 6,000 performances, booking them myself.

And you started as a child actor?

BURROWS On radio.

PARSONS Were they parts for black people on radio?


PARSONS Nobody could see you, so

BURROWS Nobody could see, so.

PARSONS I didnt start acting till I was 32. Well, I was one of eight people who started the Today show. Back in the 50s.

But you were also on Broadway in the 50s. You all were.

PARSONS My first thing with Ethel Merman, yeah, after I left the Today show because I didnt want to go to the Grace Kelly wedding. I hated interviewing people. (laughter)

SMITH My first professional job was in a Broadway play that ran all season, in 1952. Time Out for Ginger. And Melvyn Douglas was my father. It was a nice way to begin.

Whats gotten easier and whats gotten harder about acting?

PARSONS What has gotten easier for me is that when you start out, your work is kind of erratic. Now my work is of a standard. Its not wonderful one night and terrible the next night. Listen, Im 92, but I feel (laughs) that Im finally in command of my work.

BURROWS Im 96, and I feel as if Im better now than I ever was.

SMITH Whats harder is my body is not as agile as it used to be. Im very grateful that Im mobile and can do it. Its true I get bed parts sometimes, or wheelchair parts oh, boy! but I also get standing-up-all-the-time parts, like I have right now.

PARSONS I dont like parts where people are self-pitying old. I dont take those.

SMITH (laughs) I know what you mean. Probably 15, 20 years ago, I began to find I was getting all these offers to do play readings where the memory was gone. And I thought, Not yet!

PARSONS I dont really get a lot of offers, though, do I? Do you get as many offers as you did when you were younger?

SMITH At least. Maybe more.

BURROWS I dont have an agent, so when I hear of something, I go, but then they dont want to see you. I dont belabor what is; I go out and find.

How is it learning lines?

SMITH Its about the same. Ive changed methods along the way. I grew up learning my lines in rehearsal, on my feet. And I began to think I wanted to learn it ahead of time. Ive really enjoyed it, the time with myself and the script alone.

PARSONS In my late 70s and 80s I began to worry about whether I could really do it anymore. I was doing this play down at La MaMa. Id gone offstage at the wrong time. Id have an experience like that, or where Id forget a line, and I would blow it up into a very big thing. As I got toward my 90s (laughs), I got my confidence back. People say, Oh, I want to be just like you, and I think, Ive never been different from anybody else. I just keep on going. Thats just luck.

Luck plays a part, but so does perseverance.

SMITH Theres another thing, I think: that we get to do it together. That means a lot to me. It seems to me thats a good part of the production of longevity.

BURROWS Community.

SMITH And a constant exchange. Its growthful.

What difference might a level playing field have made in your careers?

BURROWS Oh-ho-ho. Its not level.

PARSONS Its never level for women. I dont think men and critics think of women as artists. I mean, everybody thinks of men as artists, men actors. And look at the jobs men actors have. I dont even want to think about that.

BURROWS Well, they are definitely privileged. I should be able to use my talents more. And I can say that at 96 I should have been able to use them more when I was 20 or 25 or 35 or 45 or 65 or 75. There were limitations. There are still limitations. But I do my work. When I can. And I support every baby born having the opportunity to develop to his or her potential.

When you think about having a long career, whats your greatest wisdom to offer?

BURROWS Gratitude. Gratitude for the chance to work and develop.

PARSONS Im amazed that more people arent interested in our wisdom. Its a funny thing, because we are wise in so many ways. Even solace that we could give to some people on the long journey. There are some, like probably us, who persevere. And there are some who dont.

SMITH Maybe some of these people say, I dont want to do that anymore.

BURROWS I cannot imagine myself saying that. Give me the chance, Ill leap at it!

PARSONS Im worried about staying on longer than I should. I had a time in our rehearsal period here where I thought, Maybe I should get out, maybe I should understand when is my time to get out. You know what I mean?

SMITH I guess I do. I also feel that in just about every rehearsal process there are times where you think, Well, this is impossible. It isnt going to work.

Is there anything you want to know from one another?

BURROWS (to Parsons and Smith) Where do you get your strength from?

SMITH I do get it from working, partly. Im stronger if Im working.

PARSONS I just said to my husband yesterday, when I do a really good performance, or (laughs) what I think is a really good performance, I feel so fulfilled and confident and all those good things, the way you want to feel.

Vinie, whats your answer to that question?

BURROWS My strength comes from those who came before me, as a black person. Those who survived that Middle Passage, across the Atlantic, some who died in the holds of the ship. It definitely comes from that human experience that belonged to my great-grandparents, men and women, kidnapped from their home. Their struggle gives me my strength.

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200 Years of Experience, and Still Learning Onstage - The New York Times

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