Yes, Linda Livingston is bald.
She isn’t the kind of bald men say they are when they still have a circle of fringe about the noggin, nor is she the kind of bald women say they are after long locks are shorn into pixie-’dos. Livingston is Humpty Dumpty bald, bald tires bald and itsy-bitsy, newborn- baby-pink rat bald. Which means she’s also, for lack of a more PC term, cancer bald. Which happens to be the point.
Livingston is set to star in Wit, or W;t, the hilariously funny, achingly poignant play — about an uptight English professor dying of ovarian cancer — that won a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1999 and was later parlayed into a tear-jerking, 2001 made-for-TV movie starring Emma Thompson. The dare-you-not-to-cry movie, Livingston insists, lacks much of the humor of the play, which was penned by first-time playwright Margaret Edson (interesting aside: Edson worked several odd jobs while writing W;t and was working as a kindergarten teacher during the start of its very first production in New York City. At one point, she also worked in an oncology ward).
W;t is also the very first production of Transport Theatre, a brand-new company started by Livingston, a veteran actress who also teaches to pay the bills, and her long-time friend, actor and director Taylor Kasch. “We wanted something I would direct and he would act in, or that he would direct and I would act in,” Livingston said of W;t, from beneath a ball cap covering her slightly stubbly head, in a Ventura coffeehouse. The coffeehouse served as both a prime interview spot and a comfy, internal rehearsal zone for Livingston, who — just a couple weeks shy of her June 16 debut in W;t at the Circus Theatre — was busy reviewing her lines. In yet another first, Transport’s production will also be the first production of W;t performed in Ventura County.
“Interestingly, I was asked to audition for this role a few years ago and I said ‘No’ because I didn’t want to shave my head,” Livingston said. “When it got to be a week before the hair appointment, I was really freaking out — not sleeping at night.”
Livingston wears the baldness well, but, if you didn’t know she was playing the part of a cancer patient, you’d be easily convinced that she’s a very sick woman. And while the loss of her hair, which she donated to the charity, Locks for Love, at first deterred her from taking the part, it became a virtual non-issue when it was gone. “I forget about it until people look at me weird,” she said. “I get one of three reactions: empathy, which is great — I like that. And then there are people who won’t really look at you.”
The third group, then, is the problem. “It’s really weird,” Livingston said, “but some people look really annoyed. It’s almost like they think, ‘How could you go out like that?’ like they’re afraid they’re going to catch something … I got to do this of my own free will and I’m not sick. If you have to do this because you’re going through chemo, it’s got to be a totally different thing. It makes me very grateful.”
Livingston’s shorn head — accessorized with what she calls her “Mr. Spock-like ears” and a strawberry birthmark — is a prime example of how seemingly innocuous physical changes can inspire changes of emotion and spirit. Or, stated in a less long-winded way, shaving her head helped her get into character. “It made me feel so vulnerable,” she said. “I’m pretty emotional anyway, but I noticed the next day I was more emotional.”
Because W;t, described by many as a play that colors outside the lines of style, essentially details the professor’s journey to her own death, emotion is, well, helpful. Livingston describes her character, Vivian Bearing, Ph.D., a 50-year-old Donne scholar, as a “strong and almost unlikable” woman, a control freak who’s spent so much time perusing that works of John Donne that she’s missed out on life. “I think it’s about so many things,” Livingston said of the play, “but a lot of it is about passion and forgiveness. It’s a play about life disguised as a play about death.”
Bearing’s sharp mind, Donne’s holy sonnets and the ravages of cancer provide the backdrop for a last-minute journey of discovery. “She spent so much time researching details that life just went past her,” Livingston said. “No one comes to visit her in the hospital. She has no family or friends, and never married. It’s about how the material things aren’t what you take with you.”
Livingston compares W;t to Tuesdays With Morrie, the popular novel and play that also ends in death. “Someone dies, but there’s humor,” she said. “It’s more about how you live your life.”
When asked what it’s like to die repeatedly on stage, to cycle through the prospect of death endlessly, Livingston answers that sometimes those difficult, emotional shows are surprisingly “energizing.” During another production, in which she portrayed Anne Frank’s mother, she burst into tears every single time the “Nazis” were heard pounding at the door. “Something has to really affect me,” she said.
W;t is one of those somethings. Directed by veteran actor John Slade, who some may recognize from his recent (and superb) appearance as Scanlon in the Rubicon Theatre Company’s production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the show boasts a cast of eight — including Ron Rezac, Gina Hugo, Regina Mocey, Christopher Fielder (the emcee in Ventura College’s recent production of Cabaret), Das Baker, Parker Brown and Kristen Jensen Storey. Not bad, especially for a first outing.
More difficult than securing the cast, however, was tracking down all the expensive medical equipment — for instance, intravenous bags — that would be needed as props. Some of the equipment came from the charity, Direct Relief International, in Goleta. Other pieces came from eBay. “I was on eBay, like, three times a day,” Livingston said. Thankfully, work on the production began about a year ago.
Recognizing that there was a need to fill the gap between professional theater (such as the Rubicon) and community theater in Ventura County, Livingston and Kasch decided to establish Transport Theatre — a company that, they hope, will offer opportunities for both professional actors and community members who want to act. They decided to call it Transport, she jokes, because it “sounded better than schlep theatre,” and because the company will rove until it has a permanent home. Livingston is a member of the Actors’ Equity Association, and she wants to broaden the horizon of local opportunity for herself and other Equity actors. She’s not ready yet, however, to quit her day job. “I’m lucky to have passion,” she said. “I don’t have a house — but I love acting.”