The Sunday before last, Associate Professor and Chair of Drama Shona Tucker took her students to see “To Kill a Mockingbird” on Broadway. This Saturday, Feb. 1, Celia Keenan-Bolger, who played Scout in the original run, brought a bit of TKAM to Vassar via lecture at the Martel Theater. Tucker introduced Keenan-Bolger to the stage in her operatic, winding way. In her encomium, she noted that she stood between two worlds: one where she is teacher, and one where she is pupil. Despite finding a mentor of sorts in the lecturer, Tucker assured us that Keenan-Bolger is no “wizened old Yoda,” but is in fact “spritelike.”
It is thanks to Professor Tucker, who accompanied her in the original Broadway cast, that Keenan-Bolger delivered the Capotorto-Mulas Family Lecture, one of the first events to kick off Modfest 2020.
Next to me was a couple who had seen Keenan-Bolger in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” back in 2005. They had brought the Playbill Broadway Yearbook and showed me her picture as Olive Ostrovsky: brown hair, meek smile, even more youthful.
She greeted the crowd with the charm I expected from someone who has stood on stages ever since her youth. She listed her notable accomplishments—Tony nominations, an actual Tony (for her performance in TKAM), several Broadway jobs, being photographed by Annie Leibovitz for Vogue, meeting Michelle Obama. Then she told us about the time she had a panic attack during a TKAM performance in August. She had cried before the show, for some reason, and barely made it through the performance without passing out. When Tucker approached her suggesting she lecture at Vassar, she questioned her competency. But self-doubt was not a deterrent; in fact, it became a theme of the lecture, which she delivered in four stories (or acts). In an email correspondence, Keenan-Bolger explained, “I have memories from college of guest speakers coming to talk to us and it always felt like there was a lot of ‘never do this’ or ‘you have to do that’ in order to be successful…but ultimately the life of a theater artist in New York City is completely different for everyone.” A creative career path is not clear, she affirmed, and that path is homespun, and this is both exhilarating and infuriating.
Her first story involved her time in the well-received musical “The Light in the Piazza.” She starred in the original cast as Clara Johnson. Keenan-Bolger said she felt like “hot shit.” The musical was to go to Broadway, and the young actress was delighted. Before the cast went to New York, however, she was told on a drive with director Bartlett Sher that she would not be going. She felt a deep embarrassment more than anything, but she persisted and auditioned for “Spelling Bee,” making a mantra out of advice she received after the initial “failure”: “The key to success is the graceful execution of Plan B.” She received a Tony nomination for “Spelling Bee” (queue act two). At the awards show, she saw “The Light in the Piazza” cast in costume, in her costume. She wondered why she wasn’t having a better time at the Tony’s. What to make of a life when so many things don’t go your way?
The artist’s path is not only a mix of embarrassment and elation, but also of several careers. As she started working on “Les Misérables,” her voice got so tired she contemplated changing her profession. In 2008, she became a field organizer for the Barack Obama campaign in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania (act three). “I had no experience or understanding of what I was signing up for, but once I arrived, I felt a sort of ease with the unknown,” Keenan-Bolger commented, invoking her dramatic career. “Every rehearsal process [in theater] requires vulnerability and a willingness to fail…I‘ve also realized that a part of what makes a great movement is the ability to share and tell stories because ultimately that’s what people respond to and are activated by.”
According to Keenan-Bolger, the political and performative are inextricably tied. Adina Ornstein-Luks ’22 asked after the lecture, “How do you bridge the world between the stage and U.S. politics and global politics?” The actress responded that doing TKAM inspired her to reengage politically. “Maybe service and acting are the same,” she mused. Theater and the arts facilitate societal healing, the dissemination of stories and a feeling of togetherness in the face of political lethargy or anguish. Political action, like the actress’s preference for Plymouth Meeting over Broadway, is a tool for storymaking: when working for the Obama campaign, she encouraged volunteers to relay their own stories to the townspeople they canvassed. Moreover, the experience presented her the scary, ever-inspiring prospect of failure—a guarantee in both politics and theater.
The fourth act was about motherhood, yet another high-pressure endeavor. Keenan-Bolger gave birth to her first child a few years ago. She admitted that she doesn’t love every part of being a mom, and, although this caused her enormous guilt at first, she has come to realize she loves her son and her career(s). The actress had an expressive, confessional, delightfully chatty air that cemented my faith in her words: it’s okay not to have a good time. Punishing yourself through comparison leads to exhaustion. Being an artist is terrible and exhausting, and wonderful.
These lessons resonated with a Vassar audience: young, creative, overcommitting. At Vassar, Tucker teaches Experimental Theater, surely populated by such students. An aim of the course is performing critically, which she defines as bringing multiple perspectives, including your own, to a role. “You’ve looked at the performance from many angles, not just as the performer, but as the cinematographer or scenographer,” Tucker shared. “And then, who are some of the masters of this particular character? And what do they bring to the character? What do I bring to the character? What do I have for free? We work with saying, This is what you have. [Your] Juliet or Romeo would be very different than [mine].”
Keenan-Bolger also mentioned that she draws upon her experiences for her performances. These are far more than past roles or the research she did for them; they include death, birth, rejection, elation, the tumult of life. In theater, art and activism, we share these stories.