Cindy Goldfield Talks about A Life in the Theater
by Lynne Stevens
On Tuesday, October 24, I had the pleasure of interviewing actor Cindy Goldfield at 42nd Street Moon’s very unglamorous rehearsal space at 250 Van Ness Avenue. She is an award-winning actor/director, and member of the 42nd Street Moon company since 1993.
LS: I’m looking forward to seeing you in Mame. Is there any one actor who played in your role whom you emulate and admire? And I’m thinking, first off, of Angela Lansbury.
CG: Well, Angela Lansbury is a goddess, of course. And obviously I never saw her play it, but you can hear the original Broadway recording, and that’s charming. And I think she’s had a really interesting career. I don’t know if I’m emulating her because I don’t think that’s really true. But definitely inspired by her and her interesting life and career.
Yes. And it was a long one, wasn’t it?
Yeah, she did some really great work. And even as a child, her mother was a performer, and she started performing at quite a young age. That was how they earned their money. It wasn’t something they did for fun.
Yes. We hear so many stories about the early Hollywood stars who started out as children and found out later that they didn’t have a cent to their name.
Yep. And she obviously is English, and her mother was, like, in stock theater kind of. We might call it amateur theater, but here that has a connotation of being not as good. But in England, amateur theater is well respected and it’s just not known as Broadway equivalent. But yeah, she had a very long, illustrious career.
Do you have a particular spin you’re putting on your Mame? She’s looking after Patrick and she’s maybe a little bit torn. Her life is being squeezed and she isn’t as free. She’s trying to get him to be freer.
So, Becky Potter, who’s the director, I’ve actually known since she was a little girl. I cast her in her first show when she was nine. And she has two daughters that I love very much. And I feel like the way I relate to Becky’s daughters is sort of like the wacky aunt in some way. And so, I feel like there’s a little bit of that just like during the pandemic. Every Wednesday I would go to the East Bay, so I got to see these little girls when they were quite little.
The minute I showed up, they made me take off all my jewelry so they could wear it, and then we would play this monster game outside. I guess I think of Mame in that way, just like the wacky friend aunt that is part of your life. And I also lean very heavily on my experience of raising my sons, who are now grown and making choices in their lives that I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen for them and how that feels to put all this love and attention and focus and intentionality into raising your kids and then they have their own lives.
So I think I use all of that. And I trust that Becky knows me really well. And she knows the parts to corral and draw on and encourage. So that I’m, I’m being true to the era that we’re portraying and being true to the style of musical theater, Jerry Herman’s theatricality and also the true authenticity and heart that comes from your audience relationships.
You’re working with director Becky Potter again after many years. Talk about what special qualities she brings to the production.
She’s lovely. She is. So, a long, long time ago when I cast her in a production of “Annie Warbucks” out at the Willows Theater, she and her family became very close to me. Her younger sister Annie was only five at the time. Annie has worked on this production, doing all the rewrites. Her name is Annie Potter. So, “Annie Warbucks” was the play that I cast Becky in. Becky’s never directed me before, and so it’s really fun.
How is it going?
It’s going really well. It’s lovely. Our schedule here at 42nd Street Moon is pretty insane as far as how short a time we have to put up a show. But Becky is incredibly organized and has clarity of vision and trusts in the actors she’s cast, and the process of putting a show together. So. it’s been really an absolute pleasure to get to work with her in this way.
I don’t know how you actors do it. All that memory and knowing where you’re supposed to be. Maybe it just all falls into place.
During the Pandemic, which was the longest break I had had from working since I was 14, for showsLy And it really messed with my sense of identity. I realized how much I use theater as this place of safety and structure because everything about it is structured from, I say this line, you say that line, then I say this line. Somebody’s an actor, somebody’s a stage manager, somebody’s a director.
You know what the chain of command is to even the overall thing. You audition for a show, then you get called back, then you get the part, then you have first rehearsal, then you have rehearsals, then you have Tech rehearsals, then you have opening, then you have closing. Everything about it is so structured and real life is so chaotic and scary that I find that coming back to theater after the Pandemic, number one is the gratitude I felt for just being in a dirty rehearsal room is great.
Yes, we’re social animals. We need to be around people.
Exactly. And also, I realized that the skills that I took for granted, it was really scary at first to come back and trust that I still could do the things that I think I can do. The first show back for me was A Little Night Music. I remember feeling kind of grateful that I had a relatively small part because it was scary to come back. It felt like small learning lines. And I remember the first day at Tech rehearsal, it was like I hadn’t put on contact lenses for three years. I hadn’t worn heels for three years. There were all these things that just felt really changed.
The way you look at the world?
Yeah, exactly. At this point, because I’ve had a lot of work in the last couple of years. I did Night Music and then I did “Fefu and Her Friends” at ACT. I did “Follies” at San Francisco Playhouse and directed a couple things for Moon. In the meantime, I just did a show called “In Every Generation” down at Theatreworks. So, I’ve had quite a good amount of work the last couple of years.
And then Mame is playing the title character. You’re in almost every scene. There’s lots of songs, lots of dialogue, and I’m studiously trying not to get in my head about it. And I am leaning on a couple of actors who are in the show, Mark Farrell and Elise Yusef, who are in the show as well. The very first day of rehearsal, he offered to come early and run lines, and I didn’t realize that there was no intention of running his sections. He just wanted to help.
Just help you.
Yeah. Things like that. I’m just trying not to get caught up in how many lines there are or that we do have a built-in understudy, but normally here there’s no understudies. And I don’t know what would really happen if I went down, because I don’t know who’d cover her, because she’s in the cast, too. So, I’m trying just to just trust that everything’s going to be fine.
When you say went down, like, if you became ill, or do you mean if you just stood there and couldn’t remember what you were supposed to say.?
That’s not going to happen, and if something like that happened, somebody would jog me up. When I was talking about how structured theater is, I always think it’s amusing because actors love to tell what we call war stories, green room stories of, like, somebody went up on lines or they forgot a prop, or it’s this huge thing. And it’s only a huge thing because everything in our world is so structured. But if somebody goes up on lines, we usually help each other, we figure things out, we ad lib, or somebody will take the line for you and turn it into their line and say, “didn’t you say that you were going to the store?”
Do you prefer to be on stage or are you just as happy backstage or directing?
That’s a really good question. First of all, I started performing when I was a child. Well, even before that, because I was a ballet dancer early, and I’ve been performing publicly since I was about six or seven. I’ve been a professional working actor since 1986, which is a lot longer than what is that? That’s at least 30, 40 almost 40 years.
And acting being an actor is easier than being a director, responsibility wise, in certain ways. I show up. And as long as I’ve done my responsibility, learn my lines, remember my blocking, I don’t have to worry about a whole lot. Where being a director, you have to make sure all the pieces are happening and that they happen on time and that they are up and that the work is good and you’re managing people and you’re managing conflict and you’re negotiating requests and people being absent. It’s a lot more responsibility.
And it must take a lot of finesse, too. If the work isn’t good, how do you approach that person and say, . . .
You need to be able to talk to someone in such a way that you get the light bulbs to go on for them. You can’t really give them a light bulb and
not make them depressed.
Exactly. Yeah, it’s an interesting job. That said, I really love directing, too. I love being able to see something and hear something and know where it should be to get the impact that it can have. I’m in the process of casting the show I’m directing in the spring. I’m directing Bright Star for Moon. I’m in the process of that right now and doing callbacks and just giving people direction to see if we can just tweak it a little bit. And I find that fascinating. And getting people able to portray authentic — I’m going to just use the word fucked up emotions. That’s what I love, is flawed human behavior. I directed “Most Happy Fella” years ago and I didn’t really know the show. On first reading, I didn’t understand the show. But then once I was in it, I was like, man, these people, they make some bad decisions and then they have to deal with it. And to me, that’s really interesting. So that part of directing I really love.
And then I also work — actors always have to have a day job of some sort. And so, I do a lot of other backstage work as well. I work on the wig and makeup crew at ACT and I’ve, in the past, have done prop master and costumes and all sorts of things. It’s kind of how I grew up doing theater in West Marin. It’s scrappy theater where everybody did everything. As a professional actor, you don’t really get to do that very often. So, I find ways in my life where I get to do things like that.
We all need a little variety in our life, too, right? There are some beautiful songs by Jerry Herman in “Mame.” Do you have a favorite? I particularly like the wistful “If He Walked Into My Life.” That pang of regret can make me tear up. Do you ever have a hard time controlling your emotions when you’re singing a particularly emotional lyric?
Yes, to both of those accounts. Both of those ideas. Number one, “If He Walked Into My Life” is my favorite song in the show as well to sing. It’s way too easy for me to connect to it because I have two grown sons. It’s all very real for me. And I’m working on it because if I let myself be completely in it, I can’t get through the song without crying, which means I can’t sing it very well.
So right now, what I’m working with, because it’s rehearsal and it doesn’t have to be performance quality yet, is allowing myself to have all those images in my head about the things that I wonder if I’d done this, would this be better now if I really felt strongly about that at the time? But would I do it the same if I did it? So right now, I’m allowing myself to just wallow in it a little bit because I know what I believe as an actor and as a director, that the truth of things is way more exciting than a fancy costume and beautiful notes.
So, if you crack, that might be a good thing.
We’ll be with you.
And I’m not worried about that because I feel like, obviously the big notes at the end, I kind of have to get it together and make sure that I can deliver. I’ve always considered myself primarily an actor who sings rather than a singer who acts. When I’m working on a song, I do it as a monolog. I connect actual images from my life to the words.
Oh, you touched on this. Talk a little bit about what it was like when things had to shut down for COVID we all have this picture of actors waiting tables until a role comes along. But even restaurants were having a tough time.
Yeah, it was dramatic. Like I said, I hadn’t really had a break from theater since I was a kid. But I will say that psychologically it was very difficult. Like my identity was, who am I if I’m not here? Do I exist? Do I have any worth? Right? Do I have any worth in the world at all if I’m not doing what I’m supposed to do?
You seem to have focused on musical theater. Do you do anything to keep your voice in good shape, take lessons, or does it just come naturally?
I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t take lessons because generally performers take class, sort of like a ballet dancer takes class. But I never have done any steady vocal studying. I started out as a dancer and hurt my knee in high school and then hurt my back badly in college, and shifted to be more of an actor. And it wasn’t until college that I sang at all. And subsequently, musicals pay, so I have gotten a lot of work doing musicals, but I do straight plays as well. I mean, the show I just did at TheatreWorks was not a musical.
And I discovered relatively recently, within the last ten years, that I’m not a big belter like they thought I was, or they funneled me towards in college that actually I’m more of a mezzo and I can keep my voice a lot healthier if I sing within that.
Rather than being in out of your range.
Yeah, exactly. I think that when I was in college, and particularly the program that I was in and the people who ran it, the not terribly skinny brunettes were sort of funneled into sassy sidekick roles, which tend to be more alto belt-y roles rather than the ingénue soprano roles.
Yeah. And so, I think that sort of drove how people asked me to sing and I didn’t know any different. But it’s a lot easier to keep my voice in shape and healthy if I’m not belting my face off.
Okay. There’s plenty of drama in a good musical, but do you ever want to do something darker? Or Shakespeare? Perhaps you have.
Sadly, I’ve not done nearly as much Shakespeare as one would expect, given that Shakespeare is free to do. Like, there’s no royalties, so there’s always lots of Shakespeare. But I haven’t been in a Shakespeare piece since college, even though I’ve directed several. And yes, I do like to do, again, like we talked about earlier, I like flawed, fucked up people.
What would be an example of a play like that, that’s dark?
Well, like years ago, I did “Danny in the Deep Blue Sea” at Marin Theatre Company. And even just recently when I did “In Every Generation” down at TheatreWorks. And it’s a play about a Jewish family, a Sephardic Jewish family, through history. It was a piece about what is identity and what does it mean to be Jewish. And it required a ton of dramaturgy and research, and that was really fun to do. I also love when a musical is relatively serious, even things like you had on my bio. I did “Mac and Mabel” here years ago, and that’s a musical. It’s a Jerry Herman musical. It sounds upbeat, but there’s some really dark things going on.
it’s a musical, but . . .
Yeah, exactly. I do really appreciate when shows, whether they’re musicals or not, deal with real life. And I’m a person who has done a lot of comedy because I have the capability or the gift for landing a joke. In fact, I remember years ago doing a show out at the Willows. It was called “Moon Over Buffalo.” It’s a very funny show about a Theater family. A repertory company that is threatened by the influx of television. There’s a scene in it where the characters do a different show every night, is the idea. They’re doing “Cyrano” and they’re doing” Private Lives.”
Oh, that’s a little tight, isn’t it?
Well, that’s what the story is about a family who does these shows, right? Every other night they do a different show. And at one point, the father, who is played by Kevin Blackton, who’s dead now, but he was so funny. He’s drunk and he thinks we’re doing “Cyrano” and I play his daughter and we’re doing “Private Lives” and he shows up and it gets mixed up. And at the time, I had been a little tired of like, I had been cast in a bunch of frothy things in a row.
And I was just like, I’m so tired of comedies. Like give me something with meat in it. And then doing that show and there was another actor in it who could not land a joke to save her life. I and then working with Kevin, and it was so exuberant, and we together could not miss a laugh because we trusted each other. And I realized that it’s a gift. Like, not everybody’s got the funny. And so even though I love when a show is deep and dark and flawed people and all of that stuff, I also understand and appreciate and am grateful for the gift I have, which is, if there’s a way to make that funny, I can make it funny.
There’s nothing so awkward as, when the actor has landed a joke, but then they’re standing there waiting for the laugh and it doesn’t come.
It’s awful. It is terrible.
And one of the things is being sensitive to the audience enough that you don’t wait for the laugh. Just keep moving. There’ll be another one down the road.
But that’s very interesting. Have I got anything else? Oh, you’ve just given me so much.
Is that good or bad?
Like, you love what you do!
I do love what I do.
It really comes across.
Yeah, I do love what I do. This work is always my number one priority, which, again, goes back to, did my” Children Get Enough” of me? Right? And that song. But it’s always my first priority. And I’m grateful that my partner understands that. He’s a person who’s committed to cooking and his creativity through that. But he gets that if I have a choice between going to rehearsal, doing a show, or having a day off, it’s always going to be rehearsal.
It has to be good.
You have to have done your best.
Yeah. And I’d rather be here than anywhere els—in a dirty smelly rehearsal space.
You can’t beat it for glamour.
I know, right? I am having a lot of fun. But it’s not because it’s glamorous. It’s sweaty and dirty and . . .
a challenge, right?
Yeah. In a good way. Yeah. But again, so structured and safe, you know, what everybody’s going to do and what their jobs are. It’s not like the real world that’s so chaotic.
Well, on the outside, no one would ever think that. That it’s so structured.
I know. Yeah. I spent a lot of time thinking about it during the pandemic when there was no theater and why I was feeling so unhinged about it. And I grew up in a fairly chaotic and danger filled childhood and I feel like I gravitate to theater because it is structured.
Well, thank you so much.
You are so welcome.
I’m coming November 4.
Hopefully we’ll be ready.
Oh, you will.
I think I’m cautiously hopeful. Cautiously confident.
How long have you been rehearsing now?
So, I’ve had one week of rehearsal and then we have so the non-union folks. Started a week earlier, and then the union folks started last Tuesday, so a week ago today. And then we have this week, and we have Tech rehearsal on the weekend, and then we have our first audience on Thursday of next week.
It’s not long to get ready at all. Wow.
But you kind of knew your part before you even started here. Right?
I’m not very good at memorizing ahead of time. I need to stand up and know where I am in the space. My memorization to me is very kinesthetically connected. If I’m just learning lines off the page, it’s much harder than if I know I’m talking to you.
The action and the interaction.
I didn’t do a whole lot before. I listened to the music a lot. I read both of the books. The original source material, which are charming and fun.
It will be great. What do they say? Break a leg.
“Mame” –book by Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee, music & lyrics by Jerry Herman, based on the novel by Patrick Dennis & the play “Auntie Mame” by Lawrence & Lee, directed by Becky Potter, by 42nd Street Moon, San Francisco. Info: 42ndstmoon.org – to November 19, 2023.
Banner photo: Cindy Goldfield as Mame & Azzy David as Young Patrick. Photo by Ben Krantz Studio