Breadwinner is just one of versatile Grace Gonglewski’s many roles

Posted: April 29, 2012

Grace Gonglewski, the tall, velvet-voiced actor Philadelphia theatergoers have been seeing on professional stages for two decades, was standing in front of a microphone the other day.

At this moment, she was not being Hedda Gabler, or Shakespeare’s shrewish Kate, or a crackhead or a lesbian schoolteacher or George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara. A few hours later in rehearsal, she would become Claire, her current role in the 1812 Productions version of David Mamet’s comedy Boston Marriage.

For now, she was not exactly being Grace Gonglewski, either. Alone in a tiny padded studio at the Center City recording company Baker Sound, she was acting, in a subtle way. She stood at the microphone — somehow, though 5-foot-9, she appears more imposing on stage than in real life — and her narrow frame was covered mostly in black: calf-high boots, leotard, skirt, top, a comfortable outfit for what would be a 14-hour working day.

“Grace, would you mind doing an upbeat one?” asked a disembodied male voice through the speakers — a director somewhere in another state. “Sure, sure,” she said into the mike, and her voice became as rich and natural as a fruit smoothie. “Break free from the everyday,” she entreated. “Life’s just more fun when you play by your own rules.”

Gonglewski was playing by hers. The radio commercial she was recording, for a casino resort in the Midwest, is how she pays the bills. At night, Gonglewski (pronounced gong-GLEF-ski) takes to the stage as characters notable and not — that’s where she does what she wants and has always wanted. Mornings are for a voice-over career that would surprise theatergoers familiar with her work, even though they may hear her often on radio and television ads.

“This is how we bought a house, this is how we bought insurance, this is how we bought cars,” she says of herself and her husband, Eric Schoefer, a carpenter who cofounded what is now the Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe, and who takes care of their 8-year-old daughter at their West Mount Airy home while Gonglewski is the breadwinner. She will make more from her 40 intense minutes at the microphone than the $400 she’ll clear weekly during the run of Boston Marriage, in previews now at Plays and Players Theatre on Delancey Place and opening Wednesday; its producer, 1812 Productions, is a midsize professional theater company that hires Actors’ Equity performers and pays Equity’s union scale under contract.

So actors like Gonglewski develop their own rules that, if they’re lucky, balance art and money. The art takes a lot more effort; Gonglewski will rehearse through the afternoon and into the evening, then maybe study her part for the May 7 single-night reading of the 2011 play 8 — about the campaign to overturn California’s Proposition 8, which barred same-sex marriage — at the Wilma Theater, a fund-raiser with a cast that includes Philadelphia and Broadway actors. Then, at 11:30 p.m., she’ll return to the recording studio where she started the day, for another commercial.

Gonglewski, 48, is a four-time Barrymore Award winner whose vocal trademark is not just her voice but also her crisp, all-American pronunciation. She has a reputation for being easy to work with and looking to try all the angles of a role.

“I think that’s one reason I’ve stuck around” in both theater and voice-over careers, she says. “I’m your tool and it’s my joy to give you everything you want to get out of me.” The same was true, she says, when she was doing the mandatory table-waiting that allows young actors to make ends meet. “I was a great waitress. Again, I take direction well. I was fast. I was charming.”

Says New York-based director Anne Kauffman, who staged the Wilma’s Body Awareness earlier this season with a cast that included Gonglewski: “She’s digging and digging and digging, and she’s willing to try absolutely anything. For someone with the experience and placement she has in the Philadelphia community as an actress, the fact that she comes in to rehearsal as a blank canvas for everyone to draw on, including herself — that’s a pretty big deal.”

In fact, Gonglewski also prepares intensively, even checking months before rehearsals begin, as she did with the creative team for the Arden’s Moon for the Misbegotten last year, to make sure her yet-undesigned costume would allow her the flexibility to move in the way she saw necessary for her part. (In his review, the Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout said she “came on like a typhoon,” adding, “I long to see her again.”

“I love acting because every part of me is utilized,” she says. “Every synapse is firing and I’m constantly trying to let go of being conscious of myself at the same time.”

Boston Marriage, in which Gonglewski plays a late-19th-century woman who lives comfortably with another woman but takes up with a much younger man, is her third play this season, after August: Osage County at the Arden and Body Awareness. In both, she was onstage with several actors she’s known for years.

Indeed, Gonglewski is one of several dozen Philadelphia theater artists who have grown up professionally in the city, stayed here to make careers, become close friends, and work together so often they have a sort of professional karma. Gonglewski and the actor Greg Wood, for instance, have been husband and wife on stage in 12 different productions.

Gonglewski, the fifth of seven siblings, lived in Swarthmore until she was 7, when the family moved to New Cumberland, outside Harrisburg. “It was a total culture shock and Philly was the city I always wanted to come back to,” she says.

She did, after a childhood in church and school plays and a degree from what’s now called the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, in Winston-Salem. In the late 1980s, she was planning to spend a year in Europe surveying English-speaking theater — she even had her plane ticket — when she was spotted at a New York general audition in which her school participated and was one of two people hired by Walnut Street Theatre’s producing artistic director Bernard Havard in the Walnut’s first apprenticeship program.

Havard, who has been auditioning actors for 50 years, responded with a chuckle when asked about Gonglewski last week — coincidentally, he had been auditioning her for the company’s main stage production of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband next season. “She combines nearly all the qualities I find in great actresses,” he said. “She has a real presence. As soon as she comes into a room, you know you’re dealing with someone who commands attention.”

Actor-director Matt Pfeiffer, who staged A Moon for the Misbegotten with Gonglewski at the Arden, echoes Havard: “You know she’s in the room. She has a lot of inner confidence and a very strong personality, and brings that to bear in her work.”

Jennifer Childs, the leader of 1812 Productions who is directing her longtime friend in Boston Marriage, says Gonglewski “goes so in-depth and comes in with this vast knowledge. The conversations are about how this fully formed person she’s been working on fits into this fully formed world you’ve been working on.”

For Gonglewski, that process is a major satisfaction. “You’re looking into someone else’s psyche and finding a tolerance and acceptance and understanding. That’s one of the gifts of acting — it teaches you tolerance for the characters you play. That’s one of the things I love about the theater.”

Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter.

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