American Players Theatre
5950 Golf Course Road
P.O. Box 819
Spring Green, WI 53588
Learn about the people behind American Players Theatre. This week features Elizabeth Reese.
Welcome to our Quick Chat series where we’ll dive into the life and times of some of APT’s finest. Each interview will supply insights ranging from the obviously relevant to the vaguely strange. Sounds fun, right?
Today we’re chatting with one of APT’s newest actors, the tremendously talented Elizabeth Reese. Elizabeth comes to APT from New York by way of Kansas City and Minneapolis. You may recognize her as Helena in Midsummer or several characters in Cyrano de Bergerac. Plus, you can see more of her work in Three Sisters, which opens August 12th.
APT: Hi Elizabeth! Thanks for taking the time to do a Quick Chat with us. Tell us about yourself: Where you’re from, where you live now and how your path led you to APT?
Elizabeth Reese: I grew up in Kansas City—and yes, I’ve heard all the Dorothy jokes in the book, everything IS up to date in Kansas City, and I DO have strong opinions on Barbeque (with a Capital B), Baseball and Jazz. I spent about eight years in Minneapolis, where I attended drama school at the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA Actor Training Program, and now I call New York City home!
I auditioned for (APT Artistic Director) Brenda DeVita, during college, and I remember having such a lovely time in that audition—a feeling that made a lasting impression on me. It felt like we were working on creating something together in that room. I next auditioned for APT a few years ago, this time with Carey Cannon. If I were to make a timeline of events that changed me as an artist, that audition would be in bold and highlighted. In the span of time between walking into that room and walking out, my life shifted completely. I have such immense respect for both of those incredible women, Brenda and Carey, because after being on the audition grind, I’ve come to know that not every auditor takes that kind of time with the actors they see. That is a supremely special gift, and it made me long for a day that I might have the opportunity to work with this company.
APT: This is your first season here!! What’ve been the best, and most challenging parts of your experience thus far?
Elizabeth Reese: I was just walking down the Hill today after rehearsal, and it was raining. I was on the path alone overwhelmed by the sound of the pitter-patter of rain on the canopy of leaves all around me, and I stopped dead in my tracks and just took a moment to breathe. I like to take photographs, but in moments like that—I try to take mental photographs. The smells, the sounds…I know there will be days when I return to NYC when I’ll want to savor those memories. This is all to say, I pinch myself—often.
It is my first season here and—wow! The first couple of weeks were a whirlwind. The most challenging bits (so far…) were in those first few days. I was in such awe of everyone! I knew I had a lot of catching up to do, and I was lucky—there couldn’t have been a better group of people to support me in that goal. Through working with the incredible Voice and Text staff, our awesome directors this season, and my fellow actors—who are the soul of, collaboration, generosity, honesty and thoughtfulness, I started to gain confidence and take ownership of my process.
The greatest joys of this season followed on the heels of that emerging confidence. The people that work in this place are uniquely marvelous. From the shops, to stage management, wardrobe, admin, crew, every individual who works here—from core company to gift shop and beyond…everyone’s striving to be better, to push each other forward to greatness, and everyone here is united in their love for this place. I can’t gush about it enough. I love the people I work with, and I love our audiences. That first preview of Midsummer, I was gobsmacked. Everyone talked of the audiences here with such affection, but until you’re speaking some dense and complicated verse to a crowd of 1,000 people who are drinking the poetry like water in a desert, you can’t truly know how special this audience is. They listen with their entire being, they are whip-smart and die-hard, which makes it the greatest honor to go do a play for them in rain or in shine.
APT: Most people will recognize you as Helena in Midsummer during the first half of the season. How did you prepare for the role and what’s it like performing it several nights each week?
Elizabeth Reese: I tend to start my preparations for a role by absorbing as much as I can about the play— reading it a lot, checking out scholarly articles, watching some movies or reading books that are relevant to the world of the play…generally, just living with it without thinking too much about where I fit into the piece. About two months before rehearsals start, I let that stuff go and begin to daydream, letting everything marinate. In the weeks before rehearsals start, I like to do my “detective work.” I spend that time doing all my text work and getting the lines into my body. This is my favorite part of preparation because it feels like I’m picking up all these little clues; breadcrumbs that the playwright’s left behind. Then comes the “first day of school”—always scary. First read-through is all adrenaline and nerves. Once that band-aid is ripped off and rehearsals start though, that’s when the fun begins!
Our director on Midsummer, John Langs, created such a fun and collaborative room for us to create this play in. In rehearsals, we found the marks we needed to hit…but how we do that each night is up to us. His words to us that I have written on my dressing room mirror are “Play hard with confidence, hunger and reckless abandon.” Our work now in performance is to rattle the edges of the structure we’ve built during those weeks spent in the Dohmen Rehearsal Hall.
Coming back to this play is such a treat after being away for a few days! I don’t think there’s a better play for the Hill Theatre at APT, and the design on this show has allowed us to embrace the magic of that space and the surrounding woods in exciting ways. The mud, the wind, the rain, even the mosquitos give us so much to play with! Other favorite moments of the play? I lucked out getting to work with Melisa Pereyra, Juan Rivera Lebron and Nate Burger as Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius. The “lover’s knot” scene in act two is an unhinged rock concert of language, and ever so much fun to play and push ourselves to the extremes of. They are the best scene partners I could have dreamed of. I love watching the creativity of the actors playing the mechanicals during the play-within-a-play, listening to the fairy blessing from backstage, and of course—the one thing that never gets old here at APT: looking up at the stars after the final blackout. That. Is. Magic.
APT: Midsummer, and Helena’s role and transformation seemingly mimic those of a lot of young people dealing with self-esteem and body image today or who perhaps have done ridiculous things to get attention from the opposite sex. What lessons have you gleaned from Helena and her transformation, regarding these topics?
Elizabeth Reese: For me, Helena’s journey through the woods and back again is a little more complicated than that. We talked a lot in rehearsal about what these lovers’ journey into the woods means, and how it shapes them—specifically how it shifts their idea of what love is. For Helena, following Demetrius into the woods changes her and transforms her relationship to love.
When we meet her for the first time, Helena comes right out of the gate with this incredible text that just takes everything to the nth degree and beyond. She obsessively compares herself to Hermia. So much so, that she says she would give up ANYTHING IN THE WORLD to be transformed into her friend! “Were the world mine, Demetrius being bated, the rest I’d give to be to you translated.” And yet a few moments later, she also shares her private thoughts with the audience saying, “Through Athens I am thought as fair as she. But what of that? Demetrius thinks not so.” I think these contradictions within Helena are so genuine. This is a woman who, on one level knows very well she is every bit as deserving of love as Hermia, yet filters her behaviors through the lens of desiring to be whatever Demetrius supposedly wants.
There’s a moment in her journey, just before Helena is about to give up on following Demetrius and head back to Athens (prior to a flower-addled-Lysander waking up) that I think is key. She hits a low point: “No, no; I am as ugly as a bear,” she says following a comparison between Hermia’s eyes and her own. She continues the downward spiral of self-abasement. She has used every tactic in the book—she has tried to metaphor Demetrius into loving her again, she has proved her loyalty to him, she’s even tried a terribly charming (if I do say so myself) spaniel impression—nothing has worked. And then—a moment of self-discovery: “What wicked and dissembling glass of mine made me compare with Hermia’s sphery eyne?” In other words, “Why do I keep doing this to myself?” A lightbulb. In that one brief moment she catches herself, realizing that there is NOTHING she should need to change about herself to attain the love she desires, whether from Demetrius or someone else. I think this is a moment when the play’s idea of love rubs right up against her own, and something begins to shift.
I’m interested in the Helena that is confident she’s got a brilliant (if slightly neurotic) mind, and knows that she’s just as beautiful as Hermia, and yet finds herself unable to hold that space because her worth is tied so closely to Demetrius’ value of her. Therein lies the complication, and what a fun journey to watch her take! She begins the play in dotage and comparison, and evolves—becoming a woman who can love fiercely and yet at the same time, be strong standing in herself, finding Demetrius as “mine own, and not mine own.” While this is a lesson that I remember learning the hard way earlier in my life (that’s a story to be told over drinks at The Shed), it’s been lovely to be reminded of it each night that I head into Athens with Helena.
APT: Have you seen shows at APT before? If so, do you have a favorite from either past years or this season?
Elizabeth Reese: I first made the trek to APT to see a classmate of mine, Ally Carey, in her first show here—All’s Well That Ends Well. I remember waiting for her in the lobby after the show, looking up at the stars, and listening to the sounds of the woods all around me. It was love at first show. To choose a play this season is tough. I love them all for different reasons. I saw A Flea In Her Ear with Colleen Madden and we laughed so hard we thought the house staff was going to cart us out of there for being too loud! Cyrano de Bergerac is my favorite play, so getting to hear the poetry of that script each night is a treat. The Maids is the show I’m most looking forward to seeing. Unexpected Man—come on…Brian Mani and Sarah Day? Midsummer Night’s Dream is a blast to perform and feels like a big party! That’s just the first half of the season! Don’t even get me started on what’s opening next…
APT: I happen to know you do calligraphy; how and when did that interest develop? Do you have any other hobbies?
Elizabeth Reese: I do! I’ve always loved letters. In my youth, I would always “try on” handwriting styles. Both my parents have really interesting penmanship. My Dad’s is incredibly angular, thin, and in all caps, and my Mother was a teacher, so she has this beautifully consistent textbook style. I also have a crazy love of design—if I wasn’t an actor, I think I probably would’ve gone the graphic design route. Calligraphy seemed like a great marriage of those two interests. It’s fun to look back on my practice notebook from when I first started to see how far I’ve come since that first squiggle. Since then, I’ve even had the honor of doing a few of my friends’ wedding invitations!
Other hobbies—I love music, and when teaching Spinning classes, I got into the habit of constantly digging for new artists and tunes to keep my playlists for cycling classes fresh. Putting together playlists for friends, going to concerts, and taking the time to just sit and listen to an album all the way through to really listen to the lyrics are all fun pastimes. Thrifting, photography, baking, reading, hiking or losing myself in a museum are other favorite ways to spend my days.
APT: Would you rather live on another planet, or underneath the sea? (Assuming you could breathe and function normally)
Elizabeth Reese: These days, the prospect of living on another planet is tempting…but I think I’d like to live under the sea. I hear there’s an octopus’ garden down there that’s pretty beautiful.