For an actress who “never had the drive to do whatever makes you stand out, star-wise,” Barbara Tarbuck sure has managed to carve out a successful career.
She was Jessica Lange’s Mother Superior in the second season of “American Horror Story,” and played Jane Jacks for 14 years on the popular soap opera “General Hospital.” There’s an impressive roster of TV and film credits on her IMDB profile.
But IMDB doesn’t include her distinguished list of New York stage, Broadway and touring credits in plays by David Mamet, Harold Pinter, Neil Simon, Joseph Chaiken and Marie Irene Fornes, nor all the regional theatre she’s performed, locally and nationally.
Tarbuck brings her one-woman play, “Stopping By,” based on her story about scattering her husband’s ashes at Burning Man, for four Saturday performances only, at Edgemar Center for the Arts beginning this Saturday. She originated the 75-minute piece to sold-out houses earlier this year at the Echo Theatre in Atwater Village.
“There are 18 characters,” she told me in a recent interview, “it was hard as hell to write and difficult to memorize – after all I’m 74 now. But I wanted it fully scripted, not improvisational because I have great respect for the written word. It was hard to re-live, but I am more connected to this piece than anything I’ve done in my life.”
And she’s done a lot.
“I received a Fulbright scholarship to study at London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts for a year, which got me out of Detroit,” she said. “Over there, you get into drama school and they treat it like it’s medical school.”
The confidence her London training gave her came in handy when she appeared at an open call for the U.S. premiere of Landscape and Silence, two experimental one acts by English playwright Harold Pinter (he of the “pregnant pause”) at New York’s Lincoln Center in 1968. “I didn’t even have an agent yet, but the director, Peter Gill and I made an instant connection. We’re still friends.”
She continued working in New York and touring in repertory but in 1978, “I was called to Los Angeles to shoot a TV pilot.”
The visit would change her life.
“I met my husband the first week,” she recalled. “I never thought I’d stay; I came out to work, get rich – I made $5000 in a week, and I thought, wow Broadway never paid that much.”
She was invited to a Rosh Hashanah dinner at the home of friends from graduate school, not knowing they were setting her up. “I’d just come from a rehearsal and took a swim in the pool, I was a mess, no make-up on, and with these old friends it didn’t matter.
“But then this gorgeous guy shows up and I’m thinking ‘oh no, but this has nothing to do with me,’ so without trying too hard, we just hit it off the first minute we met!”
“It was a great time for us to meet,” she remembers. “He’d worked his way through grad school modeling for Playboy and Esquire, had left a job teaching philosophy in Florida and was searching for what to do next.
“His father had been an ironworker, and he’d worked summers with him as he was growing up.” So he took a job with the Los Angeles Building Department, which was perfect because soon they had a daughter, and if Tarbuck was rehearsing, “He could be home with her by 3:30, while I was able to give her breakfast and get her to school in the mornings.”
Her daughter was still in high school when her life changed again. “My husband had a stroke, he was ill for some time, and it was rough.”
The story of “Stopping By” starts in the hospital. “I fictionalized the story, so everything I tell you is true but I changed genders and names. My daughter becomes my son, because it’s intensely personal and it’s my daughter’s story too. I was freer to write it that way.”
Why Burning Man? “My daughter had been there with her NYU college friends, and about a year after Denny (her husband) died, she invited me to come along. The first place that Denny ever took me was Death Valley. He loved the desert and we went camping. We set out our sleeping bags and he’d tell me about the stars and the ancients, and he was enthralled by the vastness of it all.”
She remembered Denny mentioning that he’d heard of Burning Man, a big arts event that originated in San Francisco. But thinking it was a druggy kind of happening and with her daughter still in school, she never imagined going there at the time.
But when her daughter invited her along, she knew it was where her husband’s ashes belonged.
“There are all of these amazing structures, art objects, floats all very skillfully done, that are simply blown apart at the end. And the stillness. It’s so calm.
“There’s the Temple of Forgiveness, an wooden structure with chutes that go into the sand, where you can put things, similar to the prayers people slip between the cracks of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. In reality, I didn’t put more than a handful of ashes in the chute, but it was symbolic and healing for us, and I felt like part of him got to go with us.
“And as my daughter said, ‘Daddy would have loved it.’”
Barbara Tarbuck’s “Stopping By,” is onstage for four performances only; call (310) 392-7327 or visit www.edgemarcenter.org.
Sarah A. Spitz spent her career as a producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica and produced freelance arts reports for NPR. She has also written features and reviews for various print and online publications.