June 27, 2000 04:43am
"The Vagina Monologues" - Linda Ellerbee Gets Taste of Acting
by: David Bauder
(NEW YORK, NY) -- It caused a minor political storm in New York City when Donna Hanover, the actress wife of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, agreed to perform in the off-Broadway production called ``The Vagina Monologues.'' She withdrew before going onstage when her husband was diagnosed with cancer.
Hardly anyone noticed when Linda Ellerbee took a role in the same show. To young viewers, Ellerbee is Katie Couric, Dan Rather and Barbara Walters wrapped up in one because of her nine years of news reports for Nickelodeon.
Linda, what would the kids say?
``Nick News is for kids,'' she said. ''`The Vagina Monologues' is not for kids. There is no conflict there.''
Except for a brief appearance as herself during an episode of ``Murphy Brown,'' it is Ellerbee's first acting role since she was an ear of corn during a fourth-grade pageant.
She's working alongside actresses Calista Flockhart and LisaGay Hamilton during a brief run that ends this week. Each portrays several different characters during the course of the play, and Ellerbee takes turns as a 78-year-old woman, a 6-year-old girl, a sophisticated New Yorker, and a woman watching her daughter give birth.
Ellerbee admires the way the play illustrates issues important to women, including body shape, self-image, aging and relationships.
``It's not like I'm appearing in a porn flick,'' she said. ''`The Vagina Monologues' is a serious play and has been taken seriously by all the critics and a substantial number of prominent women who have taken part in it.''
Flattered but frightened, Ellerbee wondered if the playwright had the correct phone number when the call came asking her to perform. She worried about memorizing the lines, but was told she could read them.
She was nervous until the day before her debut, when her son announced that he would be getting married. A wedding - perfect obsession material for a mom - was enough to put her own concerns into some perspective.
The idea of being offered something completely different at age 55 intrigued her. Besides, she thought it would be fun.
Ellerbee had to be taught by Flockhart and Hamilton how to bow to the audience after the performances.
``I learned that I'm not going to quit my day job,'' she said. ``The trouble is, I haven't been able to quit my day job while I'm doing this.''
The onetime rebellious network newscaster has a sprawling Greenwich Village office for her company, Lucky Duck Productions. In addition to the weekly Nick News, she does periodic specials for the network, and won a Peabody Award for one show that tried to explain President Clinton's impeachment to young people.
Now she's having the somewhat mortifying experience of being approached by young adults who tell her that they grew up watching Nick News. Nickelodeon has just signed on for three more years with Ellerbee.
``We were sort of inventing it as we were going along,'' she said. ``We came in with an attitude of `don't talk down to the audience, treat them with respect.' Our message is to get kids to think, not tell them what to think.''
She's gearing up to describe a presidential election to an audience that has really only known one president in their lives.
``It gives a crusty old journalist an opportunity to look at the world with new eyes,'' she said. ``In fact, it commands that you do. It allows me in a way to throw off years of what I really know about American presidential politics and campaigns and come to it again.''
Ellerbee is also the author of two childrens books that she hopes will become a series. The books, ``Girl Reporter Blows Lid Off Town'' and ``Girl Reporter Sinks School,'' star an aspiring journalist described as a ``world-class writer trapped in an 11-year-old's body.''
Lucky Duck, with complete production facilities on site, is also a major supplier of programming to other networks, doing occasional ``Intimate Portrait'' segments for Lifetime and ``Headliners and Legends'' for MSNBC.
Ellerbee probably won't resist the opportunity someday to write about her two weeks on stage. She's already taking notes.
``In a Walter Mitty way, there's a kind of coolness to doing it,'' she said. ``I get to play an actress for two weeks, without the involvement in work, in commitment, in rejections and difficulties that real actors have to go through.''