Interview with Megalyn Echikunwoke

Education Dramaturg Ted Sod spoke with actor Megalyn Echikunwoke about her work on Apologia.

Megalyn Echikunwoke. Photo by Stephanie Diani

Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated? When and why did you decide you wanted to become an actor? Did you have any teachers who had a profound impact on you?
Megalyn Echikunwoke: I was born in Spokane, Washington. I left there when I was very young and was raised on the Navajo Native American reservation in northeastern Arizona, where I attended public high school until I was 14. Then I moved to Los Angeles. I got my first acting job when I was still young and continued schooling at Santa Monica High School. The Navajo reservation didn’t provide for many arts education opportunities at the time, but I did all I could. In primary school, I was in choir with Mr. Aguirre, and he took an interest in my talent by giving me the lead parts to sing. He insisted that I learn piano so that I could accompany myself, but my mom couldn't afford the lessons. I was in band, and I played the alto saxophone and went around the region competing. I also I did a lot of athletics, excelling in track and cross country. I think I did athletics because I was good at it, and I enjoyed it, and there wasn’t a whole lot else to do. Somehow, I always knew I was meant to entertain and perform, and I had a whole fantasy world built around it. Obviously, I was driven by music and I always took any opportunity to perform. I won my elementary school talent show singing a Mariah Carey song a capella. I had an English teacher in 6th grade who understood the need for arts education and particularly my passions, and she encouraged me and my friends to get together on weekends to produce radio shows. I think we tried to put on a play once, but there were a lot of challenges and not much support. It wasn’t until junior high school in band class that I found a poster on a wall advertising a fine arts academy’s summer programs. I applied for a scholarship and got it, and through that program I really got introduced to the type of arts education that I so craved. I participated in a three-week theatre arts program, and I was one of a few students selected to be featured doing a monologue as part of the cumulative performance. I performed a piece from the Tennessee Williams play Summer and Smoke. After that performance, I was approached by a man who would become my manager for the next 13 years and who helped me launch my career.

TS: Why did you choose to play the role of Claire in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s Apologia? How is this character relevant to you? What do you think the play is about?
ME: When I read Apologia, I was taken with the way Alexi was exploring the different sides of feminism and the eternal existential struggle for women between work and home, passion and duty. I was also struck by how Alexi was able to comment on the charged ideological, political, and cultural issues surrounding the topic and somehow manage to make it so darkly hysterical and relatable. That is a sign of great talent, I think. This is the type of writing that gets me excited as an actor. Claire is relevant to me because I am obviously an actress as is she, and I have had to endure the type of criticism she gets from Kristin. I’ve also had to make tough decisions regarding the economics of being an artist. Alexi poses the question of how an artist can make a living and keep their integrity, and still remain competitive and relevant in a brutally unfair business. Claire’s story and point of view are very important parts of the whole story of being an artist, as well as being a very funny commentary on the absurdity of it all. Claire is a very dynamic character in this story about complex people in a complex world. And what I love most about the writing is that it doesn't shy away from saying that two things can be true at once, and things aren’t so black and white in life. It also seems to be saying that choosing to follow your passion can be a terribly dark and isolated place.

TS: This play tackles the idea that some women are vilified if they prioritize their career over being a mother. It also suggests that Claire has a very tenuous and competitive relationship with Kristin, the central character in the play, portrayed by Stockard Channing. Any preliminary thoughts on or insights into either subject as you are about to begin rehearsals?
ME: Apologia is a play that is taking on many iterations of feminism. I am particularly interested in exploring why the fundamentally competitive spirit that women have towards each other never really seems to fall away in even the most righteous and enlightened women. “Sisterhood” always seems to have its caveats. Alexi has masterfully dissected these ideas, and I am hoping it will be very comical to watch.

TS: Can you talk about the relationship between Claire and Simon, Kristin’s son? Do you see Claire as Simon’s surrogate mother? What thoughts are you willing to share at this point in your process about Claire and Simon?
ME: Rehearsal hasn’t started yet, but I can say that I do think a dynamic exists in this case where both of Kristin’s sons, Simon and Peter, are in state of arrested development and probably searching for a mother in their partners. I don’t think it is an uncommon theme in relationships particularly of a certain generation. And it goes the other way as well when some women are looking for fathers. I’m excited to explore both sides.

Megalyn Echikunwoke. Photo by Jenny Anderson.

TS: How will you collaborate with Alexi Kaye Campbell on his play, which is new to NYC audiences? What type of questions do you suspect you’ll ask him about Claire?
ME: I think each time you work on a new project the collaboration is specific to that. I’m hoping that Alexi will be able to give me insight into his inspiration for the character of Claire and fill in any blanks that I may have missed in the preparation process. That information will be vitally important to the performance.

TS: What do you look for from a director when collaborating on a play?
ME: I am always grateful when a director challenges and encourages me to stretch. One who can understand where I am strong and can encourage me to go further—one who intuitively knows where I am weak and need support and guidance. I want to know where my blind spots are, so that I can address them and grow as an artist. It’s always nice when a supportive, objective voice can help you understand your own talent better.

TS: Are there any roles other than Claire that you are eager to play on stage?
ME: Oh gosh, yes, too many to name. I do have a dream to do an original musical about the life of Josephine Baker. I also always thought a musical about Cleopatra would be fun. I’d love to play Maria in West Side Story and Roxie Hart in Chicago. I’d be interested in a modern adaptation of My Fair Lady in which I’d play Eliza. I could go on and on! I love formidable female characters who do a lot of dancing and singing to get their points across.

TS: What keeps you inspired as an artist?
ME: Music, travel, dance, literature. I never stop moving and reading and subjecting myself to scrutiny and being uncomfortable and ultimately keeping myself in a perpetual state of being a student. I have never been bored in my life!

TS: Many students will read this interview and will want to know what it takes to be a successful actress—what advice can you give young people who want to act?
ME: First, don’t let people project their ignorance about your abilities onto you. If you are going to do it, make absolutely sure that it is something you cannot live without and that it is authentic to who you are and not about personal vanity. And then knife fight your way through the bullshit and never give up.

Apologia is playing at the Laura Pels Theatre through December 16, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2018-2019 Season, Apologia

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