Note from the Editor: The Glass Menagerie is considered a literary classic. At this time, the show’s producers are recommending the show for audiences aged 12+. However, as we advise with all shows, be sure to review a production’s website and promotional materials to determine whether or not a show is right for your family.
I got to sit down with the amazing and wonderful Celia Keenan-Bolger, where we talked about her upcoming Broadway role as Laura in The Glass Menagerie, and then we even got to talk about what led her to this amazing world of Broadway! Check out this video about The Glass Menagerie on Broadway if you’re not familiar with it and read on for our convo!
Were you familiar with The Glass Menagerie?
I read it in high school and quite honestly, did not have an immediate connection to it. I grew up in Detroit and came from a very functional family and there was something about it (I was in ninth grade) that I just couldn’t quite latch onto. I couldn’t find the emotional center to it. I don’t think I read it again until the audition came around, so that was a lot of years later. I read the play again and completely fell in love with it and wondered why I had missed so much the first time.
Ninth grade? That’s young.
Yes! And I also feel like that’s what is so amazing about getting to do it at this point in my life where I’m not a brand new actress out of college, that I do have some life experience behind me and coming to this play at this point in my life, it feels so completely right. A lot of the things that I have been through in my life, both professionally and personally, have lead me to this piece at this time, which is such a nice way to feel.
I don’t know if this will change now that the show has moved to Broadway, but what was your favorite part of playing the role in Boston?
There are so many things I love about the production and I have pre-performance and during-performance favorites. The pre-performance was just building the thing. You think of a play that has existed for so many years and you dust it off and do it again and it felt like rehearsing a new play, to me, which also had to do with the way that John Tiffany, the director, approached our rehearsing it. We spent one week around the table with three different versions of the play. There’s a reading version, an acting version and then a London version. They’re obviously all the same story, but there are marked differences in each version and so we literally went through page by page and read the scenes and then went back and said ‘what line do we think we should use for the Cambridge version?’ So, we made a script that felt representative of how we viewed the characters and the story that we wanted to tell. That first part of the process was really fulfilling.
Then, creating the physical life of it was Steven Hoggett, who worked on Peter and the Starcatcher and has worked with John Tiffany on Once and Black Watch. In his world, we created this whole vocabulary for the play, physically, that I never expected to be a part of. If you read a little bit of the forward of that Tennessee Williams has at the beginning of The Glass Menagerie, he talks about “plastic theatre” and trying to make things a little less realistic. The way Steven Hoggett talked about it he said, ‘I think these characters have things inside of them that they’re not able to express verbally and I’m just wondering how these things can leak out physically.’
We spent a whole week figuring out the ways that we could physically manifest some of what was going on and that gave us this really amazing foundation to be so free when it came to the blocking, when it came to the aesthetic way of telling the story. It was very different from what I expected. That part of the process was so thrilling.
And then getting to do it! Particularly that gentleman caller scene, I looked forward to it every night. I really don’t think I’ve been in a play where the writing was as good as that scene.
So, when you say the blocking was free, do you mean every night, it could be something different?
In the rehearsal, it could be very different. We could change it. As far as doing it in production, it was pretty set, there’s always room in a play within what you’ve built to see where else you can go. But you want to make sure that you’re taking care of your other actors and that you’re not doing anything so crazy that they’re like, ‘wait a minute, what are you doing, we’ve never rehearsed this.’ But during rehearsals, in the best way, directors will be like, ‘well what do you feel here, just move there,’ and that’s not always my favorite. I like when a director has an idea of how the structure of a scene should look and John Tiffany definitely did that. But also, because of all of our physical work, we had all of this freedom to play. That really freed all of us up to do so much more emotionally and physically.
Were you intimidated at all, doing such an iconic show?
Yes, so much! I mean, Cherry Jones, is one of my heroes and The Glass Menagerie is a big play. It’s a play that a lot of people really care about and I haven’t done plays like that before. I’ve done a lot of new work and I’ve done a lot of musicals and I’ve done a lot of new musicals. I felt like I knew I could do it, but I also felt intimidated and scared like I wanted to take care of the play in the way that a lot of people want it to be cared for.
What was Brian J. Smith like to work with, as the Gentleman Caller?
He is extraordinary. I think that his Gentleman Caller is totally revelatory. He was already cast when I auditioned so we got to read together and I remember thinking in the audition, ‘who is this guy? He is so amazing and so present.’ He is not only an incredibly wonderful person on stage, but in a similar way that I talked about myself, so many things have brought him to this place. He is so ready and has so many tools available in himself to play this part. I think it’s a different take on it. I think sometimes the Gentleman Caller comes in and is this super charismatic flick guy and there’s a part of the play where he talks about going to public speaking courses which I had never really thought about before but I was like, ‘maybe he isn’t the most confident.’
He is also learning how to exists in the world. Brian brings this sort of vulnerability and I think [the Gentleman Caller] can often be played as the one who has it all right. He’s the person from the outside world and in this version, I think, Brian doesn’t totally feel like he belongs anywhere either. The effect he has on the Wingfields and what effect the Wingfields have on him is a little more marked in our production.
To have him [Gentleman Caller] come off as someone who is not quite right, that’s an amazing way to look at it because he can be very one dimensional.
Yeah, and even if you read the character descriptions. There are these huge, wonderful descriptions of Tom and Amanda and Laura and then Williams writes the Gentleman Caller as ‘a nice young man.’ So you have to think, how can you infuse that character with as much humanity and complexity as the rest of these characters? And Brian is exquisite at that.
There are so many character dynamics within the show. What is your favorite relationship in the show?
The one that was most unexpected for me was the one between Laura and Tom and because there is so little that we say to each other, and that is another amazing way that the physical vocabulary of the show plays out. We take care of each other in physical ways and we connect in physical ways that aren’t written into the script, but the scenes with Zach [Quinto], I just I love them so much. Something that people, or at least that I’ve heard about The Glass Menagerie, is that it feels a little claustrophobic, it feels like it’s a family that is still fraught and miserable.
We all approached it, and didn’t even talk about it that much, but ended up making, I hope, a play about a family that really really loves each other but cannot figure out how to help one another or to give each other what they need. So I think that relationship, for me, between Laura and Tom is, in a lot of ways, the most tragic of the whole piece but also because there is such deep and real love. The way that Zach plays the character, I feel so taken care of, by him in the play.
It’s funny, when we were doing that whole process of sitting around the table and picking what lines and which versions we wanted to do, Zach said, “Is there an extra scene for Tom and Laura, I feel like I wish we had more to say to each other,” and someone was like, “I think in the London version, there is,” and there is an extra exchange of probably ten lines, but we were like ‘put it in, please!’ so that we could have some time with each other. That relationship, maybe also because I feel such a deep connection to my siblings, I know what living in a house with a brother and a sister, what that does and how close you can be. So, that’s definitely one of my favorite dynamics.
That’s amazing because it is a tragic relationship. Like you said, they don’t talk very often in the show. But at the same time, you know that they really care about each other. And Zach is just an incredible actor.
I had never seen him on stage. I had only seen him on film and I did think that he was an incredible actor. He really, not only, is a great artist, but he’s a great mind and he’s such a valuable presence to have in a room because the questions that he asks and the way that he processes not just the play but the dynamics of the play are so useful and important in the process. He is an extraordinary human being and actor.
Moving on from The Glass Menagerie, what was your moment when you knew that you wanted to act?
I was so young. I went and saw a children’s theater production of The Sound of Music when I was five years old, in Detroit, Michigan. I told my parents afterwards, “I want to do that.” They were like ‘eh, okay,’ it’s a children’s community theater, we can get you signed up for that in addition to gymnastics and soccer. I think, they didn’t feel like this was what I was really going to do for the rest of my life, but it just stuck. I’ve loved it for so long, I sometimes wonder if I’m ever going to get sick of it, but I just haven’t. In fact, I love it even more as I get older and I get to do it more.
And then you went to University of Michigan and what was that like? What is your take on college and classes versus real life experience?
I think going to Michigan, honestly, in my young life was the best decision I have ever made. You don’t have to go to college, but for me, I had to go to college, not just for the training which was incredible, but to try to figure out the kind of adult I wanted to become. I think college is so good for that. There’s structure and there’s focus, but there’s also way more freedom that I had certainly ever had in my life. I think Michigan attracts really special, interesting, dynamic personalities, so I felt really supported and I felt like the people that I was around were inspiring and had a big view of the world which opened up my eyes. I think, if you want to be an actor, knowing yourself is an important thing.
I think there are plenty of actors who don’t necessarily know themselves and who are amazing actors, but their lives are sort of hard. If you can get in touch with who you are and who you want to be and have something to work towards, it makes it a lot easier to be in this profession. Michigan, really really, gave me that. It was so nurturing and noncompetitive in a way. I mean it was super competitive because the people were so talented but the faculty didn’t really encourage that. The big thing was about supporting one another and that’s something that I have taken with me into my life in New York, no question.
So, what has been your most memorable moment in your acting life?
Oof, there are so many! I’m just picking one because there are so many. But opening night on Broadway of Peter and the Starcatcher. We had worked on that show for three years, we had done it twice before, once in La Jolla and once off-Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop and I sort of said to myself that I wasn’t sure that it would do very well on Broadway because it was such a different take on what a Broadway show could be and nobody had ever really heard of Peter and the Starcatcher and I thought to myself, ‘if we open on Broadway, that’s all I care about and everything after that is gravy.’ The first image of the whole show is that everybody walks out on stage and just stands there for a second and we all walked out on stage and the audience clapped and clapped and clapped and clapped and it was like they understood all of the work that it took to get us to that moment; three years of building something and making something. I was on stage with people who I had grown to really, really love and care about I felt artistically bound to and that was just one of the most special moments of my life. It was thrilling. It was so great because it was shared with an audience, like they gave it to us. I don’t even know how they knew but it was really special.
Photo via Backstage