Quick: Who’s the first celebrity you think of when you say “environmentalist” — Ed Begley, Jr.? Leonardo DiCaprio? Brad Pitt?
These answers are all correct, but here’s one name that’s missing: Sharon Lawrence.
You may remember her from her Emmy-nominated role as Assistant DA Sylvia Costas on the groundbreaking series, “NYPD Blue.” Or maybe you know her from “Desperate Housewives” or “Grey’s Anatomy.” The list of her TV and stage credits is miles long, beginning with her earliest days as a singing, dancing Broadway star.
I met Sharon in the 1990s, when she was a regular on “NYPD Blue.” The Writers Guild held a reception honoring the writers and cast. When I told her how much I admired her work and she asked my name, she said, “Are you THE Sarah Spitz?” That blew me away, since she’s an actual star and I was a mere public radio employee.
It turns out that when she first arrived in Los Angeles, she came in to answer phones for KCRW’s pledge drive and heard me fundraising on air. I never forgot that, and I can tell you from my experience over the years that Sharon epitomizes graciousness, a rare quality in Hollywood.
She’s also an environmentalist and among many other accolades, a member of the board of Heal the Bay, the Santa Monica-based NGO. “The minute I started scuba diving in Santa Monica Bay, I recognized what a rare privilege it is to understand what you see going on under the water’s surface, and the impact it has on the ecosystem, both above and beneath that surface.”
She credits the city’s forward thinking: “Because of Santa Monica’s leadership we led the charge on the plastic bag ban, which then went statewide but now is being challenged by out-of-state plastic producers. It’s not about the health of the ocean or the environment; it’s really about jobs in South Carolina.”
I asked if she considers herself an activist. “I think of myself as an environmentalist who likes to help tell the story. I am not a policy wonk, though I have been to Sacramento about the plastic bag ban. But I do know that stories are what change people’s actions.”
Along with Begley and others, Sharon is part of Green Wish, dedicated to attracting funding and attention for small environmental non-profits. A recent dinner at Bruce Kalman’s acclaimed Union Restaurant supported Van Nuys-based Food Forward, the anti-hunger harvesting and gleaning organization that feeds the hungry; HoneyLove, the Mar Vista-based beekeeping group that helped L.A. approve a backyard beekeeping ordinance; Hollywood Orchard, which provides excess fruit to food pantries; and Muir Ranch, a high school urban farm in Pasadena.
What attracts her is the grassroots nature of these small groups. “I really admire those executive directors who understand what it means to bring their organizational skills, experience and energy to the table to make their missions effective. As someone who likes to tell stories, I’m grateful to be able to do so on their behalf.”
Now appearing onstage at the Mark Taper Forum, Sharon Lawrence is telling a different kind of story, playing Lucinda (Lula) in “The Mystery of Love and Sex,” by British playwright Bathsheba Doran.
Lula is the mother of Charlotte (Mae Whitman), who’s going through a sexual identity crisis, as is her best friend, Jonny (York Walker), a young black neighbor who’s been part of their lives since Charlotte was 9 years old. Lula and hubby Howard (David Pittu) are having issues of their own.
The way the story unfolds is often hilarious, but many secrets and surprises are revealed in the twists and turns of the plot. “Love is mysterious,” Sharon says, “sex is mysterious and so is how we change. What I love about this play is the tenderness with which it looks at the challenges of modern love. And it is modern in that we demand of our culture to include everyone now.”
It’s also a reunion for Sharon and Mae Whitman. “We did a mini-series together when she was 9 and though we didn’t act together, I saw the result of her work in it. Everybody was all, ‘This little girl is so good, so deep.’ And now everybody knows, and she’s not a little girl any more.
“I was immediately impressed with her amazing voice. A lot of young actresses who haven’t done stage work don’t have the vocal training to understand how to protect your voice and how to use it to drive all the energy through to the end of the line. But her voice is so strong and flexible because she’s done a lot of voiceover work. She’s the voice of Tinkerbell and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to name just a few, so she uses her voice more than most actors do. She has a really strong instrument that’s remarkably expressive.”
Sharon is involved with “We for She,” dedicated to increasing the visibility of women TV writers and directors, and the SAG/AFTRA Foundation, which provides emergency assistance, offers a VoiceOver Lab, and creates programming such as conversations with actors about their craft.
“I believe that if you’re excited about something a non-profit is doing to change people’s lives, it’s a pleasure and privilege to help move that forward.”
See what I mean about Sharon Lawrence being gracious? See her in “The Mystery of Love and Sex” at the Mark Taper Forum through March 20.
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.