Any discussion of the best stage actors in the Portland metro area has to include the name of Diane Kondrat in the mix. For a decade or so now she has been a shining light of versatility, craft, and passion on Portland stages.
Kondrat has done everything from John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt this past winter at Lakewood, to Sam Dinkowitz’s madcap maelstrom of mayhem and mischief, Spectravagasm. She’s ready, willing and able to do it all, and she shows no signs of slowing down.
Kondrat is a whirlwind in conversation, as multifaceted and entertaining in real life as when she’s performing on stage. We talked over Zoom, and even in that dampening virtual reality the forward thrust of her investment in her art and her life is palpable. She has several voices, personas and ages, and when engaged in acting as shop talk, she’s likely to use them all.
This terrific artist is now appearing in one of the great parts in one of the great plays by one of the seminal playwrights of 20th century theatre, as Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. Happy Days is being produced by the Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative, directed Patrick Walsh and presented at the old Victoria’s Secret space in the Lloyd Center mall (Kondrat suggests you enter at the Northeast 13th and Multnomah entrance).
The show features the inimitable Chris Porter as Winnie’s taciturn husband, Willie. But if you know the play, you know it’s Winnie’s show, with what amounts to essentially a ninety-minute monologue in a world as strange and alien as any you’re likely to encounter in the world of theater.
Kondrat hails from Newark, New Jersey, but lived in Bloomington, Indiana, where her husband, novelist Tony Ardizzone (Oregon Literary Fellowship recipient in 2022) taught for many years. They came to the Pacific Northwest to be closer to their children: Nick, a lead writer for Bungie (yes, that Bungie, of Halo fame! — I almost fainted, but managed to keep my cool), who lives in Seattle, and Anna, a Montessori teacher who lives in Portland.
One thing Kondrat has in her favor in approaching Happy Days is that this is not her first time playing Winnie. “When I did this play before – fifteen years ago – my acting teacher directed it; we rehearsed for six months.” As much as possible, she has sought to she lessons she learned before in this iteration. But with the truly great playwrights — and Beckett is certainly one of those — there are always more depths to plumb. “There’s always something more there,” says Kondrat. “You dig and and you dig and then it’s like, ‘Woah, it’s that!’”
Kondrat is a Meisner actor. But listening to her, technique is paramount, but not static. With a playwright like Beckett, who leaves so many questions unanswered, the rigor of the artist is that much more necessary — but not rigid — and precision is that much more essential.
“For Winnie,” says Kondrat, “I have to create a storyline to know what’s going on. It’s like creating a support for Beckett’s words that you have to make sure goes along with what he says; that doesn’t ever go opposite ten pages later when he turns everything upside down.”
There are times when the strangeness of the world, the unique logic of Beckett’s mise en scène, can mislead actors. “I think for some people the poetics and the lack of linear concepts will lead you astray to think that, ‘Woooaaaahhh, I can just do whatever’,” says Kondrat, “Oh no. You. Do. Everything. Very clearly. Both Patrick Walsh and I have been wanting to nail specificity down so that the play is active and there’s nothing squishy, nothing vague about it.”
Kondrat also calls upon her previous experience with clown technique. “Beckett loved clowns. He gives you gestures that you have to follow; it’s in the contract. You have to do the gestures he gives you — and he gives you a shit ton. And they’re always right. (laughs) I tried to fool around with them a little bit and it’s like, ‘Nope. He’s right.’
“Sometimes it almost feels like a stop-action way of being. I learned that from a wonderful mime I worked with, oh, 35 years ago on Orgasmo Adulto Escapes from the Zoo and she was working with me on, ‘It’s exactly this … and not that. You have this moment completely and then go on. Because my tendency is to squish them together because (in her faux insecure voice that all actors have) ‘I know nobody’s really watching me or thinks I’m funny so I’ll just move on to the next thing.’ And she would be like, ‘No, you have to stop, complete this action, and then do the next thing.’ I find those things happening in the script in Act I of Happy Days. Of course, in Act II I ain’t got any hands, so that takes care of that.”
How does one keep the language alive when you have 90 minutes of text? “There’s a tool called Paraphrase that I use,” says Kondrat, “which is a way to rehearse your script without wearing out the lines. If your line is ‘The horse jumped over the fence.’ If you’re paraphrasing you change it to ‘The mare leapt over the barrier.’ The discipline is to stay right next to the line, not more or less than is on the page.
“You never do it when you’re trying to get off book. You always do it with the book right in front of you. Eventually, when you get back to the actual line, your brain is so happy. I’m trying to understand the lines without wearing it out, and still give myself, ‘Oh, here’s another way to do it.’”
Then there is the process of finding the places where the actor and the character meet — and where they are different.
“Diane has to — not that different from Winnie, really — fight against thinking everything’s in the toilet, every day,” says Kondrat. “I share that with her. The last time I did this show, my director kept me very light. Not as smart. My Winnie now is smarter, more of a philosopher. Patrick lets me go way down into a dark place, but he doesn’t let me stay there (laughs). He says, ‘You can fall in but you gotta come right back up.’ Not even make the decision to come back up.
“That’s the difference between Winnie and me, right? When Diane goes into a dark place, I have to go, ‘Alright, alright, alright. Say these prayers, think these thoughts, go do some yoga, go for a walk, for god’s sake, do something!’ Winnie falls in the hole, then ‘Pop!’ she’s right back up, like a noodle in a swimming pool. There’s no thinking about it. I have had to figure out a character – and thank God I did – that would have that kind of reflexive optimism.”
This becomes important because, like Winnie herself, the actor has to necessarily fight against Beckett’s famously grim view of humanity and the awful situations he typically puts his characters in, where often they live in trash cans, wheelchairs, or buried in an inexorable mound of dirt.
And whereas in her own life Kondrat has her husband and children to keep her going through the dark phases, Winnie’s husband Willie (“Chris Porter, my Willie, is so funny,” says Kondrat) doesn’t have much to say, is useless in helping with her predicament, and she has no children.
So, what is the source of Winnie’s ‘reflexive optimism’? “Willie, words, and a little bit of music is all she’s got,” says Kondrat, “She can’t see anything. There’s no scenery. It’s hot as hell. It’s not like sunrise and sunset she gets to see. The only thing that wakes her up and puts her to sleep is the bell. It’s just constant time of stasis. Her imagination. Memories, she has, she’ll go back to sometimes.
“And, of course — what am I thinking? — the bag. Who knows what treasures? What comforts? All the little things she has in her bag. And her umbrella. She has stuff in her bag to distract her for a moment. As I play her and play with her I wonder why she’s not doing that all day, right? Making the comb, talk to the brush, that kind of shit — because she’s in so much trouble.”
On top of everything else, Winnie is a physically demanding role. Besides the fact that the one character does 90-plus percent of the talking, “there’s something that makes you nervous about being in the mound,” says Kondrat. “There is a fear that comes when I’m up there that doesn’t come when I’m running lines here at home. There is something about being in the mound that makes you feel powerless to help yourself.
“Winnie’s got this line, ‘My neck is hurting me. My neck is hurting me.’ Yes, because in Act II, you’re trying so hard to communicate and you only have your head. So all that energy is coming up, the back of your nervous system, up into here. Let me tell ya — Wow! I’m usually not tired after a rehearsal — or a production. I’m usually like, ‘Yeah!’ I usually feel great. Winnie kicks me to the curb, I gotta say.”
Another thing that Kondrat shares with her Winnie is her love of classics. When talking to her you can feel how immediate, how present, Happy Days still is for her. Why this play right now? “Beckett,” she says, “is saying to us in what seems to me to be a very dangerous mass-extinction event is – ‘Yeah, too bad.’ What does Winnie say? ‘Ah well. What does it matter? That is what I always say.’”
- Company: Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative
- Where: Lloyd Center Mall, in the old Victoria’s Secret space
- When: Aug. 10-Sept 9
- Ticket Information: Here