Ask almost anyone in the theater establishment in these parts about who from the ranks of the city’s working actors would be at the top of their list for a given play, whether classical or contemporary, and the response is virtually always a variation of: “You mean, besides Holly?”
“You don’t remember the first time you heard Holly’s name, because everybody talks about her,” says Anne Kohn, the producing director of a startup company, No Rules Theatre, for which Twyford will direct a play this summer, Diana Son’s “Stop Kiss.”
“She’s a dream to work with,” says Michael Kahn, who is directing her in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s current critical hit, “Old Times.” Adds Joy Zinoman, former artistic director of Studio Theatre: “She has a kind of class that’s not commonly seen. And she’s also ridiculously smart.”
Two decades into her Washington theater run, Twyford continues to add significant bullet points to her lengthy resume, one that has so many Helen Hayes awards and nominations that they make up the bulk of her Wikipedia entry. “Old Times,” for instance, marks her long-anticipated debut with the region’s premier classical theater. “Stop Kiss” is another milestone in a career full of them, for with that production she sits for the first time in the director’s chair.
Twyford appears a bit conflicted by the notion that she occupies some rarefied pedestal. She’s gratified and, at the same time, conscious of not sounding as if she takes anything for granted. “Have I been very, very fortunate? Yes,” she says, as she lunches in a coffee shop on U Street NW, near the home that she shares with her longtime partner, Saskia Mooney, and their young daughter Helena — which happens to be the name of the Shakespearean heroine she played in “All’s Well That Ends Well.” “Scripts that are very fulfilling and interesting, and people who are very generous to work with, seem to come my way.”
If one were to list the roles and plays for which Twyford has distinguished herself since making her D.C. debut in 1993 in a production by a now-defunct company, this article would have to disgorge an awful lot of ink. From prominent companies such as Arena Stage down to the child-oriented Adventure Theatre — with which she performed for the sake of her daughter — she has worked, and worked, the D.C. circuit.
Her range is such that it can be hard to find a pattern: Over the past few seasons, she has portrayed a British researcher (in Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia”); a medieval homemaker (in “The Second Shepherd’s Play”); a Hollywood agent (in Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Little Dog Laughed”); a brain-damaged recluse (in Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers”) and a South African English teacher (in Athol Fugard’s “The Road to Mecca”). That’s not to mention a recent stint as Electra. Oh, and here and there, some big parts in Shakespeare.
Now, she’s reciting the scrupulously elliptical locutions of Harold Pinter in “Old Times,” a brisk drama in which memories serve as psychic artillery, and again earning excellent notices. It is the upside of becoming a name player in a moderately large, intellectually curious and increasingly cosmopolitan city. There is a down side, however: In a city where the center of gravity for dramatics is in the halls of government, you don’t really get all that well known. The proprietor of the U Street cafe that Twyford frequents, for instance, was taken aback by the news that her garrulous customer was even an actress.
This doesn’t seem to bother Twyford: If it were bona fide fame she was after, she would not have made the city her focus. What worries her more is that in such a relatively small pond, theatergoers might develop big-fish fatigue.
“There is this thing about being a Washington actor, performing in a lot of theater in town,” she says, laughing as an illustrative recollection comes to mind. “My friend, she was working in a store,” she recalls, and an acquaintance went up to her, mentioning Twyford and declaring: “ ‘If I see Holly Twyford in another play, I’m going to shoot myself in the head!’ ”
Twyford’s face registers a fresh mixture of shock, amusement and terror. “I thought, ‘Hell, I should get off the damn stage! Are audiences going to get bored with seeing the same person all the time?’ ”
That discernible membrane of insecurity may help to explain why Twyford has not, after all these years, pursued many opportunities beyond the metropolitan area. (Another, friends and colleagues say, is the importance of the stability of her nuclear family.) Having attained a certain status, she’s now viewed in casting circles like that model office employee, the one who’s relied upon to handle the major-deadline projects.
“She can take care of herself,” says Zinoman, who directed her in, among other Studio productions, “The Road to Mecca.” “But when we were working on ‘Mecca,’ she came to me and said, ‘On this project, I want to really go somewhere emotionally, so please take me there, let’s do it.’ I was very moved by the fact that someone of her skill was still interested in stretching herself.”
Then there’s the highly seductive advantage of being able to pick your projects: “You’re constantly selling yourself at a certain point in your career,” Twyford says. “I guess if that’s not in your genetic makeup, it’s very difficult to do; the product you’re selling is you. So any rejection of that is rather personal.”
This ubiquitous stage creature knows of what she speaks. Her first serious brush with the theater was potentially a deal-breaker — after two years in Boston University’s competitive, conservatory-style acting program, she was cut and had to settle for a spot in the school’s theater-arts program. (She later went along, Cinderella-style, as a helper for her former peers as they auditioned before groups of casting people.) Having grown up in Great Falls and graduated from the Madeira School in McLean, Twyford returned to D.C., where she got a job as a wig mistress at Arena Stage.
She says she had a great time, caring for the ’dos of actresses of the caliber of Tammy Grimes and Tana Hicken — the latter would one day be her co-star, in “Mecca” as well as “Lost in Yonkers.” Soon enough, the opportunity to act came, in “Her Aching Heart” by Bryony Lavery. A result was her first Helen Hayes nomination, and she was on her way.
Kahn was at the ceremony last year at which he says Twyford was getting “I don’t know, one of her thousand awards for best actress”: it was recognition for Signature Theatre’s “The Little Dog Laughed.” Watching her give her speech, he recalls, “she was sophisticated in a way that I’d never seen her, and I’d been thinking about ‘Old Times’ and thought, ‘Gee, it would be a different part for Holly.’ I think I offered it to her at the party.”
“I’ll tell you one thing about her: You can give her an adjustment for the character that’s very different from what’s she’s been doing, and she can do it RIGHT THEN. I think she has a good way of switching her insides to become this other person. I think that she’s very smart, but she doesn’t have to work from her head.”
As intently as Kahn was watching Twyford, she in turn was studying him, seeking to absorb anything that might help her in her foray into directing. “Michael says something,” she says, “and I go write it down.” She has had enough variety in men and women who guided her through plays to know good direction from bad: “A vision is nice, but if you can’t communicate that vision, it’s worthless.”
Twyford likes active give-and-take in rehearsal, and sometimes feels as if she’s not getting her fill. “When I’m acting in a show, I cannot keep my mouth shut,” she says. Now that the room will be in her control, one wonders what she’ll do with the more boisterous members of her cast.
She laughs at the idea of having to direct someone with her temperament. “That’s fine,” she says. “I’m going to deal with it.”