An Interview with Celia Keenan-Bolger


Written by Victoria Myers

August 4th, 2014

Celia Keenan-Bolger is the type of actress we love having represent the American theatre. The three-time Tony nominee (for plays and a musical) has a diverse body of working spanning from last season’s Tony nominated revival of The Glass Menagerie to Off-Broadway’s Bachelorette to Peter and the Starcatcher (off and on Broadway). But here’s the thing—not only is she talented, but she’s also really generous. And here’s the other thing—not only is she really generous with her time and support, but she’s also extremely smart and thoughtful about trying to make positive change in the theatre and beyond. She uses her spotlight to help promote the social change she believes in, and she thinks about the whys and the hows. Also, she makes the theatre cool and fashionable (you might think this point isn’t related to her all-around thoughtfulness, but just wait till you read what she has to say about cultural collaboration). We’re really excited to see what she does next.

(i.) Future: Part 1

You’ve done quite a bit of new work. What do you think would be helpful in developing new work and getting more new shows on stage?
I think giving artists a space outside of the city to create work. I was at Sundance Theatre Lab last year and I just came back from New York Stage and Film. I think resources so that you can fail outside of the city [are important]. And to just breathe different air and have a different routine actually has been, in my opinion, really helpful. Particularly in developing something new. Because in the city, when you rehearse, at the end of the day, you go home to your life. When you’re out of town everybody is sort of like, “Now what are we going to do?” and you create this different sort of relationship with the writers, the directors, the cast, and so on. And from that, I think, the collaboration goes to another level. Almost every play or musical that I’ve done on Broadway has started out of town, and I think that was not a coincidence that they were so well received, because we had time to figure out what exactly we were doing. And I think, particularly as an actor, it’s just so nice to feel safe and feel like you really do have this space to explore.

You’re doing a new play, The Oldest Boy by Sarah Ruhl, at Lincoln Center next.
It’s an amazing play. It’s Sarah Ruhl, and she brings out the very best in me as a woman, because I think she is so smart, emotionally intelligent, kind, and strong. Just being around her makes me want to be better in that way. I’ve been an admirer of her for a very long time, so it’s a really big deal for me that I get to be in one of her plays—and that I get to play a character that is so multifaceted, strong, weak, emotional, and all of these things that I think she just really understands. I get to play a mother in this play, which I’m really excited about and something I’ve never played. And it’s an entirely Asian American cast (I’m the only white person in it), which I’m also really excited about. I think the play is incredibly beautiful.

(ii.) Interpretation

We’re really interested in the idea of theatre as a living, un-static thing. This past season, you were Tony-nominated for your performance as Laura in The Glass Menagerie. What is the experience like of forming your own interpretation of something that’s so well known?
I read that play when I was a sophomore in high school and it was totally lost on me—reading that play silently to myself, I couldn’t find my way in. And because of that, I didn’t ever see the show because I was like, “Ugh this play is kind of boring and dusty.” And then, when I found out that Cherry [Jones] and [director] John Tiffany were working on it I was like, “This seems like a sort of different…” Particularly Cherry seemed like a different choice for Amanda Wingfield, which made me interested in it. And then working with John. I think I really owe whatever way I was able to reinterpret that role, or think differently about the play than I did when I read it for the first time, to him. I think he wasn’t holding himself to a standard of the way the play had been performed. He had this idea that Tennessee Williams talks about in a foreword about “plastic theatre,” which is about trying to strip the reality away from the play and make it more impressionistic. I think that gave me a lot of license to feel like, “You don’t have to conform to whatever you think this role is or what other people expect from this part.”

Do you think the experience of doing new work affected how you approached doing a revival?
I was never really that interested in revivals. I always felt like we need theatre to be moving forward, and revivals are all about dusting things off that have already had lives. But John Tiffany has almost all of his experience in new plays, and so he really brought fresh eyes to that production. You have to be so rigorous with new plays with asking questions about why things are the way they are. It’s easy with a play like [The Glass Menagerie] to just say, “Well, obviously it’s a masterpiece, so we just have to serve it.” But then there were times that we would come up against things, or we felt like, “Is there a different way to do this than what the stage directions say?” that I think, coming from a background of new plays, is actually really helpful, because you are constantly asking those questions when you are working on new work.

(iii.) Genres

You’ve worked both in plays and musicals. Do you think your experience working in one genre affects the other?
I think it definitely does. I think the good thing about having a lot of experience in musicals is, I think, it makes you super fast, because there’s so much you have to accomplish when you’re creating a musical. So I’m pretty quick. I would say I understand pace and the sort of music of a scene in a way that I think is really influenced by working on musicals. And from working on plays, I’d say that I’m so much more brave than I used to be. I’d done a few plays Off-Broadway, like Bachelorette and A Small Fire, and I went to do Merrily We Roll Along and I remember feeling so much more brave about drawing a character and the scene work and what I would allow myself to do that was maybe different than what I’d done before. I also think that it helps if you’re doing a Sondheim musical because it supports that kind of exploration. But there really is an overlap, and it’s why I want to keep doing both. And, you know, the older I get, the more I really feel more in search of the people attached to the project rather than the actual project. Just that [recent] New York Stage and Film experience—I was there since it was David Lindsay-Abaire, Mary Louise Wilson, and Marylouise Burke. Those are three people I’ve admired for so long that, I don’t care what part I’m playing, I just want to be in a room with them. And that, more and more, has affected the way I’ve chosen projects.

Did you ever feel any resistance from people who wanted to put you in a box as a musical theatre actress?
I think early on that was [an issue]. I did have a really hard time even getting seen to be in a play. I would have a few auditions—like one a year—and, the truth is, you can’t be very good if you’re only auditioning for a play once a year. The way you get better at auditioning is by doing it. So I got really good at auditioning for musicals, and not that good at auditioning for plays. I was just so lucky because a director, Trip Cullman, who saw me in a musical at Playwrights Horizons was like, “You should be in a play,” and I was like, “Trip, I would give anything to be in a play.” So he brought me in and auditioned me and, once I had that opportunity, it was sort of like, “Oh, okay, now she does plays.” But, honestly, if you had told me that I would ever be in a revival of The Glass Menagerie, even five years ago, I would have been like, “What are you even talking about?” And, I guess that also says something about just trying to keep yourself open—that can sometimes be really frustrating and challenging, but can also be really amazing in that you end up in places that you didn’t necessarily expect.

(iv.) Other Women

We’re into the idea of women helping women. You’ve worked with some really cool, talented, and accomplished female co-stars. Do you feel working with those women has helped you grow both onstage and off?
Hugely. I’m learning from people who are older than me and I’m learning from people who are younger than me. I can just name, for example, Mary Beth Peil, Vicki Clark, Jan Maxwell, and Cherry Jones—just watching those women. And first of all, the way they just so immediately took care of me and were supportive of whatever work I was doing in the room. But also the way that they ran a room. Or the questions that they asked. Or the ways that they took care of the rest of the cast. I feel like I learned a lot watching them. And then also just asking questions, not even about process necessarily, but like, “How do you build a career,” and, “What are the things that are important to you?” I think, even from the time I was six years old, the whole reason I wanted to be in the theatre was the people— in community theatre I was like, “This is so much fun. I love getting to be around these people.” And that has really not changed. It’s a huge part of it. Particularly the women. And some of my peers like Laura Benanti and Sarah Saltzberg, who I did Spelling Bee with, and last night I was out with Cristin Milioti—all of these ladies, we’re all just trying to make our way in this business and take care of one another and support one another. And if you see each other at an audition it’s like, “If I don’t get it hopefully you will,” because then I know it will be going to someone I respect and who is very talented. And I think trying to nurture that [attitude]. It’s not always easy because it’s a competitive profession and when you really want a job it can be painful when you don’t get it. But I also think that’s just a way that you can train your brain—to make the decision to be supportive.

Something that’s uniquely theatrical is actors playing characters who are younger than they are. You’ve done that a few times in some high-profile shows like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Peter and the Starcatcher. What’s the experience like of being a woman playing a girl?
I think I have a lot of energy and a lot of qualities, for a thirty-six year old, that are probably a lot younger than I am. I think my desire for fun in my life is probably on the higher end of things. So I think playing a kid sort of gets you in touch with those parts of yourself in a way that I really appreciate. I also think there’s something about kids, that their bullshit meter is very acute, and so a lot of the time are processing things in a way that’s very different than adults. I think to play a kid you kind of boil down essential truths. And that playing a kid you can’t fall back on the tricks. I also got to a point where I was like, “I’m a grown-ass woman! I want to play an adult!” I don’t want to keep playing kids, because I have all of these things inside of me that I want to express as a woman. And so in the next project I’m doing [The Oldest Boy] I get to be a mother, which I’m really excited about.

(v.) Culture

We know you keep up with what’s happening in the world and with the cultural zeitgeist. Do you feel that culture awareness affects your creative life and work?
I do. I think I’m just in pursuit of a larger world. I think I would feel that way if I were in any career. I’m curious about a lot of other things. And I do think, ultimately, that does affect your work. But honestly, I’m not doing it as much for the work as to feel like a more full and well-rounded person.

What would be your dream cultural collaboration?
If I could put a great musician—I’m thinking like Sufjan Stevens or even Lorde—someone who has sort of a theatrical sensibility. And put them in a room to compose music for a movement piece that Steven Hoggett choreographed, but that had a book by Colum McCann (again it’s all about the people and I’m like, “Who would I want to be around?”), and then have someone do an art installation around it. I really am interested in theatre with movement that’s not necessarily dance, but has dance elements, and also has really amazing music with it. I mean I think that’s sort of the next step of what theatre can do that other mediums, like film and television, can’t.

Do you have any more ideas of how you think theatre could benefit from more cultural dialogue?
I wonder if you do integrate like… if a new designer—a new fashion designer—does the costumes for a show, then you can do cross-pollination where you get a broader audience, and you get a different kind of funding than the theatre has. I am interested in that. But, really, what I’m interested in are ways to get more people to the theatre and making it cool. Because I do think there are pieces of theatre that people who aren’t necessarily interested in theatre could really respond to—a lot of that is happening with the immersive theatre scene. But if you bring in other cultural influences it gives it a sort of hip factor that theatre just does not, on its own, really have—and could and should have.

Who are your top five favorite fashion designers?

  1. Joradana Warmflash (who is the young designer from Novis—she is young and spirited and amazing)
  2. Honor (which was started by a woman, Giovanna Randall)
  3. Carvan (whimsy with good basics)
  4. Clare Vivier (can I say that? She does bags that I love)
  5. Alexander McQueen (for gowns)

(vi.) Social Activism

You grew up in Detroit in a very socially conscious household. Do you think that affects how you approach your work? And how you live your life?
It certainly affects how I live my life. A few people have said, “How did you get to be so socially active? Or so politically aware?” The theme in my life of women that I know who are socially engaged is that they all had mothers who were socially engaged, and either brought them to protests, or who talked to them about Planned Parenthood, or who talked to them about what was happening in the world. [For example] my mother was arrested protesting the Vietnam War. And I just think that is such a huge influence in the way that I live my life—it’s just so a part of my makeup that [being socially engaged] has always been something that’s really important to me. I think another thing about my mother, and where I came from, is that there was an enormous amount of empathy for other people of different social status and different races and cultures. And I think that’s where it really influences my work. I am in pursuit of bringing stories of people who are either under-represented or hard to understand or from a different world than myself, and sort of giving them a voice, and sharing that with people who don’t necessarily have any reason to care about their story. And, of course, I’m going to be limited in doing that because I’m a white woman. So it does, also, have to do with the projects that I choose and what stories they’re trying to tell. I think I will always, just in my regular life, have a great political and social awareness that I’m continuing to try and cultivate and be a greater part of my life.

And you’ve used your spotlight to draw awareness to different causes.
Yeah, and I do think that’s something that some people probably find really annoying. I remember with Broadway for Obama there were definitely some people—just on like Twitter—that were like, “I don’t want to hear about this.” But my whole thing, particularly with Broadway for Obama, is if you’re going to come and see the shows on Broadway, you have to understand who is represented in the casts. Particularly from the gay rights issue, if you’re coming and paying your money, you have to understand that at the same time, by voting for other representatives or political candidates, you are denying all of these people rights that you really respect or care about on stage. And that’s just the truth. And I want people to be aware of that, particularly if they’re like twelve or thirteen years old.

If you were to give advice about why it’s important to be politically involved, what would that be?
I think the reason that so many people are nervous about it is that it feels so vast and like, “Where would I even begin?” But I think if you can just find one thing that you care about, if it’s animals or gay marriage or civil liberties—whatever it is, particularly as a young person—like for me early on it was women’s reproductive rights, and I worked for Planned Parenthood when I was in high school. But I think if you find one thing that you care about, you will be amazed at how connected a lot of other things are to that, and so many other things will reveal themselves in ways that you didn’t expect. And that makes it so much less intimidating. If you just peruse one thing. And also it makes you feel better about yourself. You’ll be amazed at what type of effect it has on your soul.

(vii.) Past

Who were your heroes growing up?
I was really obsessed with Angela Davis who was a Black Panther—in high school I was really, really obsessed with her. Cesar Chavez was a big one. I went to really, really Southern Texas and worked for the United Farm Workers when I was in college. I was obsessed with Patti LuPone. I was obsessed with Susan Sarandon. As a younger person, so much of it was musicals and that was what I loved the most—those were the careers I was looking at. But outside of that I had other influences.

What was the first piece of storytelling that had a major influence on you?
Seeing a community theatre production of The Sound of Music. That was, I think, the first play I was ever taken to. I was four. I remember sitting in the seat with my legs under me and I kept sort of kicking the woman next to me, and she was like, “Put your feet down.” And then I would like get excited and sort of move over again. But, weirdly, that interaction, and that I was watching it next to somebody, and that my actions as an audience member were sort of affecting her experience of the play… and also I just remember watching it and being like, “I want to do that so much.” Then my grandparents took me to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream when I was in the third grade. They wanted to take me to see a matinee since they had season tickets to this regional theatre, and my teacher was like she can go but she has to come back and tell the class about it. Apparently I did a really good job, and that I was able to retain a lot of what I’d just watched… I think there was something about theatre that was able to penetrate my attention span and my curiosity that it just really stuck with me.

What was your relationship like with fantasy? Did you have any alter-egos?
I think I talked to myself a lot. I remember there was a book, Cheaper by the Dozen, that I was obsessed with. There was also a book called All-of-a-Kind Family, and there were these siblings in the book, and I’d just like, talk to those characters. But there was a lot of that, and imagining in my head around what my life was and what they were doing. And I was really into dress-up. I really, really loved trying on clothes and putting on costumes and things like that. I mean not anything so different from most kids. I do remember a lot of time in the mirror, also. Just staring and making faces and putting tape on my nose to give myself a pig face and putting pantyhose over my face to have a crazy face. I was always really into all of that.

When was the first moment you felt like a grown up?
My parents, when I was really little—this is like so ridiculous—but so that they could sleep in on the weekends, on the night before, we would pour a bowl of cereal and a glass of milk that they would put in the refrigerator. And they said I could come downstairs—I also wasn’t really allowed to watch television as a kid—so I was allowed to come downstairs and I could make my own cereal—like pour the cup of milk into the bowl—and I could watch television. And I remember thinking that was the greatest thing ever. And, also, I was only allowed to watch Public Television, which at that time didn’t start programing until like 8am. So I’d wake up at 7am, and eat my cereal in front of the television, in front of a blank screen for a while, and just wait until Sesame Street came on. But I do remember feeling very grown up.

(viii.) Marriage

You’ve been married now for a while now. Do you find that marriage has had an impact on your creative life?
So much. I think that being married is one of the greatest things that’s ever happened to me. And my husband, [John Ellison Conlee], the fact that he is in this business and that he is so smart, I look to him for a lot of [advice]. Just when I’m working on something, to bounce ideas off of him, or when he comes and sees something I always am like, “What do you think about this?” I’m just so curious about his response. When we’re trying to make decisions about what we should do or what we should turn down or what we should pursue—he is a really big part of that dialogue. And I trust him so much, and I think he’s so smart about this world. And I think he’s just been really, unbelievably supportive, which we all need in our lives. I also have amazing friends, as well, so I think that helps. But there is something about coming home at the end of the day and saying, “This is what I was struggling with,” or, “This is what I’m still trying to find,” and either [him] just listening and not ever saying anything, or offering advice. I’m so grateful for his presence in my life on many levels.

(ix.) Representation

We’ve noticed that actresses working in film and TV get asked a lot about gender issues. Theatre actresses don’t so much. Why do you think that is?
It’s so interesting. In television and film how you look as a woman, what age you are, and your physical appearance has such an enormous impact on your employability. I think, luckily, in the theatre, that’s a part of it, but I think so much less than in television and film. I think the roles that women so often end up playing in television and film you have to look a certain way, and that often the men are the ones who are the strong, moral centers—and the women are either just helping along with that or a mess. And I feel that less in the theatre. I don’t feel like men have so many better roles than women, but I do feel like I wish there was more support for women playwrights.

So do we. What are some of your thoughts?
I was just having a conversation with someone at New York Stage and Film who said the number of times in a New York Times review that a woman playwright’s piece is reviewed as “Lifetime-esque” is like 39 times. And I think that is a major issue. That’s a huge issue. And the fact that so many of the theatre critics are men, that’s going to have an effect on the way they receive a woman’s play. There might be things that are wrong with it, as there are with many new plays, but their understanding of what the play was trying to accomplish can sometimes be lost because there aren’t enough women who are reviewing.

There are so many actresses who have become successful onstage—on Broadway. Why do you think that hasn’t translated into more women writing for them? Or just anyone?
It’s a good question and I don’t know if I have a good answer for it. What’s also interesting is that the women writers I know, I think, sometimes feel a responsibility that they have to write plays with men in them, or with all men, or that there’s a different responsibility as a writer being a woman. That, you know, you don’t always want to write a play for women audiences and actresses. Whereas men can write whatever they want—that’s just not part of their narrative that they’re trying to figure out what kind of play to write. It’s hard. There are so many amazing women writers who are being represented Off-Broadway, but on Broadway the women writers and directors are significantly less. And I’m not sure what that’s about. But I feel really excited about the women my age who are writing for the theatre right now. I think some of the best writing that’s happening in the theatre right now is happening from young women.

There can be so much more conversation about female characters—we don’t have conversations about “strong men.” Does that affect you as an actress? Is there any extra pressure knowing that a character might be more discussed?
Not really. I feel a responsibility to do good work—to be an actress who can show the most amazing and the most horrible sides of what it is to be a woman. And to make us all feel less alone.

(x.) Future- Part 2

What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?
I think supporting one another. I think it does come down to that. Seeing work that is created and directed by women—and, if there’s someone you latch onto as an actress, to go see things that they’re in. And within the theatre community, to try and not perpetuate the competitive stereotype, because you don’t hear about men being particularly catty, but it’s something that’s assigned to women a fair amount. And, I think, trying to eliminate that from our day-to-day life, not just as theatre artists, but as women. That is where I feel like great change can happen—by genuinely supporting one another.

You can follow Celia on Twitter: @celiakb and Instagram: @celiakb.