Photo By Cameron Wittig
It was a discreet moment in a play filled with grand pronouncements, big laughs, and tour-de-force acting. In Terrence McNally’s Master Class, produced last fall by Theatre Latté Da, the Twin Cities’ most beloved and best-known actress, Sally Wingert, was holding court as the legendary opera diva Maria Callas. In the twilight of Callas’ career, her voice shot, she is teaching a master class to several aspiring opera students and has just received a bouquet of roses from a fan. Callas pretends that the flowers don’t mean anything to her, because public adoration is just an everyday part of being an opera mega-star. But after reading the accompanying card, for the second time, Wingert, in character, quietly tucks the note into her purse as a keepsake.
“That was entirely Sally,” says the show’s director, Peter Rothstein. “It was something she did spontaneously during rehearsal one day, and I thought it was brilliant.” Putting the card in her purse is not in the script, he says, but that small gesture crystallizes everything about the play. “Callas loves having the fans, but she really wants more intimate love,” Rothstein says. “She doesn’t care about the flowers, because they are transitory and she’s had dressing rooms full of them her entire life. But sneaking the card into her purse—that tells us how lonely for connection she really is.”
Wingert in Theatre Latté Da's production of Master Class.
Though Wingert is known to most Twin Citians as the Guthrie Theater’s joke-cracking comedienne-in-residence, it’s her attention to these small details—the nuances of her craft that many people would never notice—that makes Wingert such an extraordinary artist, Rothstein says. In that regard, she has much in common with Callas herself, who explains in the play that an artist of her caliber must be completely and totally dedicated. Says Callas: “Attention must be paid to every detail. The lights. Your wig. The amount of stage dust. A career in the theater demands total concentration. One hundred percent detail. You think I’m joking? I’m not joking. You wait, you’ll see.”
In real life, Sally Wingert—wife, mother, friend, neighbor, mentor—has almost nothing in common with people like Maria Callas. She may be extraordinarily good at playing divas, but “there is no diva in her,” Rothstein says. She is by all accounts the kind of warm, generous, funny person whose infectious laugh livens up a room, whose kind words lift people’s spirits, and whose actions are un-artistically selfless and kind. At the Guthrie, when a colleague got cancer, Wingert organized a food drive to make sure the family had meals delivered daily. To save small theaters the hassle and expense, she often washes her own costumes at home. When I arrived at her St. Paul home to interview her for this story, she had just pulled a batch of chocolate chip cookies out of the oven, which she insisted I eat, and then begged me to take home.
She is, after all, a mom.
But more than that, people love Wingert, both on and off stage. They love working with her, and they love what she does when she slips into a character, taking plays to another level—from a run-of-the-mill theater production to “that play Sally’s in” or, if it’s a solo production, “that Sally Wingert play.” The Twin Cities does not have many marquee talents whose name alone is a guaranteed stamp of quality, but Sally’s is. And she has earned that distinction by delivering consistently brilliant work over many decades, in almost every theater in town—many of them long gone and all but forgotten.
Wingert remembers them, though, and she can rattle them off like the names of her children: “Brass Tacks, At Random, New Coffee House Theater, Theatre of Involvement: I did them all back in the 1980s, and mostly for free or for honorariums,” she says, waving her hand as if it were nothing. “Then I got cast in a Children’s Theatre production of The Three Musketeers, and they actually paid me. Since then, acting has been my only job.”
Wingert has always been a “ham,” she says, but caught the acting bug at Robbinsdale High School. She dropped out of the University of Minnesota after two years to “act and wait tables,” and was soon scooped up by Actor’s Theatre of St. Paul. She did a four-year stint that she considers her “on-the-job acting degree,” a kind of conservatory by fire. Former Guthrie artistic director Garland Wright took a 20-something Wingert under his wing as a company member, and the rest, as they say, is history—a very long, rewarding, and public one.
Ever since, Wingert has been a fixture at the Guthrie, performing roles both big and small in more than 80 productions. But in recent years, as opportunities on the Twin Cities’ grandest stage have dwindled, she has been enjoying an unexpected renaissance, playing big, meaty, demanding roles on some of the Twin Cities’ smallest stages. What’s more, she’s doing it in her mid-50s, when the careers of many female actors are winding down or ending altogether.
In 2013, the Star Tribune dubbed Wingert its Artist of the Year. Last year, the McKnight Foundation granted her one of its coveted $25,000 Theater Artist Fellowships. And at last year’s Ivey Awards, she won for her entire body of work in the 2013–14 season, including The Receptionist, for Dark & Stormy Productions; Theatre Latté Da’s Cabaret; and Tribes, at the Guthrie. An Ivey award also went to the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company for the one-woman play, Rose, in which Wingert starred.
Ironically, none of those performances occurred on the Guthrie’s main stage, where she has captivated audiences for so long. When Wingert accepted her Ivey award, she had only this to say once she reached the stage: “For a long time, I felt irrelevant. So thank you for this.”
Sitting in the modest but tasteful home she shares with her husband, Tim Danz, in St. Paul’s Merriam Park neighborhood, Wingert explains that her burst of candor at the Ivey Awards wasn’t planned—it was just what she felt in the moment.
“Look, I went from, in 1992, playing Amanda in Private Lives on the main stage of the Guthrie Theater to, 15 years later, playing the maid in the same play. So I was starting to feel irrelevant. That’s what I felt my trajectory was,” she says, tracing a downward spiral in the air with her finger. “I felt like, well, this is middle age. It’s one thing to be a middle-aged woman and become slightly invisible in society, though—but to have it happen in my work? My art? That’s a whole different thing.”
For years, Wingert has filled the increasingly large gaps between her Guthrie commitments with work at other local theaters, such as Mixed Blood, The Jungle, and Ten Thousand Things—and in out-of-town engagements in Chicago, Boston, and New York. In 2010, she appeared on Broadway in David Hirson’s La Bête, a production that she started with at London’s West End along with the likes of Mark Rylance, David Hyde Pierce (of Frasier fame), and Tony nominee Joanna Lumley. In the mid-1990s, Wingert even spent a few months in L.A. trying to break into movies, but soon decided that chasing stardom in the land of sun and smog wasn’t for her.
“I booked a few things, but I couldn’t wait to get back home,” Wingert recalls. “I had an 11-year-old and a 9-year-old at the time, and I thought, ‘Why am I not with them?’ My boys, my husband, and my life are here,” she says. “So I came home.”
Wingert’s commitment to staying home has been a boon for both Twin Cities theatergoers and the select group of small theaters with which she has chosen to work. Not many actors in town have the kind of star power that can reliably put bodies in the seats, no matter what they’re playing or where they’re doing it—but Sally can. Theatre Latte Da’s Master Class was extended twice due to popular demand, and her one-woman play, Rose, wasn’t even presented in a traditional theater space; she performed it in people’s living rooms.
Dark & Stormy Productions, a little-known company started by Sara Marsh nearly three years ago, cast Wingert in its 2013 production of The Receptionist, a dark comedy written by up-and-coming playwright Adam Bock. It was only the company’s third production ever, says Marsh, “but we played to 98 percent capacity, which is unheard of. Sally has a following of people—as she should—so she had an enormous impact on our attendance. The attention and respect we got from the audience and the press for that show was invaluable—it was huge. I mean, given the fact that we are so new, and we couldn’t pay her much, it was kind and gracious of her to even participate.”
For Wingert, kindness and graciousness have little to do with it. “Hey, I need the work,” she says matter-of-factly. “My husband is a middle-school teacher, so we need my income. I love it, and I feel like I’m still growing as an artist, which is satisfying—but it’s also my job.”
Suddenly, she leaps off the couch and runs upstairs. From somewhere on the second floor of her house comes the sound of rummaging and the soft boom, boom, boom of hurried footsteps. “You know, actors are loathe to call themselves ‘artists,’ and when we do, we get spanked for being self-important,” she yells from the upper recesses of her house. When she comes back downstairs, she’s holding a cream-colored blanket in her hands. “Maria Callas talks a lot about the importance of art and artists in this world, and I tend to believe wholesale in everything she says,” Wingert admits. “The McKnight Foundation gives a gift each year to its fellowship winners, and this is what they gave me,” she says as she unfolds the blanket and holds it up. Sewed into the blanket in blue letters nearly a foot high is the word “ARTIST.”
“So now, if anyone dares question whether I’m an artist, I can say, ‘Oh yes I am. I have the blanket to prove it!’”
According to people who have worked with and know her best, this humorous humble brag is typical Wingert: self-deprecating, down-to-earth, and unpretentious. Remember that Guthrie production of Private Lives, in which she was demoted to playing the maid? The director of that play, Peter Rothstein, first saw Wingert take her star turn as Amanda in 1992. Rothstein says he was a little ashamed to ask Wingert to play the maid, but he asked her anyway—and, to his surprise, she accepted. In the 2013 production of the Guthrie’s A Christmas Carol, Wingert didn’t even have a regular part—she was an understudy for three or four roles—which she accepted with grace, even though it could be viewed by some as a comedown, if not an outright insult.
But Wingert doesn’t consider supporting roles with disdain—at least not publicly. “Sally is a consummate professional,” Rothstein says. “She has no time for the class system in theater. She’s willing to try anything, even if it makes her look foolish, and that fearlessness and lack of ego makes her a joy to work with.”
Wingert is sometimes referred to as the Meryl Streep of Twin Cities theater because she is capable of playing various characters in so many different ways, so convincingly. (Ironically, HBO is currently developing a film version of Master Class, in which the role of Callas will be played by, you guessed it, Meryl Streep.) “I still think there’s too much Sally Wingert in some of my characters, and that always concerns me,” Wingert says. “I try to make sure everything I do serves the character and the script. I don’t want people thinking, ‘Oh, that’s Sally up there playing so and so.’”
The process she goes through to develop her characters is roughly the same every time. “I don’t tiptoe into my work. I tend to jump in very strong, and my instinctual take is usually pretty accurate. First, I read the script and get a general feeling about it, always listening for the rhythm of the language. In the same way someone who reads music and can hear the notes in their head, I read a script and sort of know how it should sound. And I’m usually right. That’s just instinctive. For me, rehearsal is often just the process of getting it to where I know it should be. That was certainly true with Maria Callas.” Many say what they enjoy most about working with Wingert is it’s not all about Wingert. “Very few actors have the sense of company she has,” says Guthrie artistic director Joe Dowling. “She has the great gift of being able to pull people together while also being the leader. At the same time, she is very demanding of herself in rehearsals. She will work a scene and keep working it until she gets it right.”
On the set of Master Class, for instance, Wingert was working with actors 20 to 30 years her junior. Kira Lace Hawkins played Callas’s first “victim,” a student who gets more than her share of the diva’s stinging criticism. “She works hard to make everyone feel as important as everyone else,” Hawkins says. “She’s so good at being present and in the moment onstage. I shared most of the first act with her, and yes, we were doing the same play every time, but with her it never feels like a copy of what happened the night before—it feels fresh and spontaneous, because we’re reacting to each other, not just performing a script.”
Experience and taking a few wrong turns along the way are part of that process, Wingert says. “I’m always thrilled when a director doesn’t try to box me into something, or try to make me ‘perform’ in a short amount of time,” she says. “Acting is a sloppy, messy business, and you have to be sort of foolish before you come to it. As it’s coming along, there are moments that hang together, but then it all falls apart and you have to start over.”
But inevitably, she nails it. And Wingert’s recent run of plays has given Twin Cities audiences an opportunity to witness an actress at the top of her game. Many times on the Guthrie stage, Wingert’s job has been to provide comic relief in the form of characters who snipe and snark from the sidelines. Not that she hasn’t had serious Guthrie roles—she has—but her comic chops are so sharp that she doesn’t always get the recognition she deserves for parts that demand more raw emotion and gravitas.
Dowling is among those who think Wingert’s serious work is even more extraordinary than her comedy. Her portrayal of Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days (which is not a happy play) was one of the best the Guthrie’s artistic director has seen. Wingert also worked with Dowling on Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, in which she had a very difficult 45-minute monologue that is relentlessly bleak from beginning to end. “Sally’s honesty in that role was amazing,” he says. “She opened the emotional floodgates on that one, which allowed her to tell this story of loss and despair with extraordinary power.” Though she’s known for her razor tongue and wit, her fellow actors say it’s often the little things she does when she isn’t talking that make Wingert’s performances so remarkable. One of the hardest duties of an actor is staying perfectly in character when the focus of attention isn’t on them. In those moments, actors need to move in a way that’s natural for their character but doesn’t detract from the action of the play. The best actors treat such moments as seriously as any other, and perform them in a way that intelligently serves the story and the play.
“Sally is a master at that,” says Marsh, who recalls a scene with Wingert from The Receptionist, which takes place in a nondescript office setting where a few nefarious things happen behind the scenes. “At the end of that play, my character gives her a plant that’s almost dead. It’s a really nasty-looking plant, and there’s this heartbreaking moment when she waters the plant, and the way she walks over to it—slow and hunched over—she knows it may be the last time. [Because, like everyone else in the office, she is about to die.] It was just a little stage direction, but the way she did it was genius.”
Actress Tracey Maloney recalls a moment in Tribes, which they performed together at the Guthrie, in which Sally’s middle-aged character answers a cellphone. “Sally did it with the perfect sense of heightened awkwardness of someone who doesn’t answer a cellphone very often. It was a nothing moment in the script, but it killed in performances.”
Maloney is also among the coterie of female actresses coming up behind Wingert who find her current spike in popularity inspiring. “She’s bucking what you’re supposed to be doing as a woman,” says Maloney. “I, too, wonder how long my career can last. For me, it’s so hopeful to watch her, because she’s not fading into the sunset—she’s doing some of the best work of her life.”
Wingert’s two sons, Wyatt and Truman, are out of the house now and living on their own in Chicago. Like many people in their 50s, Wingert is an empty-nester. This post-parent/pre-grandparent stage of life often compels people to revisit passions and interests they abandoned or curtailed earlier in life. Wingert’s advantage is that she never abandoned her passion; she remained committed to it throughout motherhood, even though it meant that everyone in her family had to make sacrifices, usually in the form of saying goodbye to mommy four or five nights a week. Indeed, one of the reasons she has been able to take on so many roles with so many different theater companies over the past few years is that her maternal plate is clear. She still likes to “mother” people, especially younger actors, but the artistic freedom and success she’s enjoyed lately is partially due to her relative freedom at home, which allows her to take gigs in and out of town, ones she might have passed on earlier in her career.
“It was not always easy, as you might imagine,” Wingert says of those earlier years, rolling her eyes. Still, it’s worth remembering that for Wingert to get onstage and entertain us for 30-plus years, we—her audience—are indebted to her family, friends, and her extended support system who made it possible. Now, in a way, we are enjoying the payoff from that extraordinary investment of time, love, pain, and persistence—the renaissance of an artist in complete command of her craft, one who, thankfully, still has the desire and discipline to keep doing her work. Actors like Wingert don’t retire, she says, they “get retired.” Her plan, then, is to keep performing until she can’t. In the meantime, her mission is to keep improving—because, she says, “the minute you stop improving, you’re dead.” To be sure, engage Wingert in a discussion of her acting and she will immediately start talking about what she doesn’t do well and what she could be doing better. “Something I’d really like to work on next is getting out of my mouth and into my body,” Wingert says—a goal rooted in her desire to reconnect with some of the demanding physical techniques championed by Garland Wright back in her early Guthrie days. “I feel like a lot of my work lately has been talk, talk, talk,” she says with flapping puppet hands. “I am a chatterer, and I’m comfortable with that, but I’m fascinated by these companies—Transatlantic Love Affair, Off-Leash Area, Live Action Set—that are full of dancers who do theatrical things. All of that interests me. Obviously, they have young beautiful bodies and I’m an old bag, but I’d still like to try.” That Wingert is still eager to learn and willing to go far outside her comfort zone to do it is a testament to her dedication, to be sure. But it is also a tantalizing indication that, as hard as it may be to imagine, the best from Wingert may be yet to come.