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Interview: Bess Armstrong and 'So-Called Life's' Theatrical Underpinnings

Updated: Dec 19, 2019

In which we discover that the shadow of the stage looms large over Three Rivers, Penn.

OK, it seems ridiculous now but I’ll admit it – I was slightly intimidated by the thought of talking with Bess Armstrong (Patty) before we chatted back on March 9th; I still don’t know why. Fortunately, I had nothing to fear: She has a delightfully dry wit, was generous with her time, and full of insights into how the television world works.

She’s also one of the very best examples of a quality that made My So-Called Life so effective – Bess Armstrong is someone with a very rich theatrical background.

As I’ll explore in greater detail in the book, the theater thing is actually a pretty big deal and comes up frequently when you begin to examine the origins of this show.

In front of the camera came actors who’d previously found a second home on the stage, be it off-Broadway or at Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theatre (including co-founder Jeff Perry [Mr. Katimski] and Tom Irwin [Graham]). Most significantly, series creator Winnie Holzman spent her own early teens zipping back and forth between her native Long Island and New York City to attend drama classes.

For her part, Bess Armstrong was the daughter of two teachers, her father directing several productions of a little something called Our Town (see Ep. 17 “Betrayal”) over the years. She has directed a production of it herself, come to that. Discussing the Our Town scene reenacted by Rayanne and Angela in the final moments of "Betrayal," Bess says:

"[It] is to me one of the most lacerating, crystal clear, unbelievably simple and profound moments in American theater. The first time I saw it I was a 6th grader and I was leveled by it, crushed. It was the first play that my father had not allowed me to attend rehearsals for because he wanted the play to have its impact, and it did. How can you ever see that scene and not have it haunt you for the rest of your life?

Here is that scene:

I think I can safely say that, after reading this book, you’re going to come away with an even greater appreciation for Bess Armstrong, not only because of her creative process, but also for the path that led her to the role of Patty Chase in the first place. It’s a mini-education in what television was like a few decades ago, and how much of this business is down to not just being extremely good at what you do, but also knowing how to make the right choices at the right time.

My deep-felt thanks to Bess Armstrong for sharing her thoughts, her memories, and a couple of laughs, too.

'So Beautiful it Hurts' is neither endorsed by nor affiliated with ABC, The Bedford Falls Co., or anyone involved with the making or distribution of "My So-Called Life."  


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