Keeping Up the Paice
Jill Paice Juggles an International Career and a Uniquely Challenging Broadway Role
By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Jill Paice isn't actually British, but you'd never guess that from her resume. On Broadway, the Ohio native dropped her American accent to play Laura Fairlie, the clever heiress in Andrew Lloyd Webber's veddy English musical The Woman in White, and she's currently tackling all the female roles in the long-running comedy The 39 Steps, which first premiered in a small British theater. Even when she played American heroine Scarlett O'Hara, in last year's short-lived musical adaptation of Gone of With the Wind, she was appearing on London's West End.
Her international lifestyle even confuses Paice's friends. "Sometimes, they tell me my accent has changed," she laughs. But even when it affects her speech, Paice's work overseas has given her a unique perspective on what it means to work on Broadway.
For one thing, the crowds are different. "American audiences are always more congenial, and the British audiences are more reserved," she says. "Americans tell you right away what they think, but in London, you're not sure if they're liking what you're doing. You think they are, but it's hard to be sure." (Interestingly, British actresses Harriet Walter and Janet McTeer recently told TDF that they have had the opposite response while appearing on Broadway in Mary Stuart. Since they were used to quiet British approval, they initially thought American audiences were boisterous because they weren't really listening to the show.)
Paice says that the biggest distinction between Broadway and the West End, however, is in the sense of community. In New York, performance schedules often let actors and crew members see other shows, and it seems like Broadway stars come together every week for some kind of softball game, charity recording, or fundraising event. Life in the West End is much more isolated.
"When you're in New York, you can start to take those events for granted, but when you step away from the Broadway community, you really miss it," Paice says. "In the West End, they're missing that sense of community, and therefore, maybe they're missing that sense of pride in what they do or in what they're a part of. It's really important for actors to honor our craft, and it's important to honor other people. It makes you get more excited about what you do."
And if there's any show on Broadway that demands a sense of community, it's The 39 Steps, which spoofs Alfred Hitchock's 1935 thriller of the same name. The four-person cast not only plays over a hundred roles, but also operates scenery and creates a series of elaborate shadow puppets.
"There's never time to think," says Paice, who had to perfect multiple accents and quick costume changes to play, among other things, a spy and a love interest. "It's like someone's throwing you a ball, and if you stop to look at the ball, then you're missing the next three that are being thrown at you." Discussing her fellow actors, she says, "We continually talk to each other about the little comic bits, and we say 'Can you help me out by doing this.' There are a lot of rules that you're supposed to go through a stage manager if you need to say those things to another actor, but there are five hundred bits in the show. Can you imagine how long it would take to go through someone else every time? We're lucky that we can just say what we need to each other." It would be hard enough to originate a role in the show, but Paice had the added challenge of replacing a cast member. "It's a little terrifying because you go in and see the finished product when you're nowhere near that," she says. "You go in and you don't want to step on anyone's toes-sometimes literally-and you want to make sure that you give everyone what they need."
Paice, who started performances in June, says she was so focused (and nervous) during her first dress rehearsal that she cried at the end of the first act. "It was just such a relief getting through it," she says. "The first few nights I was still critiquing everything in my head. But the more you do it, the more it just gets in your body. Now, I'm having a lot of fun."
Author: Mark Blankenship
Mark Blankenship has written for The New York Times, Variety, The Village Voice, and many others. He also edits The Critical Condition, an award-winning pop-culture criticism blog. (www.thecriticalcondition.com)