Our grande dame takes a bow

Spotlight on: Luisa Sermol, Part 2 of 2. As she completes "The Humans" and prepares a wedding, a Portland icon gets ready for a big move

In the year 1996, Bill Clinton became the first Democratic president elected to a second term in 40 years. The English Patient won the Oscar for Best Picture. Deep Blue became the first computer to beat a world champion, defeating Gary Kasparov. The Dallas Cowboys won their last Super Bowl. And Luisa Sermol returned from New York to her adopted home, Portland, Oregon.

“We lived in my parents’ basement again — they’re kind of my transitional housing (laughs)– until Rick found some work.” A year or so after she and her then-husband, Rick Waldron, arrived from New York, her daughter, Isabella, was born. In addition to being a new mom, Sermol started looking around and doing outreach work: the Haven Project, pairing underserved teens with professional actors, directors, and writers; Artists Rep’s Actors-to-Go; her continuing work with Portland Actors Conservatory, the training ground for new professional actors. Through this work she started to meet other theater artists in town, such as Lorraine Bahr and Haven founder Gretchen Corbett. Corbett subsequently cast Sermol in her production of The Taming of the Shrew.

Another relationship also facilitated her re-integration into the Portland theater scene, superseding all the others and becoming not just one of Sermol’s most productive artistic partnerships but also among her most enduring friendships: Louanne Moldovan. They had met when Sermol was in town doing Midsummer.

“Oh, I know! Hairdresser!” remembers Moldovan, “That’s how we knew each other. Because I went to the same hairdresser as her, Valerium, unbeknownst to each other. I was in there one day bringing a flyer to one of my shows as I always did, and he said, “Oh my gosh, you have to meet Luisa. She’s an actress and was in New York.”

Sermol concurs. “Louanne pops in and Valerium had wanted me to meet her. She’s handing out all these flyers for The Wild Party and you know Louanne. There’s all this energy.” Moldovan picks up the story: “You know me, I’m like, “Tell me all about yourself! What are you doing! Blah blah blah! And that’s how we first met, was through the hairdresser.”

Luisa Sermol: The grande dame. Photo: Owen Carey

When Sermol returned to Portland, opportunities for an Equity actress in town were not what they are today. But she remembered that Cygnet, a literary theater company, specialized in stage readings, which opened up possibilities. She re-established contact with Moldovan, who ran the company and was all over the idea. “She did the John Sayles piece about the truck drivers that Teddy Roisum was in. That was what we did first. Then we did a holiday show that was a hoot. Lot of funny material and singing and everything.” And the two became fast friends, cemented by going through pregnancy at the same time. “We went through pre-natal yoga together,” says Moldovan. “We went to Ringside and had big steaks together when we were craving protein.” That friendship — and creative partnership — continues to this day. (The day after Sermol’s current show, Artists Rep’s The Humans, closes, Cygnet will do a reading of The Holiday Show, which will feature Sermol, at Tabor Bread.)

Perhaps the first big splash Sermol made on the Portland stage was in Terrance McNally’s The Master Class at Artists Repertory Theatre. Artists Rep’s Rosalie Tank had seen her in Tygre’s Heart’s The Taming of the Shrew and recommended her for the role. It was Sermol’s first time working with Jon Kretzu, a professional relationship that proved fecund over the years. “Jon was a lovely director. He trusted me with these beautiful roles. He’s a real artist with his vision of what he wanted to see in the end.” Sermol’s next show with Kretzu, for Artists Rep, sealed the deal. As Terry in Warren Leight’s Sideman, the alcoholic wife of a self-involved jazz musician, Sermol was a revelation. Duffy Epstein, who also appeared in the play, remembers: “ My first show with her after [she came back] was ART’s Sideman. Her acting had gotten so deep. She had such presence. She played this woman being driven insane by her jazz-trumpeter boyfriend drug user. She was just incredible. She blew the roof off the theatre.”

The theater community agreed. Sermol was rewarded with her first Drammy Award. That time in her life, however, was bittersweet. Terry’s marital trials mirrored Sermol’s real-life marriage falling apart. “Sideman was a hard one, because of going through the divorce and Terry’s journey. I was trying to become this thing that — I didn’t feel right in that skin. It took me a while to figure that out. And the heartbreak of not being able to make something work that you want to work. I had a small child, too. I don’t know how I did it all, now. There are so many logistical things. I had to figure out, how am I going to take care of her? Rick has always been a good father and helps take care of her but I wanted to know that I could take care of myself and my child.”

Balancing motherhood while creating excellent art was never going to be easy. But it was important, not just for her, but for her child. “It’s something about having a little girl. And not feeling in my skin. I didn’t want to be that person for her. I wanted to be totally myself and doing my passion — for her. It gave me a certain strength.” To that end came one excellent performance after another. She and Moldovan collaborated on Heather Raffo’s 9 Parts of Desire. “Sherry Lamoreaux brought us the script. It was so powerful just reading through it. This was a story for all women. It took a huge amount of trust to work on a one-woman show in this way. I don’t think I could have done it without Louanne. Emotionally, it was so much. And then that sense of responsibility to be so truthful to all of that.” Their friendship helped, but there was more to it than that. “She’s so bright and has such an astute eye — I think we have a language that we speak that not everyone can understand. She can see something flicker in me and I can see something flicker in her. If there’s a hesitancy or anything, ‘What? Lay it on me. What is it?’ I think that that’s a special gift.”

Another high point was Howard Brenton’s Bloody Poetry, produced by Moldovan’s company Cygnet and directed by Alana Byington, who remembers, “In the play as Mary travels with Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, her step-sister Claire and Dr. Polidori, she is the quiet center of the creative, politically radical, outlaw storm raging around her. Mary, having been brought up by radical parents and, therefore, not eager to romanticize the experience, had the advantage to pause, to consider, to contemplate consequences. In forming Mary in this production, Luisa took all of her formidable power, intelligence, and stature and was able to distill it into a breathtaking stillness and a will to resist being swept into the whirlwind. When the moment came in the play when all the damage and loss of their grand experiment became unbearable, that stillness cracked open and the inevitable, heartbreaking, eloquent agony and rage flowed forth. It is a performance I will never forget.”

Both of those performances led to awards, but there were many other fine performances as well, for many other companies. Aside from all the tragedy and Shakespeare, Sermol found a moment to have some fun too. Not surprisingly, Moldovan was directly involved.

“The other really, really fun show in my life was Withering Looks, which I did with Vana (O’Brien). That was one that Louanne found. I had just been through Master Class, Sideman, Touch, all these things that were emotionally (gestures) and I remember being like, ‘I need to do something funny.’

Moldovan concurs. “I have to say, with Withering Looks, because people don’t always think of [Sermol] as a comedic actress, right? I directed and re-directed; we did that show and then revised it and did it again maybe five different times and every single time we worked on it I was laughing my head off. Between Vana and Luisa I could throw out the silliest idea and they would leap on it like rabid dogs. It’s like a piffle, but in their hands — Vana and Luisa were so aptly suited to it. Not just funny but heart-achy and uproarious all at the same time. I would just sit in awe of that.”

It’s tough to make a living doing theater in Portland. It’s even tougher when there’s a child at stake. Sermol knew she had to do something. And she had an idea what the “something” was. Like her mother, she could teach. Acting. “I had been adjunct teaching at Lewis and Clark and PCC and things. But adjunct is so precarious that I knew I needed something else.” Sermol turned her sights toward getting another masters degree, and went back to school. At the same time, she was building her dream house in southwest Portland for her and Isabella. To accomplish all this, theater had to go on the back burner for a while. And so it did. She went to school, got her other masters, got certified, and started teaching in public schools. “People thought I had stopped. I hadn’t stopped.”

Break taken, house built, Sermol got back to kicking ass and taking names artistically. Along the way, she established another seminal partnership, with ex-boyfriend, Antonio Sonera. “We dated for five years. We didn’t work together during that time.”

Sermol and her daughter, Isabella Waldron, at the post-opening night party for “Boleros for the Disenchanted” in 2012. Milagro Theatre photo

Their first project together was Boleros for the Disenchanted at El Teatro Milagro. Because of their romantic history, Sermol had a little trepidation going in. “There was some tension in the room to begin with before we found our way about what was okay. We hashed it out. It’s tough when you’ve been with somebody to know where the boundary is. I didn’t want that to come into the room but it’s hard to separate that. Tony appreciates me as an actor. There is that feeling that it does open up a way for me to have communication that is more interactive. I don’t have that built-in politeness that one might have with a director that you don’t know coming in from out of town. It’s more intimate than that. You can have an easier conversation about things.”

Sonera agrees. “When you work with any really talented artist — Victor Mack, Teddy Schulz — for the first time, you’re nervous and you don’t want to make mistakes. Luckily, there was a comfort level there because we’d known each other for so long. So that gave us a leg up, in a way.” Once they figured out the sweet spot where their personal relationship ended and their professional collaboration began, magic happened.

“There was a beautiful moment in rehearsal,” remembers Sonera, “where the two young people (Nicole Accuardi and Logan Loughmiller) leave with their baby and it’s the last time. We’re in rehearsal. All we have are chairs set up as the couch, something marked off as a door. They’re supposed to leave and she’s supposed to close the door. In the script it says, ‘She turns around and looks toward where her husband is. Lights out.’ I said to her that I was interested in seeing what happened if she explored the room after she closes the door. ‘What happens when you realize that there’s no longer a young person in your life, that all you’re stuck with now for the rest of your days is this man who’s bedridden. What does that feel like? There’s no time limit. Shut the door and see what happens.’ They do the scene. She pretends to close the door, which doesn’t exist. She turns around, she’s already got tears in her eyes. She walks down and she touches the couch. And it’s just chairs — stupid old rehearsal chairs — but she’s stroking them as though she’s known them her entire life. She picks up — it’s not even a picture, it’s a piece of paper that’s supposed to be a picture of the baby and it’s almost like a moan that came through when she looked at it. I let her go for five minutes and everybody in the room was bawling. I finally go, ‘Okay, that’s the right direction’ (laughs). In my head I’m going, ‘How the fuck did she do that?’”

Moldovan has some idea of how. “I really, really appreciate her quest for truth. A very organic part of her process is finding that real person in the dialogue, the story and the relationships. Who is that real human being? What it takes is a really rigorous process and she leaps into it the second she knows she’s gonna be doing this. She reads everything she can. So there’s all the thorough research. Lots of actors do that, real good, hard-working actors. On top of that, she will question and she will leave no stone unturned. Consequently, it’s a a holistic delivery of a human being on stage.”

The next time Sermol and Sonera teamed up was for Badass Theatre Company, in Johnna Adams’ brutal Sans Merci. The two had settled on doing Gidion’s Knot but the rights had already been snatched up. Adams’ agent suggested the lesser known but perhaps more devastating play. “It was one of those things, as an actor, Sans Merci, without mercy, it was pretty relentless for what we had to go through as actors.”

Both as a natural consequence of working on such an intimate production and a necessity to create the work, Sermol developed a special bond with her castmates in Sans Merci, Jahnavi Alyssa and Jessica Tidd. Sonera recalls, “Right from the very get-go, Luisa was really good at treating them as equals. These two young actresses, she treated them as though they were veterans. Really professional, really kind, really caring, really loving with them. I don’t think I personally did very much, in terms of direction, for that play. I think those three women were a force to be reckoned with.”

Sermol (left) with Jessica Tidd in “Sans Merci.” Photo: Russell J Young

For Sermol, that bond was more than useful, it was essential. “What I have to call upon, if we’re talking in this particular case about my daughter — is my daughter and doing my ‘as if’ stuff with my daughter. That’s a weird place to live.”

But she did it — because that’s what she does. And, as Boleros for the Disenchanted before it, Sans Merci led to a Drammy Award. The awards, in the big scheme of things, don’t mean much, perhaps. They’re meaningful for theater artists because their art — unlike so many other disciplines — is written in the sand. Then a wind comes and blows it away and only the people who saw it remember the performance at all.

But what drives Sermol, as what drives most actors, is something different altogether. She’s had any number of striking performances; Rebecca in Ashes to Ashes (Profile), Kathleen in Touch (Artists Rep), Josie in A Moon for the Misbegotten (CoHo), to name but a few. What drives her on and on to the next performance, to the next creation, is something all actors recognize. When remembering Sans Merci, Sermol had this to offer: “In that play there’s a — I don’t know if I can remember the line but it’s talking about one of the Keats poems and it talks about how the poetry is dark and promotes this sense of sadness. In that it does that, it creates humanity because we have that sense. For me as an actor, that’s why I go to those dark places. Hopefully, it creates that in other people and for the people who are seeing it that night; that’s the connection to humanity. It’s hard to find with all this technology and all the other crap in our lives. A lot of people like to go to the theater to be entertained and to laugh and have a good time. And there’s humanity in that. But the humanity of being moved by something deeply, which is hard on actors to have to go to that place — that’s my job. That’s how I feel of most service as a human being. To be able to create that, in whatever size house it is, that’s what I have to offer.”

And that’s what she’s done for the past twenty years, her job. That’s what she’s offered us, her heart and soul and her hard fucking work. And for that she’s earned the respect of a community. “She’s epic,” Sonera says.1[-ew00 “I look back at that Sideman performance. Sarah Lucht was vying for that role in Sideman. She got called back a second, third and fourth time. Of course, Luisa got it. There were a couple of other actresses who were doing the same but Sarah was devastated. Months go by, the play opens, Sarah comes to see the show. After she saw it, Sarah came up to me and said, to me, ‘I couldn’t have done that. They cast the right person.’ Epic.”

Lucht, for her part, adds, “I adore her as a human being. Her kindness and warmth — unparalleled.“

Her words are mirrored by Duffy Epstein. “She was in my very first show,” he reminisces. “I just love her so much. I think she’s such an amazing person. She always brings it. Always.”

“She’s one of those icons,” says Moldovan, “that actors admire and look up to and appreciate and respect. They can go see her work and learn from it in addition to enjoying it as art. It’s like a lesson, a living, breathing lesson in art. And there’s no sense of status. She’ll do whatever feels meaningful and fun. Like Withering Looks is a lot of fun and different. It’s not that, ‘I’ll only work with so-and-so’; that doesn’t exist for her.”

Jahnavi Alyssa sees the same thing.“I guess the last thing that really comes to mind is her humility. I so  desperately wanted to put her up on a pedestal (and rightly so). But every time we would interact she would very gently but firmly, with zero effort, remind me that she is nothing more than human in the most glorious of ways. It’s one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in recent years, to remember that being simply human is one of the best possible things we can try to be.“

Lorraine Bahr as Queen Elizabeth I Sermol as Mary, Queen of Scots in 2015’s “Mary Stuart,” produced by Cygnet Productions and Northwest Classical Theatre Company. Photo: Jack Wells

Now it’s time for a new adventure. The house is sold. Her path laid out. Isabella has grown up and left the house. “She’s a creative writing major focusing on playwrighting. She’s put out four CDs of her music. She’s turned out pretty perfectly. I think her father and I have been able to balance it with her so that she’s got a good, responsible head on her shoulders and she’s very creative.”

Naturally, there’s some nervousness. “Going down to the Bay area, first of all, there are not a lot of parts. Not as much as for every other age range. And when there are — here, I have the benefit of being of the small pool of women of a certain age. As much as we have to vie for whatever there is, we do and we know that. In the Bay area, there already is that. I’m going to be coming in for a small amount of roles with a pool that’s already been established. So, we’ll see.” She has a good man, with a good job, and a new marriage (to Tom Gough, on Dec. 29) to keep her occupied while she finds her theater legs in the Bay Area. And she has a wealth of talent, skill and experience to see her through. That will have to be enough.

At any rate, she insists that this is not goodbye forever. “I don’t want to give it a final curtain. It’s a new act. Portland’s been very good to me. It’s my family. Even though you can go away from your family, your family’s always there. You come back to your family.”

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Yesterday: Part One of Two. Birth of an Artist.

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Sermol wrote her own piece on her decision to relocate, Luisa Sermol Bids Farewell with One Last Willie Wonka, which ArtsWatch reprinted on May 7, 2017.

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