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BWW Interview: Down the Rabbit Hole with ALICE BY HEART's Grace McLean

BWW Interview: Down the Rabbit Hole with ALICE BY HEART's Grace McLeanA fish with a porpoise, a lady of many (mad) hats, Grace McLean is currently living life down the rabbit hole in the thrilling new musical Alice By Heart.

In the rubble of the London Blitz, Alice Spencer's budding teen life is turned upside down. When her friend Alfred is quarantined, Alice encourages him to escape with her down the rabbit hole to Wonderland. As they travel through the tale, Alice By Heart explores first love, coming to terms with loss, and finding the courage to move forward. McLean commands the stage most notably as the infamous Red Queen, playing her part in Alice's journey.

BroadwayWorld spoke with McLean about her current project as well as her upcoming new musical In The Green and her band Grace McLean and Them Apples!

What drew you to this project initially? How did you get involved?

What was initially so exciting about this was really the team. I had worked with Duncan Sheik a little bit on like a reading a couple of years ago that Rachel Chavkin had directed and that was a thrill. I had never met Steven Sater and had never worked with Jessie Nelson, so just to have all of these people in a room together, it felt like we were going to make something really cool together. And of course, that's what you want as an actress, to be able to work on new work with exciting people.

And then of course once we got in the room this cast is fantastic; it's a really wonderful group of people. We all work really well together, we all like each other. I'm truly inspired by everybody and everybody just sets the bar so high and it makes you want to be good and stay present and fresh.

How did the ensemble nature of this show help you all to develop the piece and how did it help you specifically as you were putting together your characters? How does that change your approach?

I really love it. You're forced to rely on each other and you have to get to know each other. It kind of like creeps up on you when you're working ensemble. At first you're just like "Hey, hello, my name's Grace, I'm going to step on you now." And then, after a while you just start to be able gel with each other's energy and read each other. You know if something is going a little bit awry you can read it in an eye for a second and figure out how to fix it on the fly. There's a lot of trust that develops really quickly.

BWW Interview: Down the Rabbit Hole with ALICE BY HEART's Grace McLeanThat's essential for any project, but especially for this where we are relying on each other all the time. I love that. I love that we have to be on stage together all the time, be in it together and really create it together. That doesn't happen all the time and it makes this very special.

In terms of creating my character, it comes along with that. First it's about affecting the people in the room. I'm thinking how can I make these people laugh? But then also how can I recognize where the ground is? Even in such a fantastical world, it's coming from this grounded place of real drama and horrible real-world consequences. These characters are all stemming from a particular wound. When we all get to mesh ourselves together and live in what that is, then I think that the sort of Alice version of that, which I think is the real heightened, fanatic, energetic mirror to those real-world characters, gets to come through. We find them and create together.

Juxtaposing this with your previous role, Marya in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, how do you approach creating a character that comes from a novel?

I think it's very helpful to know the source material and to honor it. I love Alice in Wonderland and I love War and Peace. But ultimately for me, it comes down to what are the circumstances of this particular story and what is the story that we are trying to tell here and how can I understand that, in this moment, as Grace.

For both of those women, Marya and the Red Queen, they've got some rage. That rage I think comes from a wound. I think both of them feel betrayed by these people that they love so their loudness is justified in that way of needing to be heard. At least that's the way I'm looking at the Red Queen.

I've had some conversations with Steven about this and he kept saying "isn't it a trial?" The Queen's song towards the end of the show is really about telling Alice that she's trying to fit into this world that she doesn't fit in to anymore and it's not working for her, but also that hurts this particular character who is saying "I remember when you were here and you were this child and we got to do this thing together, but you're not doing it right anymore and that also hurts me."

There's a lot going on but that always really, really spoke to me about how not only is it painful for Alice to grow up and to leave behind her youth, but it's painful for the characters. They had this relationship with this child and to see it grow up and move on, it's a loss.

BWW Interview: Down the Rabbit Hole with ALICE BY HEART's Grace McLean

What do you think this story in particular does with the Alice story that's never been done before?

I think is interesting is it's not really an adaptation of Alice. Alice became sort of like the framework for this other story that needs to be told, which is the story of Alice and Alfred in the midst of this very dramatic moment in London, World War II. So the Alice story becomes both the escape for these characters to find some joy in the midst of a very dark moment, and at the same time it becomes the way that Alice learns to move on and let go by working her way through the story but also by sort of letting it go. That story represents a time that doesn't exist anymore and it's also representative of her youth. There's all the stuff about her growing up; she's changing and she's trying to change the story and the story's like "No no no, we can't change. You have to change. This is what was, but what are you becoming?"

Moving on to your own writing, tell us about your exciting recent announcement concerning In The Green.

In The Green is about this 12th Century mystic who I've been obsessed with for some time and it's going to have a production June 8th through August 4th. I've been working on it for seven years in different capacities.

It's about Hildegard von Bingen who was a very powerful woman in a time where that was just impossible, 12th Century Germany. She was a mystic, a scientist, she invented a language, she was an artist, a composer; she told Popes and Kings what to do. She was very much an individual. She had sort of her own particular symbolicy she was working with. Very feminine content. Music was way ahead of its time, art was way ahead of its time. And so I was just like "well, I have to just find out all I can about this woman." And I really did. Ultimately I became interested in the first part of her life which wasn't too much because we don't really know too much about it. Hence a great place for imagination.

She was locked in a cell with another woman for 30 years after she was given to the church as a tithe by her family when she was 8 years old. You're supposed to give ten per cent of your earnings to the church; she was their tenth child.

She was given to be a handmaid to this woman called Jutta and Jutta was an anchoress which means that she was basically locked in her own tomb. She came from a wealthy family, she had a lot of prospects, but she didn't want anything to do with any of that. I'm trying to look at her choice to live an extremely cloistered life as a radical feminist act for the 12th Century which was basically like "there's no way I can have any autonomy in this life. The only thing I can do is completely reject it."

So she went and locked herself in a cell, got this little girl Hildegard to come and live her and be her kind of servant but also her mentee. They were in there for 30 years, then Jutta died, then Hildegard came out and was like "I don't agree with this way of living, I'm going to actually live like a very integrated life like with this physical realm and find beauty and divinity in all of it." She had the opposite way of looking at the world as Jutta and that just got me thinking, what went on with these two women in a cell for decades that leaves one of them to literally just want to die and the other one to live a long creative life? That's what the show is about. It's basically looking at the ways that women deal with the wounds inflicted upon them by a world that just has no place for them.

And finally, how goes the band, Grace McLean and Them Apples?

We have a gig on April 18th, at the McKittrick and we will be releasing a full length album this year. It was supposed to release like 3 years ago. It's super done, we're very close and very excited about that. So there is more Grace McLean and Them Apples music coming your way!

BWW Interview: Down the Rabbit Hole with ALICE BY HEART's Grace McLean

Alice By Heart runs through Sunday, April 7th. For tickets, visit mcctheater.org/tix/alice-by-heart.

Production Photo Credit: Deen Van Meer; Red Carpet by Walter McBride


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