Overton Square gets an extra boost of energy weekend nights at just about 10 p.m., when final curtains start falling block by block. Ovations swell and fade into the night. Playhouse doors swing wide and audiences, dressed for an evening on the town, pour into the street and pool on sidewalks to chat, smoke, or both. Busy-seeming couples hustle past the loiterers and into waiting cars that ferry them away, while others stroll north, lured by a neon glow and the clatter and roar of nearby clubs. It’s a lively scene of life in transition that plays itself out while working actors, still in their dressing rooms, slip out of costume and character, and into themselves and civvies for the night. It’s a scene performers seldom witness — but sometimes they do.
Veteran actor Irene Crist was picking up a friend recently when she saw the plays let out. “I remember the buzz starting,” she says. “I was sitting in my car on Cooper when people started coming out of Playhouse. Then they started coming out of Circuit. And then they started walking up the street from TheatreWorks. All these people had been to the theater. All these people were coming out from different spaces, having seen different shows. It gave me such an incredible sense that all is well. It made my heart beat a little faster, like all of this was part of something much bigger. It was the first sense I got that Overton Square really is a theater district. Which means Memphis really is a theater town.”
If Memphis is a theater town as Crist asserts, she did her part to make it so. As an actor, she’s set a high bar. As a teacher for Playhouse on the Square’s conservatory, she’s shared her gifts across generations. She’s retiring from the stage in June after one last performance at Circuit Playhouse in Ripcord, Pulitzer-prize winning playwright David Lindsey-Abaire’s geriatric farce about odd-couple roommates who find themselves in an all-out brawl to determine who reigns supreme in the nursing home.
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Crist has been one of Memphis’ most reliable and recognizable actors since she first went to work for Jackie Nichols and Playhouse on the Square in 1978. She’s known Overton Square in its glory days, remembers when it hit the skids, and watched it bounce back and the number of theaters grow from one to four. She dropped into the scene on a high note and it looks like the classically trained actress who built a reputation for versatility, playing characters that ranged from Shakespeare’s ingenues to the pharmaceutical-impaired matriarch of August: Osage County, will bow out on one too.
“Now, I don’t want people to think I’m leaving the theater,” Crist says more than once, mortified by the very idea that anybody could ever think such a thing. She still loves teaching and will continue to direct and work behind the scenes. But there have been health concerns. Learning lines isn’t always easy, like it used to be. Crist wants to say goodbye before someone has to tell her it’s time, so fans are on notice. After a remarkable 38-year run in Memphis theater, there’s officially a limited number of opportunities to watch a local treasure do the thing she’s done so well for so long.
Before moving South with her first husband — a college professor who found employment teaching mime at Memphis State University — Crist worked as a full-time actress with a small startup theater company in Rockville, Maryland. “I didn’t have to work a regular 9 to 5 job until I was at least 30-ish,” she brags. Street 70, the company where she cut her teeth, started out as a project of the Montgomery County Dept. of Recreation. It grew into the Round House Theatre, an award-winning Beltway company with an Equity venue in Bethesda and an education center in Silver Springs. Helping to launch this company was Crist’s first real job. It was also the continuation of a lifelong student/mentor relationship with Round House founder June Allen, a British actress who’d trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts under the guidance of British stage icons like Sir Michael Redgrave and Sir John Gielgud.
“She fascinated me with her very British accent,” Crist says of Allen, whom she met while she was still in elementary school, because she seemed to be the only kid in all of Montgomery County interested in the English transplant’s first attempt to launch a municipal theater project. “And I must have fascinated her too because she called my mother and said she wanted to teach me privately.” Rigorous private lessons continued through high school, and the two women remained close until Allen passed away in 2016 at the age of 92.
Marriage changes things, and Crist’s promising theater career ended for the first time when she moved with her husband from the affluent D.C. suburbs to East Memphis at the recommendation of real estate consultants who assured the young couple they wouldn’t be happy living anywhere else. She only had one role in mind back then. The outspoken actress and occasional activist put all her plans on hold to play the part of a demure, Carter-era housewife. Or something like that.
“I joined the University Wives Club,” she says with a husky, cigarette-cured chuckle. “It was 1978 and it did not even occur to me to wonder why there was no such thing as a University Husbands Club.” To keep herself occupied she joined a book club and signed up for a beginning tatting class even though she didn’t really know what that was. “I knew tatting had something to do with sewing,” she says, although it doesn’t, really. “I wasn’t very good at that sewing, but thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to tatt!’” The first marriage proved rocky, and Crist, who would later earn rave reviews as Edward Albee’s fierce university wife Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, never did improve her tatting skills or her sewing skills, nor did she make any of the club meetings she signed up for.
“I got a call from Playhouse on the Square,” she explains. “They were doing Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and needed a Beatrice. So Crist, who was unaccustomed to auditioning, auditioned and landed the role of Shakespeare’s famously combative advocate for gender equality. Two weeks later, Jackie Nichols invited her to join Playhouse on the Square’s resident company, where she’d take on principal roles in shows like Lillian Hellman’s Another Part of the Forest and the Charles Dickens musical Oliver!
“This is when Playhouse really was on the Square,” Crist says. “Back when Jackie [Nichols] would wash the plastic cups at the bar.”
“We were too young to know any better and burning people out left and right,” Nichols says, remembering the austerity and long hours. Actors rehearsed 9-5 and performed six shows five nights a week, Wednesday- Sunday. “I laugh when people say we do too much today,” he says. “We did two shows on Saturday at 6 and 9. And when we closed a show, the next show opened five days later.” Crist, he says, fell right into the routine.
“She is extremely flexible,” Nichols says. “She could do everything. We’re a resident company doing all different kinds of shows — Shakespeare, contemporary drama, comedy, you name it. She was all over it. Irene was exactly what our company needed at that point in time. Enormously valuable.”
The people Crist met in Overton Square weren’t like any she’d encountered anywhere else and she quickly decided the helpful people at Apartment Finders had done her no real favors by insisting that East Memphis was the key to her personal bliss. “I remember sitting at this little bistro right next to the theater with a banker and one of the Square owners,” Crist says, recounting her introduction to Midtown’s bohemian set, to which these two buttoned-down men clearly did not belong. To Crist’s surprise Memphis artist, puppeteer, washboard scratcher, and hippie hero Jimmy Crosthwait rounded out the dinner party. Suits didn’t mingle with the counterculture in the Beltway bedroom communities where she’d come of age. This was all brand-new, endlessly intriguing, and she wanted to move west as fast as she could.
Crist left the theater for the second time in 1985 when she was pregnant with her first child. The pace was too hectic. The pay wasn’t enough for a growing family. Through connections she’d made on the Square, she found a job in marketing. She also spent time working for The Commercial Appeal, developing newspaper-based education programs. She missed the spotlight, but the new schedule suited her better.
“When I discovered you could leave a job at 5, go home, have the evening and weekends off too, I thought there was nothing that could pull me back to theater. From high school on, I’d never had any of that. It was marvelous.”
She was never fully reformed. Every couple of years Memphis actor/director Jerry Chipman offered Crist a part in a show she couldn’t say no to — roles like Anna in Lanford Wilson’s 80’s-era hit Burn This, or Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter. She’d never worked in community theater before, and wasn’t sure how she felt about it at first.
“I’d always been paid,” Crist says. “But I loved working at Theatre Memphis. I felt the actors were respected and cared for. It was fun and I was making my living elsewhere, and that was okay.”
Chipman says it was the juicy roles, not any personal charm of his own, that kept Crist at least occasionally engaged during a break that would last 18 years. His joy came from watching her work at close range, playing opposite her so many times in shows like Love Letters, Orson’s Shadow, or Other Desert Cities. “But directing her, playing opposite her, or just being held captive by another fine piece of her work as a member of the audience, the two things that always impress me the most are her honesty and her economy,” Chipman says. “She never wastes an opportunity to deliver a simple truth, and she never takes that moment too far or lets it land too wide. She’s a skilled and consummate professional. And then there’s that great husky, sexy voice.”
Then 9/11 happened.
“I started thinking about how we have a finite number of days,” Crist says. “And yes, I know it sounds cliché.” For her the national tragedy was extra personal, and extra tragic. An old friend and colleague was on board the flight hijackers crashed into the Pentagon. She remembers reading the news ticker when it was announced that In the Heat of the Night star Howard Rollins Jr. died in the crash. Rollins, who also appeared in films like Ragtime and A Soldier’s Story, once tried to say no to Crist’s mentor June Allen. He told her he wasn’t quite ready to play Othello. “Of course not, dear,” Allen responded. “I just want you to taste it.”
“I was his Desdemona,” says Crist, who mourned the loss, but didn’t return to the stage until August 2003 when she bumped into Jackie Nichols at the Ostrander Awards.
Crist had a good run at Theatre Memphis, appearing in dramas like Far East, The Real Thing, The Little Foxes, and Les Liaisons Dangereuses. When she finally cornered Jackie and told him she was thinking about coming back to the theater full-time, he said, ‘That’s funny, I was just thinking about you for Spitfire Grill.’”
Crist wasn’t sure about the material but followed up on the offer, and when general season auditions rolled around, she also tried out for director Dave Landis, whom she describes as the love/hate relationship of her life. She sang Sondheim for him horribly but did everything else well enough to land the gig anyway. In short order she found herself back in the full-time acting game, starring in a folksy musical and more than a little bit terrified.
“I hadn’t sung in 25 or 30 years,” Crist says, wincing at the prospect. All concerns aside, Spitfire turned out to be a terrific little show, and an auspicious return to the professional stage.
“Her focus could be just razor sharp,” says Landis, who compares their professional relationship to some of their more combative onstage partnerships — a little bit Golda and Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, a little bit Martha and George from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. “Now I think you see that same focus when she’s directing,” he says.
Directing is still a new frontier for Crist, who never really considered ever being anything but an actor. A college instructor once observed her sweeping the shop floor and noted how lucky she was to have other theatrical skills. “So I figured if an actor is all I am, maybe I should just do that,” she says.
But Crist’s comeback was accompanied by a shift in artistic focus. In addition to acting for Playhouse, she started directing shows for smaller theaters and suburban companies like Desoto Family Theatre. It was all pretty small stuff until 2010, when Theatre Memphis revived a production of Much Ado that Crist had set at the end of the Vietnam war and originally staged for Bartlett Community Theatre. The revival brought Crist’s Shakespearean romp more attention than it originally received and high praise for an offbeat cast and original, authentically psychedelic musical arrangements created by her son, Bennett Foster.
So Much Ado — Crist’s first show as an actor in Memphis — also heralded her arrival as a director of note. In 2013, her epic simultaneous staging of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America Parts 1 and 2 swept Memphis’ Ostrander Awards, bringing home 15 play prizes including Best Dramatic Production and a Best Director nod for Crist. In the following season she used her newfound talent for directing two plays at a time to stage richly imagined productions of Chekhov’s The Seagull, and Christopher Durang’s Chekhov-inspired comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Like Angels, it was an enormous undertaking and a similarly enormous success with Memphis theater judges, earning Crist and Playhouse a second round of Best Director and Best Production Ostranders for the Durang.
Crist is currently directing Hand to God, Robert Askins’ dark comedy about fundamentalist religion in Texas. It closes at Circuit Playhouse February 19.
Prolific actor, educator, and director Pamela Poletti says it’s hard to imagine a Memphis where Crist isn’t on stage playing Amanda in The Glass Menagerie or Big Mama in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She’s compelled to brainstorm places where her friends’ talents can be put to use as soon as she says she’s through. “Maybe Chatterbox Audio Theater,” Poletti says hopefully, suggesting some future collaboration with Memphis’ enduring audio-only theater troupe.
Poletti’s acting resume is expansive — from Shakespeare and Shaw to Beckett and Sarah Ruhl. As a director, she once guided Crist through one of her most vivid portrayals as Vivian Leigh in the backstage historical fiction, Orson’s Shadow.
“I wanted that role,” Crist says. “I’d been cast over and over again in old lady roles. When I saw Circuit was doing the play, I did my research. The actress who played Vivian on Broadway was the exact same age as me. So I sent Dave Landis one of those 3 a.m. emails I should have probably waited till morning to send.” Regardless, the email worked. Landis agreed that Crist had been stuck in little old lady roles for too long and thought she deserved a crack at Vivian — a character who’s older than the Scarlet O’Hara of our imaginations and fragile in every way.
Poletti does theater today because, as a middle school student, Crist, still in her first go-round as a resident company member and teacher at Playhouse on the Square, singled her out in a class full of other middle school students, much like Crist’s mentor June Allen once singled her out. “I can still see Irene sitting, all coiled up on the floor,” Poletti says. “Are you serious about this?” Crist asked the young girl in a voice dipping down into bass registers. Like Allen, Crist saw something special and offered a chance to take private lessons.
Poletti says the best thing about directing her first teacher was watching how she practiced what she taught. Then she describes, as well as anybody has or could, what Memphis will miss when the curtain comes down on Ripcord and this great lady takes her final bow.
“When she’s onstage and fully present there’s nobody else like her,” Poletti says. “There’s nothing else like her. She is one hell of an actress.”