Almost at the outset of my interview with Karen Pittman, she began talking about “the joy of playing Nya,” her worried mother and high-school teacher in Pipeline. “Nya very early on pulls the audience into her charisma,” Pittman said.
The same could be said for Pittman herself. At LCT alone, her gallery of portraits includes a very focused attorney in Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, a slick talk-show host in Bruce Norris’s Domesticated, and now Nya. Pittman’s magnetism is as evident when she is listening as when she is talking. She credits playwrights and their texts for helping her develop this ability. Speaking of Dominique Morisseau, the author of Pipeline, Pittman said, “The smart thing about her plays is that as an actor and as a character you get to make an argument but then you have to really listen to the other side.”
Pittman’s working philosophy, honed during her graduate studies in theater at NYU, is that “actors are there to be of service to the play and the playwright.” She imbibed a related philosophy as a child in Nashville. “I didn’t grow up in a religious family but in a very spiritual family. It was about being of service to your community. My mother was Methodist, and she believed in the words of the Methodist faith that Hillary Clinton likes to cite,” which, for the record, are: “Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.”
Part of Pittman’s mission has included regular appearances in drama by writers of color. “I like working with playwrights,” she said, “who haven’t often gotten their opportunity to speak in our culture.” In addition to Akhtar and Morisseau, Pittman cited Fernanda Coppel, whose play King Liz, gave Pittman the chance to play a title character off-Broadway.
Pittman displays as much enthusiasm as an audience member as she does as an actor, sharing her love for the work of Clifford Odets, August Wilson, Terrence McNally, and Lynn Nottage. Of the off-Broadway production of the Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, Pittman said, “I remember that after the curtain came down on that play, I couldn’t move. I thought: I’ve just seen the best thing ever.” She considers Viola Davis, the star of Intimate Apparel in that staging, an example of what happens when “an actor comes to the right story with the right playwright, the right director, the right lighting, the right costumes. When that happens, you see everything so brilliantly.”
Pittman and I talked briefly about the musical version of Intimate Apparel, a commission between the Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center Theater, that Nottage has been working on with the composer Ricky Ian Gordon. Once we veered into a musical discussion, I couldn’t help asking Pittman about her opera training, as an undergraduate at Northwestern, and her pivot to acting in live drama and television. (For the latter, she’s done episodes of “The Americans,” “Luke Cage,” and “Horace and Pete.”)
“It wasn’t such a big pivot,” Pittman responded. “In opera, there’s a lot of heightened behavior and a lot of acting happening. I fell in love with the ego pull of opera. Because it’s you at the center of attention.”
In fact, Pittman continued, “I grew up more invested in dramatic play than in singing. Singing was just a talent that I had. I sang mostly in a classical idiom, but my undergrad training was a little rigid, and not very useful to me. So I broke out of it and tried to go into the pop-music business in New York.”
She was a temp at Sony Music and even had a showcase with the company’s honcho, Tommy Mottola. But the pop end of music left Pittman wanting. “I kept asking myself: what are you serving? That music wasn’t satisfying the fundamental part of me.”
Although Pittman appeared on Broadway in the musical Passing Strange, she isn’t known in the theater world for her singing ability, which gives a great big laugh to those of us who’ve heard her sing, with transfixing beauty, for a moment or two backstage.
“I’m dying to sing in a musical,” Pittman said. “But it always depends on the project. The most important thing about acting for me is not the role or even necessarily the story as much as the collaborators. Having interesting people in the room – people working at the level you want – inspires the heck out of me.”
Equally inspiring: the theatregoer. “Part of my mission every night is to reach at least one audience member and convey to them what I was hoping to do.” She continued: “We have been able to do that with Pipeline. At the curtain call, there’s always one woman who stands up and her face is red and she’s embarrassed and she’s hiding behind her hands. And I’m like, ‘I see you, boo.’”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.