Drama Queen

The amazing Jodi Kellogg changes her parts more often than most people change their socks. Who is she this time?

For the past month, Jodi Kellogg has been going beautifully to pieces three nights a week and once on Sunday afternoons. The scene is always the same: Midway through the second act of Park Square Theatre's production of The Heiress, Kellogg's character, the guileless ingénue Catherine Sloper, waits in a darkened house for her beau to arrive and spirit her away from her glacially indifferent father and the stultifying confines of Washington Square society. As midnight passes and Catherine realizes that she has been jilted, the blood drains out of Kellogg's cheeks. Every muscle in her face works through the arc from disbelief to anger and despair. Finally, her angular features dissolve into a mask of inconsolable grief and she collapses to the stage in a heap of lace and tears. In the hands of a lesser actor, such a melodramatic flop could ring as clumsy or false. When Kellogg falls, it is devastating. In her final preview performance, a woman in the second row burst into tears and wept quietly until long after the house lights had come up.

Kellogg, who always watches the audience from the corner of her eye, noticed the sobbing lady. Oh, honey, she thought, this must be really close to home for you. "I'm drawn to characters with a lot of pain," Kellogg explained during a break in an audition the other afternoon. "Not because I have a lot of pain, but because I want people to understand it. There's something wrong with our world--people can't understand that someone could be in so much pain."

A woman for all seasons: The relentlessly prolific Jodi Kellogg in a handful of roles with Park Square Theatre
A woman for all seasons: The relentlessly prolific Jodi Kellogg in a handful of roles with Park Square Theatre

One might imagine that the liberal distribution of pathos on such a regular basis would leave Kellogg a bit frayed around the edges. "It's always a risk to cry like that. One of my friends came to the last preview show. Afterwards, he said, 'That's the most naked I've ever seen you.' I think he's actually seen me naked, so that was pretty amazing. It's not like The Cryptogram, though, where I was literally having a nervous breakdown onstage every night. That was like 64 minutes of Mamet beating you over the head with an emotional stick."

On good nights, Kellogg can immerse herself so completely in her character that she later cannot later recall the most mundane details of her performance--she calls it "white blindness," after a phrase coined by director John Clark Donahue. On the best nights, she is wired with nervous energy for hours afterward and has trouble sleeping. It is a temporary rapture, and, like everything in Kellogg's life, a balance between exhilaration and exhaustion.

Jodi Kellogg, age 39, is a relentlessly prolific performer. Since May of 1998, she has acted in ten plays for five theater companies. In addition to her dramatic turn in The Heiress, she recently finished concurrent runs in 15 Head's The Mountain Giants and Ten Thousand Things' The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Before that, she played a half-lunatic war widow in Park Square's Taking Sides, the perennially malevolent Nurse Ratched in Fifty Foot Penguin's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and a leather-clad Goth prophetess in Outward Spiral's Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love. She is currently preparing for her newest role, a befuddled businesswoman named Belinda in Park Square's production of the farcical metaplay, Noises Off!

The profusion of theater in the Cities--there might be 75 or perhaps 100 semiactive companies in any given year--has created a class of part-time professional actors. Yet perhaps none of these performers can match Kellogg's staggering output, season after season; the number of characters she has played would give pause to someone with multiple-personality disorder. In a sense, the diversity and volume of Kellogg's work is representative of the freewheeling independent theater scene. A playwright, a director, and a half-dozen Jodi Kelloggs could keep the Shubert Theater booked for a year.

 

A few days after the opening of The Heiress, Kellogg was back at Park Square to read for a part in Lisa Loomer's The Waiting Room, which is scheduled to make its area premiere there next season. In the theater's atrium, the play's title seemed deliciously apropos: A handful of actors were lounging about on green cushions making small talk or flipping casually through their scripts. Kellogg was dressed for the audition in a black sundress and matching stockings. Her dark hair was pulled loosely back to display large, intelligent eyes and a wide and ready smile. A casting agent once told her that if she ever hoped to get work in television or film, she would have to get her teeth whitened and would have to "do something" about her nose. "But I've never been the jeune première type," Kellogg said with a wry grin. "I guess she thought she was helping me out, but you really can't take it personally."

The jeune première type often connotes a woman who is pretty enough not to be upstaged by scenery yet insubstantial enough not to upstage her male peers. Kellogg's charms are more refined. "I think of myself as a character actress," she says. "I'm always stretched."

Indeed, Kellogg is regarded by many directors as the best character actress in the Twin Cities, and is cast accordingly. "The actor's job is to communicate the ephemeral," explains Richard Cook, who directs Kellogg in The Heiress. "There are actors who are performers. With them, it's all out there and it's entertaining but glib. Jodi's not boxed in by psychology or a particular emotive range. It's like she can transform how she feels about herself."

Asking an actor to explain her craft can be like asking a fish how to breathe underwater: Understanding the mechanics isn't the same as performing the act. "I don't really do the Method acting thing where you imagine what the character had for breakfast," she says. "I don't care what anyone had for breakfast. I'm asking, 'What are they going through at that moment?'" Once I figure out where a character needs to be, it's actually quite easy to get there. It's not some trick of acting. It's just about being there in the character's mind, spirit, and body. To be a good actor, you need to experience emotions like a child. If you have to feel grief, you have to go somewhere very painful."

Kellogg's particular talent for selling herself onstage is widely recognized. Less so, however, is her longevity. "What's great about Jodi," says Tim Lee, who directed her in Outward Spiral's Unidentified Human Remains, "is that she always finds something new in every role. Like in my play, she was playing this psychic dominatrix and she had the idea of lighting candles onstage and then blowing them out each time a character dies. Most actors don't think like that. And actors who have been around as long as she [has] usually get lazy."

"Nonunion acting is a different world," continues Lee. "It's hard just keeping a roof over your head and you never make much money. Jodi is one of a small group of actors who take their acting jobs first and their day jobs second."

Indeed, actors who don't snare equity contracts with the few larger companies like the Guthrie rarely make a livable wage for what amounts to more than a full-time job. Most take part-time work during the day. Many give up. For actresses, the competition to land an equity role can be especially fierce. "There are just fewer parts for women," Kellogg explains. "Dramatic literature happens to be really male-heavy." Although she says she would probably take a contract if offered one, she is also concerned that it might limit her choice of roles.

Kellogg holds a part-time office job at a small St. Paul asset-management company but still has trouble making the rent and sometimes finds herself looking around her south Minneapolis apartment for furniture that she might be able to sell. For her theater work, she earns around $500 a show, and somewhere between $5,000 and $7,500 annually--by a rough calculation, around the same sum that Julia Roberts gets paid to blink.

No actor goes into her profession expecting indigence and anonymity as a reward for her troubles. And indeed, Kellogg grew up with eyes full of the romance and easy dreams of Hollywood. Kellogg's mother was a devotee of the silver screen, and particularly Vivien Leigh. She'd even planned to name her baby after the film belle, but while she was unconscious in the maternity ward, her husband, a television engineer and apparently less of a fan, vetoed the idea. Growing up in Milwaukee in the late Sixties and early Seventies, Kellogg gravitated from Hollywood's beautiful leading ladies to brassy comedians like Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett. She grew to admire, in particular, Burnett's gift for caricature. With Burnett and Lucy to guide her, Kellogg grew up as something of a ham, sandwiched between her mother's infatuation with the romance of Hollywood and her father's technical bent. Her stage debut was an acting stretch: She played a boy in a local Christmas pageant.

Kellogg eventually happened back upon the stage during college. During a perfunctory premed career, she decided to do another play for kicks. "I hate to think how horrible it was. But being onstage...I know it was exciting. I've never had stage fright, so I wasn't nervous. I knew people would believe the character rather than thinking it was just Jodi."

After bouncing around the country for a few years and getting a degree in theater and classical studies, Kellogg moved to the Twin Cities in 1985. Though she moved on a whim and the advice of an ex-boyfriend, she was also following some practical concerns. There has never been much money in regional theater, but she also realized that for a nonequity actor there were more choices in a smaller market.

Steady work has also taken a toll. "It's a big part of the problems in my relationships," Kellogg explains. "Most of it takes place in the evening and you end up missing a lot of things. Like I missed my brother's wedding because I had to do a show....You have a responsibility to the cast and the audience, but it's hard to get people you love to understand that.

"There were years that I drew back to make room for other things, but I realized I was miserable making other people happy. The last five years, I've been very serious about it...after my third husband left me." Kellogg's voice tightens a bit, and it is briefly possible to hear a trace of the dissembling and disillusioned Catherine Sloper. The moment passes quickly, though; Kellogg is finished with this character.

 

At 6:00 p.m. Kellogg's latest Park Square audition ended and the actors began trailing out of the theater and into the street. The remains of a June afternoon were glowing on the upper-floor windows of the office building across the street. Kellogg slipped around the corner for a bite to eat at the Great Waters Brewing Co., where she is on a first-name basis with the manager and most of the waitstaff. She lit a cigarette, balanced it on the lip of an ashtray, and left it there to smolder. "I'm pretty emotional and react deeply to things--especially joy. After the last performance of Molly Brown at the Dorothy Day Center, an old Hispanic man came up to me and said, 'Thank you, lady.' The sincerity of it blew me away. I love those moments that are honest in their horror or in their sweetness."

Onstage, Kellogg's great talent is for distilling such strong emotions through the mechanics of her craft. The final scene in The Heiress is the play's most tragic and perhaps most telling. Catherine's dallying beau comes knocking on the door of her chamber. Catherine, now years older and emotionally barren, turns from him, glances at the portrait of her dead mother on the sitting-room wall, and glides silently up the steps without looking back. In the glow of the candelabra, we get a glimpse of Kellogg's face before she disappears, a mask of anguish and defiance.

Ever the actor, Kellogg will soon be wiping these emotions away like so much stage makeup: Two weeks after The Heiress's closing curtain, the actor will be donning the mask of comedy in the metafarce Noises Off! Kellogg, by her own description, is a passionate practitioner of dramatic polygamy: Starting a new role, she says, "is like falling in love again."

 

The Heiress continues at the Park Square Theater through June 27; (651) 291-7005. Park Square'sNoises Off! opens July 13 .

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