No Greyhound, She's Finally Broken Away From the Pack
originally appeared in the L.A. Times, April 8, 1996
Claudette Sutherland, star of the autobiographical 'Dog Man,' has her
life in focus.
By DIANE HAITHMAN
TIMES STAFF WRITER
Actress Claudette Sutherland says she didn't really have
a focus for her autobiographical one-woman show, "Dog Man," until one
event brought it all together: Her father died.
Sutherland says "Dog Man"— currently drawing positive
reviews at Hollywood's Matrix Theater-was originally intended to be an
autobiographical book. She had been working on her life story in bits and
pieces, reading them to fellow writers workshop members and at a friend's
cafe in New York. The actress, now in her 50s, said that it took the
sudden death of her father to put her own struggle for independence, as well
as the realities of middle age, into perspective. The show harks back to
Sutherland's life as the daughter of the "dog man," a rambler and gambler
who traveled about racing greyhounds at parimutuel tracks during the 1940s
and '50s. Sutherland winds her tale from the days as a child on the road,
worshiping her charismatic but distant dad, to coming to terms with middle
age and unwillingly watching her role reverse from being taken care of to
becoming caretaker in her father's advancing age. Sutherland also plays
the role of Nell in Samuel Beckett's absurdist play "Endgame," which plays
on alternate nights with "Dog Man" at the Matrix.
Sutherland, now a resident of Sherman Oaks; is a
Broadway veteran—she originated the role of Smitty in "How to Succeed in
Business Without Really Trying" in 1962, doing some 1,200 performances of
the musical. She followed that stint with other Broadway roles in "The
Women" and "The Shadow Box," and from there moved into commercials,
voice-overs and guest spots on series television.
Her Broadway roots never led to big-name recognition
either on stage or in Hollywood—which Sutherland says is just fine with
her. She says laughingly that she has done modest TV roles for so long
that "a lot of people say to me: ' Maybe we went to school together or
something'—I'm kind of generic by now. I have lots of friends who are
really big celebrities, and that's fun—but it's not the case for me. But
I'm sure that because of that, I get more freedom in the kind of work that
"I'm really interested in how diverse I get to be right
now," she continued during a conversation at her home, surrounded by two
friendly dogs of her own and another she's dog-sitting for a friend. "I'm
in a play that Beckett wrote,
I'm in a play that / wrote, teaching, gardening, cooking
... I say, it doesn't get any better than this."
Sutherland at first worried that critics might find her
autobiographical effort too sentimental or self-indulgent—then decided
she didn't care. "I like very much being onstage by myself; it's very
powerful and exciting and scary and all that," she said. "If you don't
like it, well some people do—so get over it. The theater is big enough for
everything." She also was concerned that "Dog Man" would be received as a
"women's piece," but "no matter what you do, you can't really shake that,"
she says. " 'Waiting to Exhale' was a 'women's movie,' or 'a black women's
movie.' Big deal. It's still a movie."
Sutherland, who decided to reinvent herself at GO, moved
to L.A. from New York after raising her children and seeing two 10-year
marriages dissolve in divorce. ("I seem to do pretty well with 10-year
intervals," she jokes.)
She readily acknowledges that her decision to write her
own material was also born of the lack of roles for middle-aged women.
After drama study at Missouri's Stevens College and Yale and years on
Broadway, Sutherland found plenty of work in New York basically portraying
herself—a young mother—in TV commercials. In her 30s, she switched to
voice-over work. But at 45, she found that work virtually dried up—a subject she treats with some humor in her
"Out of the 70s and '80s are coming so many solo pieces.
... It springs out of the frustration of not getting to do enough work,"
Sutherland says. "As an actor, you have to wait until somebody says: 'OK,
you can do this.' As a writer, or somebody who does his own material, at
least you are in an j active position.
"I always wanted to be an actress. My father was
always very funny, and my father was kind of a star in his circle—that
odd, mixed, vagrant circle. He got a lot of hoopla about him. I thought
it was neat, and I wanted to have that, too. I listened to the radio a
lot. And when I did theater—I remember seeing Julie Harris in 'The Lark'
when I was a girl, and I thought, boy oh boy, to be able to do that would
be really great! Plus, it was a play about a very powerful woman.
"When I was little, in the '40s and '50s, there weren't
a lot of women doing things that had power to them. The only women who I
saw who had any power were hostesses in restaurants. You have to wait
until they tell you you can sit down, and they tell you to stand over
there, and then finally they say: 'Right this
way.' Looked good to me!"
"Dog Man," Matrix Theater, 7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles.
Mondays-Tuesdays 8 p.m. Ends April 30. $12. (213) 852-1445.