Wanda Sykes has conquered many a stage in her career, including comedy clubs, concert halls, TV studios and even the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. But the Delaware Valley is about to see her do it in a way she hasn’t done before.
The outspoken and openly gay comedian, writer and TV star is making her theater debut in the area as Miss Hannigan in “Annie,” at the Media Theater through Dec. 12 and again Jan. 12-16.
The last time we talked to Sykes, in 2009, she had many a professional plate spinning as she was on the road doing stand up comedy and juggling two television gigs; one as Barb on “The New Adventures of Old Christine” and hosting her own weekly talk show, “The Wanda Sykes Show.”
Sadly, both shows were put out to pasture soon after.
With her stage debut under her belt, Sykes spoke to PGN about her new frontier in the world of theater and where her impressive career is going to take her next.
PGN: Why Media for your stage debut? WS: I saw a production at the theater of “Rent” and I was really impressed. I was talking to the director and we kicked up a little friendship. He was telling me that he thought I would be a really good Miss Hannigan in “Annie.” I was telling him that I love theater and it’s the one thing I haven’t tried yet. The opportunity came up and I was like, “Why not?” I knew he would take good care of me as far as making me do the work and not half-stepping it. I’m learning a lot, so it’s been good.
PGN: What makes the character of Miss Hannigan a good fit for you? WS: The alcoholism is good. That works for me. Definitely the drinking. She’s just mean and I enjoy playing that part of being mean. I’m not a mean person but it’s fun to play that role. She’s a bit of a flirt with the men that wander through the orphanage. It’s just a fun role to play.
PGN: When we think of Miss Hannigan, we automatically go to Carol Burnett in the film version. Did you think, I have to go up against Burnett’s version, when you took this role? WS: You know what? It was so funny, when I first talked to Jesse [Cline, show director], I said, “I’m thinking I should go back to watch the film and then the one with Kathy Bates.” And he begged me. He was like, “Don’t! Don’t watch any of it. I want your version of it. I don’t want you doing your version of Carol Burnett. Do your own version of Miss Hannigan and you’ll be fine.” So I didn’t go back and look at it.
PGN: What are some of your favorite plays and what would be your dream theater role? WS: Honestly, I haven’t seen enough to say my favorite. I love the music of “Rent.” A lot of them are plays that my friends are in — small plays around Los Angeles. I don’t know if you would know any of them. There’s one, “Voice Lessons,” with Laurie Metcalf and French Stewart. It’s very funny. I enjoyed that. I don’t think I seen enough to pick my favorite.
PGN: Will this be your first time singing professionally? WS: Yes. Definitely. I don’t even know if I even want to say it’s professional. But that’s the thing: Miss Hannigan is a character thing. I don’t have to sound like Grace [Farrell] or Daddy Warbucks. They have ballads. I have ... it’s all attitude. It’s all character.
PGN: Being a comedian, you’re used to having 100-percent control of what happens on stage. Is it going to be a different experience for you depending on other people for a performance? WS: Definitely. It takes a lot of focus and I have to stay on book. It takes a lot of discipline to not go, “Oh man, it would be really great if I say this now.” But I want to stay true to the play. But there are enough funny lines in the play that I’m satisfied delivering those the right way. I get quite a few laughs in the play. Also, it’s totally different than doing stand up. I think I’m really loving this more than TV. It brings more of the live audience, like when I do standup. When you do TV, you screw up a line, cut and you do it again. And the audience laughs because you mess up. With theater, you can’t blow it. It’s more pressure but I’m enjoying the live energy.
PGN: Does being world famous as a comedian make it easier or harder to branch out and do different things outside of comedy? WS: I don’t know. People like having a name, something that can sell tickets. I enjoy being funny. That’s my thing. I’m not going to go after some dramatic role. As long as it’s comedy, it won’t be too difficult if I want to get another role on stage.
PGN: Do you think people will pick on how “Annie” is set in the Great Depression and people are broke and angry at the president ... kind of like right now? WS: I don’t see how you can’t make that comparison. It does speak on today. It’s so timely right now. Then the president comes in with The New Deal, kind of like the stimulus package. So it’s very timely.
PGN: Beyond “Annie,” do you have any new projects coming up and is there more stage work in your future? WS: After “Annie” I’ll be back on the road doing standup and also I’ll be in “Ice Age 4.” I’m recording that now.
PGN: We were sorry to see your talk show on Fox get canceled. If another network asked you to, would you do another talk show? WS: If it’s HBO, yeah.
PGN: When you see someone like Conan O’Brien get paid millions of dollars to go away and then get another show immediately, does any part of you resent the TV industry? WS: I can’t be angry at what somebody else does or gets. Then I would never be able to leave my house. I would just be pissed all the time and not be able to function. Hey, good for Conan. He’s the luckiest guy to get fired ever.
PGN: Have we seen the last of [“Wanda Sykes Show” co-host and drag performer] Porsche on network TV? WS: I hope not. I saw Porsche three or four weeks ago in New York. I went to check out her show in the city.
PGN: When you first started out in comedy, did you think you would become a voice in politics and get invited to the White House? WS: When I first started out, I said I wanted to be a funny comedian. Just bust my butt and try to be the best that I can be. And that’s been my singular goal and that’s what has gotten me everything else. So, am I surprised that it’s gotten me this far? I don’t know about surprised but I knew that by having a goal and working toward it, I would be successful.
Wanda Sykes stars in “Annie” through Dec. 12 and Jan. 12-16 at Media Theater, 104 E. State St., Media. For more information or tickets, visit www.mediatheatre.org, www.wandasykes.com or call (610) 891-0100.