Karen Pittman thinks there’s a playful quality to the characters she creates. And that’s a pretty impressive feat, considering she’s at Chautauqua Institution to play a grieving mother.
Pittman, a Chautauqua Theater Company guest actor, plays Maryanne Dempsey in The Glow Overhead, the second and final New Play Workshop of CTC’s 2016 season. The show, written by Nick Gandiello, will end its run at 4 p.m. Friday in Bratton Theater.
The Glow Overhead is the story of a diver’s dangerous attempt to recover the body of a fellow diver who died earlier in an underwater cave. Maryanne is the mother of the lost diver.
Pittman grew up in the music-centric Nashville, Tennessee, which she said influenced her as an artist.
“It’s very interesting as a young African-American girl to grow up in world where craft is very important, especially in an artistic sense,” she said.
She started singing at a young age and studied voice and opera at Northwestern University.
After college, she moved to New York City with plans of working in the music industry, but wound up doing it part-time, a side gig to her high-paying venture capital job.
While in New York, she got married and pregnant with her first child.
“I suddenly realized I didn’t want to be a mother who was living a life of material success but not really feeling purposeful, like I was having a meaningful conversation with the world about my existence,” she said.
Pittman left the venture capital world for a spot in the graduate acting program at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, which she graduated from in 2007.
Since then, she’s appeared in television, film and on Broadway. Some of her credits include a stint as Lisa on FX’s “The Americans,” Jory in the Broadway production of Disgraced and an undisclosed role in Netflix’s upcoming “Luke Cage.”
Pittman said she likes stories about the effect of relationships on human beings. She said grief is a “proving ground for a relationship” and her character, Maryanne, and her husband, Allan, have learned how to support one another since their son’s death.
“I think the audience will feel their own experience of relationship … and their own experience of how things around them shift their relationship with other people in the experience of … watching this play,” she said.
Pittman isn’t concerned with what people take away from the show, but instead about what they experience in the moment.
“While they are in there, what I want them to be is transformed, out of their seat, into the world of the play, and to be there for however long we can hold their attention and to not be bored, but to be fully engaged in the reflection of who they are onstage,” she said.
This is Pittman’s first time at Chautauqua, but she already hopes to be asked back.
“I am so grateful to this Chautauqua community for investing in actors and artists, writers who want to imbue the world with different viewpoints and different perspectives,” she said.