'Bee'ing Celia Keenan-Bolger

While most 4 year olds are asked what they want to be when they grow up, Celia Keenan-Bolger told her parents exactly what she wanted to do. I sat down with Celia at the popular Edison Café to discuss her career and her Broadway debut in 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee just before opening night.

How did you get bit by the acting bug and who were your influences?
I grew up in Michigan and saw a community production of The Sound of Music (when I was either 4 or 5) and basically was like 'Oh! That's what I want to do.' My parents are and were SO unbelievably supportive but at first were like 'sure this is what you want to do today, next week it will be gymnastics and then the week after it will be ballet.' I did all those things too.

So I got to do community theater and then started doing musicals shortly after that. No one in my family was really in the business. We did grow up with a lot of music and art but no one was in the theater. My grandparents were amazing though because they took me to a lot of shows at the repertory theater at the local college growing up and I think that is what, in addition to doing it on my own, gave me the taste and broader scope of what was out there. I saw mostly Shakespeare and straight plays - not a lot of musicals.

My first acting role was in the chorus of Annie Get Your Gun as a townsperson at the age of 5. My first lead was at age 7 when I played Alice in Alice in Wonderland.

As far as influences, there's that point in early high school where I started to become a little bit obsessed with Sondheim and started to watch the videos at the library of the shows and seeing that musicals could have a different style that Rodgers & Hammerstein and the things I had been doing. That's also what started pulling me into a new direction.

Did you ever think of doing anything else? When would you say you got "serious" about acting?
When I went to college I specifically went to the university because I knew I wanted the option to study other things. I still think about other careers that I would maybe want to have - but for now I feel pretty content and fulfilled.

My initial training initially came from just doing the shows. I started taking voice lessons in high school but not even seriously. I did go to a performing arts high school so I was sort of doing and learning about sight reading and basic things like that. I took a bit of dance in high school. Then when I went to Michigan, that's when it started becoming more intense as far as my dedication and practice.

You took on a very coveted role in Kennedy Center's Sondheim Celebration. How did you score that role and what was that experience like?
I like talking about that experience only because I'm far away from it now. It was an unbelievable time for obvious reasons. Tara Rubin had brought me in to audition for numerous roles in the celebration - for Petra and Fredrika in 'Night Music', Marta in Company - the roles I had generally been playing in college - the belty younger roles. And then in one of my 'Night Music' auditions they asked if I knew 'Soon' and I sort of did so they asked if I would sing it and I did.

Afterwards I was like 'eh' - I never sang soprano in college. The next day I got a call asking to come in for Johanna. I told my agent that it has to be the biggest joke I have ever heard because uh.. that's just a big joke. So I went in and thought , for me, that wasn't so bad. But in the scope of the people that will be seen for this - it's just never going to happen. I was down to the very very end for Fredrika and I got the call that I didn't get it and was devastated. I just really wanted to be a part of this celebration and I just thought - well…that's a big bummer.

Then my agent called a couple of days later and said 'ok, so instead you're going to play Johanna' and I remember the first thing I said was 'Oh no..' I thought the entire time I was there I was going to be found out and I was this big fraud. I had never really sung soprano - it's a coveted role in the opera world and a very specific type of person - one that I do NOT associate myself as being one as. I kept thinking 'can't I play Johanna in Maine or something where I can hone my craft and have done it - but not in front of such huge people? I think looking back on it I realize that the bar had been raised so high and I had to either go to it or sink.

The two people that were so supportive and got me through it were Hugh Panaro who played Anthony and was so good to me and made me feel comfortable and talented and Mary Beth Piel. Both of them took such good care of me. Sondheim was also amazing. I got to have a whole work session with him on the 'Kiss Me' quartet and he was just so smart and insightful and, I don't think he'd want to, but he would be a great director. He understands character and the arc or where that scene needed to be. He was just so wonderful and excellent to me. Everyone really was. It was a very creative, fulfilling process.

Another coveted role you took on was playing Emily in Our Town opposite Tom Skerritt...
It was the first play I had done in a long time and it was so much a part of what I did in college and before that even. I have such an interest in the straight theater world. You know it's very hard for a musical theater actress to be taken seriously in that vain. Luckily I was offered this great role which became a life changing theater experience and I don't say that very often but really - because of the cast, and because of the timing - it was during the election to which I was very much immersed in and found it to be important - there's so much more to that play certainly that I remembered when I read it in high school. It opened up this amazing dialogue within the cast which was so diverse. I also remember after the election, the despair we all felt backstage and the quiet in the audience.

Two days later people were having these intense reactions to the play and I thought - we're all sort of healing and all doing our own little form of healing and this play is letting people do that - in not just a purely escapist way but also by letting people examine their life, and me examine my life and why were here and what we're supposed to do while here - and that role - it just doesn't get better than that. Also, Sweeney Todd and Our Town are the only two things I've done since college that weren't new, and to do things that are such solid pieces of writing, there's a certain level of freedom but also an intimidation that comes with that. Everyone knows these are good - so if it's not, it's my fault. I like feeling that very solid base, that foundation. Our Town was just the greatest and it was pretty recent so I still live in that place once in awhile.

Tell me a little bit about working with Hunter Foster on Summer of 42.

Hunter was amazing. I always find that when there is a crosspollination of talent - whether it's an actor who becomes a director or a director becomes a writer, there's that experience that they are bringing to the table. With Hunter as a writer, he was bringing his experience as an actor which made it a lot easier on us. He knew how to give notes, how to talk to actors…that was my first job out of New York and I feel a lot of gratitude towards Hunter and David and they stuck with me the whole time and were such great collaborators. They worked so well with not only the cast, but also the others involved in the show - they were very open and malleable as far as changing things.

You had the opportunity to work opposite Victoria Clark in the out-of-town tryout of Light In The Piazza which is now on Broadway. What was that experience like?
That's an experience that's still a bit tender in my heart because I love it so much. I think it is one of the most beautiful musicals that has ever been written. What I feel most is that I want New York love it and respond to it as positively as what we experienced out of town with it because it's so special. I mean to work with both Adam and Craig - they were heroes of mine way before I got to do that show - so there was a certain amount of prestige that I felt even being in the same room as them, let alone work with them. And Victoria Clark is one of the great human beings to walk this earth. I felt like I grew so much not only as an artist, but also a lot of healing that went on because of the mother-daughter relationship in the show. My mother passed away three years ago and Victoria had gone through some difficulties personally so for the both of us, it was a very healing process. I'm very grateful for that show to have provided me with that. I feel so lucky to have been a part of that show.

How did you find out about 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee? What was the audition process like and how was it to join a cast that had already been working together for some time?
I found out about that show through a new writer who went through the NYU Graduate Writing Program and her mentor was Bill (Finn) who later saw me in a production and was very good to me and cast me in Elegies. When they were looking for someone for Spelling Bee, he (Finn) really lobbied for me to do the role. The audition for that was very low key and I knew a lot more about this audition that you would normally just because he had been very clear what they wanted. But coming into the process was really intimidating because everyone else had done it before and the characters as so detailed and well thought out and I was coming into it with nothing. Not only do I have a lack of experience in this role (Olive) but really, she's really not that interesting in what she's doing. She's very normal.

So it was very intimidating. We had two weeks to put it up and we did do a little bit of improv and character analysis, but I was learning all this music and Bill was writing stuff while we were there and bringing it in so it was a lot to do in a very short amount of time. That rehearsal process was a whirlwind that I almost don't even remember - or blacked out (laughs). The cast is an amazing, amazing group of people. They were so welcoming - I couldn't have asked for a better group of people. It's interesting that in the first scene, Olive is the outsider in the show and I wonder, in new musicals, there are certain things that get written or that find themselves in the piece that you wonder 'How much of this is indicative of what's really going on in life and who I am in life?'

In Spelling Bee there was a bit of this bleeding. I knew going into the show what it felt like to be on the outside which ended up serving the piece - or at least me. Unlike Olive though, I was not shy growing up - not at all. I grew up in Detroit in the inner-city and was one of four white kids in my school and so I was a total minority. I always talked a lot and I was popular. I don't know why, maybe because I was white (laughs). Also, unlike Olive, I wasn't a very good speller - and I'm still not a very good speller.

Can you share some insight into how you created the role of Olive?
There are things we all went through growing up. The idea of feeling that you're on the outside… or feeling removed from a situation or not on the "in." And you know it's funny, I was a nanny here in New York - my only day job since I moved to the city and I wonder - I didn't realize it necessarily when I was shaping it but when I think of who she is - who Olive is and that kind of insecurity that comes with that age of not feeling brave enough to really put yourself out there and what that means and how it manifests itself physically - there is a part of me that taps into the vulnerability of other people or myself that could probably work for this character. There are definitely some similarities (between Olive and myself) that's always the case.

I had a teacher once who said that it's more interesting to not make the character like you - you want to figure out the things that are not like you and try to really capitalize on those because you're going to inherently bring so much of yourself to a character anyway. So I think the idea of being introverted without it being a caricature or seemingly painfully shy or unhappy is all very complex when you are playing someone 11 or 12 with those qualities.

What advice would you give to Olive?
I would tell Olive to trust herself and to try to remember the things that are good about her. I mean she's someone who suffers from a little bit of low self esteem which is what's so amazing about her relationship with Barfee in that he projects so much self confidence and really, is very inspiring which is one of the reasons she gets as far as she does because of him. I guess I would also tell her that she shouldn't depend on him to do it - that you're alright on your own.

And what advice do you think she would give you?
As for what Olive would tell me? There's a very compassionate side to her in the way she deals with Barfee and Logainne in the show. She's always looking out for other people. I think she would remind me to keep in that place that is less focused on myself and more on other people

Were you surprised by the overwhelming reaction to "Bee?" and did you read any of the reviews?

I'm scared to read reviews. I just don't have the constitution. I just don't. But I saw something and I knew that they were good. I didn't know it was going to be so well received. Even in the Berkshires, when they were talking about the audience participation I was thinking it was going to be a nightmare - this is not my thing and it's not going to be other people's thing. Then we did it and I was like 'oh. Ok, this is going to work.' We did it and it was like a rock concert and I couldn't believe how well the audience responded and immediately they talked about bringing it to New York.

But you know, they say that all the time. Then we got here and it was the exact same response - the reviews came out and the response was even greater. I've heard a lot of people say this but you start in the first half hour and you think this is just hilarious and really fun. I know what this is - it's just a really fun evening at the theater - but somewhere in the last half hour of the show, very surreptitiously it takes a turn and you realize you've invested a great deal into these characters so that in addition to being funny it also has a certain level of heart and emotional investment.

What were your first thoughts when you heard the news of the Broadway transfer?
I was so thrilled when the news came in and that this show would be the one I would make my Broadway debut in. I've had other opportunities but ended up choosing other projects. This show seemed like such great timing and with this group of people especially - I could not ask for a better environment or show to do it with. I am so proud to be a part of it and feel so lucky and very blessed.

Related Articles

From This Author Craig Brockman

Craig Brockman and independent video editor and producer in the entertainment industry and has served as both Senior Editor and Multimedia Director for BroadwayWorldand. He (read more...)

Before you go...

Like Us On Facebook
Follow Us On Twitter
Follow Us On Instagram instagram