Film and television actress Cindy Pickett is going through several emotional homecomings this month. The daughter of the late, beloved University of Houston drama professor Cecil J. Pickett, Cindy Pickett is back in the city she was raised to perform in the Houston Shakespeare Festival, an event Cecil Pickett had a profound influence on in its early years.
The first of Cindy Pickett’s homecomings is to Houston and the University of Houston, the place where she learned and honed her acting craft.
The second homecoming is to Shakespeare, the theatre stage in general and the Miller Outdoor stage, specifically. Pickett is portraying the mother of all mothers, Queen Gertrude in Hamlet and tackling the role of the Abbess in one of Shakespeare most slapstick comedies, The Comedy of Errors. If that sounds like an Iron Woman Challenge of acting, that’s why she is home.
"I’ve been wanting to back to the stage. It’s very, very different. It’s black and white, hot and cold, Yin Yang. It’s two different ways of approaching that particular creative process.”
Taking a break from rehearsals to speak with CultureMap before her debut Hamlet performance, Pickett revealed, “One of the reasons I took this when I was offered it was I wanted that opportunity. I’ve been wanting to back to the stage. It’s very, very different. It’s black and white, hot and cold, Yin Yang. It’s two different ways of approaching that particular creative process.”
The last time Pickett was on stage was in the late 1970s. After her years at the University of Houston and doing repertory theatre in Texas, she moved to New York, spent some time on the Broadway stage before landing a role on the soap opera Guiding Light. Since then she has spent decades on our television and movie screens.
Ferris Bueller's mom
Pickett’s most iconic role is, of course, Katie Bueller in the 1986 John Hughes classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Even though most fans of the movie probably never realized Ferris’s mom has a first name, Pickett still has obvious affection for the character and a film that, on its surface, seems to be about three kids playing hooky from high school.
“It’s kind of hooky in a good way. He [Ferris] really did it to show his friend that life is to be lived. And that I think is why the movie is so loved because it catches a human spirit in all of us that we forget. We get so mundane in our little lives. John [Hughes] really had a moral. His movies were kind of little morality plays to teach us something. And that one stuck,” she says.
"John [Hughes] really had a moral. His movies were kind of little morality plays to teach us something. And that one stuck."
Now during her homecoming back to theatre and Miller, she is again playing a mother to a most unruly child. Gertrude, Queen of Denmark, mother to Prince Hamlet and wife of her dead husband’s brother is debatably one of the most complex mothers in theatrical history.
Pickett has spent many hours in rehearsal attempting to discover who this character is. She calls that work she is doing with director Steve Pickering, her fellow actors, and Shakespeare’s words “a dynamic” and “exhausting” process.
Comparing that experience of working on a play, especially a Shakespeare play with her years of experience working in film and television, Pickett says, “It’s just so much more in depth than film. In film you learn your lines, you go in, you do it, you get to do it over again, but you don’t really have time to create all that. And you’re not a part of that creative process, except for your own character.”
In contrast, the weeks in rehearsal getting to know the play and characters and then becoming those characters on stage night after night, she describes as “challenging but brave.” She marvels that “theatre actors are so brave.”
In the end, all the weeks of exhausting work becomes worth it with that first step on stage in front of the audience. In that instant, “The adrenaline of the moment, of everything happening an once in front of an audience, is kind of like magic. . . Everything you’ve been trying to gather all these weeks and months just is there. You’re there. You’ve stepped into the water.”
Pickett says initially when she first began learning this centuries old character of Gertrude, she saw her “as someone who had to have a man beside her,” and with the death of her husband, King Hamlet, perhaps Gertrude “didn’t know what to do with herself.”
As rehearsals progressed, so came new revelations into the character.
“It’s very emotional being here, and it helps because Hamlet is very emotional," she says.
“We’ve been talking about it and we thought because of the war and because the King had been very into the military and the war that their relationship had faded and that his brother [Claudius], who is not an honorable man, might have been wooing her on the side. When he kills the husband, he then woos her into marriage.”
Musing further on her insights into the relationship between Gertrude and her new husband and king, Pickett explains, “So there’s lust, but I think he does love her and wants her physically. I think she needs someone. I think she is falling in love with him, but the things that happen within the play keep her from continuing that.”
Playing the Abbess in the light Comedy of Errors doesn’t call for near as much introspection, but jumping back and forth between tragedy and comedy extremes from one night to the next does present its challenges. Pickett finds in Hamlet “each scene is a new revelation,” while in Comedy of Errors “you must throw it out there. It’s timing and physical silliness.”
Mining the rich emotional material of Shakespeare’s plays while making such an emotional journey home again might seem overwhelming, but for Pickett that journey will only enrich her performance further.
“It’s very emotional being here, and it helps because Hamlet is very emotional," she says. "I’m playing Gertrude very emotionally because I think that’s who she is and what I’m bringing to her. And I’m very emotional being here because my parents aren’t here anymore. I just don’t come here anymore, but it was such a big part of my life. I was very happy here. At the university, I did so much work here, oh my gosh, with so many wonderful actors, the Quaids and Brent Spiner."
As we near the end of our talk, Pickett laughingly describes doing morning yoga before rehearsals and listening to songs by Neil Young about coming home. Caught up in those feelings she sometimes cries, but when the time comes to put on the costume of a queen, she'll use those emotions as fuel in the creation of Gertrude.
The Houston Shakespeare Festival continues with performances of Hamlet tonight, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, and The Comedy of Errors on Wednesday, Friday and Aug. 12. All performances are at 8:30 p.m. at Miller Outdoor Theater.