Holly Twyford, one of D.C.’s most prolific theatre actors, opens up about directing her peers, why she gets up in the morning and the entrepreneurial spirit.
The first time I met Holly Twyford, I was 15. She was playing Viola in Aaron Posner’s production of “Twelfth Night” at Folger Theatre, and what felt like a moment of kismet in my teenage mind occurred. My parents, grandmother and I had been in the audience one evening, and we grabbed a post-show meal at Old Ebbitt Grill. Lo and behold, Twyford and her parents were in the booth next to us. My grandmother, an avid fan of the prolific D.C. actress, did not hesitate to go over and introduce herself. Thus began my several-decade, unapologetically open girl crush on Twyford.
Fast-forward to January 2017, when the Northern Virginia native played Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” at Ford’s Theatre — also directed by Posner — and I had the opportunity to interview her over the phone about the complex, raw and in many ways, emotionally exhausting role she was tackling. I kept it very professional, with no mention of our chance meeting at Old Ebbitt, secretly reveling in the fact I was finally getting the chance to pick the brain of one of the District’s most beloved theatre performers. And a few weeks later, I sat in the audience at Ford’s, riveted by one of the most compelling performances I’d ever seen onstage. My respect, and my girl crush, grew exponentially.
The second time I met Twyford in person, we communed at neighborhood coffee shop TCB in Shaw, near where she lives with her wife Saskia and daughter Helena. I’d reached out to interview her about her upcoming production of “Becoming Dr. Ruth” at Theater J, which runs through October 24. I was eager to sit down with her, this time from the perspective of director, as she’s at the helm of this remount. And after 18 months of missing human connection, my professional boundaries had waned slightly. I no longer cringed at the thought of sharing my unabashed admiration for her. If I’m being honest, I really wanted to hang out with her.
Over the course of three hours on a warm September afternoon, we covered everything from how some of the stalwarts of D.C. theatre have survived Covid to the frustratingly taboo subject of post-partum depression. It felt like grabbing a cup of coffee with an old friend, and in some ways, it was. Halfway through our conversation, Twyford and I realized she spent the first five years of her life in the Falls Church, Virginia neighborhood I grew up in, and my grandparents lived next door to the parents of her childhood best friend. Though her family relocated to Great Falls when she was five, her connection to Lake Barcroft is what prompted my grandmother to say hi all those years ago. At 34, I now know my teenage notion of kismet wasn’t wrong.
“Becoming Dr. Ruth”
Twyford’s sterling reputation in the D.C. theatre world is undeniable. With four Helen Hayes Awards and 10 nominations under her belt, she’s spent three decades making waves at nearly every major theater in the area. The actress has always been a staunch supporter of the smaller black box theaters that have popped up in recent years, and is known for taking risks in embracing edgy subject matter and challenging roles.
She’s a relationship builder, fondly speaking of the extended theatre family she’s formed over the course of her career. At this point, getting onstage with any combination of this family feels like a mini reunion where the actors simply have the best time. That, and they have the advantage of knowing each other so well that collaborations run almost seamlessly. Along with some of her more seasoned peers, Twyford has been shifting partial focus to directing.
“[One] thing that’s been really cool to witness and be a part of is this generation of actors who are becoming directors,” she says.
Twyford is quick to call out so many of her fellow actors and directors by name, a constant cheerleader for the performing arts scene in the District who is only interested in building up the artists around her. And when it comes to “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” she says there’s no way this production would be what it is without actress Naomi Jacobson. The pair has worked together many times over the years and built a close friendship, and both had the other in mind for this collaboration for the first run in early 2018. Twyford describes the October play as a remount of a remount, as the duo and their team had just started rehearsals in March of last year. They put a pin in that project and are eager to revisit it now with a renewed sense of purpose and pent-up artistic energy.
“It’s really exciting to get back to it, and specifically with that show. It is about not just overcoming adversity but embracing it — all the things Dr. Ruth has gone through in her amazing life. [She] still came out with this abundance of joy. I’m sure for most of the people in the audience, it will be their first show coming back. That’s going to be really emotional.”
Twyford gets a little choked up sharing this excitement with me, and her passion for Mark St. Germain’s depiction of the famous sex therapist’s life story is palpable. The 90-minute, no intermission, one-woman play, which earned Jacobson a Helen Hayes nomination in 2018, leads audiences through Ruth Westheimer’s incredible journey — from fleeing Germany to being a sniper in Jerusalem to juggling single motherhood and iconic sex therapist status in the U.S. She says it will resonate with everyone, because with such universal themes, how could it not?
“There’s no getting around her personality and the joy of her discussing sex,” she says. “It’s hilarious. That’s one of the things that made what she did work so well, and she knew it. She knew, here’s a way to talk to people about sex. I’m this little, teeny older lady, and I’m talking about blowjobs. People started opening up. She also talks about family and overcoming stuff.”
Twyford stresses the importance of not portraying Dr. Ruth as a caricature, like so many have done before. She notes a Robin Williams clip of the comedian imitating her, which, while funny, is not what this is about.
“This is about the person behind that voice, who had a lot going on. And Naomi can’t not tell the truth.”
She credits Jacobson with being one of the hardest working actors she knows, and someone who she enjoys peeling back the layers of a character with.
“We can just keep digging at one little, teeny line: ‘What if it’s this? What if it’s that?’ It’s a great equation.”
When it comes to how to breathe new life into the 2021 production after its former success, Twyford has a few ideas around what to tweak and where to go a little deeper.
“I am playing around with making something about the fact that this is a play coming out just after this big crisis,” she says. “I don’t know what form that will take. I feel like it’s something that should be acknowledged. So, we’ll see what awaits there.”
Like every other artist in town during the pandemic, Twyford has had to get creative and flex some new muscles — something she’s happy to do. She even recently applied for a gig at a local hardware store and included a letter listing all of the tools she knows how to use and things she’s built, but guesses the 30+ years of theatre credits on her resume might’ve impacted the final decision to hire someone else. However, she’s added a new skillset to her repertoire in the past year-and-a-half: teaching.
Theater J Artistic Director Adam Immerwahr — or in Twyford’s words, “the brilliant, generous mensch who is Adam Immerwahr” — called her and asked if she’d be interested in teaching a Zoom class about acting. She says while it sounded terrifying, she thought, “Sure, I’ll give it a shot.” He extended this offer to a handful of actors and directors without much to do during Covid, and Twyford describes the experience as amazing.
“It was really a great connection for the theatre makers to be making with the theatre lovers because those are the people who took the classes. I’d say, ‘What made you want to take this class?’ and they’d say, ‘I’ve been a Washington theatre fan for this many years and I love it and I love all the artists.’ That was a great emotional boost — not just about ego, but wow, we are connecting to people and we’ve made a difference in people’s lives.”
Soon, the brilliant, generous mensch brought her an opportunity to teach in-person — specifically, to teach locals in their 80s and 90s.
“It was just a kick,” she says. “I might have learned more than they learned. One of my students just turned 98 and another one was 94, and they would proudly say, ‘My birthday is on Tuesday.’ And damned if they didn’t dive right in.”
Her class ended up being about building characters, which she jokingly says is really her only strong suit as a teacher. Each student was recorded on video and a screening is in the works for all participants. After The Washington Post wrote about her teaching endeavors, she received several calls expressing interest in working with her in a similar capacity. She’ll be teaching a comedy class at Theater J soon and is keeping her options open as other opportunities arise. She recalls a recent conversation about the health benefits of the arts, which reminds her of her recent students.
“The reason Rose is 98 and Shelly is 94 is that they just keep learning. They’re sponges. One of the students in my class is learning the recorder, and in another class, another one was learning the violin. We all need to learn from that. We all need to say, ‘You’ve got to keep learning.’ There’s a Japanese word: ikigai. What it means is, essentially, “reason to get up in the morning.” And we all need that. They seem to have figured out they’re going to take every opportunity they can. That was inspiring.”
The Entrepreneurial Spirit
When Twyford wasn’t busy teaching, she was navigating the new normal of performing via Zoom and digesting artistic content via livestreams. She maintained an impressively positive attitude about all of it, noting the experience of directing “Steel Magnolias” virtually for Ford’s Theatre. She found little ways to make the performance feel dynamic through the screen, like sending each member of her “dream cast,” as she put it, matching coffee mugs. Though many miles away from one another, the illusion of the actors passing the same mug around created an element of basic human interaction we all sorely missed during the pandemic.
“I hope we can take some of the things [we learned] and continue on with them,” she says. “In one of the classes I taught at Theater J, I had a student in Massachusetts and a student in Australia. That was really cool. In a way, it made things much more global, and maybe also because we were all in the same f—king boat.”
And while she appreciated being able to take in Shakespeare’s Globe productions she would never have the luxury of seeing without being in London, the flatness of the virtual experience also got to her. For example, how she felt when watching Bobby Cannavale and Marisa Tomei in a streamed reading of Jon Robin Baitz’s “Three Hotels.”
“I watched it and they’re great, but they were in their little f—king boxes. I appreciate how you’re trying to work it. Marisa Tomei was getting up in her chair and doing stuff like that, and I was like, ‘Okay. That’s cool, but you’re still in a television screen to me.’ That’s hard.”
She elaborates further, noting, “It’s not that being in front of an audience is a part of what theatre is. It is what theatre is. It is the experience — period. It can’t be replicated on Zoom.”
In addition to “Steel Magnolias,” she participated in a virtual performance of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s annual “Will on the Hill” fundraiser in June and directed a workshop of new play “The Upstairs Department,” debuting at Signature Theatre next spring. She also just starred in a 20-minute online radio play, “Laughter in the Shadow of the Trees,” which streamed through the month of September. She finds the experience of radio to be more dynamic, if forced to choose between that and a Zoom production or livestream.
“The thing about radio plays is you have to use your imagination, even more so than in the theatre, and I think that’s what I love more about it. At a certain point [with Zoom productions], it was like, ‘Is it Zoom or is it just TV? Like, why don’t we just watch TV?’ To me, the radio was closer to theatre because I feel like it engages me more.”
Twyford’s definitely interested in keeping radio plays in rotation, even as she ventures back out into the live theatre world. I express gratitude for her decision to remain in the D.C. area as she continues new pursuits. Not only has she helped put our theatre scene on the map nationally, she’s paved the way for up-and-coming actors who choose to stay here rather than “make it” in New York or L.A. You can make it in our city, too, and she’s living proof.
She feels lucky to be here and says there have always been a lot of reasons to stay. She’s watched the theatre industry boom in the District, and remembers the days when there were only a few heavy hitters like the Kennedy Center and Arena Stage in the local performing arts world. Now, she hears from theatregoers all the time about how they switch up which spaces they subscribe to annually because they have so many options to choose from. And she’s watched artistic directors she’s formed lifelong friendships with bring new works and innovative adaptations to D.C. and make game-changing decisions for their theaters that have helped them keep pace with bigger cities.
From stepping outside of her comfort zone for steamy scenes in “Sex with Strangers” and rare moments of bursting into song in “A Little Night Music” at Signature Theatre to commanding roles as Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and astronomer Williamina Fleming in “Silent Sky” at Ford’s Theatre, there’s no telling what you might see Twyford in next.
We do know, however, that she’ll be joining forces with director Alan Paul next February in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of “Our Town,” in the role of stage manager with some of her favorite fellow D.C. actors.
“I think Alan’s idea was this is our town — all of these familiar faces. That’s very exciting.”
While there’s no bucket list, per se, she has several theaters in mind she’d like to work with in the future, as well as members of her theatre family she’d like to embark on new projects with. In the meantime?
“I’ll see what the entrepreneurial spirit comes up with.”
And as for me, I’m equal parts excited to be in the audience on opening night of “Becoming Dr. Ruth” and to catch up over our next cup of coffee. And the fact that I can do both is a joy and privilege.
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