Ellen’s News in Brief
This is a historical sub-title, it being the first time the words ‘Ellen’ and ‘brief’ appear in the same sentence without a negative between them.
This fall, I was in a production of Henry IV, Part One at the Folger Theatre in Washington, DC. It was an absolute delight, from start to finish, and I’m not just saying that here because this is theoretically a public forum. I have wanted to play Lady Percy for a long time, and have in fact held her up as a part I’d rather play than some more famous Shakespearean heroines who have a great deal more text.
The director (Paul Barnes) was wonderful: gentle, encouraging, helpful, welcoming of collaboration but also firm in challenging me to think in new ways. I had fantastic fun in rehearsals, and then continued to have fun playing in performances with my Hotspur, who is approximately 857 times better than Ethan Hawke was in the Lincoln Center version. He possesses a colloquial grace with the text that I can only dream of in my nerdy Shakespearean dreams.
This is perhaps one of the best production photos I think I’ve ever been a part of:
I am pictured here threatening to break Hotspur’s little finger. I think much of its brilliance may be attributed to Mr. Jones, which is a not inaccurate representation of the scene as a whole.
The following is a picture I find amusing in part because it looks like the Gossip Girl version of Kate and Hotspur. The other half of my amusement I derive from the fact that I look like I’m saying something catty and David appears scandalised, when I was of the (perhaps mistaken) opinion that most of this scene was consisted of Hotspur saying something catty and Kate being scandalised. Consequently, I am not sure when in the text this picture falls, outside of it being part of the Glendower scene in Wales.
The entire cast was wonderful, both as performers and as people with whom to spend an autumn. We had good times in the Folger housing, nine people in one kitchen notwithstanding, and it was rather exciting to spend the fall of 2008 on Capitol Hill. I could quite literally see the Capitol building from my bedroom window. On election night, we were buffeted from crowded bar to crowded bar along Pennsylvania Avenue, before finally settling slightly farther away in the standby of theatrical folk, Tunnicliffs. The bottle of champagne I purchased tasted no less sweet, the Obama shirt I was wearing was no less nerdy. We did not, unfortunately, storm the White House gates with others, since we had a student matinee the following morning, and our own political drama to enact. Throughout the run, comparisons with varying elements of our current and recent political history were rampant, and our production even got mentioned in Newsweek for that reason. Pretty spiffy! It was entirely Newsweek’s loss that they did not include the picture of Hotspur’s Little Finger in Peril.
As I type these words, I am in Salt Lake City, Utah, at the beginning of rehearsals for the world premiere of a play entitled The Yellow Leaf at the Pioneer Theatre Company. The Yellow Leaf is an absolutely gorgeous play (in my ever-humble opinion) about Byron, the Shelleys, Claire Clairmont and Dr. Polidori, centred around the summer of 1816 they spent in Switzerland. I am playing Mary Shelley, most famous as the author of Frankenstein, least famous for being the wife of the man I wrote my senior thesis on in college. For anyone who knows me, or for anyone misguided enough to have read this blog closely and discerned all the references to Romantic poets, this is outrageously exciting for me. I took four classes with focus on the English Romantics in college, one of which was actually entitled ‘Byron and the Shelleys,’ a passion which culminated in writing a big old paper about metapoetry through self-representation in Shelley and Keats. (If anyone ever foolishly doubted the veracity of the nerdiness promised in this blog’s subtitle, now is the time to cease your false advertising lawsuit.) I am continually indebted to a professor of mine, Andrew Stauffer, who is now teaching at the University of Virginia, for making me the Romantic Poet Nerd I am today. My Shakespeare-related nerdiness is someone else’s fault. I’m not sure who, exactly, but by god if I ever apprehend the responsible party, there will be a great reckoning to pay.
In any case, for me, playing Mary Shelley is, on a Scale of Excitement from one to ten, about fourteen-and-a-half. I found out about this play from the call-board in the Equity building in New York in late June, soon after ending my contract with the American Shakespeare Center. I think I actually leapt backwards with surprise when I saw that there was a play with a breakdown listing the attributes of George Gordon, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollestonecraft Godwin (Shelley), etc., because I remember sheepishly mumbling something to the startled gentleman looking at the posting next to me.
However, I could not make the EPA because I was going to be in Oregon for my grandmother’s eighty-fifth birthday. Rather than submit to complete despair, I decided to at least email the artistic director of the theatre company in supplication, in the hopes that he would be sympathetic to my Nerdy Romantic plight because he is also, not-so-coincidentally, the author of the play. I didn’t really think that this would result in getting an audition, since I am certain that artistic directors are similarly pestered every day of their lives, I just knew that I would not forgive myself if I didn’t do everything in my power to pursue an audition.
Fortunately for me, Charles Morey, author of the beautiful Yellow Leaf and artistic director of the Pioneer Theatre Company, is about the nicest person I have ever emailed, and actually paid attention to me. It may have been my threat to intentionally sail into stormy waters, thus drowning in the same manner as Shelley. Regardless, he told me I could send my headshot and resume along to him, and extended the challenge to identify the allusion of the title. I did both. (The title comes from Byron’s “On this Day I Complete my Thirty-Sixth Year.” Thank you, Professor Stauffer. Byron may also have been alluding to a line from Macb*th. Thank you, unapprehended felon.) I wrote to Mr. Morey that I hoped he would not hold it against me if I’d misidentified it, but that if I got it right, I would get some kind of reward, like ice cream. Or an audition.
My ability to go to the auditions was slightly complicated by being in Washington DC at the time they were held, but, to double my fortune, the wonderful Mr. Paul Barnes is well known to the wonderful Mr. Chuck Morey (and vice versa), the former having worked at the latter’s theater frequently. So, I was able to skip out of rehearsal for a day and dash up to New York (that’s ten hours on a Megabus, my friends) on the callback day. Of course I hadn’t actually MET Mr. Morey, or the director, Geoffrey Sherman, or the casting director, so I felt the audition had a kind of Hail Mary quality (yes, that’s actually a football reference, not a Mary Shelley reference, though I suppose it is also a Catholic reference). But as always, I was simply infused with the sense that I would never forgive myself if I didn’t do everything in my own power.
But I was triply fortunate, overwhelmingly lucky, and now I get to be Mary Shelley. It is quite literally a dream come true. I remember saying to a friend of mine on graduation, as, despite my English Major, I never intended to do anything but become an actor, “Well, what I’m really fit to do now is play Mary Shelley in a play about Byron and the Shelleys.”
This also marks the first time my name is in the title of an article on Playbill. Of course, I’m not being so audacious as to assume there will be a second time, which is why this is perhaps doubly exciting. But how about this? Thorstad, Kelly, Adair Are Brit Lit Trio of Yellow Leaf Premiere at Pioneer in January 2009 ! I love how it makes it sound like I am actually important, when really no one besides my parents are more likely to see the show because of my inclusion in the article’s title.
Rehearsals thus far have been about as wonderful as I imagined, which is saying quite a lot. I feel, at this point, that I could not possibly have asked for a more wonderful, talented, and friendly group–director and cast–to work on this paramount of all productions. I will wait to deal with the fall-out of having achieved my life’s purpose at this relatively early age. For now, I’m thrilled.