Thursday, February 23, 2017

PHX Stage Q/A: Diane Senffner

by Gil Benbrook

Director, actress and dialect coach Diane Senffner has been working in the theatre for the last 46 years, first in Cincinnati, then Chicago, and now Phoenix.

She has directed numerous shows here in the Valley and dialect coached dozens of others.

Her latest directorial effort, A Few Good Men at Zao Theatre, opens tomorrow night February 24th and runs through March 11th.  In 2015, she appeared in Barefoot in the Park at Zao, one of the newest theatre companies in the Valley.

Senffner studied at the University of Cincinnati CCM as well as at the famed Piven Theatre Workshop in Chicago. She also owns her own company. Cine Learning Productions, which produces educational videos and multi-media products where she employs many actors in the Valley.

Diane took a break in her busy schedule of running her company during the day and final rehearsals for A Few Good Men in the evenings to answer the PHX Stages Q/A.

Name:  Diane Senffner

Where you were born and or raised: Cincinnati, Ohio – a very old, scenic German city on the banks of the Ohio River with a rich arts history.  I moved to Chicago when I was 25 to act professionally and moved back when I was 29 to live with my father after my mother died.   

What brought you to Arizona?  My allergy to dust mites in Cincinnati caused such severe asthma my doctor said I faced ‘an uncertain future’ if I stayed in the climate.  I moved all by myself to AZ 23 years ago, and have been healthy ever since.

What your parents did/do for a living:   They have been gone a long time, but both were in sales.  My mom started off a dancer and dance teacher – which is ironic because I was born with three left feet.  My father was a huge fan of musicals and showtunes.

Siblings: I have four siblings – two older brothers and a younger brother and sister. We’re all crazy creative in our own ways. My oldest brother plays the guitar – still rockin’ at 63, my next older brother is an artist and taught art, my sister is a writer and was a dance major and my younger brother and I share the acting bug – he also is the director of the drama department at the high school where he teaches.

Family/Children: I have a husband Rick who is a Renaissance man – he is a Master Gardner, a gourmet cook, an artist, a fly-fisherman, world traveler and generally crazy man.  We have two furry doggie children and no kids.
Shakespearean Christmas
Southwest Shakespeare Company - 2007
Photo by Laura Durant

Day job/part time job: I own my own company called Cine Learning Productions.  We produce story-based educational videos and multi-media educational products.  It’s really gratifying to get to HIRE a lot of actors here and provide work for artists in the Valley.

First show you ever saw: Godspell at the Taft Theatre in Cincinnati back in ’73 or so was my first live performance. But my father was such a fan of musicals, we were ‘forced’ to watch them whenever they’d come on TV.

Moment you knew you wanted to perform for a living: In my 4th grade play – it was called Sourdough Sally and it was about a girl who is living in Alaska and she must pass a series of ‘initiation tests’ from her native Alaskan friends to become a ‘true Alaskan’.  I was Sally.  

The one performance you attended that you will never forget:  The first time I saw Les Mis – in London in 1987 with Patty LuPoine, Colm Wilkinson.  I was moved to tears.  I saw it another 7 times total – 4 times in London.

First stage kiss: I have had so many I actually wrote an essay about them, “My Life in Stage Kisses: a.k.a The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”.  My first stage kiss was in college – at University of Cincinnati. I was in Lysistrata and I played Myrhinne – one of the first to break down and give in to a man after Lysistrata calls a ban on sex until men no longer create war (hmmm…. maybe a good idea here?)  Anyway, this guy, Brian, and I had zero chemistry and he had long greasy hair and a face caulked with Clearasil. His boyfriend used to come to rehearsals and he was incredibly handsome and I wished HE was the one I had to kiss.  Our director did everything she could to make it look real, but she finally gave up.  Opening night I’m in the scene where we kiss and he suddenly put his tongue all the way down my throat.  I jumped about 5 feet back – exactly opposite of what I was supposed to do. Our director was in the front row laughing her butt off.  After we left stage I yelled at him, “What was THAT?”  He said, “Well, you and Beverly kept telling me to make it REAL.”  Oy.

 with Scott Hyder in
God of Carnage
Fountain Hills Theater – 2014
Directed by Katherine Stewart
Photo by Patty Torrilhon
Best stage experience you’ve had so far acting?  I’ve done so many shows, but I’d have to say God of Carnage at Fountain Hills in 2014.  The play is so wonderfully written by Yazmina Reza.  I played Annette who has the largest character arc in the play (my old best friend Hope Davis was up for a Tony for that role).  I had wonderful co-stars and every night it just seemed REAL (including the famed throw-up scene).  I would do that play again in a nano second.  I played Brooke in three separate productions of Noises Off in three decades and loved all of them.  Playing Marie in Lombardi at DST was a terrific experience. Our Town at Fountain Hills 2010 was another great production.   Romeo and Juliet at Shakespeare Sedona was like summer camp. And playing Queen Elizabeth I in Shaw’s Dark Lady of the Sonnets for Desert Rose in 2010 was delicious fun.  But in terms of fun, no role was more so than playing “Martha Stewed” for Shakespearean Christmas at SSC in 2007 because I also got to write the skit.   I also love creating characters for original works like the shows at AZWTC and the old Playwright’s Workshop Theatre.  I consider Fountain Hills and Zao my ‘home’ theatres as my best experiences have been there.

What has been the most fun or fulfilling aspect of your current/ most recent show?    
Every second of it.  I’m someone who loves the rehearsal process.  I love watching great actors do what they do, creating, investing, reacting, seeing characters grow with fully formed back stories and layering of traits and quirks as time goes on.  I love actors, period.  When the show goes up, it’s icing on the cake.  And of course I love working closely with my talented, dear friends Kellen Garner and Mickey Bryce.

Most challenging role you have played onstage? Absolutely Kate in Dancing at Lughnasa at Fountain Hills in 2005.  It’s a period piece about sisters living a bleak existence in 1930’s Northern Ireland. Doing a period piece in full N. Irish dialect and also coaching the rest of the cast in that dialect, playing a role that Meryl Streep chose to play on film.  It was SUPER challenging, but very fulfilling to be able to find the joy in that script because no one lives the pathos of life all the time, no matter how challenging our circumstances.  That’s a mistake often made with this show.
Any upcoming or side projects you can talk about? Um – wish I could….

What was the first show you performed in and what did you learn from it that you still use today? Sourdough Sally.  I learned discipline – that was at age 10.  That is a quality I think all young people learn doing theatre and one that will carry them far in life.
with Christopher Dennis in
Dark Lady of the Sonnets
 Desert Rose Theatre - 2010
Directed by Katherine Stewart
Photo by Justin Harris

Leading role you've been dying to play: 
Amanda – Private Lives; Judith – Hayfever (I LOVE Coward as you can tell), Mrs. Kendal – The Elephant Man; Lotty – Enchanted April ; Dotty – Noises Off; Shirley Valentine.  Basically, I love period pieces and dialect shows, but then I love modern plays that are very real in tone and feel – kind of opposite ends.
Leading role of the opposite sex you wish you could play:  Javert in Les Mis!

Pre-show rituals or warm-ups:  Running lines in the car on the way to the theatre, getting made up at home – which has caused some stares and gawks at my local Walgreens - depending on the role -  where I stop to get supplies on the way to the theatre.

Worst flubbed line/missed cue/onstage mishap: In 2015, I did Barefoot in the Park for Zao Theatre.  I played Mother.  At the end of the play there is a nice scene with Mother and Mr. Velasco when she realizes she does like him.  At this point in the show, Mr. Velasco has broken his toe, so to make it look swollen, actor Charlie LeSueur used to stuff the toe of the sock and he would put it on the coffee table to elevate it.  The last performance, Charlie flops his foot onto the coffee table and he has so overstuffed it, that he looked like the Elephant Man – it looked grotesquely deformed!  I completely broke character for only the 2nd time in 46 years. Charlie and I were Harvey Korman and Carol Burnett. He and I could not stop laughing and the audience loved it.  A photographer with the theatre caught the moment on film and it will be one I will always remember….
Worst costume ever: It was definitely the hijab I had to wear as Lady Capulet during the misguided Muslim/Catholic version of Romeo and Juliet at SSC in 2007.

Best costume ever: Queen of Hearts – Desert Rose Theatre 2012

Worst audition experience: In Chicago, there were so many.  So many times, you’d pour your heart out in a monologue to blank faces who simply said, ‘NEXT!’

If you could go back in time and catch any performer or show, what would they/it be?   
I would want to see the late Natasha Richardson in Cabaret      

Famous past stage or screen star(s) you would have loved to have performed with:  
Jimmy Stewart, Betty Davis (more recent – and maybe for different reasons) Val Kilmer in his prime

Actor/actress in the Phoenix area you'd love to perform with: Too many to count!!!!!   However, it is a dream for my best friends Janine Smith, Julie Van Lith and I to all perform together in a show.

Your personal acting idols: In movies - Streep, Julianne Moore, Jimmy Stewart, Ralph Fiennes, Viola Davis – lots of them ….But I used to usher at Steppenwolf in Chicago when they were still a little black box on Halstead.  I saw so many shows with the most fantastic actors – Gary Sinise, Laurie Metcalf, Malkovich, Joan Allen, Terry Kinney, Jim True, Tim Hopper, Gary Cole, John Mahoney, Amy Morton, Sally Murphy, Bill Petersen – these were my real idols.  I saw these actors up close and personal in the most amazing performances. I will never forget.  I learned so much watching them perform. And I consider theatre the purest form of acting.
Current/recent show other than one of your own you have been recommending
to friends: I am ashamed to admit I have been too busy with work and travel to see much this fall/winter season, but plan on seeing more this spring!

with Heidi Carpenter in Our Town
Fountain Hills Theater – 2010
Directed by Peter Hill
Photo by Patty Torrilhon
Favorite play(s):  God of Carnage, Other Desert Cities, Noises Off, Charley’s Aunt, Dancing at Lughnasa, Race, Shadow Box, 39 Steps, A Flea in Her Ear, Raisin in the Sun, Importance of Being Ernest, Our Town, Pygmalion, Uncommon Women and Others, The Common Pursuit, all plays by Willy Russell. I don’t LOVE Shakespeare which may surprise some. I like Shakespeare, but not a rabid fan.
Favorite musical(s):   Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, Godspell, Pippin, Les Mis, Jersey Boys, My Fair Lady.  Basically, I like Les Mis, Sondheim, in general, Schwartz, in general and a few strays. NOT a fan of Golden Age musicals – just seen them too many times.
Favorite showtune(s) of all time:  "Corner of the Sky" from Pippin

Most listened song/music on your iPod/Phone?: Old school R&B

First CD/Tape/LP you owned:  The Monkees (first album) – 1966

Must-see TV show(s): This is Us, Chicago Fire, Longmire, Sherlock, Justified

Guilty pleasure binge watching tv show: Hart of Dixie

Last good movie you saw: Moonlight

Favorite movie: As Good As it Gets

with Kellen Garner, Carson Saline, Brittany Woodbury in
Alice in Wonderland
Desert Rose Theatre – 2012
Directed by Katherine Stewart
 Photo by Kellen Garner
Music/book/movie that makes you cry:  I cry more at music than movies, but if an animal is hurt or killed in film, I’m blubber.  The TV show This is Us has done it to me twice now.

Favorite restaurant in the Valley:  Rick’s kitchen!  Rick cooks a lot of great Mediterranean dishes - YUM
Favorite cities: Chicago, London, Monterey CA, Cincinnati, Rome

Sports teams you root for:  Cincinnati Red, Cincinnati Bearcats, Chicago Cubs – sorry Arizona!

Something about you that might surprise people: Um, that I hated the movie E.T?  Maybe that the number of actors I have dialect coached in here in the Valley is in the hundreds now!

Special skills:  ha!  This is that category I see on actor’s resumes all the time and see the most BIZARRE things listed.  “I’m awfully good at wine tasting” was one I saw – so I’ll borrow that one.  
Career you would want if not a performer:  I have even sought out other avocations to no avail.  Creativity is in my blood and I’m not sure I’d live long without it.  

Worst non-theatre job you've had: Working at Burger Chef in high school

Best non-theatre job you've had:  Running my own company now that HIRES actors!

Three things you can't live without:  My siblings, especially my sister – we’re inseparable. Dogs, my sweet husband, exercise, good friends and coffee
Words of advice for aspiring performers: Never give it up.  If you find you can’t hack it professionally, there are ways you can still perform until the day you die -no matter the age!

What you love most about theatre in Phoenix:  The friends I’ve made – trite, but true

What you think needs to be changed/improved/different about theatre in Phoenix:  Lots of good things going on, but this is just not a ‘theatre town’ and I lived in two theatre towns prior to this.  It’s more of a sports town.  Going to theatre is just something you do in some places and straight plays matter as much as musicals to patrons.  I’ve seen a lot in 23 years in theatre here and some good, some bad.  More good than bad right now, so all in all….

William Broyles, Matt Winter, Hayden Christensen, Timothy Pittman, and Chase Reynolds
in Lombardi
Desert Stages Theatre – 2015
Directed by Mark Clemente

And, the “Inside the Actors Studio” 10 questions:

1. What is your favorite word?  Great (I say it or write it dozens of times a day)

2. What is your least favorite word? Puss

3. What turns you on? Great voices

4. What turns you off?  Ignorance

5. What sound do you love? Listening to animals eating (don’t ask me why)

6. What sound do you hate? The VACCUM

7. What is your favorite curse word? I try not to curse BUT sometimes there’s more appropriate than a good, “%$@#”  Got to keep this clean….

8. What profession other than yours would you like to attempt?  I wish I had become a doctor

9. What profession would you not like to do?  Anything that involves not speaking – I’m not good at NOT talking!

10. If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?  Surprise!

CLICK HERE for information on A Few Good Men which runs from February 24th to March 11th

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