Annaleigh Ashford Survives Shakespeare in the Park With Allergy Medicine and Bug Spray
The ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ star talks physical comedy, mid-show rainfall and definitely not petting the raccoons.
Annaleigh Ashford hilariously falls, tumbles and gets dragged all over the stage as Helena in The Public’s Shakespeare in the Park production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Opening July 31 at the Delacorte Theater, the free show runs through Aug. 13 and also stars Phylicia Rashad, Danny Burstein and Ashford’s husband Joe Tapper.
“I think every New York actor’s dream is to do Shakespeare in the Park,” the Tony winner and Masters of Sex alum tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Each show is so special and unique and diverse because of the elements that we’re performing in. Every live show is truly a one-of-a-kind.”
Ashford, 32, goes Off Script to talk exercising physical comedy, performing with rainfall and mosquitoes, and definitely not petting the raccoons near the stage.
What’s the best part about playing your character?
Helena is one of the most interesting ladies of Shakespeare’s comedies because she has such an accessible problem — she’s in love with someone who doesn’t love her back, and we all know what that feels like. And being lovesick is always a fun problem to play.
You do a ton of physical comedy here. Any favorite stunts?
I’ve never actually had anybody refer to my movements as stunts! I love that I’m doing stunts. I don’t know if I have a favorite because we’re in previews right now, so the show is new every night. I tried to draw from my personal favorites [comics]: Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett and Gracie Allen. But I do love that I take somebody else’s skirt and make it into a cape. Turning a costume piece that they wear as one thing and make it into another is my homage to Little Edie from Grey Gardens.
At one point, you hide in the lap of an audience member, and even drink some of their water. Do you plan it each time?
I have no idea! I also have celiac disease and I can’t drink beer, so if I’m sitting in your lap and you have a beer, you’re lucky, I’m not going to take a sip. I really am actually authentically thirsty; I’ve been running around for the last 15 minutes, I’m very hot. But I also was a clown for Cirque du Soleil about 10 years ago now, so I’ve been using a lot of my skills that I learned as a clown in this show. If you’ve ever been to a great clown show, there’s always a moment where the clown goes into the house and fuses with the audience. There’s something fantastic about the improv of it all.
What’s your preshow ritual?
When you asked that, I was just trying to figure out how many bug bites I have today! I have always known mosquitoes love me, but they really love me in Central Park. I use so much citronella and Off! [bug spray] before the show, but they’re finding a way to eat me anyway. Performing outside, you have to wear sunscreen. I also have a little bit of a tree pollen problem, so I’ve been taking my Zyrtec regularly, trying to keep those allergies at bay.
What’s the most unpredictable part about performing outdoors in Central Park?
People warn you about the raccoons, which I sort of thought was a joke, but it is not a joke. Before my entrance at the end of act two, I was once greeted by an entire family of five that’s been kind of living under the stage and in the pond behind the Delacorte. They’re really cute, but I have to remember that they are not cats — I can’t pet them! I’ve also never been rained on while performing, but it happened the other day and that was sort of magical and I’m sure it’s going to happen again.
The helicopter and the plane flyovers are actually much more distracting than I ever thought they would be. I think they’re less distracting for us onstage and actually more distracting for the audience. But the rain, birds, raccoons, helicopters, sirens — all those lovely things are all part of it. And also, who knows what they had as a distraction back in the day at the Globe?
What are you doing when you’re not onstage?
Because my character gets deeper and deeper into the woods as the show goes on, I get dirtier and more messed up. So every time I walk offstage, I pull off another pin and put some more dirt on, which is such a treat.
What do you usually do after the show?
[My husband and I] have a 10-month-old at home that we rush home to get back to. But it’s such a treat to leave work together, you know? Not very many couples in this world get the opportunity to do that, so we’re treasuring it.