Theatre communities are notoriously insular and Seattle is no exception. However, one of the many wonderful attributes that sets Seattle’s theatre community apart is that Seattle loves its homegrown actors and actually uses them. As a result, actors have a myriad of ways to “grow up” here. Contrast this to the wry saying amongst San Francisco actors: If you want to get hired in the Bay Area, move to New York.
“Just getting to work with the amazing people in Seattle has been my education,” says local actress Jessica Skerritt, who is about to star as Audrey in The 5th Ave/ACT co-production of Little Shop of Horrors. Graduating high school early, Skerritt had planned to attend Boston Conservatory to study opera, but at the last minute decided against it. Like many actors feeling the pull of New York or Los Angeles, Skerritt tried living in the lion’s den that is the City of Angels and found it wanting. “It was the strangest thing being down there. You’re having a conversation with someone and you constantly feel like they’re looking for the next best person to talk to.”
After returning to Seattle, Skerritt took acting and dance classes, voice coaching, and began finding work as an actress. Unless you’re not paying attention, chances are you have seen her around lately. Although she epitomizes your classic blonde bombshell, Skerritt is an intelligent and thoughtful performer, perfectly exemplified by her recent work in Village Theatre’s Xanadu as the Grecian muse Clio.
“I was a muse from Ancient Greece skating around in chiffon and I’m playing these scenes as honestly as I can because my character believes it!” Skerritt says with a laugh. Although it is more common than not that an actor’s looks dictate the types of roles she will play, Skerritt considers herself lucky to have avoided vacant ingenues. Even in her break-out role as Ulla in Village’s The Producers, she acknowledges that it takes a smart person to play an empty-headed character. “All good comedy comes out of a place of reality. It’s a tricky thing to learn, that you can’t force your hand. It can be a challenge to flesh [these characters] out and keep them relatable, but still keep the funny.”
Before her next Little Shop rehearsal, Skerritt sips an iced tea, speaking congenially as if across the table from a friend, as opposed to some goony reporter she’s never met. When discussing her past roles, such as Little Edie in The 5th and ACT’s last co-production Grey Gardens, it is clear that the process of becoming the character is what excites her the most about being an actress.
“Any role I take on, I have to see a little of myself in her. Little Edie was a tricky one because her world was unlike anything I’ve experienced, but there was a strength and a guile to her that I really latched onto. And vulnerability. I think that’s a really beautiful thing, finding that vulnerability.”
Skerritt is thrilled to inhabit Audrey, having grown up with Little Shop of Horrors — the gateway musical for many. At the time of this interview, she was about to head over to the first rehearsal on the stage. “Audrey is painfully insecure. I certainly feel that in this crazy profession I’ve chosen. The process of auditioning and scrambling for roles can just make you feel crazy and insignificant and insecure. . . but Audrey’s hopeful! And that’s what is so lovely about her! She dreams about getting out and she is a survivor.” She credits her director with helping her fully realize the role, working with him to keep Audrey from becoming the loopy caricature. “[Little Shop Director] Bill Berry has such a beautiful vision for the show and great understanding of who these people are and the world they live in.”
Passionate about Seattle’s theatre community, Skerritt is especially grateful and proud of how even the larger companies such as The 5th Avenue, ACT, and Village foster local talent. “I don’t think people understand that around here as much as they should. My husband was just in Spamalot and he went out closing weekend to Sullivan’s and sat by a man and his daughter who had just been to the show. The father was saying, ‘There’s no way, there’s no way all those people are from Seattle, they have Broadway credits.’ And I heard the same thing sitting in the audience, people saying, ‘No way, they can’t be local. That’s just a gimmick.’ What a strange misconception!”
Up next for Skerritt? She’s been cast in ACT’s evening of one acts this summer that include works by Woody Allen, Steve Martin, and Sam Shepherd. “I’m wildly intimidated by it,” she says shyly. Part of Skerritt’s inherent charm and lovable nature, and doubtless another reason why she continues to foster successful relationships with Seattle’s top theatres, is her eagerness to grow as an artist. There is no doubt that her talent is deserving of success, but she doesn’t feel entitled to it. “I feel so incredible lucky to be here and be where I am. I knock on wood a lot,” she says. She smiles, her eyes lighting up with the future of possibilities. “I just want to keep working. That’s what Seattle is all about. Doing good work with good people.”
Little Shop of Horrors plays now through June 15 at ACT – A Contemporary Theatre (700 Union Street, Seattle, WA 98101). Tickets (starting at $20) may be purchased online at www.acttheatre.org, by phone 206-292-7676, or at the ACT Box Office.
Book recommendations by Jessica Skerritt:
Shop Girl and The Pleasure of My Own Company by Steve Martin
When asked what roles Skerritt would love to play in the future she answered Desirae from A Little Night Music and Baker’s Wife from Into the Woods. You hear that, Universe?