LIFESTYLE

Behind the scenes with Joe Tapper and Annaleigh Ashford

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Often, for alcoholics, there really isn’t such a thing as a rock bottom, so much as a series of bottoms, a downward cascade like those cartoon characters that fall off a cliff and bounce from a ledge to a tree limb to another ledge. There’s always something lower and more painful after the last part of the fall.

In “The White Chip,” Sean Daniels’ autobiographical dark comedy, the falling man is Steven, a high-functioning hardcore alcoholic who seems to have it all together — a career, a family, charisma — until he doesn’t have it all together.

Currently in previews at the MCC Theater in Manhattan, “The White Chip” is a three-person Off Broadway play starring Joe Tapper, whose credits include “You Can’t Take It With You” on Broadway as well as numerous off-Broadway roles and small screen credits like “Chicago Med,” “Blue Bloods,” “Masters of Sex,” “Law and Order,” and more.

He is married to one of “The White Chip”’s superstar producers, Annaleigh Ashford, a Tony Award-winning actor whose credits are too numerous to mention here, but most recently include Mrs. Lovett in the Broadway revival of “Sweeney Todd,” for which she was nominated

Both Tapper and Ashford are this week’s guests on “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast,” where they join us to talk about “The White Chip,” which will have its opening night on February 1. They discuss the play and Tapper’s own personal connection to the role. We’ll get into Ashford’s career and adding producer credit to her already white hot resume. The two discuss life as a married couple who are both also working actors, working with James Earl Jones, Stephen Sondheim and Jake Gyllenhaal, comedy versus drama, parenting versus work, and life in Brooklyn.

The following is a transcript of our conversation, which airs as an episode of “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast,” edited for clarity. Listen in the player above or wherever you get your podcasts.

You are both having a moment. Joe, correct me if I’m wrong, but was it previews for “The White Chip” that started last night? I know the opening night is February 1, but I think you guys kicked off previews this week, is that right?
Joe Tapper: Last night was the first preview and then, the night before that was the dress run, but that felt very previewy too.

How did it go? How does it feel?
Tapper: It felt really good. The journey started with this play in 2019, so a lot has happened in the world and everyone’s lives personally, collectively, and to get to this place where we were back in New York at a different Off Broadway space with a full house and getting to say the words as they’ve evolved and changed, it was really cathartic. Of course, as a horrific self-critic, there was some first night gremlins that I’m like, “I’m going to have to iron that out.”
Annaleigh Ashford: There wasn’t, there wasn’t. No.

Isn’t that the whole point?
Tapper: Yes. I get to do it again today.
Ashford: Also, I will tell you, as an audience member and as a producer, the show was so ready for an audience and the audience was so ready for the show. It was beautiful. This is a special play and it feels like the right time, and I think it will always be the right time for this play. It’s one of those plays.

There will always be someone who needs to hear it.
Tapper: I had an incredible moment. I get these moments a lot; it’s really reflective and incredible and humbling. It was a humbling moment I had: After the show, a young woman came up to me and she introduced herself, I won’t say her name, and she said, “Hey, thanks so much for doing this. I’m an alcoholic,” and I said, “May I hug you?” We hugged and she said, “I’m not sober right now,” and I said, “Hey, but you’re here.” I think that’s the thing about recovery and theater that have this beautiful overlap, it’s like the gathering, the collective. We see you, you see me, and we gather together, and as long as we show up, that’s what we do.
Ashford: It’s just another place for a meeting.

That’s a nice way to get into what the play is about. You alluded to this as you’re reprising the role of Steven from 2019 run at the 59E59. Basically, as a guy who seems to have it all together, but is about to get his dream job, running one of the hottest theater companies in the country, but he’s also an alcoholic about to bottom out. It’s an autobiographical comedy, though it doesn’t sound like a comedy on paper. It’s a redemption story. Tell me about this guy, tell me about Steven.
Tapper: That’s really well said. I think it is a redemption story, for sure. On top of everything that you said, it’s a play about family. The center of it is family.
Ashford: Which, I would say, every recovery story revolves around family as well. You can’t recover alone.
Tapper: I think Hank Azaria wrote about this in an op-ed about Matthew Perry, that some of the greatest laughs I’ve ever had in my life are in the AA meeting rooms. Absolutely fall off your chair hysterical moments. This play has to have that and it does, it has to have lightness that can grow out of darkness, because that’s what we need.

You mentioned Hank Azaria [who is a producer of “The White Chip”]. Annaleigh, you mentioned that you’re a producer. The list of producers on this thing is pretty impressive. You’ve got John Larroquette also, Jason Biggs, a bunch of names. What does having a big name like that as a producer mean to a production like this? I think people who are theater fans may know that there are producers, but are unclear on what they do, same with movies. How active are they? What impact can they have on either the production, or is it more like a publicity thing?
Tapper: She’s very mean.
Ashford: I’m a mean lady producer. I say, “Call me ‘Madam Producer.’”
Tapper: I’m not allowed to sit down on my couch unless I do 100 pushups.
Ashford: Yes. Ooh! Thank you. This has been such a learning experience for me. I say it’s like running a nonprofit. The way that theater is funded in this country, unfortunately, is all commercial. I just think it’s all upside down. The way we spend money and how we spend money and what things cost, it’s crazy how much it costs to put up a show, and it is really remarkable that we have any theater at all, now that I’m in the weeds of it. I always say, with our other co-producers who are more involved in the day-to-day, “Okay, how do we get people into seats? It’s not just about selling tickets. How do we get people into these seats?”

Butts in seats.
Ashford: We also have people who are sponsoring tickets, which I think the language for that is so special. Making sure that, if you can’t see the show, that we’re figuring out how to make it accessible financially and time-wise and accessibility to make sure that people can get into the door to see this piece, because it really is changing lives. The term “active service” is such an important one in the land of recovery and advocacy for recovery. All of our producers, whether they be celebrity or non-celebrity, everybody’s doing this one as an act of service.
Tapper: At the end of April, we had a workshop presentation. We had three days of rehearsal and then we did two presentations for people to come and see it, investors, friends, family, the whole thing.

Singing for your lunch, literally.
Tapper: Truly, and people came. Knowing that it’s an Off Broadway show, a lot of people were willing to say, “Hey, no matter what happens, if I recoup my investment, I feel that this story is important and I want to be a part of it.” We had a lot of that, which was really, really, really humbling. The amount of gratitude that I have as an actor in the story is really incredible.
Ashford: The other thing about, too, making theater is making sure that it grows and it keeps going. I always try to think of theater as like a painting that you get to keep painting and you want to share it with everybody, and it needs to go around the country, like the way that we send Van Goghs around the country, so everybody can see it. That should be the same thing with plays. My dream for this play is that we have a beautiful run that keeps going and people get to see it over and over and again, and we get to publish it and license it, so that it can go to all these theaters all over the country and people can see it regionally, and it can go anywhere it needs to go.
Tapper: It’s a three-actor play with minimal sets.
Ashford: Yes, yes. If you’d like to have it in your local theater in Columbus, Ohio, you can talk to me about licensing.

From left, the cast of ‘The White Chip’: Crystal Dickenson, Joe Tapper, Jason Tam (Courtesy The White Chip)

Low barrier to entry. You almost alluded to it, but Joe, I wonder if you could talk about your own personal relationship to this character, you’ve been pretty open about your own drinking in the past. Talk about it from your personal perspective as being in this role day in and day out.
Tapper: I have a dear friend, an incredible writer named Christopher Oscar Pena, who is good friends with Sean Daniels, the playwright of this play, of “The White Chip.” Chris had seen a few readings or had read the play, and he knew that the show was coming to 59E59, and that they were dipping their toes in the water of the idea of having a sober actor play the role. Chris knew that I was sober, because as is evidence right now, I wear it pretty loud. That’s part of my recovery. Chris sent me the play and I was very moved by it for many reasons, which I’ll get into. Some of the similarities between myself and the character, Steven, were very odd and weird, I’ll say weird.
Ashford: I wouldn’t say odd and weird, I would say fortuitous and kismet.

Serendipitous?
Tapper: Serendipitous. My first example is that the main character, Steven, is also the name of my father who, in 2020, we recently lost him to alcoholism. On a lighter note, also, the character’s favorite ice cream flavor is mint chip ice cream. Which is also my favorite.

My favorite, too.
Tapper: I really love Jeni’s green mint chip ice cream. Jeni, if you’re listening. I also really liked The Social one. There’s also a moment where the character, Steven, realizes that his sobriety date is the exact same date as another character in his life. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true. Sean and his mom have the same day, and it didn’t happen on purpose. It was like, “Wait, your day is this day? So is mine.” Way back in 2012, when I got sober, I picked up my phone and I reached out to my closest friend who I knew was sober, and I’m really close with this person, and I said, “Hey, I have to stop and today’s the day I have to stop.” He said, “I stopped drinking eight years ago today.”

Oh my God.
Ashford: Isn’t that amazing?
Tapper: The real journey with the play, the reason that we are involved in this is because, in 2012, on March 20th, she said, “I think maybe you’ve got to move out.”

That’ll do it.
Ashford: No, I didn’t start it like that.
Tapper: No, no. It was much, much more gentle and supportive. I threw a tantrum for about five minutes and I realized that that was an easy choice to make. By the grace of God or the universe or the higher power, I’ve been lucky enough to not pick up a drink or a drug since then. That is the beginning for us, that’s how we got here. That’s the first step. With the show and living in it in a day-to-day, to answer what you said, the only way that you keep your sobriety is by giving it away, by service and helping, and that’s what this is. This is pure service. It’s above me, it’s beyond me. I just get to tell this story and, hopefully, it lands on the one person who needs it. If it’s one person, that’s enough.

It sounds like, on day one, you’re already heading in that direction. You guys have worked together before, you were both in “You Can’t Take It With You” on Broadway, for which, Annaleigh, you won a Tony. You were both in “Welcome to Chippendales,” which I enjoyed. Annaleigh, your style was incredible, those glasses. First of all, you should dress like that every day.
Ashford: I agree, I also was very insistent that I had Sophia from Golden Girls glasses.

Talk about working together. Are you guys running lines at home or do you draw a line in the sand and say like, “Now we’re a couple raising a son, we’re not working”? Or does it get all blurry? Does your kid get sick of you being theater types?
Ashford: Sometimes when we fight, we pretend that we’re running lines.
Tapper: He’s gotten to the point where he’s like, “Hey, Mom, Dad. Are you doing lines right now?” We’re like, “Yes.”
Ashford: I actually was running lines for something recently and he got very upset, because he did not like the scene. That was interesting.
Tapper: It was intense. He was like, “I don’t like this.”

That’s because you’re so good. You’re too good.
Tapper: We were also lucky enough to work on “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Shakespeare Park, and that was a really fun process, because she was amazing. What was really fun about that is I was a mechanical and she was one of the lovers, so we were in this play together, but our tracks were completely separate until the very end.
Ashford: So we could watch each other a lot.
Tapper: At the very end, when the mechanical has performed for everyone else in this famous play at the end of the play, we’re doing all these bits and everything, and I look out at my wife and she could not have looked like she was smelling poop more. I was like, “You need to fix your face.”
Ashford: I knew the audience couldn’t see my face and I was conserving. The other thing is I was trying to figure out a joke that didn’t work earlier.
Tapper: Of mine or of yours?
Ashford: Both. No. Kidding, just mine.

Do you give each other notes, though? Are you like, “I wouldn’t do it that way.”
Ashford: Very helpfully. I feel like we’ve learned, over the years, what notes not to give. I also feel like we’re very conservative about them. Also, only if they’re asked for. “Hey, what do you think about XYZ? I’m having a hard time figuring out this beat. What do you think?” Also, I would say that I love doing plays with Joe Tapper, because he’s MVP, he’s Mr. Congeniality and MVP.

I can see that.
Ashford: He keeps the room so positive and light and bright, and he makes sure that every single person working on the production is seen and given some love, and there’s, really, a kindness and generosity of spirit that he just brings with him to every job. He’s fun to do a play with, because he keeps it light and bright, but also, they like him more than they like me.

Now, Joe, you have to say something nice about Annaleigh.
Tapper: That’s nice of her to say. That’s fair, but that was all learned from her example, and also, being in a play with her is daily getting to watch lightning strike. Like, “Whoa.”

Is there ever any competition in terms of one career is maybe speeding along faster than the other, or clicking more? I would imagine some couples deal with that.
Tapper: That would be like talking about the MVP of the Major Leagues and a Double-A baseball player.
Ashford: What are you talking about? No. Also, I feel like, man, once you have a kid together, too, you’re like, “What can we possibly do to make this better for our family in any way, shape, or form? If you do well, I do well, we do well.” Also, I’m his biggest fan and his best friend. I always think to myself, “This is the best actor.” I said “Thank you” in a speech for an award this year that he wasn’t there for and I told everybody, there were a lot of great actors in the room, I said, “He’s always the best actor in the room.” I know a lot of actors.

You’ve both worked with some heavy hitters. What’s a surprising or maybe counterintuitive thing you’ve picked up from someone who might be a household name? I’m giving you permission to name drop.
Ashford: James Earl Jones. He taught both of us that you are a student forever and you work on the play until the day you’re done with the play. There’s never something that you can’t learn from the piece. He loved Joe, he loved Joe so much. They had such a sweet relationship. James Earl would come in with Joe and they would read pieces of “Othello” that he always felt like he wanted to work on more. James would read Othello and Joe would be Iago, and they would work on bits of the play, which is just one of those beautiful reminders of the masters are masters because they are still working. They’re still trying to get better. Learning.
Tapper: He and I would meet about a half hour before the curtain every night, because he wanted me, for some reason, to lead the company vocal warmup daily. I’m not like a big voice and movement guy. When James Earl Jones asks you to do something, you say “Yes,” and I did. I would lead that every day and we got pretty close while we were doing it. I was in the show, but I was also understudying and I got to go on for parts or stand in as another part. He was like, “I have this thing in ‘Othello’ that I haven’t ever been able to get right in my brain and in my heart, and I want to read it and I want to read it with you. Will you meet me in my dressing room at 3 p.m. on Thursday? Let’s read that scene.”

That’s insane.
Tapper: That was a bit of an outer body experience, where I’m sitting in James Earl Jones’ dressing room reading act three, scene three of “Othello” with him as he’s Othello and I’m Iago.

On the last day of the play, you should have brought in a scene from “Empire Strikes Back.” “I’ve been stuck on this Luke Skywalker thing.” Annaleigh, You’re coming off a big year, I alluded to this. You just wrapped “Sweeney Todd,” alongside Josh Groban, you were nominated for a Tony. You were stepping into shoes as big as Angela Lansbury’s, who originated the role. You’ve stepped into Bernadette Peters’ shoes for “Sunday in the Park with George.” Do you think about those originators when you come into the role, or do you try to wipe the slate clean and pretend that it never happened?
Ashford: I think about them every day, because they’re such a fabric of the piece. I always imagine them as drawing me a map and I have to just follow the road that they created. When I start working on the piece, I look back on their work, because I think it’s impossible not to. It’s also responsible to look back at it, and then I wipe it away from my imagination and from my memory. I always pay homage to them in a couple choices. There’s always a couple choices that I make that pay love to what they created.

Like Carol Burnett tugging her ear.
Ashford: I always try to pick one or two beats that are just such a love letter to what they created, but these roles, I find them to be very similar to the great Shakespeares, because that’s really what Steve [Sondheim]’s work is becoming. It’s becoming the director’s medium. Now we’re going to say, “I want to know how so-and-so directed ‘Sunday,’ I want to know what so-and-so’s George was like, the way that we do with ‘Hamlet’.” I think that’s the future of Sondheim’s works. The roles that he wrote for women were in these two-handers — arguably, his two opuses, that bookend “Merrily We Roll Along,” which was a really hard piece of his career — the title character is the man in the show, but it’s a two-hander and I would arguably say that the female role is more interesting, because he loved writing for women.

Did you know him while he was alive?
Ashford: Yeah, he worked on “Sunday in the Park” with us and he gave me the best notes I’ve ever had, and I’ll cherish them forever, these really lovely emails with notes from him. When we were starting Sweeney, we did a reading of it and I remember working on it the week before, and I almost called him to ask him a couple questions before we started rehearsal. I was like, “I don’t want to bother him, I’ll see him next week,” and then he passed the Friday before we started. I never got to ask him those questions, but all the answers were on the page, the way that they are in Shakespeare. I also was pregnant with Jack when I was learning “Sunday in the Park with George,” and he was six weeks old when we did the reading and three months old when we did the concert and then three months old we did the Broadway show. The first time he ever saw me on stage was “Sweeney” like four weeks ago. Joe brought him. In some magic way, his music will always be connected to my baby. Something about music is so spiritual, connected to your soul, and his music will always be connecting my soul with my child.
Tapper: I will say, when Jack was three months old and she was doing “Sunday in the Park”, it was really amazing, with Jake Gyllenhaal for me, when she would come home after spending the entire day with a movie star, model, and I was on a yoga ball with puke all over me. “Hi, honey. How was your day? He took off his shirt?”

You did anticipate my next question, which was… Annaleigh, you were working alongside Jake Gyllenhaal, you had a very racy character arc in “Masters of Sex.” Do you ever get nervous, Joe, or you’re so secure?
Tapper: No, we have a strong bond. I will say it is my duty to brag a little bit, in addition to the Tony nomination for “Sweeney,” she was also nominated for a Grammy, and then, for “Welcome to Chippendales,” she was nominated for an Emmy, so in the last six months, she’s gotten almost an EGOT of nominations, which is pretty cool. A lot of that happened while we flew across the country, took our son out of school, changed schools in the middle of the year, she had a little boy that she was mothering, so she did incredible things. I’m going to just say this, but I don’t know if it’s true. I think you’re the only woman who has ever played, on Broadway, Dot, Marie in “Sunday” and Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney.”
Ashford: It’s true.
Tapper: That ain’t nothing.

You’re both very funny people. Annaleigh, your delivery’s hilarious and, surprising, Joe, you’re just a funny guy. People say all the time that comedy’s harder than drama, does that resonate for you?
Ashford: It is, it’s so much harder. It’s harder to be funny, because you have to be more honest. You’re not going to get the laugh unless you’re honest, honest, honest. We know when you’re lying, so we’re not going to laugh if you’re a liar. I also think the science of comedy is also one part chemistry and the other part guts. You just have to have an instinct and an impulse. You have to have a funny bone that you were born with and then you also have to have the science and the brain to bring the two together to make the laugh work.
Tapper: I’m listening to you and I’m thinking about jokes that didn’t land last night and now my face is cringing.

You did go somewhere there for a second. I saw you go away.
Tapper: I was like, “That didn’t work,” and she’s right.
Ashford: No. Also, the other thing that I love about previews is I like it not working. That’s a real thing. Towards the end of “Sweeney,” sometimes I would imagine myself before a song, before I’d walk out on stage, and I would imagine either going down a hill as a skier. I don’t ski, I’m terrible, even though I grew up in Colorado, but just like I’m going to go down the slopes and I don’t know where the little things are that I have to turn around. Okay, I’m going to basically field down a slope. Another thing that I think of is you get on a surfboard. You got to catch a wave, hopefully the audience gives you a wave and you got to just ride the wave, and it’s such a “Yes, and.” You have that third person in the scene that you have to listen to and they’re going to tell you where to go.
Tapper: Like surfing, you have to have the courage to catch the wave.
Ashford: You have to have technique on the board, you have to be able to stand up.

It’s all of that. It’s timing, it’s flow. There’s math and art to it.
Ashford: It’s jazz, baby. It’s jazz. You do go into improv brain, like a “Yes, and” space. Jazz singers say that, but it’s true. Sometimes, when you’re in improv mode, you’re like, “Okay, what do I say, so we can do it again?”

How did you guys meet? What is the relationship origin story? I think your manager introduced you?
Ashford: Yeah, we got set up.

Is that legal?
Ashford: I don’t think it’s legal. It’s also so business and we’re so not business. We have to be about as business as we have to be, but that’s it, and I think it’s hilarious.
Tapper: Way back when I was a third year in grad school. I was a third year, I got a call from my manager and she said, “Come down for this appointment. Let’s meet up at the Whole Foods in Union Square,” right? There weren’t that many Whole Foods then, back in 2005. I was like, “I’ll meet you there, we’ll say hey,” and she said, “While we are having coffee, someone else is going to be there.” I said, “Okay?” I’ll never forget. She said, “I want you to meet.”
Ashford: We were so young. I was 20. I was thinking about all the collagen in my face that I don’t have anymore. I was on the road with “Wicked,” I was understudying Glinda. It was my first big job out of college. We didn’t actually start dating for another two-and-a-half years. We’d see each other on the train randomly. I’d be like, “Hey, that’s that guy. Hey, is that you?”
Tapper: There was one time I ran into her on the 23rd Street yellow, N/R, or whichever that one is on 23rd. I was very hungover or very drunk, middle of the day, and there she was on the train.
Ashford: “You look like you had a rough night.”
Tapper: Yeah. I was like, “Just inflammation.”
Ashford: I remember being on the way to the airport. I had an audition. I was like, “That’s the kind of boy I’d marry someday.” Then I did.

You lived to regret it.
Tapper: I love to say that we’ve been together since before the iPhone.

You guys are both Disney fans, big Disneyphiles.
Ashford: Big time. Me and Jack just went. And he puked after the “Guardians of the Galaxy” ride. I felt like, “Oh, no. What’s it going to happen now?” Because we are big theme park people and if we’re going to have to do some trauma therapy after this puking, but then the next day, he was like, “I would need to go on on again.” We did and he didn’t puke.
Tapper: We lived in California for three years.
Ashford: We were season pass holders and we’d go just for lunch. Sometimes we drop Jack off at school.
Tapper: Don’t tell him. “Have a great day at school, Jack!” Let’s get to Anaheim.
Ashford: Those are some of my favorite days we’ve ever had as a couple. I’d have one-and-a-half sensible good cocktails and then we’d go on Splash Mountain. We had a great time. Peed my pants and didn’t even know it. Also, the thing about Disney, I think that, for us, we’re storytellers first and foremost, and it’s beautiful attention to detail and storytelling around every corner. Also, I grew up in Colorado, he grew up outside Chicago — Gurney, Illinois — so we didn’t get to go. It wasn’t an option for our families. It wasn’t a financial opportunity.
Tapper: Also, on top of all of that being true about the storytelling, our son is really into drawing and animation, to the point where I’ll wake up on a Saturday morning and I’ll come into the living room. I’m like, “What are you watching?” He’s like, “This Pixar documentary”.
Ashford: He said to us, “Mom, are you saving up for my college?” I said, “Yeah, Jack.” He’s 7. I said, “Why?” He goes, “Because I’m going to CalArts, so I want to make sure you’ve got money saved.”

All right. It’s a quiet day in the borough, neither of you are in rehearsals, no work to do, I don’t know if those days ever exist anymore. Where do you go in Brooklyn? What do you do? If you want to shout out your favorite spots.
Ashford: Hometown Barbecue, I love Leyenda and Clover Club. I think, if you want to get a proper cocktail and have a magic time, but man, oh, man, do they make all the cocktails correctly.
Tapper: Sottocasa. They do a great gluten-free pizza, because both Jack and Annaleigh have celiac disease, so they do a really good gluten-free pizza at Sottocasa.
Ashford: Social Club. What’s that called?
Tapper: No, no. The Social.
Ashford: It’s also a social club. Yeah, sure. I’ll put that on the list. Okay.
Tapper: The Social. When we were gone from New York for three years, it was really exciting to come back and get to finally go to The Social, which we got to do.

Check out this episode of “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast” for more. Subscribe and listen wherever you get your podcasts.

The post Behind the scenes with Joe Tapper and Annaleigh Ashford appeared first on Brooklyn Magazine.

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