D.C. audiences are very familiar with Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan, who has appeared on multiple stages in the area, including Round House Theatre, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Olney Theatre Center, Ford’s Theater and Folger Theater. A two-time Helen Hayes Award winner (Best Actress for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Best Ensemble for Come from Away), she just earned her fifth nomination for Best Ensemble in Gloria at Woolly Mammoth. A graduate of STC’s Academy for Classical Acting (ACA) at The George Washington University, Alyssa is now making her STC debut in Vanity Fair. We caught up with her during previews before the show opened on March 4.
STC: How has everything been going? This is quite a complex show to tackle in just four weeks of rehearsal: you play multiple roles throughout the show, and there’s singing, dancing – even puppetry!
Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan: It’s been a whirlwind! I think everybody has felt that way, putting up such an intricate, epic story in such a short amount of time. Moving from the rehearsal space to the stage, and teching the show, made me realize that there is as much of a performance happening backstage as there is onstage. It was kind of headache-inducing initially – at least for me, I’m playing nine different tracks. But navigating all of that has been really interesting. It’s been beautiful and challenging, and probably the best part of it is that each and every person associated with this experience has been dedicated and focused from day one.
STC: As an ACA graduate, what did it mean to you to step on STC’s stage for the first time?
AWK: I have wanted to be on an STC stage since before ACA. The very first show that I saw in D.C. was at the Lansburgh. It was when Avery Brooks played Othello. I remember watching Lise Bruneau play Emilia and I thought, “If I can do that someday, that would be really incredible.” Gregory Wooddell was also in that production, and his Cassio was as memorable. I had the good fortune to work with him on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Round House Theatre a few years later, and at the time I remembered thinking “I’m really doing it, I’m working with people I admire!” ACA was the best decision I made for my career, and to now be on this stage is amazing, and a real milestone for me.
STC: Michael Kahn was your teacher at the ACA, and now you’re here performing in his final season as Artistic Director. Is there anything you learned from Michael that you’ve carried with you through your career?
AWK: Michael is…direct. I was doing a scene from Hamlet, I was playing Ophelia, and it was a good scene. And he said to me, “You will never not be strong on stage.” And I didn’t know if that was a compliment or not, but I guess my Ophelia had guts and strength. I can’t divorce myself entirely from the people and the characters that I play. And there is a sense of strength about me that I have grown to accept. But I don’t think that having strength means that I can’t be fearful or confused or lost or desperate or any of those things. One can only be strong by rising above challenges. To be here, in his final season, and playing a breeches role in this show, as my main character, is very interesting. For better or worse I think he was right.
STC: You’ve acted in both classic plays and new works. How are you approaching Kate’s new adaptation of such a beloved classic novel?
AWK: For me, the thing that ties both classical and contemporary work together is language. I learned this at the ACA; just really understanding how to dig into texts, how to understand rhetoric, how to look at punctuation, timing and the rhythm and music of the words. I think this applies regardless of whether or not you’re speaking verse or contemporary prose. I looked at the text and decided who I wanted each of my nine characters to be based on the words that Kate had given us.
STC: Your role was originally written for a male actor. How has this influenced your characters’ relationships with Becky and Amelia?
AWK: I’m grateful that Jessica cast another woman in this production. Behind the scenes is where I sense there’s more connection between Maribel, Rebekah and myself. The two female characters live in a hyper-patriarchal society and the character of George is the embodiment of that society. But I don’t feel like a woman when I am playing George, I feel like a man. However, as an ensemble member, as part of this cast, I feel we are a powerful female triumvirate, and how we support one another behind the scenes is what I think is probably the most potent feeling. That’s where women’s power can really lie, in our sense of strength and resiliency and compassion. We all share that in our dressing room, and as we’ve developed this show, it has colored my performance and my love for them on stage.
Your husband, Thomas, is also a very busy local actor and ACA graduate. What is it about D.C. and the theatre community that has kept you both here?
AWK: Affording us the chance to be a family is probably what’s kept us here. To be a family and to work, that is very rare. And we’re not the only family of multiple actors with children in this community. We all feel that support. Plus the work opportunities are incredible. And there’s a lack of negative competitiveness. If I don’t get the role, it’s fine, because I know that one of my contemporaries is going to get it, and do the role justice. There’s just a lot to look forward to in this place.
STC: What do you hope audiences take away from this production?
AWK: I hope that people have fun. I think that we need laughter. Living in D.C. right now can be hard, with so much political negativity. But laughter is something that everyone can understand, and it can bring people together. Hearing collectively – hundreds of people last night just all agreeing to enjoy themselves for an evening – that’s enough for me right now. And sometimes that is enough, just to be able to laugh with strangers.
Vanity Fair runs from February 26—March 31. Tickets are available now at ShakespeareTheatre.org.