The Enlightening of Billie Dawn: An interview with Anne Shoemaker

Gin! When a woman sets her mind to it, she can accomplish great things, like beating Harry Brock at gin rummy for example. In a TheatreBloom exclusive interview, we sit down with Baltimore area actress Anne Shoemaker to discuss her first major lead role in Born Yesterday at Vagabond Players.

If you could give us a little introduction and familiarize the readers with who you are and what you’ve been up to as of late, that would be a great place to start.

Anne Shoemaker
Anne Shoemaker

Anne Shoemaker: My name’s Anne Shoemaker and I’m playing Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday at Vagabonds. Most recently I was in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare: Abridged at Fells Point Corner Theatre. I played one of the three roles. They’re based on the actor so I could tell you that I played the Jesse character but that won’t really mean anything. Before that I played Kate in Seminar at FPCT and that’s pretty much all of 2015.

What was the general appeal to get involved with Born Yesterday?

Anne: Well, I’d worked with Steve Goldklang, the director of the show, before. He said, “I have this really great part for you and I think that you’d be perfect for it.” He had me over and we watched the movie and I said “Sure! This sounds like a lot of fun!” I didn’t really know about the show before that. You know, it’s a pretty famous play and movie, so I was familiar-ish with it in that I recognized the name of it, but I’d never seen it before that.

You play a very unique character in the show. How did you go about developing Billie Dawn? How are you like her and how are you unlike her?

Anne: Yeah, she is unique. She’s a chorus girl, straight out of a small town by way of New York. She’s got that nasally New York accent. She’s terribly earnest. She’s earnest about everything she does: she’s an honest character. Sometimes it gets her into trouble because she speaks her mind whether or not it’s appropriate. But she’s genuine. Once she’s given the permission to expand herself she finds things about herself that she didn’t know before. I think as an actor you have to find yourself in the character somewhere or it’s just not going to work. So there are definitely some aspects of her that I have in me. I am, unfortunately, not as aware as i should be of politics and the workings of Washington, complacency, maybe. And there are some aspects of her that I wish I had in me more, like her confidence. She’s sexy and statuesque, she’s very comfortable with her sexuality and she uses it. She’s confident in that way. I lean more towards intellect and humor as a back fall. That’s where my wheelhouse is, that’s where I’m comfortable. So it was really nice and surprising to be in a role where I was the sex-symbol of the show. I’ve never done a role like this. I don’t think of myself as that kind person.

Mark Scharf (left) as Ed Devery and Anne Shoemaker (right) as Billie Dawn in Born YesterdayTom Lauer
Mark Scharf (left) as Ed Devery and Anne Shoemaker (right) as Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday

You mentioned the nasally New York voice. Was creating that voice a challenge for you and where are you drawing your inspiration to help craft it?

Anne: There are a lot of brassy characters that I took snippets of, mostly Marissa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny and the girl from Singing in the Rain, “and I can’t stand him!’  I found something that worked, made it as natural as I could, and just ran with it. I mean, you can’t make the character about the accent. You make the character with the tool of the accent to help it. I think that’s a pitfall for a lot of actors, when you do an affected voice like that it can take over the role. It’s not about the voice. It has to be about who she is past that.

What has been one of your biggest challenges with this role?

Anne: Well, I would have to say finding the balance of— and I don’t want to say stupidity because she’s not actually stupid— but finding the balance of sincerity and I guess stupidity, she is simple and uneducated. It was a hard balance to try and make her not stupid and walk that line so that she didn’t become a caricature. I wanted her to be real.

You had mentioned that you Steve Goldklang before, and this is not your first time working with Steven Shriner either? What was it like working with them this time around in this very different capacity?

Anne: Well I worked with Steve Shriner very minimally before, so this was really nice to have a meatier role where I was playing directly across from him. I was in Hot L Baltimore with him at Spotlighters a few seasons ago. I had a bit part in it and had taken over another bit part at the last minute but I never interacted with Shriner’s character in that one.

Do you think Steven Shriner is too attractive for the role of Harry Brock?

Anne: There has to be a reason that she’s there with him. If he’s just mean and he’s unattractive then why would she be with him? I think Steve “uglies” up the character with his acting so it makes sense for him to be a very attractive man. It’s been really nice working with him in this capacity because he’s so talented. The whole cast is really talented, it’s been great getting to work with them, especially Shriner, and Mark (Mark Scharf, playing Ed Devery) who I’d only briefly worked with during Iceman Commeth years ago at FPCT and again not in the capacity that we have in this show. It makes a show so much more fun when you work with talented people.

There are so many moments where it’s just Shriner and I on stage and it’s so much fun to work somebody who is talented like he is. He’s a great scene partner: he can give and move with you. That’s what makes theatre exciting to perform and fascinating to watch. That’s why I do what I do.

What about working previously with Steve Goldklang?

Anne: He directed me most recently in Seminar and he directed me in Love, Loss, and What I Wore, and I know I’ve done something else with him but I can’t remember. He has great taste in plays, so i knew I’d have fun with it. This is different because, well for one, I’ve never done a period piece before. Or at least not one this far back or this “old school.” This is pretty much like playing dress-up. I love those costumes.

Do you think those costumes help you to mold your portrayal of Billie?

Anne: Oh absolutely. You do work internally, but the right clothes can help define the character as an external tool. You put those clothes on and you can’t help but straighten your back and get that chorus girl posture into place. Steve Goldklang and I went to Hampden and did a two and a half hour shopping spree through all of the consignment shops down there and we managed to find every single one of my costumes in those two and a half hours. It was amazing. We would walk into a store, I’d try it on, and it would work and we’d walk right back out and onto the next store. It was the best shopping experience I’ve ever had. Nothing ever goes that easy but we hit the lucky jackpot. And I do love that red dress. And the nightgown, the one with the matching robe. It was seven dollars. I don’t know which one I love more. I think the red dress.

Is there a moment in the show that really defines the show for Billie?

Steven Shriner (left) as Harry Brock and Anne Shoemaker (right) as Billie Dawn in Born YesterdayTom Lauer
Steven Shriner (left) as Harry Brock and Anne Shoemaker (right) as Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday

Anne: I think it’s the gin game that defines her for me. I know that sounds weird, but the gin game is so iconic as far as the movie is concerned. But it’s really where you get to see that when she puts her mind to something just how good at it she really is. She put her mind to learning to play gin and now it’s an outlet for her to let out her aggression with Harry Brock. She just subtly beats the crap out of him and enjoys every minute of it. She knows how to work it. Throughout the whole thing you can argue that she knows exactly what she’s doing and she’s just getting him back in the most subtle way possible. You really do see that as far as her education is concerned that she was just never given permission and never had the need to further herself in the academic sense. But once she’s given that permission at the end of Act I and the start of Act II she puts her whole heart and soul into it and by the end of Act II you see that she really does have brains.

Is there a moment in the show, or a line, or a scene that really just makes you enjoy the show for what it is?

Anne: “Do what I’m telling ya!” My closing line is pretty great. But I mean she has so many great one liners, a lot of zingers. I

You are taking a very defiant, albeit silent, one might even say truculent approach to the character of Billie Dawn. There have been other portrayals where although she does have those brilliant one liners, she takes orders from Harry Brock and hops to. You have these beautifully crafted moments of holding your own against him in those well placed silences. Why take Billie in that direction?

Anne: She has to go in that direction. You have to have that truculence in her, that will and zest, because for as much as Harry Brock doesn’t respect her? He does love her. And it wouldn’t just be because she’s a pretty face or lets him get away with what he wants. There has to be an equal-footed challenge between them or their dynamic doesn’t work. Think about when he asks her to come out into the suite at the very beginning. He’s trying to impress her. He’s trying to get some kind of something out of her. The interaction between the two of them tells the whole story. “What do you think, pretty nice, huh?” and she says “Eh, it’s alright.” She dismisses it and just says it’s alright, and that fuels his “do you know how much this costs?” line and she responds again with that nonchalance, “$235, you told me.” On some level they are on an equal playing field. So she has to have that backbone, even if it is done in the silences. Because otherwise the defiance and standing up for herself that finally happens in the end would come out of absolutely nowhere.

Billie has to look up a lot of words in this show. Were any of the words that she stumbles on new to you or were you checking your dictionary?

Torberg M. Tonnessen (left) as Paul Verrall and Anne Shoemaker (right) as Billie Dawn in Born YesterdayTom Lauer
Torberg M. Tonnessen (left) as Paul Verrall and Anne Shoemaker (right) as Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday

Anne: Er, no. What can I say? I have a good vocabulary. There’s a line at the start of Act II where she gets corrected when she says “my book laying there” because she’s grammatically supposed to say “my book lying there.” I have to force myself to say laying. In fact, opening night, I did say lying, and then he said lying, oops. When its drilled into you, its hard to change.

 There are people who would say that this is a dated show, regardless of how iconic it is, do you believe that it is still relevant and speaks to modern audiences?

Anne: Oh absolutely! Steve Goldklang picked the show because of the reflection of Washington and the government today. It’s still very relevant. I don’t think I’m being very eloquent here, but it’s still happening. Those shady deals with politicians and senators? They still go on. The message of the play that knowledge is power? That’s still incredibly relevant and will never be dated. I know I’m not as learned in the political world as I should be. It’s one of those things that you should be more aware of, and a show like this reminds you. Like watching The West Wing for four years and then you find yourself wondering what’s going on in The New York Times that day.

What has doing this show taught you about yourself as a performer? As a human being?

Anne: That I can feel very pretty. That sounds silly, but I said I’m not usually cast this way. It’s really nice to do a role like this. I don’t get to be dolled up too often where I have to paint my full face, fix my hair, and worry about my nails. It’s a nice boost to the ego. It feels good. I’ve never done a lead role before. It’s a learning experience that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. I’ve never had the confidence to carry a show before. It feels good, and I’ve gotten great feedback, so that feels even better.

What is it that you hope people will take away from seeing Born Yesterday?

Anne: A good evening of theatre. Theatre is about entertainment first and foremost. If you’re not enjoying yourself then we’re doing something wrong. Now there is that experimental type theatre that is “workshopy” and good for exploring different avenues of perspective and all of that. It’s really awesome to do in a workshop or in college but there has to be an element of “would I pay to see this?” or “would I really sit down for two hours and watch this?” Now, with those experimental types, you are catering to actors and creative types and they really appreciate all of the exploration of character and focus and drive and everything that happens in those sorts of shows. But if you’re trying to produce a show for mass audiences with the hope of gaining money, there has to be an entertainment factor.

The cast of Born Yesterday at Vagabond PlayersTom Lauer
The cast of Born Yesterday at Vagabond Players

Why should people come see Born Yesterday at Vagabond Players?

Anne: Because it’s a classic. It’s a great little theatre. It’s a great little evening. There are so many wonderful restaurants right there in the square. It’s right on the water in a great location. Go get yourself something to eat at one of the nice restaurants and go have a great evening at the theatre.

 Born Yesterday plays through June 28, 2015 at The Vagabond Players— 806 S. Broadway in the heart of Fells Point in Baltimore, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 563-9135 or purchase them online.

Click hear to read the review of Born Yesterday.


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