Mia Dillon savors a jam-packed theater year

by Joe Meyers, CT Post

Acting is a tough profession that consists of countless interviews and auditions that rarely lead to jobs — the national unemployment rate at any given time is around 90 percent.

So, veteran performer Mia Dillon, 62, is savoring a highly unusual year in which she has been offered four juicy acting jobs without having to audition for any of them. Since last spring, Dillon has starred in “Cloud 9” at Hartford Stage, “Lettice and Lovage” at the Westport Country Playhouse, “Arsenic and Old Lace” at the Berkshire Theatre Group and the current “Seder” at Hartford Stage.

Mia Dillon is featured in the Hartford Stage production of “Seder,” running through Nov. 12. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

The Fairfield actor’s first job of 2017 was a sudden offer that grew out of a crisis at Hartford Stage when one of the cast members in “Cloud 9” was injured just a few days before the first public performance. The phone rang in Maine where Dillon was doing an NPR “Selected Shorts” show with her actor-husband Keir Dullea. Could she step in for the fallen performer and be on stage in four days?

 “I had three days to get ready. I worked on it four hours on Friday, did the show in Maine Saturday and then spent a full day (in Hartford) on Sunday. The actors were off Monday, so I just rehearsed with (director) Elizabeth (Williamson). I was on stage Tuesday night and off book for Act 1,” Dillon says, still sounding amazed by the radically compressed rehearsal and memorization period.

The actor faced the added challenge of playing two different roles in “Cloud 9” — a 10-year-old and a 60-year-old.

Mia Dillon in the spring 2017 production of “Cloud 9” at Hartford Stage. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

“I think I did a pretty darn good job,” she says of a performance that was cited by the Connecticut Critics Circle at its annual awards ceremony in the spring.

Dillon believes her emergency service on “Cloud 9” paved the way to working with the same director on “Seder,” which is running through Nov. 12 at Hartford Stage.

“My 60-year-old character in the play looks back at her 19-year-old self, her late-20s self and her 40s-self. I think Elizabeth might have told (playwright) Sarah (Gancher), ‘I know an actress who can play all the parts.’”

Dillon feels lucky to be in the cast of the world premiere of “Seder” that examines the Nazi and Soviet occupation of Hungary, but does so in a way that should make theatergoers think about present-day parallels.

“It’s a very, very interesting play with so many levels,” Dillon says. “Sometimes you go to the theater nowadays and you’re disappointed by what seems like an episode from a TV series. This is certainly not that. It’s a massive play that asks huge questions.”

In an age of nearly boundless entertainment options, Dillon thinks theater should offer a rich experience that can’t be found at home on a screen.

“You can get entertainment on your iPhone now,” she says. “This is more than entertainment — it’s about expanding your outlook on life. When I go to the theater, I want my mind to be challenged. I want to think and feel.”

Dillon worries that young actors who decide to focus on serious stage work won’t find the same opportunities she did in her early days in New York City.

“It’s totally transformed,” she says of a Broadway scene that no longer produces as many plays as it did in the 1980s. “Audiences and producers share a lot of blame for that … but part of it is producers thinking they need a TV star or a movie star rather than a trained stage actor.

“Prices are to blame too. When I did ‘Crimes of the Heart’ the top ticket was $25,” she says of the original 1981 Broadway production of Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. “I remember seeing the original ‘Chicago’ for $5 in the last row of the balcony. Actors’ salaries have not gone up at the same rate as ticket prices, so it is much harder for an actor to make a living. In regional theater, I’m earning the same money now that I did during the 1990s. I don’t know how young actors do it.”

Mia Dillon in the 2014 Hartford Stage production of “A Song at Twilight,” with Brian Murray. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

The New York acting scene has been damaged, Dillon believes, by the exodus of straight plays from commercial productions on Broadway to nonprofit New York companies such as the Roundabout Theatre and Manhattan Theatre Club,. The critical prestige might still be high, but the salaries are much lower than for a Broadway production. In her early days, Dillon was able to find good-paying jobs in several long-running Broadway hits, including “Agnes of God” and “Equus,” before her Tony-nominated work in “Crimes of the Heart.”

“I was very fortunate because there were a lot more opportunities to do plays on Broadway then. My first Broadway (job) was in ‘Equus,’ which had a seven-year run. Musical actors can still find work and make a living on Broadway, but it’s much harder for actors who do plays,” she says.

Dillon is savoring the chance to dig into her fourth meaty role of the year. She has been working very hard for months, but jokes, “Adrenaline is a very powerful drug. When you burn your candle at both ends you use up all of your energy, but you rise to the occasion. You get through it because you love what you’re doing.”

jmeyers@hearstmediact.com; Twitter: @joesview