Actress Janis Stevens seems perfectly suited for her next role. Stevens will play Katharine Hepburn in the world premiere of a one-woman show, “Kate: The Unexamined Life of Katharine Hepburn.”
Having had great success across the country with the drama “Vivien” about actress Vivien Leigh, Stevens has an affinity for and understanding of being alone onstage. In 2007, she took “Vivien” to New York, where she earned a prestigious Drama Desk Award nomination for solo performance.
Many members of the “Vivien” creative team are back in place for “Kate,” with Rick Foster writing the show and Peter Sander directing. Previews start Wednesday for the production, which opens Nov. 8 in the intimate Pollock Theatre at Sacramento Theatre Company.
Stevens’ good friend Mitch Agruss suggested the idea of the play to her a couple of years ago. It wasn’t just a random thought from the veteran actor who has often acted under Stevens’ direction. A young Agruss worked with Hepburn in 1957 when they were both members of the American Shakespeare Company in a production of “Much Ado About Nothing” and then in repertory tours.
Agruss felt it was a good match of subject and actor and knew of Stevens’ successes with solo shows.
“I have similar ideas to her (Hepburn), that’s for sure,” Stevens said sitting in the STC courtyard before a recent rehearsal.
“You can’t get married and have kids and still do this thing. It very rarely works,” Stevens said. For the past 20 years, Stevens has based her career in Sacramento, although she travels frequently around the country for work.
Wherever she goes she sees talented people looking for work, trying to keep their careers going.
“How do you make your way in this business anymore, if you don’t want to go to Hollywood, or you don’t want to suffer the vicissitudes of New York City?” Stevens said.
“I knew New York was going to be too much for me. It’s a dogfight. I wanted to be working. I didn’t want to be fighting to get the work.”
But Stevens is willing to create her own opportunities.
“It’s not something that early on I envisioned myself doing, but there’s that thing about ‘hey I’ve got a play, do you have a barn?’” Stevens said.
She spent 10 formative years in Vienna, Austria, where she became a working actress and gained the valuable experience of being onstage night after night.
When she returned from Vienna, she stopped in at Sierra Rep to visit friends and met Foster, who was the resident playwright there. After seeing Stevens in “Hedda Gabler” and as Lady Macbeth, Foster told her he wanted to write a play for her. They looked for quite a while for a project they were both equally enthused about until “Vivien” came along.
When Stevens presented the idea of the Hepburn play, it stimulated Foster.
“When I come across a story that rings a bell in me, that asks me to dramatize it in a one-character play, I start by reading a lot and looking for the inner conflicts that could make the project hold together onstage,” Foster wrote in an email.
“I soon came across the contradictions in (Hepburn’s) character and the long-denied issues with her family that made her grist for my mill. She represents a very American archetype: determined to win, determined to do good, and with an ego powerful enough to sweep under the rug certain very painful experiences from her past. Someone who has told the story of her life with very significant omissions,” Foster wrote.
Stevens has set the play on New Year’s Eve 1999. A 92-year-old Hepburn (she died when she was 96) reflects on her long, varied, adventurous life, which included relationships with billionaire Howard Hughes and actor Spencer Tracy, among others. There are several biographies of Hepburn, whom the American Film Institute named the greatest female star in Hollywood history, and they contain conflicting information about her life.
“My simple rule is that I don’t represent my character as doing in the real world something that she is known not to have done,” Foster wrote.
“I feel restrained from cherry-picking from things said about, for example, Kate’s sexuality; biographers have written wildly divergent tabloid-worthy things, which soon make me averse to trusting anything unique to their books unless I can be convinced by evidence from elsewhere,” Foster said.
Foster was in early rehearsals rewriting and making adjustments to the script with Stevens and Sander, who is here from New York to direct the work. Stevens will now use her craft and talent to make something live and breathe from the words on the page.
“I’m trying to incorporate some of her physical mannerisms, her vocal mannerisms and her attitude, which I think is probably the most important thing,” Stevens said.
“The research and my own self come together to create a three-dimensional, full-bodied person that the audience can suspend their disbelief with, and come on the journey of the story with me,” Stevens said.
Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120.
What: A one-woman show starring Janis Stevens as Katharine Hepburn, written by Rick Foster, directed by Peter Sander. Appropriate for high school age and older
When: Previews 6:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Nov. 7 and 2 p.m. Nov. 8. Opens 8 p.m. Nov. 8, continues through Dec. 14
Where: Pollock Stage, Sacramento Theatre Company, 1419 H St., Sacramento
Information: (916) 443-6722; www.sactheatre.org