Emily Townley and Dawn Ursula are the kind of in-demand actors who make Washington theater run. You often see them at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company: This season Townley was one of the suburban banshees burning down the neighborhood in Lisa D’Amour’s “Detroit,” and Ursula played the egotistical center of an ensemble trying to reenact African history in Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “We Are Proud to Present . . . ”
Now they are together at Woolly in Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s “The Totalitarians,” a political satire set in Nebraska. Townley plays Penny Easter, a local candidate with more charisma than intelligence. Ursula is the manager and speechwriter who inadvertently coins a catchphrase that sets Penny’s campaign on fire.
Townley has been on the scene since 1993, though she took a long break from acting that only ended in 2008. Appearances since then have included a stinging turn as Stevie, the wronged woman in Edward Albee’s “The Goat” at Rep Stage.
Ursula has been increasingly visible lately, a company member not only with Woolly (like Townley) but also with Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre, where she has played Ruth in “A Raisin in the Sun” and the title role in Lynn Nottage’s “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.”
As “The Totalitarians” began performances earlier this month, Townley (in blue jeans and red cowboy boots) and Ursula (equally casual in gray capris and a loose gray blouse) talked about the play and the D.C. acting life.
Are you political?
Ursula: I am not. So this is an exciting stretch. Woolly has a great dramaturg who provides all sorts of books and research and blogs and postings.
Townley: We read Mark Halperin’s “Game Change,” and I think there’s enough political television — “Veep” and “House of Cards.” It’s all in there.
Townley: Penny is an amalgam of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, with a smattering of Arianna Huffington and George W. Bush. I think audiences will recognize her pretty rapidly. . . .
I did have some reservations taking this role. Everyone’s going to think this is the only thing I can do: loud and funny. Because it’s not a big stretch for me, you know what I mean? With two Scotches in me, I am Penny Easter. I complained about being typecast for a long time as a clown. But then I thought, hell, that’s not so awful.
Dawn, have you had to deal with typecasting?
Yes and no. The strong female character. I also look for the opportunities to play characters that don’t have so much power and strength.
The challenge in this business as an African American actor is to work steadily. I am one of the lucky ones. I can rattle off a whole bunch of African American female actors in this area who I know are great actresses, but we’re not seeing them. The roles are just not available. That just makes me feel all the more fortunate.
As you work on “The Totalitarians,” do you keep an eye on the news?
Townley: I have a congressman friend who insists on coming, and I really wish he wouldn’t. But we’re trying to tell a bigger story about politics and the media in America, not a specific story. A specific story out of Washington isn’t going to change the larger point.
You’re both in a lot of new plays.
Ursula: I really enjoy the process of trying to find and create a character and tell a story for a playwright — talking and asking questions and digging into the script, helping them get to their next place. I love that. My MFA is from the Shakespeare Theatre Company Academy for Classical Acting, and I thought I would end up doing more classical theater.
Townley: I really love Shaw, Miller, Williams, Albee, and there are some roles out there that have my name on them that I cannot wait to play.
Townley: Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Somebody give me that part already! Josie in “A Moon for the Misbegotten.” But I love doing new plays here [at Woolly] especially, because they actually want to know what you think, which is fantastic.
Emily, you left Washington for a while?
Townley: I quit acting entirely for about eight years, moved to L.A. with my ex-husband, and I didn’t act at all from 2000 to 2006. I came back in 2006 to take over a small business. I was a jeweler for a private company where I designed and sold things.
Then I was going to take a family friend to the Portrait Gallery [two blocks from Woolly], and I didn’t even know Woolly had moved from Church Street. I hadn’t wanted to see any theater, because it really was too painful. I walked into the lobby, and I said, “Is Howard [Shalwitz, Woolly’s artistic director] here?” He said, “Where the hell have you been?”
I said, “I’d love to play swing, I’ll move furniture, I won’t have any lines, I’ll just be a tree in the background.” A couple months later he called me with the “Maria/Stuart” script, and a year after that I became a company member. That’s why Howard walks on water for me. I don’t think I would be acting if Howard hadn’t said, “Where the hell have you been?”
Dawn, you were on “The Wire”? You both do other work?
Ursula: I did a couple episodes. I got in the last season.
Townley: I do a lot of industrial work. I found a nifty little gift for making techno-speak sound natural. So I can talk about FAA regulations and FDIC banking codes and military regulations, and make it sound like I know what I’m talking about, which I really don’t.
Are side gigs important?
Townley: Even if you work at the biggest theaters in town 52 weeks a year, which is not possible, the most you could make is $52,000 to $57,000 a year.
Ursula: On a gooood Equity contract.
Townley: We all have jobs. Teach, teach yoga, walk dogs, dog-sit, which is what I do. I do a lot of dog-sitting, dog-walking.
Has the landscape changed lately?
Townley: In the 1990s, I would go to an audition and there would be five or six women in the room. Now there are 30 women there, and they’re all really good. It has become a really established theater town. You had the “NY-LA-CHI” circuit, which is the circuit all the actors had to go on, New York, L.A. and Chicago. And now in acting books it’s called the “NY-LA-CHI-DC” circuit. [She pronounces it “Nye-latch-ee-duck.”] I’d say that’s happened in the last seven or eight years.
Do you feel established?
Ursula: I’ve been here now for 14 years, and I’ve had the opportunity to repeat working at some theaters, so I guess that would make me feel established.
Townley: There are theaters I have not been able to crack open the door of, and I have never been nominated for a Helen Hayes Award; just one of the things on my bucket list. So no, a qualified no. Because just like Dawn, I know how much gratitude I have to express. There are just still things in this town I want to accomplish, that’s all.
by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb. Through June 29 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. Tickets $35-$97.50, subject to change. Call 202-393-3939 or visit www.woollymammoth.net.