By the time the Washington, D.C., theater scene’s 2014-2015 season comes to a close, Shayna Blass might take top honors as its MVP.
The bubbly actress, singer and dancer currently stars as a master of disguise in Theater J’s Yentl, playing the character of the same name: A young girl in 19th-century Eastern Europe who goes against the norm by disguising herself as a man so she can study Talmud at a yeshiva. Next month, she’ll grace Arena Stage for its production of Fiddler on the Roof, portraying Shprintze, one of Teyve the milkman’s daughters. If you still can’t get enough of Blass after that, you can catch her in Signature Theatre’s production of Cabaret this coming spring.
Born and raised in D.C., Blass—whose previous local repertoire includes roles in RENT, Rabbit Hole and Nine—talked to WJW about her admiration for the character of Yentl, her recent opportunities to play Jewish roles, how she maintains that fabulous hairdo, and more.
You and the rest of the Yentl cast recently performed at an open-mic night downtown. How did that go?
It was great! It was at Black Fox Lounge in Dupont. It’s sort of like a musical, theater, slam poetry night that they host every Monday. They always have spoken word, poetry or stand-up, and they always have a vocal component. It’s a good way for people to advertise their shows. I’ve done my own features there a couple times where I sang six or seven songs. It’s the only open mic place that’s consistent that we can go sing at. A couple of the other cast members sang musical theater songs and songs they wrote. We performed “Last Candle,” the first song that I sing in Yentl.
You play the title character in the show. What is it about Yentl that attracted you to the role?
I just have so much respect for Yentl’s bravery and courage and almost blind impulsiveness. She’s just a woman who knows what she wants and she goes after it. Almost to a fault where she doesn’t take a lot of time to really question her actions until the end, except she has a reason for everything. She’s really thought it all out and is so sure of herself and sure of what she wants. I try to be that, I respect her for that.
The play debuted in 1975. Now, people might refer to Yentl as a transgender character, or a gender nonconformist. Transgender issues are a huge topic in today’s news cycle. Do you think, in a way, the character and the play’s message gives it a newfound relevancy?
Yeah, I mean, honestly I’d never think of Yentl as being transgender. I think that she portrays a man and does it very successfully. But the impulse is in order to survive, she has to become a man. I think the power of being a man – making your own decisions, choosing exactly who you want to marry, when you want to marry them, what you want to learn and where you want to live – becomes addictive for her. I think the story is of a woman who was born at the wrong time, not necessarily in the wrong body. She has all these amazing, staunch ideas that seem pretty radical for the time. I definitely think it opens up a new conversation of how gender is perceived and how respectable this masculine male identity is. And how much she was able to get away with what she did, or how she was able to live the exact life she wanted because she was being someone else. I definitely think that’s super relevant to today.
Your next role after this is in Fiddler on the Roof at Arena Stage. Are you more attracted to Jewish theater roles, or is it more of when the opportunity arises, you take it?
Really, it just happens that way. I think it’s an incredible opportunity for me to be playing Yentl at Theater J and then to be doing Fiddler. I’ve never been the most religious, but I definitely grew up in a very Jewishly cultural family. It totally just happened, that Fiddler happened to be in the slot right after Yentl. I definitely commend both theaters for letting me do this because it is part of my heritage, and I feel like I naturally connect to both shows. At the beginning of Yentl at the top of the show, we’re onstage before I say anything and we’re reading these Talmuds. I can’t read Hebrew anymore, but it’s amazing sitting on stage and learning these Hebrew words and touching these books. This is my history, this is my past. My family has been Jewish since as far back as we know. Coming from Eastern Europe, and I do have some family coming from Poland, which is where Yentl takes place. It’s been incredibly eye-opening, and I feel super connected to it.
What about the D.C. theater scene makes you want to stick around and continue to perform in shows in the area? What sets it apart from other cities?
I feel lucky that I was born in D.C. and have that natural connection to it. It’s so welcoming and warm. I’m doing Theater J right now, then Arena, and in the spring I’m doing Cabaret at Signature Theatre. None of these theaters I’ve worked with before. These will be my first shows with three different theaters. I don’t think you could go to any other city and feel as welcomed as I feel this season. I really connect to it. It’s a very livable city and the people are amazing. They’ve become my family, the people who I’ve done shows with. That’s another part of why I love doing theater. You get a new family every time you do the shows. It seems comfortable but not in a way that I don’t feel artistically challenged.
You started out as a dancer, and of course, you also sing and act. Is there one talent you enjoy more, or do you have an equal affinity for all three?
I’ve been singing forever. Not even just professionally, just out of the habit. My parents said I was always singing as a kid. I went to a Christian preschool when I was younger because it was convenient for my parents, where we lived. They said I would come home and sing songs about Jesus [laughs]. It didn’t bother them. I was just singing. I just liked the tune. I liked having words to music, for whatever reason. I would love to try and get more into plays because I want to challenge myself where I have to do a show with no singing. Like, how am I going to convince the audience to believe me without singing to them? I find that so therapeutic. I feel like people can relate more emotionally if they can hear it in a song.
If you had the chance to be in any production of any show, what would it be and why?
Oh, man. At root it would have to be a musical. If I could do all Tennessee Williams’ plays. Any female in any Tennessee Williams play. If I could play Blanche in Streetcar Named Desire for a month and then switch and play Stella for a month, that would be awesome.
What advice do you have for young people pursuing a career in theater?
I would say see everything. No matter what town you’re in, see everything. Start getting to know the actors and actresses in the town, and get to know what theaters you want to work at. And really start to support your city’s art. What’s so great about this business is it’s really tough, but what’s really awesome about it is the people. Because there is no better people than theater people, in the world. The more people you get to know and the more people who get to know you, the more you figure out where you want to work, what kind of art you want to do and what kind of roles you want to play. I didn’t start doing this until later. But see theater. And meet people. And meet people and talk about theater.
Finally, we need to talk about your hair. It’s amazing. What’s your secret?
Oh my gosh, my hair! Well now it’s so short. I’ve never had it this short before. I cut it for Yentl. It takes forever to grow. But, you know, I think it’s just these really awesome Jewish genes that I got. I do leave my conditioner in my hair. That’s a secret. I use the thickest conditioner that I can, I put it in my hair in the shower, and then I leave it. So for all those gals out there, it helps with the frizz.