Heidi Kettenring | Performer of the week
Heidi Kettenring has had an incredible year. She began 2012 by starring as Harper Pitt in Court Theatre’s 4-star Angels in America, then appeared in the world premiere musical Hero at Marriott Lincolnshire before doing back-to-back shows at Chicago Shakespeare with Sunday in the Park with George and the current production of David Ives’s The School for Lies. Kettenring is getting big laughs as the ingénue Eliante, who finds herself helplessly in love with a misanthropic man who has no care for social pleasantries. Born in New Orleans, Kettenring grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, where she performed in school plays and musicals as a child. She moved to Evanston to study theater at Northwestern University, and since graduating, has become one of the city’s top musical-theater talents and received five Jeff Award nominations. She talks to us about transitioning from musicals to plays, the challenges of verse, and why she thinks it’s important to diversify an acting career.
Had you done any of Molière’s work before The School for Lies?
Never. Only in class at Northwestern. My junior year, one of the quarters was comedy and Molière was part of that. But no, this whole year has been sort of a year of firsts. It’s only been in the last three of four years that I’ve been doing more plays than musicals, which has been really fun and different and exciting to get back to where I started, at least in college. People have asked me what I prefer, and I don’t prefer either. I feel really blessed that I get to go from doing a David Ives play to a great big musical. It’s a real gift to be able to do both.
Have you found any distinct challenges with the verse? I feel that your musical training would help a bit with that.
That did help. I was nervous about that, because you hear about all the different schools of thought, as far as verse. I was nervous it was going to be something that was really complicated for me, and I’m wondering if it is the musical theater background that helped with that. It’s similar to scanning a song, really if you just pay attention to the punctuation and don’t necessarily—I think there’s a tendency for people to either try too hard to focus on the rhyme or the opposite, to ignore the rhyme. And it’s been really fun with this one, we got to work directly with David Ives for a lot of the process, and he gave us the freedom for both. There are going to be certain lines where the rhyme isn’t as important as what you’re saying, and there are moments when humor is specifically in punching the rhyme. There are a couple of really fun moments where the rhyme is sort of bizarrely in the middle of the word or the middle of the sentence, and listening to the audience laugh out loud when those rhymes get punched is really fun.
There’s a big difference between Harper in Angels in America and Eliante in The School for Lies; does your preparation process change depending on the type of play you’re in?
Yeah, it’s different. With something like Angels in America, I wanted to be as knowledgeable as possible. There are so many things in Angels that are based on fact, and I wanted to know as much as I possibly could about all the background of all the things that my character dealt with and, honestly, everybody in the show dealt with. I did a lot of research about Mormonism, valium addiction, New York City, Salt Lake City, as many different things that I could so that that would be second nature when I was dealing with the language. But for something like School for Lies, on that end there wasn’t a lot of research to do. Obviously, I read the Molière play several times because it had been several years since I read that, but there’s isn’t a whole lot of research that I needed to do so far as finding out who Eliante is. That’s mostly right there on the page in the play. So it depends on the play, what is necessary to get to the depths of the character. But as far as learning the play and rehearsing the play, it’s very similar. I try to be as off-book as possible by the first day so that doesn’t get in my way in the process, so I can explore and play in the rehearsal process and not spend so much time learning my lines. It’s a delight to be able to walk in on the first day with as much of that done as possible.
How is working with Barbara Gaines as a director?
Wonderful. She’s such an open, wonderful collaborator, and really set up a safe environment to just play and explore. She’s endlessly positive, she brings a wonderfully positive energy into the room so that even on difficult days, you know that you can turn to her and always get a smile. That’s a great gift to have in a rehearsal process. And I’ve known Barbara now for many, many years, but this is the first time we’ve gotten to work together as director-actor, so it was a joy.
How did the cast work to balance the classical and modern elements of the script? Did David help you with that?
He did, but there wasn’t a whole lot that we had to do because we came at it from the classical standpoint of “we are these people in 1666,” and then just let the language speak for itself. It is modern language, I use the term “LOL” in one of my speeches, I definitely say a few swear words that weren’t around in 1666. But there’s something about the carriage and demeanor of the play, and the rhyming couplets and the costumes that, if you just speak the language, will just sort of flow. We didn’t really have to do any kind of work on that because it just sort of happened. It’s one of the brilliant things about David Ives, his writing just flows so amazingly. It actually made the memorization process relatively easy because the words just made sense and they flowed. It never evens crosses my mind that I’m wearing this sort of Jean-Paul Gaultier/1666 gown and saying modern words. It just all oddly makes complete sense up there.
You’ve had a year of very diverse roles; do you think it’s important for actors to vary or broaden their horizons if they’re going to have a long career?
For me, personally, it is. There are some people who have made long, wonderful careers that are not diverse, but for me, it’s definitely opened up so many opportunities. This year alone, to say that I’m grateful is an understatement. Just technically, it’s opened up a lot of opportunities to audition for more varied things, which just gives me more opportunity for employment, which is awesome. But as a theater artist, my brain has been exercised in ways that are so exciting. If you had told me two years ago that I would start the year playing Harper Pitt in Angels in America and end the year playing Eliante in this amazingly brilliant comedy by David Ives, I don’t know if I would have laughed or if I would have arched an eyebrow at you. And going into next year, I’m doing one of my favorite musicals of all time, Oliver!, and it’s been a musical that I’ve loved since I was a kid. Even that is completely different from Hero and Sunday in the Park with George. It’s just a blessing, and it really does keep my brain active and I can’t in any way be complacent or rest on anything that would come naturally because everything is a different muscle that I have to use.
The School for Lies runs through January 20 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater (800 E Grand Ave, 312-595-5600). Read our review of The School for Lies.