Our Final TOP FIVE (for now) comes to us from Rachel Howell, an excellent actress who has been creating memorable characters for many years now. After you check out her TOP FIVE, you might want to get tickets to a show she directed for Fourth Room Theatre – Private Lives! Perhaps it’ll show up on a revised version of Rachel’s TOP FIVE in a few years… For now, enjoy our FINAL TOP FIVE! (‘Til next time…)
I know I’ll sound like a broken record… Everyone talks about how hard these lists are. And you know what? SO HARD. Oh man. I have been so lucky to have my roots in this culturally rich area of the world! No where else could I have had the same opportunities, had a home in so many different theatre companies, and made such amazing connections to all the wonderful people who have a like-minded love of the arts.
To take all my experiences and distill them into only 5 top pieces is near-impossible. This list of five is basically me recounting how absolutely lucky I’ve been to have had these amazing and varied experiences.
Horatio’s Purgatory by Rachel Korach Howell. I-You Theatre Company, 2006 & TCR, 2010-2011.
Writing, Directing, and an Unexpected Life of a Show
I had spent a lot of time pouring over Shakespeare’s Hamlet the year prior to writing this. I fell in love with Horatio. He seemed like such a tragic piece of the puzzle. So honest and loving to Hamlet, and the only one left at the end. I figured writing this piece would be good exercise to get comfortable with the script before I took Hamlet itself into my hands for City Circle’s season the following year.
I directed the first production for I-You Theatre in 2006, for the Iowa Fringe Festival. My friend, Jaret Morlan, played Horatio, while Kehry Anson Lane, my husband, took on the role of Hamlet. A two man show, about 4 props, and 6 or 7 folding chairs became so much more. Through Kehry & Jaret’s interpretations, it became a story, not just about these two Shakespearean characters, but about us all. Watching Jaret throw those folding chairs around at the climax, making that intense sound of cheap metal colliding, breaking the grief cycle for his character… and then seeing his friend come back to him one last time… it was such a beautiful moment of release. It’s a moment I’ll never forget. Jaret and Kehry’s chemistry on stage is always something wholly unique and honest to be a part of. I feel very lucky to have had them create these characters.
Kehry and Jaret taught me a lot about collaboration. I learned how, for me, being so close to the words on the page made it difficult to be as receptive to their interpretations as I should have been. As a director, I may have veto rights, the vision/shape, but the actors are the ones who add the dimension.
The second production was directed by Angie Toomsen and featured Matthew James as Horatio and Kehry, again, as Hamlet. It was my submission to the first TCR Underground Festival and we ended up taking this show all the way to the AACTFest regional competition. I knew that it was best for the show to be under someone else, who wasn’t as close to the material as I had been. Angie was the perfect person to head up this project. Through Angie directing, Matthew & Kehry acting their pants off, and all of us workshopping the piece, we created a very different – but equally beautiful – interpretation of the script. It was a reminder to me that any piece can engage a different journey, utilize different motivations, and yet still end up with the intended message. Proving that live theatre is exactly that, ALIVE. To have been a part of that exciting process was unlike anything I dreamed.
Also, because of this experience, I became much closer to Angie and Matthew. They are both now an essential part of my family here.
Bus Stop by William Inge. ICCT, 2009.
My “First” Acting Experience
Who would have thought this gal would be playing a role Marilyn Monroe played? Yeah, me either. But, for some reason it happened and I am so grateful it did! The group of people involved in this production were just the tops. All wonderful humans with great chemistry (not to mention it was one of only two times I’ve gotten to share the stage with Kehry-we were newly married when we auditioned). Also, I got to eat a bunch of donuts. What’s not to love?
The biggest thing for me, though, was that this was the very first time where I really felt like I could do this “acting thing”. Where I could fall into someone very different from me (more different than I thought I was capable of at the time, at least) and feel like I could actually maintain some organic qualities in my performance. No, it wasn’t perfect each night, but it was consistently closer than I’d experienced up until that point. I finally felt like I had something to offer on the stage. Like, I could do justice to a character, to my fellow actors, and to the audience. I didn’t feel like I was just faking it anymore. I felt like I was acting. Like I was making art. And that was very cool.
9 Parts of Desire by Heather Raffo. Dreamwell & ICCT, 2010.
All the Ladies
I was assisted in bringing this one-woman show to life by nine incredible actresses and two supportive and lovely men (Brian Tanner & Josh Sazon). I originally wanted to cast only three women, but when presented with so much talent, I had to cast all nine roles. I had no idea the power of the words on the page until these women showed me. Jen Brown’s Amal so tender yet so bruised from love and context. Sarah Jarmon’s Layal, a passionate depiction of amazing strength in the face of metaphorical and literal bombs. Kathy Maxey’s Umm Ghada showing how far a person can bend, break, and then glue herself together again to tell the tale. Through all of the actresses involved in this production, onlookers were able to know these Iraqi women and their fight a little bit more. It wasn’t something we may want to see, but it was impossible to look away.
We rehearsed together, outside in the heat and bugs. We painted pictures and ate feasts together. And, I don’t mean to sound sexist, but there is something truly phenomenal about a group of women making such powerful art. All pushing each other, all catching each other when we fell. The bonds we created with each other from this show will forever be there.
Cabaret by Christopher Isherwood, John Kander and Fred Ebb. City Circle, 2006.
Proof by David Auburn. TCR, 2009.
The Bucket List role(s)
Who doesn’t want to be Sally Bowles? When I found out Cabaret was on CC’s season, I held my breath until I finally had the opportunity to spazz out at the audition for it. I was so very lucky that Michael Stokes took a chance on me. And what a wonderful and devoted ensemble to have a chance to work with! Tom, and Tim, and Danielle, and Rod… And the raw egg! I looked forward to grossing audiences out every show (I simply adored hearing them groan)… And the costumes… so sexy and glamorous! And Tim Budd, of course. Tim slapping my face on stage was one of my favorite moments. I mean, sure, be safe, but sometimes… sometimes you gotta make contact. And when that hit landed right, it was simply perfect fuel. And I danced harder than I ever have and got pretty dang buff (which almost never happens for me). And I got to sing. Sing hard. And it was exhilarating. And unlike anything I had ever experienced, nor possibly ever may.
Probably one of the hardest roles to let go of. No, selfishly, absolutely, the hardest role to let go of. I still think about Sally. Two weeks is such a painfully short time sometimes. Oh, and my favorite color is also green. I wouldn’t doubt Sally had something to do with that.
When I saw that TCR was doing Proof, I immediately grabbed my script off the shelf. I’d felt very close to the material ever since I first read it. I lost my father in my teens and in some ways, I think I wanted to do this show for him as much as myself. My father was a Unitarian Universalist minister who pushed a lot of boundaries before his death in ‘96. He married gay couples, marched in pride parades with his collar front and center (probably the only time he ever wore it), spoke out against merging church & state (we had many lovely death threats on our answering machine from Bible Belters), counseled hundreds of individuals, and raised money and made unending speeches to help raise AIDS awareness . Being the daughter of a wave-making man like that (even the UUA had him straddling the infamous/famous line), it seemed to me that some traits in my grieving process seemed to mirror Catherine’s. I felt very close to that character and how she dealt with the absence of this man’s incredible presence in her life. And how it felt, in a way, to be what’s left of a person who had affected, and was loved by, so many people. David Auburn put a lot of my experience into the words I couldn’t express for so long and it felt good and right to be able to say them out loud.
I love my father very much. And that performance was, in many ways, how I was able to express my love to him without him being physically there to accept it. I was lucky to have had one more short moment to remember and love my father in the context of the world now, while performing, something I also dearly love. Something I’d always wished he could see me do. And, in many ways, he finally did.
Parallel Lives by Mo Gaffney and Kathy Najimy. Fourth Room Theatre, 2013.
The Real Thing
My soulmate in theatre is undoubtedly Ottavia DeLuca. I’ve never felt so comfortable and excited while working on a project with someone. We were absolute equal partners in the execution of this project the entire time. We finished each other’s artistic conceptual sentences, and worked very hard (although I probably could have been more word perfect on my lines – sorry, Otti!), and laughed even harder. We knew when it was time to back off and take breaks. When we needed a glass of wine and when we needed to sober up and hit the script hard. We went prop and costume hunting together (while having an exceedingly difficult time dropping our Maddie/Syvvie accents-but we didn’t care). We directed ourselves and solved the problems that fell to us. The two of us made this show happen as complete partners.
It wasn’t what I’d call an ideal experience in a lot of ways. It was performed in a dead Sycamore Mall space. There were no actual doors and, try as we could, the curtains we put up couldn’t quite keep out the mall elevator-music. You could hear children running in the halls and their parents calling after them. But then, we swore a lot. And shouted about our vaginas. So, even that partnership was a reciprocal one. And, really, none of the not-so-great stuff mattered. We were two friends doing what it felt like we were, in so many ways, meant to do together.
One audience had to endure a power outage during the final scene of the first half of the show. Normally a situation like that would strike fear into my heart, but I trusted her so completely, and she I, that we rode out the storm together and made up dialogue in character until the lights came back on. Crazily, it was FUN. And it worked. And apparently, the majority of the audience didn’t even realize it wasn’t part of the show.
She’s moved away now, and, boy do I miss her. I still brainstorm projects we could work on together. I miss making that magic with her. Miss grabbing a margarita at the no longer Mexican restaurant at the other end of the mall after tech. Miss confiding in each other as our characters, and as ourselves. Miss holding her hand in curtain call. But above it all, I know how lucky I am to have had that experience. At least once.
We talked, very briefly, she and I, about remounting this show in 10 years (or 20?). Who knows? But a girl can hope.
I don’t know that I could rank the shows I’ve been involved in, but I know that this would be #1. It is my most treasured process through performance experience. Hands down.
check out the previous TOP FIVES here:
Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers
Jeffrey Allen Mead
Braden JP Rood
Cherryl Moon Thomason
Rachel Korach Howell holds a B.A. in Theatre Arts from the University of Iowa and has directed and acted locally with Dreamwell Theatre, Iowa City Community Theatre, City Circle Acting Company, Riverside Theatre, Theatre Cedar Rapids, the University of Iowa Theatre Department, and Fourth Room Theatre Company. Notable stage roles include: Maggie (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Curley’s Wife (Of Mice & Men), Callie (Stop Kiss), Anna (Closer), Catherine (Proof), Sally Bowles (Cabaret), Marie (Woyzeck), and Cherie (Bus Stop). Stage direction credits include: The Aurora Project (University of Iowa New Play Festival), Slutsville (University of Iowa MFA Non-Fiction Thesis), Mémoire (University of Iowa Gallery series), Once On This Island (City Circle), Parallel Lives (Fourth Room Theatre), 9 Parts of Desire (ICCT/Dreamwell), Horatio’s Purgatory (I-You Theatre Co.), HUM (University of Iowa New Play Festival), and Hamlet (City Circle). Original works include: Horatio’s Purgatory, Control, and Go Fish. Horatio’s Purgatory also saw the stage with Theatre Cedar Rapids in November of 2010 and was the 2011 AACTFest Iowa winner, as well as the 2011 AACTFest Region 5 runner up. Rachel is married to Kehry Anson Lane, and together, they have a beautiful daughter, Louisa, and another one on the way. Rachel is currently directing Noel Coward’s Private Lives this summer, opening on August 13th and running through August 22nd, as part of the Fourth Room Theatre FREE Outdoor Classics initiative.