March 1623, 2000
Bald and Beautiful
photo: Maria Kotsikoros
by Toby Zinman
Note: Randy Danson is a New York actress (she was briefly married to Ted Danson when they were both starting out and kept the name) who has made a career of powerful classical roles: Phaedra, Clytemnestra, the Duchess of Malfi, Lady Macbeth, as well as contemporary work like Tony Kushners Slavs and Craig Lucas Blue Window. She was awarded an Obie for Sustained Excellence.
Remember when bald was for old guys, over-the-hill types like your Uncle Max? And then bald got to be for young guys, but nasty skinhead types. Then bald got to be fashionable and kindly (the Dali Lama crowd) and then bald got to be fashionable and macho (shaved heads are everywhere on TV). But women, even if they no longer believe that hair is their "crowning glory," tend to try to hang onto it, fussing with it in various time-consuming and expensive ways, unless theyre Myra Bazell or Sinead OConnor and theyre going for streamlined and fierce.
So it was with considerable curiosity that I asked Randy Danson, who is currently bald, and neither fierce nor young nor streamlined, how it felt to have shaved her head for the central role of Dr. Vivian Bearing in the upcoming production of Wit at the Philadelphia Theatre Company. The role requires this radical preparation because Dr. Bearing is dying of ovarian cancer and has lost her hair to chemotherapy. Randy Danson used to have long, light brown hair; she also had some surprising and interesting and eloquent responses to my question.
Randy Danson: It was much simpler and happier than I expected it to be I had a while to think about it before I did it, and I confess there was part of me that was really jazzed about it. Actually the day we shaved my head I was fully expecting to be a little shocked, weepy maybe Ive cried over a bad haircut, havent you? but I just didnt. It was kind of exciting and liberating. The man who did it has been cutting my hair since I was 20-something when I walked into the salon he said, "Oh my God, Randy, I have hard nipples." People said, "Couldnt you just wear a bald cap?" But I think you have a certain responsibility to the people you represent on stage Im not going to stand up there with a piece of rubber on my head and say, "I feel your pain."
Toby Zinman: Are you wearing a wig outside?
RD: I have one but I havent worn it. For a while it was too cold to go without a hat its amazing how much colder it is without hair, somebody passing by creates a cold breeze. But the first time I felt, "OK, this is old, I dont want to play anymore," was when I went to the flower show and I was indoors with hundreds of strangers for hours and at the end of that time I felt, "OK, this is boring." I got hundreds of averted glances; it was weird to be remarked [about], over and over without any contact.
TZ: Do you think people assumed you were a cancer victim?
RD: I dont know if they even thought through it that far. Its just odd to see a bald woman; they want to look, but know its not polite to look theyre embarrassed.
TZ: Do you think its because bald only works if youre young?
RD: I think the reverse, that this is the middle of my life; how great to start over. Just lose it. Cut it off and start again. Because in the middle of a womans life everything does change, so it seems so appropriate. Im sure I wouldnt have had the guts or even the interest to do this on my own. Once we finish the show Im moving Ive lived in the same apartment in New York for 20 years now so its just feels like everything is new.
TZ: Let me ask you about the other extreme physical demand the role makes: nudity. [At the end of the play, Dr. Vivian Bearing stands spotlit and naked.]
RD: I havent done it in this production yet, but I have had the granddaddy maybe that should be the grandmother of naked experiences. About eight years ago, in San Francisco, I played the Duchess of Malfi in a production directed by Robert Woodruff, a very cutting-edge sort of guy. The big execution scene was to be a total humiliation for the Duchess, so I was stripped, tied up with black rubber ropes, had blood poured over me, and all this happened at the edge of the stage in full white light, and with the house lights up. And after that I was put on a metal desk and left there in full view for the last half-hour of the play. At the time I was 42 and not a work-out-every-day 42 either so, there you go. You cant get more naked than that. But, you know, its like jumping into cold water: Its much worse in the anticipation.
TZ: Vanity doesnt enter into it at all in that scene anyway: Its a soul unclothed. But it must be hard to play a character who has so little "back-story" with so little in her life but what we see, who discovers that "being smart" isnt enough.
RD: She [Vivian] lives from the neck up; I dont believe Ive ever played a role that was so completely a-sensual. She never ever talks about how anything feels, smells, tastes; when shes asked medical questions about what the onset of her disease felt like, this extremely articulate woman finds her language just falls apart. If you pay no attention to something for 50 years of your life, its going to insist on your noticing it.
TZ: This suggests a causal relation: If you neglect your body youll be attacked by it. Do you think thats so?
RD: I do. I dont think its punitive, its not about blame, its just true. The yin and yang circle has to be completed, so if you live only at one extreme, you eventually need to go so far to get to the other side. Thats why moderation is the key to peace.
TZ: Given your work in classical roles, and given your voice, which has such presence, how does this role connect with those the Duchess, Phaedra, Clytemnestra, etc.
RD: The connection is obviously in that this is a language-heavy piece; the classical training and experience is really necessary, since theres just so much stuff to wade through. Since shes a professor of literature, a lot of the old-fashioned stuff is necessary: Can you parse a sentence, do you understand a parenthetical phrase, what happens when you elide a syllable that kind of understanding of the mechanics of language.
TZ: I think great plays that are about difficult subjects have to teach the audience what it needs to know about that subject as it goes along, so that well "get" it. Stoppards Arcadia does that with chaos mathematics, just as Wit does that with Donnes poetry. It must be interesting to do that to an audience then they leave with even more than the experience of the play.
RD: I think one of the great pleasures of this play is that you get to understand in a survey sort of way, obviously something that most people havent had any connection with. As an actor the fun of that happens all the time you get to learn little bits about so many different things. Its like forever being at the buffet table of life.
Philadelphia Theatre Companys production of Wit runs March 17-April 16 at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey St., $24-$38, 215-569-7900.