‘Native Gardens’ at Pasadena Playhouse Cultivates Discussion on Diverse Issues

Frances Fisher plays the role of Virginia. Photo courtesy of Pasadena Playhouse
Frances Fisher plays the role of Virginia. – Courtesy photo /Pasadena Playhouse

By May S. Ruiz

‘Native Gardens,’ a new comedy by Karen Zacarias, comes to the Pasadena Playhouse from September 5th to the 30th and shines a light on serious issues, including racial and social diversity, in humorous fashion.

Directed by Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander, it features Christian Barillas, Bruce Davison, Frances Fisher, and Jessica Meraz, with Julian Amaya, Richard Biglia, and Joshua Duron.

The play follows the story of Pablo (Barillas), a rising attorney, and Tania (Meraz), his very pregnant wife who is also a doctoral candidate. They have just purchased a home next to Frank (Davison) and Virginia (Fisher), a well-established D.C. couple with a prize-worthy English garden. The two couples’ friendly relationship is tested as an impending barbeque for Pablo’s colleagues and disagreement over a long-standing fence line grow into an all-out comedic border dispute.

Fisher, taking a lunch break during rehearsals, talks about what drew her to the play, “I like the fact that ‘Native Gardens’ tackles issues that are important – race and white privilege, misconceptions about nationalities, environmental concerns.”

“It presents two sides of the environmental issue,” continues Fisher. “It asks questions – do you want to do something good for the environment or would you rather have something for show? What is important to you, the health of your children and grandchildren or a beautiful bed of roses?”

The role touches Fisher on a personal level. She reminisces, “When I had a house, I was an avid gardener and grew my own vegetables; I miss that. I live in an apartment right now but I hope to, one day, be able to plant in my own backyard again.”

Activism is an ongoing endeavor for Fisher. She is a supporter of Environment California, Hollywood Food Guild, #FamiliesBelongTogether, PeaceOverViolence.org, and the anti-bullying group StandfortheSilent.org, among many others. She is an executive board member of the Environment Media Association (EMA), making ‘Native Gardens’ a natural choice for her involvement.

On the lighter side, the play gives Fisher the opportunity to work with long-time friends. She discloses, “I’ve known Jason since we were both starting out in New York and I play poker with him. But we’ve never collaborated on a project until now; it’s such a thrill to be directed by him. I’m exhausted but I’m also having a great time. He’s a master of comedy so I feel like we’re getting a master class in finding something funny.

Bruce Davison as Virginia’s husband Frank. – Courtesy photo / Pasadena Playhouse

“Bruce is also someone I’ve known personally for decades yet we’ve never performed together. It’s quite wonderful that we play husband and wife.”

‘Native Gardens’ is likewise an exposure to new people and experiences for Fisher. She says, “I’ve never met the two kids – Jessica and Christian – but I’m getting to know them. We’re having terrific fun in rehearsal; it’s a very physical play. This is also my introduction to Karen. I was hooked after I read her play. I later found out it has been performed and produced elsewhere in the country. I’m glad we’re mounting a production in Pasadena and at The Playhouse, too. It’s wonderful to be able to walk the boards here.”

It comes at an opportune time as well. Fisher states, “I hadn’t done a play in a while – the last  one was ‘Barbecue’ at the Geffen Theatre – and I’m ready to get back on stage. This is my first love. I started my acting career as an apprentice at the Barter Theatre in Virginia, learning the ropes by working every task that goes into putting on a show. I assisted the director, built sets, sewed costumes, made props, cued actors. I had a good understanding of the importance of every job in the theatre. But even when I do film or television, I have a great respect for the crew and what they do.”

Acting back and forth between mediums involves flexibility. Explains Fisher, “You have to approach each in a different way. For instance, doing a guest spot on a TV program is like jumping on a moving train. You come in and you have to be up-to-speed with people who have been  doing it for four, five, six, or seven years. You have to get on that rhythm as soon as you show up – you have to know your lines and your actions – because there’s not a lot of time. There never is, on TV.

“In theatre, on the other hand, we have three weeks to explore the character, learn, and make choices. We have a larger bag of tricks to draw upon so doing the same performance every night doesn’t get stale. Theatre is about discovering novel things, surprising your partner, and testing new ideas that have been tried out in rehearsal so they’re not completely unknown. In that sense, there’s a lot more fun that can be had in theatre.

“However, there’s also something that can be said about making a movie. You work on it for a certain period of time, you shoot a scene knowing you’re never going to do it again unless something goes wrong. Everyday there’s a batch of scenes, then you’re all done, and it’s finished.”

Fisher concurs with the common assumption that acting is not a financially stable career. “You never know if you have a job for the next ten years or if you have to look for another. When the director says ‘It’s a wrap’ you’re unemployed again. It’s a very uncertain way to live your life; you have to absolutely love the profession and be really dedicated to want to stay in it.

I know many actors who are waiting tables, driving Ubers, working whatever part-time jobs they can get. I found that I couldn’t have a so-called day job because I spend my days going to auditions, classes, meetings, and keeping myself prepared for the next role.”

That next role for Fisher could be on television. She had just finished a pilot for HBO on a Damon Lindelof work called ‘The Watchman.’

“If that gets picked up, we’re going directly to Atlanta to shoot the episodes,” Fisher reveals. “Lindelof’s work is extraordinary. The characters he originates, the history lessons he brings to the present day, are pretty mind-blowing.

“There’s great writing on television these days,” Fisher asserts. “I also see more women on television and film, which is something to celebrate. It used to be a patriarchy, but the tide is slowly turning, thanks to people like Ava du Varnay with all she’s doing for women. She has created a generous space for women, who’ve never had a chance before, to come forward. But we still have a long way to go; it takes for women in powerful positions to open more doors.”

Fisher is hoping for other opportunities for audiences to discover her range as an actor. She declares, “Every role is different and I don’t want to do the same thing over and over again. ‘Native Gardens’ is a very physical comedy and I don’t think people think of me as being particularly comedic.

– Courtesy photo / Pasadena Playhouse

“I would like the audience to have a good time, for them to say ‘I’m glad I came to the theatre to see these actors doing outrageous things. But as hysterically funny as it is, ‘Native Gardens’ explores issues we should be thinking of. Laughter can be a profound and healing experience. And we certainly need more of that.”

Pronounces Fisher, “Theatre is made to mirror society back to itself. When you examine Shakespeare’s work, for instance, you’ll see that he wrote about everyone from kings to peasants. There is no feeling or emotion he didn’t explore through his plays and sonnets. They were very much a reflection of human nature.

“Theatre is a powerful medium for people to come together as strangers in an audience and, hopefully, through their common experience watching truth on stage, they will laugh or cry. Maybe they’ll turn to their neighbor across the aisle, catch their eye, have that shared moment, and walk out as friends.”

Such is the effect of theatre that Fisher was hooked on it at a young age. Ticket prices were so expensive even then, but she found ways to watch theatre. She confesses, “I probably saw the second act of every Broadway show for 14 years. I discovered that once the audience got in, I could kinda’ slip in and find an empty seat.”

Those days of sneaking into a playhouse are long gone. Fisher is now the performer on stage whom people come to watch. And she would genuinely relate to other aspiring actors who might just slip in after the first act.


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