Behind the Scenes: Mills women on stage and screen

On stage and screen, these three alumnae take on roles that challenge stereotypes based on gender and race. The theater experience, they say, provides a way for all of us to recognize our human connections.

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Kathryn Harrold on the lam in The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper, 1981
By Jessica Langlois, MFA ’10

In 1981, Kathryn Harrold and Treat Williams were on the run from Robert Duvall. They were on the set of The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper, one of the many early eighties films Harrold starred in, and one of the many times the young actress found herself causing a stir.

“The director would say, ‘Treat, take Kathryn’s hand. Help her do it. Help her.’ So, I was always being pulled along behind, and I just kept saying, ‘You know what? I totally have got this. I can run, I can get on this horse by myself, and I think I can even fight these guys if I need to,’” Harrold recalls. Eventually, the director listened, and Harrold considered it one small victory in her 35-year career as an actress. Throughout her time in Hollywood, she almost always worked with male writers, male directors, and all-male crews, and she often felt called upon to stand her ground when she was told what a woman would or wouldn’t do. “I was very fierce. I was determined. I felt at the time like a feminist—and I still do today,” Harrold says.

Along with Elizabeth Carter ’92 and Anna Ishida ’05, Harrold is among the many Mills alumnae who have established careers in acting, and who have found theater and film to be vital venues for women to explore emotions they might otherwise suppress. They have also found the acting profession to be a way for people to be held accountable to one another and to themselves, as well as a means of practicing empathy and questioning social assumptions. As Carter says, “Theater creates a space where we’re all human together.”

Theater as therapy

Kathryn Harrold ’72 has a classic Hollywood look—high cheekbones, large doe eyes, and sculpted ash-blond hair—which at one point led her to play the role of Lauren Bacall. Drawn from rural Appalachia to the countercultural vibe of the San Francisco Bay Area, with its flower children and Vietnam War protests, Harrold majored in literature and dramatic arts at Mills while studying mime in San Francisco, movement at Stanford, and circus arts in Berkeley. In the early ’70s, she went to New York, where she studied with acting legends Sanford Meisner, Ute Hagen, and André Gregory.

But it wasn’t long before she was swept from New York’s experimental theater scene on to the silver screen. She was cast on the soap The Doctors and, by the late ’70s, she was dividing her time between New York and Los Angeles, appearing in such popular television shows as The Rockford Files and Starsky and Hutch, whose star, Paul Michael Glaser, she happened to meet over brunch. This lucky break was “kind of goofy,” but it catapulted her career forward, says Harrold.

She began to get leads in feature films and TV movies, though the atmosphere of a movie set was a far cry from the camaraderie she’d felt on the small New York stage. In Hollywood, she noticed young actresses coming out of the dressing rooms of male stars or giving them naked pictures of themselves. “It was hard for women at that time. There was so much sexism, and always a million more roles for men,” says Harrold, whose soft-spoken demeanor covers an inner strength. She turned her disappointment and anger at the inequality she witnessed daily into a steely resolve—not only would she make it in Hollywood, she would represent strong women on camera.

Over the course of her career, Harrold has mostly played smart, professional women, but, paradoxically, those women were almost always in the shadow of a leading man. She’s been Steve McQueen’s schoolteacher girlfriend (in The Hunter, McQueens’s final film); the defected mobster sweetheart to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s FBI agent; and the constantly jilted bank executive girlfriend of Albert Brooks. When asked how she felt about perennially deferring to a male star, Harrold says with a dry wit, “It depended on whether or not they were good kissers!” More seriously, she says that she got tired of talk show hosts posing more questions about the men she worked with than about her own experience in the films.

While her acting always got excellent reviews, critics panned most of her movies and TV shows, and her career hit a plateau. In 1986, the Los Angeles Times called her “the actress many critics predicted would become a movie queen but who, through no fault of her own, usually wound up as a lady in waiting.”

Then, in 1991, Harrold landed the role of a lifetime. She was cast as Christina LeKatzis, a defense lawyer in the critically acclaimed 1960s-era civil rights television drama I’ll Fly Away. The groundbreaking show approached racial topics from complex perspectives, telling the parallel stories of a white district attorney and his African American housekeeper. In addition to winning multiple Emmys and Golden Globes, the show won four NAACP Image awards and a Humanitas Prize, awarded to film and television that promote human dignity. Elizabeth Carter, who watched I’ll Fly Away while she was at Mills, says that the show was a benchmark for her as an African American actor.

Though Harrold was still playing a love interest, the role was the favorite part of her career. “I remembered my mother very well during that period, so I had a lot to draw upon—the smoking, the hairdo, the idea of a girdle,” Harrold says.

When I’ll Fly Away was canceled after three seasons, Harrold made a complete turnaround with her role as a journalist and Gary Shandling’s ex-wife/girlfriend, Francine Sanders, in the satirical comedy The Larry Sanders Show. The reality-style spoof on late night talk shows had razor-sharp writing interlaced with improvisation. Harrold realized she was part of something good, and she also finally found well-deserved acclaim. The Washington Post called I’ll Fly Away and The Larry Sanders Show “two high-caliber shows” for Harrold, and in these roles she proved she was both a seasoned dramatic actress and a skilled comedienne. “I did my best work, and I was surrounded by people who were doing their best work,” Harrold says.

After The Larry Sanders Show, Harrold’s career and life took another turn. She married (and later divorced), had a daughter, and settled permanently in Los Angeles. As Harrold was entering her 50s, both the opportunities and the pleasure of acting started to fade. “My forte was the long arc, the subtle little-by-little revelation,” Harrold says. “But in the last decade of my acting career I played a lot of moms that were jokes. I didn’t like any of those parts.”

She did read for the part of a therapist on The Sopranos, written expressly for her by former I’ll Fly Away head writer David Chase; she later found out she didn’t get the role because she was too much like a real therapist. Fittingly, Harrold was enrolled in graduate school studying psychology at the time.

Now, as a licensed marriage and family therapist, she serves mostly actors, writers, and other artists. Her peaceful Brentwood office is bathed in sunlight and decorated with statues of the Buddha. In this newest role, her experience as an actor informs her work. “In ancient times, theater was used in the same way that we use therapy nowadays, for people to sit in a group and work through some emotion or some event,” Harrold says.

As a young actress, Harrold channeled her anger and frustration over inequality for women into a motivation to succeed; now she’s helping her clients do the same. “As a therapist I think anger is a wonderful emotion. Rage is a problem, but anger is OK. It’s a valid feeling, even though women are often judged horrendously for expressing it,” she says.

Taking off the mask

Elizabeth Carter As Helen in Wittenberg at Berkeley’s Aurora Theater.

Growing up as one of the few African American students in her high school in 1980s Eugene, Oregon, Elizabeth Carter ’92 felt pressure to be nice and polite, both at home and at school. For her, the primary draw of the stage was as a place to let out her anger.

“My mask was fantastic,” says Carter, whose perfect posture and wide smile convey a comfortable confidence. In the Laurel District home she shares with her wife, two-year-old son, and a large, effusive dog, she describes how her high school drama teacher recognized her need for an outlet, assigning her monologues from bold plays like Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls. Carter tosses her ringlet curls and snaps her fingers as she works out the words to the choreo-poem she performed decades ago: “i lived wit myths & music waz my ol man & i cd dance a dance outta time…” she recites rhythmically, remembering all the pauses, which words to whisper and which to punch.

“Theater was a place where it was OK to be really, really sad. It was OK to be angry. It was OK to be jealous or devious—all of those things that I, as the good acceptable black girl, wasn’t otherwise allowed to be,” Carter says.

The daughter of a college professor and an elementary school teacher, Carter grew up enchanted with words. The dictionary was a frequent guest at the dinner table, and Carter devoured the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, Nikki Giovanni, and May Sarton. At 14, a favorite aunt took her to see the ’60s-era musical review Beehive. Carter recognized one of the black actresses from a then-current television commercial. “I thought, ‘This woman was real.’ She was accessible. I could see myself up there; I could do that,” she recalls.

Carter’s love of poetry—and a year abroad in London during her time at Mills—forged a strong attachment to Shakespeare, which she now teaches, along with voice, at Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts. “The Bard’s high-stakes plots and no-holds-barred dialogue present a rich opportunity for actors and students, particularly students of color, to express their emotions and to recognize commonalities of human experience,” she says.

Sometimes, though, lessons come across backstage. Early in her career, while preparing for The Merchant of Venice, a play written 400 years ago and noted for its presentation of the Jewish character Shylock, Carter found herself face to face with very modern, and very personal, concerns about stereotyping. While apprenticing at the California Shakespeare Festival (now the California Shakespeare Theatre), she was cast as a maid in a 1930s era adaptation of that play.

“I went through all the costume fittings, then one day they wanted me to put this little doily on my head. All of a sudden I had a bit of a panic attack. I didn’t want to wear that doily!” In that moment, she’d flashed back to the long history of African American women in Hollywood being portrayed as the subservient help. Carter pulls out a thick photo album and, flips to her picture in the costume; she is embracing fellow cast members, but with eyebrows knit and a forced smile. She wore the doily and played the part but, from then on, Carter knew she would fight for roles where she wasn’t pigeon-holed as an African American woman or perpetuating dated stereotypes.

“I’ve played every Shakespeare country wench,” Carter recalls with a laugh. “I’m great at it, but, in the end, it’s not OK if black women only get to play the country wench. If she also gets to play the queen or the villain, that’s alright.” She’s stuck to her convictions, having since played such deeply nuanced characters as a novice nun in Agnes of God, a Walmart employee and hotel worker in Nickel and Dimed, and the Eternal Feminine in Wittenberg.

But Carter is most proud of her roles that have spoken specifically to black women’s experiences. In the 20 years she’s been acting in the Bay Area, one of Carter’s proudest moments was playing Rose in August Wilson’s Fences. The Pulitzer Prize–winning play deeply explores the domestic, urban African American experience in 1950s Pittsburg. After the show, women from the audience flocked to meet Carter—either sharing their own experience of being a “Rose” or expressing gratitude at being able to experience it through her performance. This coming February, she will appear in Marin Theater’s production of The Convert, a play set in 1896 South Africa.

Establishing an intimate relationship with her audience only confirmed for Carter the purpose of theater as not only entertainment, but as a venue for social justice and a way to build a bridge of understanding between individuals. “Actors are always required to put themselves in the position of whatever character they’re playing, so even if their character is completely cruel or manipulative, they have to find where that person’s humanness is and why they’re doing what they’re doing. You cannot judge them,” she says.

A casting director once told Carter she was a “heart” actor, and could make anyone like her onstage, something she connects back to her childhood of trying hard to be accepted by her peers. Now she uses that skill to create emotional connections between the audience, her characters, and herself. She’s helping people develop empathy for one another, something she hopes they will take with them after the curtain closes.

Finding a voice

Anna Ishida in Beardo.

For Anna Ishida ’05, the quest for shared experience is one of the greatest goals of the theater, particularly in the 21st century. “Theater demands an accountability to the human experience,” Ishida says over coffee and croissants at a sidewalk café near Lake Merritt. Theater creates an environment in which both actors and audience members learn to acknowledge that everything one does affects someone else, she explains. “You’re not just passively watching, then changing the channel or turning it off,” says Ishida. “The way people live today, we’re losing that sense of engagement.”

Ishida, who grew up watching Miyazaki and Disney films, remembers first becoming interested in theater and music in second grade, when listening to a tape of Les Misérables at a friend’s house. She rattles off the lyrics to “On my own,” describing how she became fascinated by the conflicting motivations of the musical’s young women characters. When Ishida started belting out arias from Phantom of the Opera, her mother realized she had real talent and enrolled her in voice lessons. After high school, Ishida attended the Pacific Conservatory for Performing Arts, which gave her intensive training in acting, movement, and dance, before transferring to Mills and earning a BA in English.

Like Harrold and Carter, Ishida found the study of literature to be just as important in the development of her craft as acting workshops. One of her favorite classes was Kirsten Saxton’s Eighteenth Century Novel, in which students regularly launched into critical analysis of women’s representations from Jane Austen’s Emma to Sigourney Weaver’s role in Alien. “There was always a graceful, intelligent presentation of other sides at Mills that really informs my approach. I learned to not just take what’s fed to me,” Ishida says.

Ishida was determined not to take what casting directors were feeding her, either. Early on, major companies were only contacting her for shows that called for Asian characters, like Snow Falling on Cedars and Miss Saigon; in one email she was even asked to bring all her Asian friends to the audition. She found that smaller independent stages were more likely to consider her for roles based on her talent as a singer, dancer, and actor, rather than on her physical appearance as a petite Asian woman. So, for 13 years, Ishida became a self-declared “downtown theater actor”—working prolifically within the fertile arena of the Bay Area’s smaller, independent theaters rather than paying high union dues for the chance at roles in larger theaters. The choice brought her into contact with a rich network of artists and gave her the chance to premiere several original productions.

In the rock opera Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, which premiered in Berkeley, played off-Broadway in New York, and was featured in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, she got to exercise her most powerful instrument, her voice. Music, she believes, is one of the most direct ways to connect with a theater audience. “Songs are for expressing what cannot be expressed in mere words—you have to sing about it,” says Ishida. “It’s incredibly powerful to have something that makes you feel so alive and can really impact people.”

A recent profile in the San Francisco Bay Guardian noted Ishida’s tendency to play “angry god queen” characters, like Tamora, Queen of the Goths, in Titus Andronicus at Impact Theater and Tsarista in Beardo, an alternate take on the Rasputin story, at Shotgun Players. Ishida, whose face is framed by short hair tousled into soft spikes, says that whatever she’s going through personally is reflected in the pieces she takes on; with these roles, her declaration was, “I am not a little Asian girl.” But, when she played French anarchist feminist Louise Michel in The Red Virgin last year, Ishida began exploring a different persona. That character, a leader of the Paris Commune of 1871, exhibits both grit and tenderness. “She fought on the front lines with a rifle and would kill people. But, at the same time, she would also drag injured enemy soldiers to safety,” Ishida says, speaking swiftly, with a focused gaze. With that role, Ishida realized she didn’t have to limit herself only to playing angry gods.

Anna Ishido in The Salt Plays: Of The Earth at Berkeley’s Shotgun Players theater in 2010.

When Ishida got a call from A.C.T.—the top-tier San Francisco theater company with which Mills collaborates for its theater studies major—she was ready to accept the opportunity. She was cast as an understudy in the intense and humorous Venus in Fur and the musical epic The Orphan of Zhao. Ishida wryly acknowledges the irony of her decision to accept an Asian character, but she loved Zhao’s music and story (and the relatively substantial paycheck didn’t hurt, either). Next season, she will be part of the regular cast in A.C.T.’s production of Mr. Burns, a post-apocalyptic retelling of an episode of The Simpsons. The edgy, modern role proves that Ishida doesn’t have to leave her artistic values behind to play on the big stage.

Regardless of the venue—small stage, large stage, or screen (Ishida recently starred in her first independent feature film, I Am a Ghost, a fresh take on the classic horror genre)—Ishida says she wants to make “big art.” That can mean transcendent songs, massive line loads, outrageous costumes and set design, or just a great story with heavy feelings and rich characters.

Though “big art” may mean something different to Ishida, Carter, and Harrold, they all value being able to step into different realities and expand their knowledge of humanity and the world with each performance. Whether it’s researching Paris’s 19th-century anarchists, reliving the Civil Rights movement in Atlanta, or living as a minimum wage worker in middle America for the run of a show, each role is like a two-month college course. Carter says, “Theater is a place where you never stop learning.”