Sitting on the front porch of her house in Ravenna, during the final interview for this profile, actor Marya Sea Kaminksi paused, like she was teetering between saying something or holding it in, and then went for it: "Why this year?"
Kaminski has been shortlisted for the Genius Award four times—a record. "Always a bridesmaid," she said one year after the party. She had no anger or sadness in her eyes—she was just joking. But there was something to it. "Goddamnit, why don't we give her a Genius Award already?" was the final sentence about her in the theater shortlist in 2008. For years, Kaminski has consistently been among the very best actors working in Seattle. But it was her performance in Electra this January that made it clear: This is her year.
Kaminski's Electra was nearly a miracle. It was a distillation of what makes her great in general—almost any other actor would have made the play unbearable. The title character keens and moans and mourns for an hour and a half, often in long monologues, arias of suffering. (She's upset because her father murdered her sister, then her mother murdered her father and married an oaf. Electra is waiting for her brother—whom she saved from their mother—to come back and avenge their father's death. Then she's told her brother is dead, too, which completely dismantles her.) She begins, "Divine light/sweet air/again hear/my pain./Divine light/sweet air/again hear/my pain," and goes on like that for a long time.
Playwright Frank McGuinness, who adapted the play from the Sophocles original, must've nursed a deep sadism against actors—and audiences—while he was working on the script. A lesser actor would have dug down into some private pain and emoted all over the stage, drowning the audience in tears and wails. But not Kaminski. She cried and she wailed (she had to), but she carried a ballast of honest quietude that gave all the external emotion a transfixing steadiness. The audience didn't recoil from the spectacle of pain, as any normal person would. They leaned toward it, drank it in. She didn't play the character as an animal snarling in a snap trap—she played her as a person. Which sounds simple, stupidly simple, but that's the difficulty of good acting. You only have to suffer through one overreaching performance to see how difficult it is to just play a person.
"The hardest thing to teach people," she says of her acting students at Freehold Theatre Lab and Cornish College of the Arts, "is to be boring."
An earlier Kaminski, the one who arrived from New York to attend the graduate theater program at the University of Washington nine years ago, was afraid to be boring. "When I came to grad school, I was so fucked-up," she says. "I was drinking a lot, nursing a small drug habit. In college, I thought I was Charles Bukowski." She thought that looking like a poet was a road to poetry and that acting was all about the emotions. "But that," she says, "is a short career."
Kaminski started acting when she was a kid living in Rochester, New York, and her mother, pregnant with Kaminski's little brother, entered her in beauty pageants so she would "still feel special." Small beauty pageants led to bigger beauty pageants, which led to representation in New York City: commercials, plays, voice-overs, theater in high school and college (University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where she majored in theater so the school would pay her way to the Edinburgh fringe festival) and beyond. Kaminski had logged many stage hours with lots of classics: The Cherry Orchard, Our Town, a production of Three Sisters set during perestroika with a big finale reveal involving an enormous satellite. But says she "got a little whuppin'" at UW because she was all drive and no technique, all force and no fulcrum. With training, she began to unlock the secrets of great acting: breathing, action, stillness—all the things that make people people, and that give an actor who knows how to wield them the power to rearrange the inside of your head.
She took a class with Jon Jory that required her and her classmates to make and manage a theater company. "He loved to say, 'Who's gonna buy the toilet paper?'" Kaminski laughs. "'Who's gonna buy the toilet paper? And who's gonna talk to Jon because he's drinking too much?'" The academic became visceral when Kaminski and some of her schoolmates—including Lathrop Walker, Mikey Place, and a powerhouse design team including Heidi Ganser, Matt Starritt, and (past Stranger Genius Award–winner) Jennifer Zeyl—formed the Washington Ensemble Theatre, one of the world-historical moments for Seattle culture.
WET not only launched a dozen fruitful careers, it raised the bar for what it means to be a fringe theater here. Everything about WET's shows declared a new era of ambitions and artistry: The designs looked like art installations, the texts were funny and unnerving and smart, the performances were revelatory. You could expect to walk into WET and leave with your idea of the world nudged in a new direction. And Kaminski was at the center of the success: She directed Finer Noble Gases, starred in Mr. Marmalade and Crave, and took her turn buying the toilet paper.
Then there's her acting résumé beyond that little theater on 19th Avenue: her playful but serious Rachel Corrie at Seattle Repertory Theatre, a frustrated and sexually ravenous Hedda Gabler at On the Boards, the haunted Electra at Seattle Shakespeare Company. Sense a pattern? All of those doomed creatures seemed eerily familiar, as if Kaminski had burrowed into our brains, drawn out parts of ourselves we don't particularly relish contemplating, and threw them onto the stage.
Audiences don't want actors to be people—they want them to be Show People. They love the story about Klaus Kinski, stuck in the Amazonian jungle with Werner Herzog, irritated by a hut full of crew members loudly playing cards during his scene and firing his pistol into the hut, blowing off the top of an extra's finger. They love that Drew Barrymore was smoking cigarettes at Studio 54 when she was 9 and was in rehab for cocaine and booze and whatever else by 13. They love that Mae West had a thousand boyfriends, boxers and gangsters and badasses.
But Kaminski learned years ago that her excesses and personal tragedies, including a series of deaths in her immediate family, are not the stuff she must draw on for great performances. She says her brother's suicide, for example, had little to do with the way she cultivated Electra's grief for her father and brother.
"I try not to use my brother's death like that," she says. "But it comes up so easily, all the time." In your mind? "Not in my mind," she says, pointing at her chest. "Just under my skin. But that's the fear that people have been talking about with the Method since the beginning," she says. "I can think about my dog getting hit and get teary—until the day thinking about my dog getting hit doesn't get me teary anymore. And then I've failed in two ways: I've failed to bring an honest emotion to the stage and I've numbed myself to that personal experience."
She warns that she's about to say something cheesy: "The more I learn about acting, meditation, life, and love, I realize it's all the same thing."
"The only answer is to be in your body at this moment," she says. "You can try to find other answers—but they'll fuck you in the end."