Saturday, September 13, 2014

Dana Krueger

Before I was ever a part of the Washington, DC Theatre community, I was an audience member, and one of it's biggest fans.
I first saw Dana Krueger in The Women at Arena Stage in January of 1999. A very good friend of mine who had recently graduated from Shenandoah University was working on the wardrobe crew, and had a comp ticket that she offered me. I was back from winter break, and I can't recall if classes had started back up yet at Shenandoah, where I was still attending, but I loved the film, and there was no way that I was going to miss the chance to see it live on stage. From the moment the show began, till the curtain call, I was enraptured. The cast list of actresses in the show was a who's who of DC actresses, plus many from New York, as well. That wasn't the last time that I saw the show. I couldn't stay away, it turned out.  I saw it several more times, and even hung out backstage sometimes with Kristina, watching the actresses come and go in any number of amazing period costumes.
Outside the entrance to the Fichandler stage, where The Women was playing, there were two green rooms, and two benches in the hallway. Dana played Mrs. Moorehead, mother of the main character in the show, Mary. She has several scenes, but her most important one was the one she has after she learns that Mary has found out that her husband has cheated on her. She visits her daughter to give her motherly advice, and to tell her that she went through the same thing with her own husband. She advises her to "Keep still...keep still when you're fairly aching to move." The several times that I was backstage at The Women, that's just what I watched Dana do. She would come to the bench in the hallway and sit by herself.  She would lower her head, and concentrate on the scene that she was about to do. I was struck by her poise and concentration. When she heard whatever cue that signaled that it was time for her to take her place in the wings, she got up, and entered the wings, focused and calm.
The next time I saw Dana was later that year, in the fall. She played the Beggar Woman in Signature Theatre's 1999 production of Sweeney Todd. This show was really the show that made me say, "Forget New York, I wanna do shows here!" Again, my friend Kristina got me tickets to a matinee and I was blown away.  I recognized Dana's name in the program and saw that she was the beggar woman, and I couldn't believe that the regal woman who played Mrs. Moorehead was this ravenous, insane mess of rags that was twitching around the stage.  The cast was having a pot luck in between shows on the Sunday that I saw it, and Kristina and I joined them in the lobby.
I noticed a lady curl up with a blanket on the floor under one of the tables set up with food in the lobby. I gestured to Kristina and said..."Is she really curling up under a table on the floor?"
"Yeah," Kristina said, "she seems really method."
A brochure from the 200-2001 season.  Dana is on the far left.  Tracy Olivera is far right.

The next time that I saw Dana Krueger, it was in the same rehearsal room that I was in.  I moved to DC in 2000, and was cast in Gypsy at Signature Theatre. I guess I didn't screw it up too bad, because I was cast in Grand Hotel there in 2001. It was here that I walked into the rehearsal room and saw that Dana was also in the show. I spent most of the rehearsal process being intimidated by her. Not that she said anything to intimidate me, mind you, she was just a powerful and concentrated presence in a room. As rehearsals went on, we started working on a long montage sequence where a scene took place downstage, and the ensemble did a charleston that was all in two rows, and very stylized. Dana asked for a broom to use in this scene, as there was no way in hell anyone was going to ask her to charleston with the ensemble. She started sweeping the floor in between rows of dancers. Eric and Karma liked it, and kept it. As the run went on, she began hitting all of the ensembles feet with the broom as she swept by.  Not hard, just enough to let us know she was there, screwing with us. For many of us, it was the first contact that we had had with her, and we couldn't help but laugh under our breath.
This was the first time that I was introduced to her snake, as well. One day during tech, she gestured for me to come to her.  I had never spoken to her privately, so I was quite scared at what in the world she was going to say to me. She spoke in hushed tones and said, "Go take a look in the pot of the stage right plant." Confused, I quickly agreed to go check.  I looked in and saw a small black rubber snake. Baffled, I went back to her and told her what I saw.  "It's mine. He comes with me in every show and goes somewhere on the set."
Show people are full of odd little rituals because we work in the medium of variables. We strive to make so much of this fluid work of art the same every night. Whatever begins a show ritual can become a career ritual as well, if we have learned that doing a certain thing ensured a good performance. The snake was a ritual for Dana.
During the rehearsal process of the show, she also asked for a cigarette as a prop in one scene. She proceeded to steal the scene that she had nothing to do with, as the head maid, other than to be in the background.  She sat in a chair and smoked slowly and decadently. We started noticing what she was doing, and we were all in tears of laughter.
That cast went through a lot together. A little over two weeks into the run of the show was 9/11. The performance was cancelled that night, but we returned the next night, and a discussion night was already on the books.  They proceeded with the discussion, and what ensued was a very cathartic, rage filled, moving performance of the show.  The audience and the cast were both grateful that the show went on that night.  It was much needed medicine.
While Dana wasn't in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Signature, my next connection with her came about during the run of that show. Our house burnt down on morning during the run of the show. If I had never really felt what Signature's "family" meant yet, I did that day. Eric took us into his house for a place to stay, and the cast of Forum and staff of the theatre collected money for us to put towards a new place. They also brought donations of just household kind of things; plates, sheets, etc. We were beyond moved, and truly felt blessed, as we still do, to be a part of that wonderful family.
Soon after the fire, I began rehearsals for the next show at Signature, which was Allegro. Dana was indeed in that show, and one of the very first rehearsals, she brought us the most luxurious and comfy feather duvet. We had never had such fancy bedding, and were beyond moved that she had thought to give it to us. That was Dana, though.
To the right we see (left to right): Carl Randolph, April Harr Blandin, Dana Krueger, Eric Thompson, Evan Casey, Lauren Williams, and Tracy Olivera. 
Below we see her illustrious bio in the Allegro program, but the first sentence is the one that encompasses her wit perfectly.
She was smashing in Allegro, as to be expected, and cracked all of us up when her character died. When anyone died in the show, they reappeared on the third raised level of the stage wearing all black. In tech, she came out in a devastating dress and hat (the show on a Helen Hayes Award for Gregg Barnes' costume design.), and proceeded to sit on the floor and smoke a cigarette wile looking down at the action happening onstage and shaking her head disgustedly.

My Fair Lady closed the old garage space that we had grown up in at Signature. Dana was a regal and formidable Mrs. Higgins to Andrew Long's Professor Higgins. Her health took a bad turn during the run of this show, and she had to leave the show for about two weeks. She returned, and she and I began a tradition that I have written about on this blog before.  But it just occurred to me that same quiet poise that she had when I first saw her backstage at Arena Stage, was exactly how she would wait for the curtain call backstage during My Fair Lady. Sitting in her chair, (she always had a chair waiting for her backstage, and you better not be sitting in it), she and I began pantomiming new ways that Eliza would murder Higgins after he asks her where the devil his slippers are. Full story HERE.
The last time that I shared the stage with Dana in the garage was by far the most memorable to me. The Last Garage Hurrah cabaret featured a company of six Signature regulars, (myself, Will Gartshore, Harry Winter, Donna Migliaccio, Tracy Olivera, and Eleasha Gamble). There were different guest performers on different nights. Dana was a guest performer and sang the title song from the musical, Wings, which she starred in at Signature in 1994. It was a breathtaking performance that still makes me weep when I watch it. Her character is describing what she sees as she is dying.  I took a video of a dvd that I have of that night's performance and posted it when Dana passed. There wasn't a dry eye in the house. Her interpretation of that song and character are unparalleled.
The last time that I had the pleasure of sharing the stage with Dana was the opening of Signature's new theatre, with Into the Woods in 2007. Dana played both Cinderella's mother in the tree, and Little Red's Grandmother. For whatever reason, we didn't spend that much time together backstage on that show.  Sometimes there are shows where your backstage and onstage paths rarely cross. This was one of them for the two of us. I was never to share the stage with her again after that show closed.

The last time that I saw Dana was when she performed a comically dirty version of "One More Kiss" from Follies at the Summer Hummer, a fundraiser for the Taking Care of Our Own fund. I saw her perform this for real in the 2003 production of Follies at Signature, and it was beyond gorgeous. Here at the Summer Hummer, the lyrics were changed by her own pen from "One more kiss before we part" to, "One more piss before we fart." This only went to show how easy it was for her to make you sob or laugh till you sobbed. The concentration and laser accuracy that she delivered everything on stage with are qualities that I still strive for every day.  I now try to compose myself in a similar manner to her before I make an entrance on a stage.
The day after I found out that she passed, I found this on my station at Avenue Q. It made me cry, but also made me very happy.  The snake went on the set of Avenue Q immediately. Shortly after, Sunday in the Park with George opened at Signature, and Donna took the snake on loan. It has appeared every night in Sunday in the Park since. I imagine that various numbers of us will pass this snake around from show to show in the future to honor her spirit.
Today was her memorial service at Signature. It was a beautiful service, complete with classical music, opera, and musical theatre. It was filled with touching and funny remembrances of her life and career. I saw some folks that I hadn't seen for many years today in the lobby. Though we don't always see each other as often as we used to, we enjoy the times that we do.
I woke up this morning and before I got out of bed, I was thinking about the fact that I was really about to go sing at Dana's memorial.  That it really was happening.  Then I looked down and saw that I was laying on top of the duvet that she gave us. As I have every night since she gave it to us.
After the service, there was food and drink in the lobby, and before you knew it, the crowd for the sold out matinee of Sunday in the Park with George started coming into the lobby and theatre, and the party started dissipating. Much like the moving, live work of art that theatre is, the memorial's moment was done. It was time for the next show. One can't help but see the comparison to life there. I left the theatre and started to get upset. As I was about to enter the parking garage, piano movers were wheeling out the grand piano that was rented for the memorial service.  There it was, all wrapped up and being carried away by a team of men. As soon as it passed, I walked past a young pair of parents with their toddler, who pointed at it. The mother said, "Yes, that's a piano! It makes music! There it goes - wave goodbye!".
Goodbye, Dana. We will never forget you.

1 comment:

Lani Novak said...

Absolutely lovely Stephen...