Morgana Shaw stars as Bette Davis in “ALL ABOUT BETTE: An Interlude with Bette Davis.” The one-woman play by award-winning playwright Camilla Carr opens at Four Day Weekend’s Comedy Theater in Downtown Fort Worth May 5. “ALL ABOUT BETTE” performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. and selected Sundays at 2 p.m. through June 30.
“Without Bette Davis, roles for women in Hollywood would be about eye candy, cleavage, and stereotypes. Bette hated that,” Morgana Shaw said. “She fought hard for more interesting roles, and she gave women a voice in Hollywood. Bette didn’t think she’d have that effect, but she did. She ruffled the boy’s club’s feathers, and because of that, they made her out to be this selfish shrew, but audiences loved her. She loathed being categorized and put into a box, and what I love about Camilla Carr’s script is how it strips away all hints of camp and caricature, and you meet a real mother, actor, and underdog who fought to play characters with brains and depth.”
Shaw’s resume is long and decorated, boasting theatre awards like The Leon Rabin. Recent film credits include starring with Anna Paquin and Zachary Levin in the Erwin Brothers’ “American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story.” She was also featured alongside Tessa Thompson and Lily James in Nia DeCosta’s “Little Woods.” Shaw also has numerous credits for directing, choreography, and costume design.
Shaw has performed as Bette Davis in multiple runs of the show, starting in 2006 at Theatre 3 in Dallas, directed by the late Jac Alder. Shaw invokes Bette Davis to guide the audience through the early years of finding her voice against a male-dominated Hollywood, four turbulent marriages, motherhood, and even her personal prescription for the challenges posed by aging. Davis worked through her seventies after surviving cancer and a stroke, and died at the age of 81.
Bette Davis Achievements
The play explores Davis’ greater and lesser-known accomplishments. Those include: Being the first actor (male or female) to receive 10 Academy Award nominations; Being the first woman elected to serve as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; Being the first actress to sue a major Hollywood studio for the right to reject roles. She lost the battle, but as Bette says, “I won the war.”
Davis is also recognized as being the reason the Academy Award’s voting system was changed, after being snubbed for her performance as Mildred in “Of Human Bondage.” Hollywood lore says that Bette Davis’ first Oscar for “Dangerous,” in 1935, was the Academy’s attempt to atone for the previous year’s slight.
“The themes in Camilla’s script are as relevant today as they were in Bette’s lifetime: survival, misogyny, love, marriage, or in Bette’s case, marriages, children, death and legacy,” Shaw says. “Bette Davis isn’t an icon only for her performances. She’s an icon because she spearheaded an actor’s movement that dissolved the studio contract system, freeing actors to explore the work that they believe is worth doing.”
Q&A With Morgana Shaw
FDN: Were you always a big Bette Davis fan, even before being given an opportunity to play her onstage?
MS: “No, not a big fan. I knew her work and growing up, people would say I have Bette Davis eyes, especially after Kim Carnes’ song came out. I even named my cat Bette Davis. But it wasn’t until Jac Alder, founder of Theatre 3, gave me the opportunity to play Bette that I began to understand what a powerhouse she was.”
FDN: Do you feel you discover new aspects of her character each time you portray her?
MS: “Yes, like all people, Bette’s life was complicated, messy, tragic and triumphant. I recently watched ‘Return to Witch Mountain’ with my grandson and he was fascinated with her performance, which helped me discover additional Bette nuance that I hadn’t realized previously. In NYC, we performed at a producer’s showcase in the Riverside Theatre. The wonderful Michael Jenkins organized it. It was thrilling, nerve wracking, exciting–I was flying high for months. I am so excited to return to New York. That’s one of our goals for this show. We don’t know how or when, but we have faith that this show is on its way to the Big Apple again.”
FDN: Your career has really taken off over the past few years, with multiple stage and screen roles to your credit even with the pandemic. What are your personal favorites (besides Bette of course).
“Oh my… all of them… can I say that? Every role holds a special place in my heart. I allow each character to take possession of my body and intentions for those days or weeks I perform, and they stay with me. That said, playing Brenda Warner’s mother, Jenny Jo, in the Erwin Brother’s film ‘American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story’ has special meaning for me.
MS: First of all, Brenda and Kurt are two of the loveliest people I’ve met. They are the real thing. Second, Brenda’s faith is very similar to that of my dear friend Michelle Valout-Lane who passed away from cancer a couple of years ago. Michelle was a huge fan of the Erwin Brother’s film ‘I Can Only Imagine.’ I watched that film shortly after her death and said to my husband, I want to work with people like that. Two years later, I was cast in their film playing Brenda’s mother a very real person with a loving, giving heart. During filming, I was allowed to wear a turquoise ring that Michelle gave me. It’s very clearly seen in one of the scenes. I haven’t shared that publicly. It’s very emotional for me to talk about.”
FDN: You and Ken (Orman) make such a great team. How long have you been together, and how long have you been married now?
“Yes, we are a great team. We call ourselves Team Moken. We met in 2016 at the tiny Rudy Seppy theatre in Irving, and married on the beach in St. Augustine in 2019. 2016 was my Year of Yes. I was saying yes to everything. I was willing to be open to possibilities and that’s when Ken entered my life. I’ve heard the phrase ‘trust the timing’ for years and well, that’s exactly what I did.
MS: Our first date was supposed to have been a quick happy hour and it turned into a 9-hour marathon that included a Rangers baseball game and meeting some of his closest friends. Watching him with them told me everything I need to know about him. He says that our 5,000-year-old souls reconnected, that’s all. It was bound to happen at some point. He’s funny like that.”
FDN: What are your plans for the future, after this production ends?
“We plan to keep this show on its feet and traveling the country and eventually the world. No plans of setting it down for long. Bette’s story is so human, so timely, so compelling and she is hysterical. The show is so funny. People remark on that all the time. They don’t realize how much humor there is in it. I love this show. It’s such a huge part of my life, and we have a team that is filled with optimism and love. It makes all the sense in the world to press on.”
MS: “We must remember to stay connected to our youthful hearts and remember as often as we can that life is to be filled with love and laughter, especially when we are working. Sandra Day O’Connor believes that the secret to happiness is doing ‘work worth doing.’ I cannot dispute that. It’s fueled me my whole life, and ‘All About Bette’ is definitely work worth doing.”
Shaw is producing the May 5-June 30 run of “All About Bette” alongside Creative Director David Andrew Nelson, Marketing Director Beau McDermott, and her husband, Executive Producer Ken Orman. Tickets and more information can be found at allaboutbette.us.