An Interview With One Of My (And Soon To Be Yours) Favorite Actors About Theater, Arts Advocacy, And The Play She’s In Streaming This Wednesday With Paula Vogel’s “Bard At The Gate” Play Initiative
Rachel Spencer Hewitt is one of the most extraordinary actors I’ve seen. Ever. Anywhere. She has an MFA in Acting from Yale’s School of Drama, and has appeared on Broadway (King Charles III) and Off-Broadway (The Seagull, directed by Max Stafford Clark), (A Civil War Christmas, by Paula Vogel and directed by Tina Landau), and (Peter and the Star Catcher at New York Theatre Workshop).
I also had the good fortune of having Rachel create the role of Marilyn Monroe in my play Fellow Travelers, directed by Michael Wilson at The Bay Street Theater. Her performance was among the most technically extraordinary and emotionally rich I’ve ever witnessed on any stage. She’s also in my Thursday night play reading group, where she additionally serves as a no-nonsense de facto stage manager.
Rachel is also the founder of Parents Artists Advocacy Group (or PAAL), whose work has been featured in The New York Times, American Theatre Magazine, and NPR. She explains the work of this wonderful organization in depth in our interview.
This Wednesday at 7, she will appear in Meg Miroshnik’s The Droll via “The Bard at the Gate,” on Paula Vogel’s website http://paulavogelplaywright.com/bardatthegate, with all proceeds going to charity. You’d be a fool not to watch it. A fool, I say! Also, you’d be one to pass up this chance to get to know this extraordinary artist and person by reading this interview:
Tell us a bit about the play and why it’s especially resonant these days.
The Droll’s alternate title is “a Play About the End of Theatre” and it asks the question “What would it have been like to discover a passion for acting during the 18 years in which theatre was illegal in 17th-century Puritan England?” It follows a band of players as they perform illegally throughout London and the surrounding areas. The Droll was written by Meg Miroshnik and performed in 2009 at the Yale School of Drama’s Carlotta Festival. I was fortunate enough to be a part of the original cast of students to perform this piece, and almost all of us are part of this zoom reading of it.
It’s not only been incredible to reunite with a company of players who all connected over this piece, but also to see what profound relevance this piece has right now as we wrestle with art in a global pandemic. Ten years ago we put up a stunning black box production of the grit and darkness and laughter and bonds that come from creating art in a world that’s shut down around us. Now, we get to share this story when so many of us are finding new ways to connect with a creative community.
We also are so lucky to have Devin Brain return to direct it. He directed it originally at Yale, and his ability to find beauty in the pain of a character’s story as well as find raw, relatable human reasons to move a story forward make his pairing with Meg, especially in this piece, always a thrill to be a part of.There’s so much heart in this stoy that explores how far people will go to find each other and make art when fear, illness, and the immediate surroundings make us vulnerable. When the theatres shut down this year, I instantly thought of this play – to the point I had a dream about it. The next morning I saw Paula Vogel post on social media about remembering it as well, and the rest is history.
Will this be a cold reading, or has there been any sort of ad hoc rehearsal process?
Many of us haven’t visited this piece in a good decade, but we were allotted some rehearsal chunks under the Theatre Authority agreement for benefit performances, so some refresher work using the latest version, and then we did somewhat cold reads with each other and recorded it all over zoom. Meg’s plays always send me into rapture because she writes with such specificity that I always know where I am in the world even while she starts snapping its rules in half. It’s the 17th century except when it’s not; it’s our English except that it’s not, and all the while we know and follow and dive deeper into the story. Her magic is in breaking the rules so we live in a new world to meet people we deeply want to know.
You’ve mentioned to me this play has always stuck with you. Why do you think it does?
I think because of the center of many of our conversations together – that for many artists, creating is equivalent to our very survival. It’s how we understand and navigate the world and ourselves. The hope for many of us is that any illumination we find through this art we also get a chance to share with others for their own illumination, wherever their imagination and empathy takes them.
For The Droll, specifically, it provides historical context for a time when laughter itself was worth doing great evil to find, how the lightness of a play can rid someone of their personal darkness for only a moment, and – also very relevant – how beautiful groups of players have structural flaws that can harm the very people who love creating more than anything. This play allowed me to live through my characters’ path, one of the players who desired to be a maker in the company more than anything, and how her life was changed by the betrayal of rejection from that community.
Meg writes each player with such strongly pulsing heart, that I could fully dive into Doll’s (my character’s name) depression, passion, grit, defiance, pain, and victory knowing full well the play would open up to all her humanity at the same time. My character is vey much a product of her time as well as a figure we recognize fully today. Her raw talent and trauma make her a hero of survivors, even if her methods are suspect. But I won’t say any more to keep from spoiling anything! In the playwright’s notes in the script, Meg writes that it’s “a love letter to actors” and on every page, its so evident that she has a love for every single character speaking. That love makes the playing of this piece all the more vibrant.
What’s it like working on a piece with Paula Vogel? What unique energy does she bring to the (in this case, virtual) room?
Paula’s advocacy for the artists who make new work, in every room, is indefatigable. Her whole mission with this series is to produce plays and playwrights she believes in now that the “factory” part of play development has shut down. When Paula speaks to a room of artists, we are all instantly in her family, and she brings warrior energy that lets you know wherever you want to take this play boldly, she’ll go with you. That fearlessness is contagious. Her belief in what we do as artists is nothing short of life changing.
I worked with her in the room on plays at Yale and in her piece A Civil War Christmas at New York Theatre Workshop. When she said goodbye toward the end of that production, she took me by the shoulders and looked me square in the eyes and said, “Always keep your heart open!” I don’t know if she knew it, but at the time I was engaging very deeply with a character in that play that I struggled to shake when I would leave the theatre, and her strength in that moment became an anchor for me as I matured in my art: to remember my openness and vulnerability as a strength. That the answer for sustaining myself would never be to close my heart but to fortify myself in other ways, in my belief and self-worth. Now, years later, she’s still jumping on zoom calls to grab us by the shoulders and look us in the eye, her twinkle and mischief and fire as strong as ever, and remind all of us of the power of open hearts on every call. It’s life changing, to be honest.
Also, just relevantly speaking, she is constantly speaking up and speaking out about what’s happening in the theatre and society in terms of injustice, so when she brings plays into production, as she’s doing with this series, she’s a necessary voice because of her ability to connect the art of storytelling to the movement of people, and that’s a belief I share, so she’s a leader I look up to very much in that way.
You founded the Parent Artist Advocacy League. Would you talk a bit about its mission and why it’s so close to your heart?
When I became a mother, my art opened up in a way I had needed for a very long time, but the support that was already lacking for me as an artist in our society plummeted – even though I had all the privilege, connection, survival job opportunity in the world, it was absurdity at best and starvation at its lowest. Childbirth is older than even the theater, and still…there was no handbook, there was lack of communication about others doing art and mothering at the same time in a real, intentional and institutional way, and – the worst part of all – I was complicit in silencing myself for a very long time.
The moment that changed that for me was when I learned of mothers who left the field all together and was told by a male colleague not to speak about my successes, and all the silencing from being sexualized in my twenties now threatened to repeat itself in my motherhood, and I told it, internally, in not so many words on the way home, clutching my daughter in my arms fiercely, to f*-off-I-will-not-be-quiet. And instead of taking the advice to be quiet about my motherhood, I began writing about it, researching it, and then organizing for mothers and parents who deserved the support this industry is so stingy in giving them.
I found in this advocacy a community of people who I now call some of my closest friends, most gifted artists, and hardest working, intelligent contributors and creators. It’s just that their opportunities and support are slashed to ribbons when they exercise their social right to a family, or care for an ailing relative, or are the sole provider for a dependent with disabilities. And that’s unethical and unjust. And art without justice, in both its content and process, is not art at all, or bad art at best, and I refuse to play in a world like that, so it needs to change.
This advocacy is close to my heart because the very thing that opened me up, my motherhood, I was told to be quiet about; artists exercising their right to care for family forced them out of the community. I’ll be talking about this for the rest of my life. Caregiver access and support is directly tied to class disruption, gender parity, intersects with race, and affects the disability community exponentially. Creating support is necessary action for forming truly accessible spaces and processes in the theatre.
How does PAAL connect with the Paula Vogel series and the play you’re doing that is showing on July 15?
We are so incredibly honored that PAAL is one of the organizations receiving donations from those who donate on Wednesday at the streaming of the Droll in this series from Paula Vogel. In our work centering anti-racism for caregiver support in theatre, the second round of PAAL COVID Emergency Grants will be going to Black artists with families. PAAL is also partnering with Blackboard Plays – an organization founded over ten years ago to support and develop Black playwrights by incredible playwright and the PAAL Chief Rep of NYC Garlia Cornelia – to produce a powerful new project: The Black Motherhood New Play Festival where we are creating an open call nationally for play submissions on Black motherhood to create a platform, opportunity, and funding for Black artists and their work. We will be sharing a lot of details about the project soon. Garlia has been producing Black artists for over a decade, is a fierce playwright, producer, and mother, and I’m beyond honored to call her my friend and engage on this project with her. I can’t wait to introduce you – she’d be a great interview as this project develops. She’s unparalleled in terms of leadership and vision. So, I encourage everyone to subscribe to your blog, Jack, so they get the updates on that.
In the meantime, everyone can watch The Droll and connect with centuries old and immediately relevant experiences of creating in a pandemic, donate to PAAL to get vital work off the ground, and stay tuned for even more groundbreaking projects on the horizon. These links can make for an exciting week for those of us quarantining!
How can people tune in to see you in this performance on this Wednesday?
Subscribe to the Bard at the Gate YouTube channel or just check out the feed at PaulaVogelPlaywright.com/BardAtTheGate, and it will be streaming there at 7:00 PM EST on Wednesday, July 15! It’s theatre, so it’s temporary and everyone needs to check it out ASAP before it disappears! And you saw my instagram post with the skull, and that also makes a cameo, so check it out to spot the Yorik, at least.
You can follow Rachel on Instagram @rachelspencerhewitt