In Theatre Trip’s “Spotlight On” series, we’re chatting with some of the most inspiring people in the theatre industry. And today we’re doing a special feature on Grace McLean – a singer, writer, and Broadway actress based out of NYC.
Grace McLean has been a part of many exciting projects, including her band Grace McLean & Them Apples and her own musicals IN THE GREEN and AGAINST WOMEN & MUSIC!. But you might know her best from Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, where she took on the role of Marya Dmitriyevna.
What was it that initially inspired you to step into the theatre world?
“My parents were musicians, and I grew up understanding something about performing and the entrepreneurship required to live a creative life. I knew I was interested in the arts from a young age and was involved in dance and art classes. I took acting classes at my local theater, and I even started a writing publication with some friends where we critiqued things we were reading and offered advice to young writers. It was very precocious, but very fun.
I went to an arts high school and it was there that I found a real community in theater, especially in the Experimental Theater Club. We made devised work and were able to explore our own voices in collaboration with each other beyond the more canonical things we were learning during regular school hours.”
Can you share a bit about your writing process and what inspired you to write IN THE GREEN?
“Writing IN THE GREEN was a long process. I first found out about Hildegard von Bingen, the historical figure who was the inspiration for the piece, in college when I was studying art history. I was focusing on Medieval art because I liked it and really for no other practical reason, and honestly I’m happy I spent my time doing that. I studied a thing simply because it sparked something in me, and through that I found this amazing woman who turned out to be a great teacher for me.
Medieval art lead me to Hildegard who lead me to feminism, psychology, experimental musicians like Meredith Monk and Caroline Shaw, studies on trauma and healing, and ultimately to questions around individuality and agency within institutions – how much does a collective foster and support its members when it also operates as an exclusionary entity? Who gets included and who gets left out and why?
In a nutshell, Hildegard was an amazingly creative individual way ahead of her time and I wanted to explore her origin story, to ask what might have happened to her before she became a notable historical figure, what sort of struggles did she encounter that would have molded her into the person she became? But I also wanted to sort of knock her off her saintly pedestal and to say yeah, this woman did a lot that we should remember her for, but let’s not forget that she was a human being who made mistakes and who aligned herself with an institution that yes allowed her to become a powerful figure, but that excluded and persecuted a lot of other people who wouldn’t bend to its will.”
And can you tell us a bit about AGAINST WOMEN & MUSIC!?
“I’m writing AGAINST WOMEN & MUSIC! with my collaborator Kate Douglas, and she approached me about it a few years ago after attending a lecture with the same name. The piece is inspired by Victorian era medical texts which purport that music has nefarious effects on women’s bodies. We’ve taken that proposition and run with it, exploring ideas around obsession and desire, and the different ways women hold power. We’re really excited about the ways we’re cracking open these questions!”
Let’s talk a bit about your time at The Great Comet! What was it like playing Marya Dmitriyevna? And was there anything specific you needed to do to really get into character before stepping on stage?
“I loved Marya so much! And I got to spend a long time with her – I started working on Comet in 2013 Off-Broadway and then stayed with it until we closed on Broadway in 2017. So eventually, performing Marya became a sort of meditation, and I’d try to focus on either a question or a motivation or even a part of my body for the show that day. For instance, maybe I’d think about doing everything from my sternum for one show, and for another I’d think about who I loved and to do the show for them. I guess those answers are a bit more actor-centric than character oriented, but when you do a run for a long time you’ve got to find ways to keep yourself fresh!”
“You have to make time for it. You have to put in the hours when nobody is watching. And when you’re not getting paid, you have to build the muscles, and you have to nurture the thing you love because YOU love it, not necessarily because it’s lucrative.”
I can’t imagine what it would be like to play such a vocally (and emotionally) demanding role. Is there anything special you had to do to take care of your voice and yourself in general at the time?
“I took EXTREMELY good care of myself during the run of that show. I ate very well, drank a lot of water, slept as much as my body needed, and I warmed up for about an hour before every show and cooled down at the end of each day. It’s a demanding job for sure, and it follows you well outside of the theater. The job becomes prepare for show, do show, recover from show.”
You’ve been a part of quite a few exciting shows and readings over the past couple of years. Were there any roles that were particularly challenging or rewarding for you?
“Most of the work I get to do is new and I am very grateful for that. I often get to be in the room when people are still trying new things, re-writing, having conversations about how to make a piece work, and I love getting to be a part of that conversation. One of my favorite experiences that I didn’t ultimately end up getting to be a part of was called Bonnie’s Last Flight by Eliza Bent and directed by Annie Tippe. I got to work with Eliza and Annie while the script was still being developed because they wanted my help musicalizing a few parts of the show. And THAT was really fun, being invited into someone’s playroom before the rest of the kids to try and make something fit, particularly to me!”
On top of all that, you have such an incredible band – Grace McLean & Them Apples! Do you have any advice for other multi-passionate artists who are split between pursuing multiple talents and passions?
“I say if you like it, you gotta explore it. I am juggling a few “different” career paths I suppose, but I find that they all speak to each other and inform each other. Sometimes I do have to put a little more focus on one area or another, and I have had to give up some opportunities in favor of others. But I believe that if you want to do a thing, you just have to get up and do it.
You have to make time for it. You have to put in the hours when nobody is watching. And when you’re not getting paid, you have to build the muscles, and you have to nurture the thing you love because YOU love it, not necessarily because it’s lucrative. It probably won’t be lucrative! I don’t make anything on my band music. I’m only investing in it. But I keep at it because I love it and I am constantly learning from it. I wouldn’t have written a musical without having written for the band first, and I wouldn’t be as confident a performer without having gotten in front of many audiences of my own making.”
“Find your weird! Find and explore and exploit and revel in the things that make YOU happy and excited.”
Is there any other advice you would like to give to the aspiring artists out there?
“Find your weird! Find and explore and exploit and revel in the things that make YOU happy and excited. Go deep, find out WHY you like what you do, and remember that there is strength in vulnerability.”
What’s next for you?
“I’m going to be involved as a performer in a few shows coming up this year that are yet to be announced! And then I have 2 albums coming out soon, the cast album for IN THE GREEN and a full length album with my band Grace McLean & Them Apples!”
What did you think of this interview with Grace McLean?
And are any of you aspiring to be/working as an actor or singer? Don’t be afraid to plug yourself! We would love to hear all about what you’re up to in the comments below! And in the meantime, you can check out even more of our theatre interviews with inspiring people in the industry!
*The featured image of Grace McLean is by Pavel Korbut.
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Author: Stacy Karyn
Stacy Karyn is the founder of Theatre Trip, author of The Thespian’s Bucket List, and creator of The Cast Album List. She has a TESOL drama certificate, a BA in theatre, and has worked and interned with Broadway and Off-Broadway theaters.