Next week Rachel Calof opens starring Kate Fuglei. We caught up with her to talk about her midwestern roots, her favorite roles, and projects she's looking forward to:
MJTC: RACHEL CALOF was a project you worked on for 8 years; can you tell us about the development of this memoir turned musical?
KF: In 2004, a friend who was a docent at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage here in Los Angeles told me about an amazing memoir she had come across in her time working in the museum bookstore. She brought it to me knowing I was an actress and with the thought that it would make a great one person show. I read the book in one sitting, staying up until 4am one night. I was totally captivated by not only the story but by the very specific voice contained therein. She had a great sense of humor, irony, humanity, and intelligence that came across in every sentence. I think I fell in love with Rachel herself first and then with her captivating story. I asked my dearly beloved father-in-law, Jack LaZebnik, a talented playwright, to adapt the memoir. It was his last work before he succumbed to prostate cancer in 2005. Raising children intervened but, when I was rehearsing for a national Broadway tour in NYC, I brought the material to a dear friend and immensely talented composer, Leslie Steinweiss. We talked about how music for the show could express Rachel's inner thoughts and deepest desires. He wrote the first song, a sweeping, epic song about the trip to America on a boat, and I knew that music would be an integral aspect of the piece. My husband, Ken LaZebnik, re-imagined the adaptation using some of his father's imagery and adding his own poetic and specific insights. On tour, I was able to meet one of Rachel's relatives, David Calof, and actually hold the original manuscript. Finally, a dear friend and honored colleague, Ellen Pressman, came on board as the director of the piece after offering to hold a reading in her own home. Rachel Calof: A Memoir With Music was originally seen at the Ensemble Studio Theater/LA as part of their Winterfest, Pepperdine University, the New York International Fringe Festival. At one of the performances at Pepperdine's Raitt Hall, twenty members of the Calof family were in attendance, including her granddaughter, Joyce Aronson. When Joyce gave us her seal of approval, it was a joyous feeling; our sole purpose has been to honor this woman, and to tell her story with specificity and honesty.
MJTC: You lived in Minnesota for a period of time. What's it like returning to the area for RACHEL CALOF?
KF: I always feel as though the Twin Cities is the place that healed me, made me who I am, influenced me as an artist beyond all measure. I have never seen anything to match The Festival of Our Lady of the Ships at the Children's Theatre, directed by John Clark Donahue, or The Three Sisters directed by Liviu Ciulei or The Seagull directed by Lucien Pintilie or Camille, directed by Garland Wright...I could go on and on. The innovations and artistic individuality of theaters like Illusion, Theatre de la Juene Lune, and Mixed Blood fired my imagination and gave me an education in theatricality, boldness, and vision like no other. Involvement with the Playwrights' Center introduced me to writers and artists who are still my friends and colleagues. I have a deep respect for the artists and artistic innovators in this community and incredible, lifelong gratitude for their influence on my life. I met my husband and the theater colleagues that formed my life for the next ten years and beyond, in my time in New York, while at the Guthrie. So I am excited, humbled and not a little intimidated to come back to this amazing and highly sophisticated artistic community.
MJTC: Do you have a favorite character that you've played?
KF: I would have to say that, hands down, the favorite character I have played was Blanche from A Streetcar Named Desire. I had great advice from one of America's premiere actresses, Helen Carey, who, by the way, got her start working with Tyrone Guthrie at the Guthrie Theater. We were doing Crime and Punishment together at Arena Stage and she had just finished playing the role. I remember Helen talking about how smart, persistent, funny and ingenious Blanche was. Most people don't perceive her in this way. But it makes a whole lot of sense. I never forgot this interpretation and when I was offered the chance to play it years later, I made great use of Helen Carey's advice. I love the construction of the play and the fact that once you get on the train, Tennessee Williams just takes you right down the road. I love the fact that in every scene in the play, something very physical happens and this physicality acts on the actors in the play in a very very visceral way. Everything about the play is, to me, perfection in playwriting and character construction. One of my most favorite, and surprising, theater experiences, was touring with Spring Awakening. I had expected the masses of kids on the tour to be a big headache, or at least that is what all of my adult actor friends expected. Instead, I found a group of the kindest, most amazingly dedicated, passionate young people I have ever known. They all became like my children and we keep in touch to this day. They never went out onstage and gave anything less than 100%. When I think of their dedication at such a young age, it humbles and inspires me.
MJTC: What do you find is the most rewarding part of your work?
KF: The most rewarding part of my work is to have the chance to try to understand how another human being thinks and behaves and to represent that as truthfully as I can. Also to tell stories that try to get to the truth about what it is to be human in all its mystery and complexity. Doing this kind of work ultimately makes us all so vulnerable at various times. I am constantly humbled and amazed by meeting and working with colleagues in this business who put so much heart and soul into what they are doing, whether it is an actor or a make-up person or a grip on a set who is meticulously taking care of his equipment, setting up for the next shot at 2am after a fourteen hour day. Ultimately, it is a profession of people who care about what they do passionately and I feel one of the greatest rewards is coming into contact with these kinds of people. When I am not working, I miss them terribly. When I am working again, I feel like I am with my "tribe." This is a great reward.
MJTC: What upcoming projects are you currently working on?
KF: I have been studying with a brilliant teacher and singer, Karen Morrow, and she has encouraged me to work in the form of cabaret. So, I am working on a cabaret performance piece. I also have two indie films that will be premiering this fall; one, a comedy, entitled Muffin-Top: A Love Story and the other, decidedly a drama, called Escape from Polygamy. I will have a guest appearance on a new Showtime series premiering this fall about the sex researchers Masters and Johnson entitled Masters of Sex. Finally Ellen Pressman and I are in the beginning stages of producing an indie film comedy entitled Mom/Dom written by Ken LaZebnik, in which I will play a widowed single woman searching for love in the San Fernando Valley.
MJTC: What fills your time apart from acting?
KF: I work in the theater, creating my own pieces and also doing plays written and created by others. I am also a part of the television, film and commercial community in Los Angeles, which is an entirely different beast. The business side of the business in Los Angeles takes up a fair amount of time and is both rewarding, curious and full of driven, fascinating people. I am the mother of two sons, and have been very much a part of their lives. My eldest just graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point and is beginning his military career currently at Ft. Benning, GA. He and I just completed two cross country road trips; one from West Point to Los Angeles, and the other from Los Angeles to Ft. Benning, GA. My younger son is very interested in politics and just helped get Eric Garcetti, the new mayor in Los Angeles, elected. I have loved supporting them in their lives and I enjoy just being around them. They make me laugh.