There’s Something About Sylvia

Hanley Smith is no stranger to comedy – she is on the board of a New York City comedy troupe, played Cecily in Gulfshore Playhouse’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest, and switched effortlessly between three leading ladies in The 39 Steps at Gretna Theatre. Making her FST debut in the Regional Premiere of Sandy Rustin’s The Cottage, Hanley is thrilled to play Sylvia Van Kipness, the lovely and rash romantic who lies at the center of this contemporary comedy of manners.

We sat down with Hanley to talk about her love of comedy, previous experience with The Cottage, and the importance of truth in theatre.

The Cottage is playing in FST’s Gompertz Theatre through August 18. For tickets and more information, click here.

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Hanley Smith in The Cottage. Photo by Matthew Holler.

What attracted you to The Cottage? What sets it apart from other period pieces you’ve been in?

In 2013, I played Dierdre in the World Premiere of The Cottage at the Astoria Performing Arts Center (APAC) in New York City. It was a huge pleasure to have Sandy Rustin, the playwright, in the room with us as we developed the piece. It was one of the few scripts that I laughed out loud just from reading it, and putting it on its feet only amplified the humor and joy. It has quickly become one of my all-time favorite comedies ever!

Fast-forward six years and I was invited to audition for Sylvia for FST’s production – I jumped at the chance. I love this script, in all its humor and heart, and to explore it through a new lens has been a privilege. The Cottage is special because it beautifully honors the traditions of artists like Noël Coward and Oscar Wilde, but also explores important themes such as female agency, honesty, and the various definitions of love.

In what ways do you connect with Sylvia’s personality?

Sylvia is delicious, as are all of the characters in The Cottage. The play is a comedy of manners, but it’s only funny if it is based in truth. And truth, I think, comes to be of the utmost importance to Sylvia. I enjoy her thirst for knowledge and discovery, and I love that she’s a passionate romantic, but also deeply values honesty and female agency.

I also empathize with Sylvia’s very human insecurities and her desire for love, affection, approval. And I admire the fact that’s she brave with a good sense of humor and takes life head on.

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Hanley Smith in The Cottage. Photo by Matthew Holler.

What is the most fun part of this production for you? What is most challenging?

Sandy has written a gem of a play, and I am having with best time with my fellow actors and our director, Jason Cannon. We crack each other up constantly, and telling this story together, with all its hijinks and mathematical timing and loving relationships, is just plain fun! There is nothing in the world like making people laugh – hearing audiences laugh is magical.

The most challenging aspect is that it’s exhausting – in a really rewarding way, mind you, but we are pooped by the end. We have to be on our toes every second, with energy through the roof, throwing the proverbial ball back and forth like maniacs. And it has to be precise. A slight misstep here or there, and a joke falls flat, or the audience will miss a key plot point, or they will miss the depth and heart humming underneath everything. Comedy is wildly technical and really difficult to do well, but when we manage it, the play soars and everyone has a delightful time together.

What makes The Cottage challenging as well as exciting from an acting perspective?

The Cottage is fast-paced, requires high physical and vocal energy, and consists of moments that switch on a dime. My fellow cast members and I must learn to play together while also honoring the structure and timing that best serves the piece, which can sometimes be mathematical in its precision.

And, as I said before, we have to keep everything rooted in truthfulness, because otherwise it becomes too absurd and the audience will stop caring about or rooting for the characters. The Cottage has a lot of heart and social awareness, so balancing those aspects with the humor will be a fun and fulfilling goal to attain.

The Cottage is playing in FST’s Gompertz Theatre through August 18. For tickets and more information, click here.