A Word With Erb

Fri, 08/24/2012

Actress Nicole Erb is the embodiment of “effortlessly cool.” She’s calm, collected and brilliantly talented. Her laser sharp focus makes her equal parts intriguing and daring. Her dynamic and powerful portrayal of sixteen year old Bernadette in Adam Rapp’s The Edge of Our Bodies is punctuated by a clear sense of musicality and poetic realism. Director Matt Pfeiffer conducts the literary orchestration through subtle hints of tempos, beats, rhythms, and rests. His approachable and instinctual directing style makes rehearsal more of an actor’s jam session than a private lesson.

I asked thoroughly cool Nicole a few questions to learn more about her preparation for the role of Bernadette, her favorite Exile memories and her interest in working with acclaimed director Matt Pfeifer for her return to the Philadelphia stage. Her answers unveiled her unparalled work ethic, her upcoming projects, and a Philadelphian home town actress excited to return.

 

Max Vasapoli: Nicole, thanks for answering my questions. I heard you have connections to Philadelphia:

Nicole Erb: I was born and raised in Cheltenham; just north on Broad Street.  I went to Temple. I love Philly and I often find myself telling people that my body is in LA, but my heart remains in Philadelphia. My family still lives out here.  The theater scene is unbeatable.  It’s the greatest community in the world.

MV: You are no new comer to the Philadelphia theatre scene, but this is your first time working with Theatre Exile, right?

  NE: It is! I couldn’t be more excited to be working with Matt on an Adam Rapp show at Exile.  It’s a dream.

MV: Why do you think Exile chose this piece to open their sixteenth season?

NE: It’s great that as the company is celebrating another year of its own growth it can also show Philly how artists like Rapp have grown in their own rite.  The writing is really surprising.  It’s a great way for Exile to kick off a season- it gets audiences to look up and go, “Wow!  That’s not at all what I expected.”  I think people will be surprised by the maturity of the work and Exile’s maturity.

MV: There are lots of shows to choose from in the Philadelphia Fringe. Why should Fringe audiences see The Edge of Our Bodies?

NE: Matt Pfeifer and Adam Rapp at Exile.  I don’t know what else an audience could possibly ask for.  It’s also a different kind of fringe offering- a very quiet and not so in-your-face kind of play.  It has sneaky shock value. It’s incredibly uncomfortable to revisit yourself at sixteen and this play handles it with humor, realism, and deft swiftness.

MV: Exile audiences expect the unpredictable. What do you think is unpredictable about this piece?

NE: I think audiences are going to be blown away by Mr. Rapp’s writing.  It’s a really stunning monologue- especially when you think about Adam Rapp’s career as a writer.  This piece shows off his technical prowess in a really incredible way.  And in a lot of ways it’s the most delicate Rapp play that I’ve seen or read.  He’s not using an iron fist to get his messages across to the audiences.  It makes the play feel very sneaky- it’s quietly surprising. 

MV: What themes or topics drew you to this piece in particular?

NE: Matt and I have talked a lot about the stillness and quiet in this piece.  It’s really tricky and something that I wanted to explore.  I also love Adam Rapp.  The first Adam Rapp play I saw was Red Light Winter- which Matt was in- at Exile.  I still harbor a huge girl-crush on Charlotte Ford.  She was stunning. The play made me run out and start reading everything of his that I could get in my hands.

MV: What do you think Exile audiences and Rapp fans, in particular, will gain from this production?

NE: It’s surprisingly delicate.  Especially for an Adam Rapp play.  He’s a really impactful writer and he just has such a command over how his words can affect and sway an audience. Matt is a wonderful director for this piece.  He really understands the balance between extreme hyper-realism and theatricality that make this particular piece come to life.  I imagine that audience will walk away with a new found respect for both Rapp and Pfeif.

MV: People always ask how actors remember so many lines. This play is no exception. How have you prepared yourself for this piece?

NE: Oh gosh, memorizing this has been really hard.  I’ve probably read the play about 20 times, so I know where the story is going and how the emotional jumps work.  But the specific words are awful tricky.  We’ll probably just by start putting it on its feet. Matt and I have given each other some things to think about.  Matt is so smart and generous and just funny—I’m so excited to work with him. It should be an adventure.

MV: Now that you’re an expert on the script - what are some of your favorite quotes or lines?

NE: There are a lot of great ones in this play.  I never realized how funny Adam Rapp was until I read this play.  So Rapp often makes use of writing techniques and technical puns.  In the first chapter of the show, Bernadette is talking to an old man on the train about writing.  The whole section is wonderful:

“I want to write short stories,” I answer.
“What kind of stories?” he asks.
“The good kind,” I say. “Sometimes I get in trouble for using too many similes.”
He says, “You could write a story about a young girl who meets an old man on a train.”
“I could,” I say.
He says, “They could talk about things.  Have a chat.”
“What do you think they would talk about?” I ask.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he says. “The important stuff. Life. Football…Sandwiches. Just make sure it has a happy ending.”

This week though, my favorite line comes near the end of the play. “I am living someone else’s life…the life of some stupid, desperate girl in a raincoat who likes to tease and lie to strangers.”

MV: What’s the first thing that goes through your mind after reading the script?

NE: It’s really hard to not picture yourself in a role right away- but I try to keep myself out of the play until I’ve read it a couple of times.  It makes you want to run right up on stage and start- and having read it more than 10 times- you surprise yourself with how much you already know and understand.

When I started reading this play, I thought, “Man.  I don’t know if I know how to make that work.”  It’s a challenge- like some terrifying puzzle that I wanted to piece together.  Part of what drew me to this script is that I didn’t entirely understand it right away.  I had to let simmer a little.

MV: You seem very prepared! What are you most excited for in tackling this piece?

NE: This play has a number of open challenges that Rapp gives to a production.  This is one of those terribly difficult plays in that the less you, as an actor, try to add the better it will be.  Matt and I have spent a good deal of time talking about walking the fine line between acknowledging the obvious and smothering the audience in stereotypes.  I hate when people play their idea of teenagers or any age.  The play does all that work for you.  As an actor, I just have to create circumstances so realistic that all I have to do is react.   That way I’m not reacting as a teenager.  I’m reacting as if I, Nicole, would react when thrown into these incredible trying situations. 

MV:  Right, you’re playing the truth of the character and the play. How relevant do you think it is to today?

NE: It is set now- like right now! It has a lot of similarities to Catcher in the Rye, but Rapp has written in the present tense.  This was only at Humana last year. And it deals with a lot of universal themes, identity crisis, loneliness, the search of resolution/finality in major events in our lives.  It is startling how easy it is to recall being a teenager and feeling this black hole of loneliness.  The play takes you right back to that place.

MV: As an actor, you take us on that emotional journey.  What other aspects of your job do you love?

NE: When I made an audition tape for this show, I sent it with an email to Matt saying that I didn’t know if this was right. I’ve just gotten to this really great part of my acting where I’m okay not having the answers to things right away.  Before, I had to know before rehearsals started how I felt about everything. It’s not that I’m afraid of making choices now.  I just have finally gotten to a place where I’m certain enough on my own two feet that I’m not worried about being perfect right away. 

It’s not going to be perfect every time.  But if I can really understand and conquer even one moment in the show- it was a success.  The goal, obviously, is to have an entire show, even a run of a show, where you knock it out of the park every night.  But giving myself permission to completely miss moments to discover others, I think that I actually serve the play and the audience better.

Getting to make tremendous mistakes as someone else and then go home and have everything be alright is really freeing.  The more people I play the more it teaches me about my own character and how I’d like to react to some of these terrible and wonderful situations.

MV: We are looking forward to seeing those moments on stage.  What are some of your favorite Theatre Exile experiences?

NE: Red Light Winter really sealed the deal for me.  I was completely in love with Theatre Exile after that.  That play completely caught me by surprise.  And everyone’s’ performances were outstanding- Charlotte Ford, Ian Merrill Peakes, and Matt—that was the first show where I ever saw Matt as an actor.  But I had also seen an earlier show that Matt directed, called Rounding Third.  It was David Ingram and Pete Pryor.  It was so delicately handled and well acted.  I just remember watching it and thinking, wow, this is what professional actors look like.  Completely grounded funny, smart, and lovable even when they’re not nice people.

 

Just when I thought Nicole couldn’t get any cooler, I realized she is fearless, well-spoken and in love with portraying roles that teach others. She respects her director’s insights, likes Exile’s devotion to discovering new authors and is passionate about language. Pfeiffer and Erb may be the coolest duo this fall, so don’t miss out on this Philadelphia premiere that brings you the predictably unpredictable once again. Make sure to reserve your seats with our Box Office (215) 218-4022 or online at theatreexile.org.