Naomi Jacobson comes by her supporting-role status honestly. When the Helen Hayes Award-winner was a child “playing theater,” her older sister Laura wrote the plays—arrogating the lead roles to herself—leaving Naomi as perpetual support. In mid-September she can be seen, supportingly, at the Theater of the First Amendment as Fanny Wilton, the life-affirming (read: sensual bombshell) character in Henrik Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman, which celebrates its 100th anniversary next year.
Being the youngest of five siblings—a situation she admits contributed to her need to show off—the voluble Jacobson muses that where you are in the family lineup may indeed influence your extrovert quotient.
The actress went public at age 11 in a class play and credits having spent her teenhood in a progressive town, Santa Barbara, Calif.—where she took drama instead of typing—with launching her future. After her first year of college, she snagged an opportunity with an all-women’s repertory putting on such performances as Waiting for Godot re-venued in a women’s prison in L.A. (after all, this was ’75, the height of the movement, she reminds me). The 19 women did everything from selling tickets to silkscreening T-shirts: One that read “Put a little play in your life: 19 women nightly” literally brought the vice squad running.
She got a scholarship to Temple University for an M.F.A.—her father wouldn’t pay to encourage this vocation. Says Jacobson: “It is Philly where I learned to act, L.A. where I learned makeup and how to interview, and D.C. where I learned about power.” When she was in her 20s, artistic director Donovan Marley fretted over how to cast her. “You have the face of a little girl, the body of a woman, and the voice of a man,” she was told. It all came together when Jacobson was in her early 30s.
In L.A., having done short features, sitcoms, and soaps to supplement her work in theater, she found the local mind-set anathema. “Everyone was obsessed with making it, getting it. I wanted to make it on my own terms—within the context of a sane, healthy life.” An administrative job at the now-defunct New Playwrights’ Theater was her ticket out. D.C. was supposed to be a one-year stint en route to N.Y. Eight years later, she’s still here. A series of serendipitous events—e.g., two years of rent-free lodging and a work-serious ambience—has kept her tethered. She would still like to do a gig in N.Y. and to pursue regional work “to learn from new people and bring it back,” but D.C. is indisputably home base. “The focus here is on the work; actors don’t come to D.C. to get rich and famous.”
The sense of community and camaraderie here is also compelling, Jacobson points out. “The competition is healthy, not destructive. I compete with my friends all the time.” Her husband, John Lescault, an actor she met at the New Playwrights’, is especially supportive. They regularly attend each other’s final dress performances to proffer feedback and help each other on scripts, and have done five shows together to date.
Although the craft of acting involves intellect, intuition, emotion, and physical strength, it is more than the sum of its parts. “Something else takes over,” the actress explains, which is why when teaching she can “convey tools and techniques, but not the magic.” Debunking the conventional wisdom that acting provides an outlet for deep-seated wounds, Jacobson firmly believes that it is preferable to come from a healthy place. “The more whole I become, the further I can go—there are places in the psyche I’m willing to touch because I know I can come back.” Emotional availability is a key ingredient of acting, but “every performer has a different way in,” she notes, lamenting that actors talking about acting sounds “sodweeby.”
The most satisfying roles for her are the challenging ones where she imagines she’s not right for the part—where she must wrestle to be able to bring something unfamiliar to life, “to shine a light in a new place.” Paradoxically, she loved playing Pola, the character in Heather McDonald’s Dream of a Common Language that netted her the 1995 Helen Hayes Award, even though “it wasn’t much of a stretch.” “The character was a good fit,” she continues, “someone who is emotional, outspoken, and funny.”
In fact, given a whiff of opportunity, Naomi lurches toward the comic—something she attributes to her own temperament and its interplay with that of Howard Shalwitz, artistic director of the Woolly Mammoth Theater, where she frequently performs. “Howard pushes me further than admissible or advisable on stage, then boots me over. But,” she adds, “he’s always there to catch me.” She has learned how to be comic with dark undertones à la Woolly. In real life she tends to “use humor to lighten up the situation—as a mechanism to deal with emotional upset and confrontation,” thus dovetailing with her stage persona.
When not rehearsing 36-48 hours per week, Jacobson does voice-overs, industrials, and an occasional TV episode (Homicide), and teaches at George Washington University to beef up her income. A touch smug, she sees a certain leveling of the playing field in this economic era of zero job security. The theater has always been precarious; other fields are just catching up. “Acting is not a career,” she offers, “but a lifestyle.” Nowadays, directors call her to audition, with overlap being a chronic hazard of the trade. “The hardest thing in the world is to turn down a show.”
Naomi hopes Borkman will resonate with a present-day audience. In order to ensure that this Victorian tangle of interlocking fates—a standoff among three uncompromising characters frozen in psychic battle—is expressed in the current idiom, director Rick David and Norwegian-speaker Brian Johnston have done a new translation. In terms of staging, Borkman will appear inside a metal structure simulating his mind, from which he will call forth the other characters, giving the set a contemporary feel.
Jacobson is enjoying this vampy part, where she gets to “wear gorgeous gowns and show cleavage,” in contrast to her less glamorous character roles, which, in the long run, will work to her advantage vis-à-vis aging (a distant issue for the incandescent thirtysomething). Following Borkman, in Faulkner’s Bicycle, she anticipates the particular challenge of playing a daughter whose mother suffers from Alzheimer’s—a situation that parallels her own life. Jacobson appreciates the immediacy of the role, hopes it will be therapeutic, and assumes that, like all her roles, it will be “ultimately expanding.”