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Kathryn Gallagher Writes About Being 'Paulette's Granddaughter'

"Hold, hold, hold, forever if you have to... and then the curtain closes, and you can die." Because that's all we can do, work hard, show up and hold, hold, hold.

BroadwayWorld is celebrating Women's History Month and International Women's Day by asking the question, 'what does being a woman in theatre mean to you?' Read our roundup of answers from stars of Six, Slave Play, and more here.

Jagged Little Pill's Kathryn Gallagher is sharing the story of her role model, her grandmother, and how her advice stays with her to this day.

Read Kathryn's story, in her own words, below!

Kathryn Gallagher Writes About Being 'Paulette's Granddaughter'

"...we earned 35 bucks a week, four shows a day, seven days a week." my grandmother reminded me, as we sat in her kitchen in early July 2019, referring to her days as a teenager, dancing in the Ballet Company at Radio City. "The Music Hall," as she called it.

I've been referred to as "Peter Gallagher's daughter" for as long as I can remember, and as my dad's self-proclaimed number one fan, that is a title I wear with extreme pride. But I want to tell you about a title, mostly reserved for the hardwood floors of Paulette's Ballet School in Newton, MA.

"You're Miss Paulette's granddaughter?!" tutu clad young girls would ask. "I absolutely am."

My mother's mother, Paulette Knox Harwood was the first one in my bloodline to dance on a New York stage. I used to joke that she was not the kind of grandma stereotyped in early nineties sitcoms, wearing a nightie and curlers with freshly baked cookies in the oven. No, my grandmother wouldn't be caught dead in her curlers. In fact, you'd never see her without her "face on," platinum hair, blue and silver glitter gracing her cheekbones and almost always a feathered scarf.

I don't have memories with her cuddled up on the couch, watching TV. Time spent with Miss Paulette was time spent learning: learning how to sew, how to dig for clams, how to grow the juiciest tomatoes, and last but certainly not least, how to do a proper Ballet Barre at the fireplace over Christmas break. In my eyes, she was the most capable, impressive, intelligent woman. As I grew older, I started to notice when she felt insecure, she would remind the room that she dropped out of school to dance, calling herself a "dumb bunny," uneducated and apologizing in advance for her potential errors. It always startled me how this fearless and accomplished woman would so instinctively talk herself down. And then, of course, as I've grown older and stepped into professional endeavors of my own, I find myself doing the exact same thing.

As young women, we're sent so many subliminal messages about who we're expected to be: don't be too clever, your intelligence can be intimidating. Your sense of humor is off putting. Your opinions are unflattering. Your voice is too loud. Your beauty is your worth. You take up too much space like that. Eat less. Say less. Be less. Unless, you want to be beautiful. Then buy more, buy this for soft skin, this for a small waist, this for smooth hair, this for white teeth. But as always, love yourself... just not like that. It leaves me wondering, did my grandmother really believe she was less intelligent or her opinions less valid than her male peers, or did she learn along the way that her certainty and business acumen was an undesirable trait in a woman?

I've found myself aggressively trying to rewire this messaging since I became old enough to notice it. But as a hardwired hard worker, I am often faced with the unanswerable question: is this version of a woman who I have to become if I want to be a success? Do I have to fit into these shapes that were molded from someone else's bones? I've already pretzeled myself into so many shapes that only left me sore and bruised. Smiling through the public berating of a callous director, swallowing my fury as his same hand rested on the small of my back moments later in a secluded corner. Laughing at a careless joke about my lack of brains. Posing an opinion as a question, so as to not threaten insecure ears. And a personal favorite, apologizing for speaking just in general. I daydream about the moment I stop asking myself "If I say/do/wear this, will I seem too loud/slutty/calculating/bitchy/stupid....?" I'm not quite there yet, but as always, I'm working on it. These are my own experiences as a cis white woman and I know the misogyny BIPOC and Trans women face is far more magnified.

For all of her self-deprecating and apologetic dialogue, Grandma still managed to build an extremely successful Ballet school at a time when there weren't many women running their own businesses in the sixties, earning enough for the down payment on a house. Though the money was hers and hard earned, they still wouldn't rent her the space, it was rented to Paul Harwood, my grandfather. I learned by example that the societal expectations for women were not expectations in my house. That I could do and become whatever I wanted to, as long as I was willing to work for it.

When I was 22, I was in the Deaf West revival of Spring Awakening and in a wild turn of events, I was Dance Captain. Faced with the daunting task, the first thing I did was call my grandmother for advice. When I asked her "what do I do? How can I do this well?" She very sincerely responded, "You have to know everything. Every beat. Every measure. Write it all down. Find out what you don't know and learn that too." This felt impossible at the time but it also felt like the only acceptable level of competence to strive for. This was how she led her life, constantly striving to find the unknowns and then learn them. Mastering skill after skill. All of this from a woman who calls herself uneducated? How can she justify that terminology? I daydream about how she would speak about herself if she was growing up now, in a culture far from perfect, but one that allows little girls to believe that their brains hold their power, not their measurements. Would she claim her intelligence with pride? Or would she still apologize for it? But then, of course, her tenacity and persistence through her insecurities are what paved the way for me to believe that I could live the life I chose to live.

I have a tattoo on my shoulder of my favorite quote of hers. She said it to her students before their big concert, instructing them what to do at the end of their number: "Hold, hold, hold, forever if you have to... and then the curtain closes, and you can die." Because that's all we can do, work hard, show up and hold, hold, hold.

That July day, in the kitchen, she handed me the ring off her finger and told me how proud she was of me and how she would be on stage with me eight shows a week. Which, if you understood her keen eye for imperfections, you'd know was both a sweet sentiment and a deeply intimidating one that kept me on my game.

She died in August of 2019, her final days were spent with her daughters and grandchildren surrounding her, listening to Cabaret, as Liza sang out "What good is sitting all alone in your room?/Come hear the music play/Life is a cabaret, old chum! Come to the cabaret!" Miss Paulette, came into consciousness, to reply what would be some of her final words, "Smart woman."


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