Q & A with Heidi Fellner

Heidi is a theater, film, television and commercial talent. She appears at MJTC for the first time as Katherine in Aunt Raini, opening October 29.

1) I learned you’re originally from South Dakota. How long have you been in the Twin Cities? What parts of your hometown do you miss as a transplant?
I've been living in the Twin Cities long enough to have put down roots and bought a house, but I suspect no matter how long I'll be here, the Black Hills will always feel like my real home.  The Twin Cities have been kind to me as an actor, so I do feel guilty about saying that. But I miss aspects of the western cowboy culture, the smell of pine and sage, and those old, old mountains. Whenever I'm able to get back, my shoulders relax and I breathe more deeply.  My old bedroom looks out onto Bear Butte (aka Mato Paha), and I miss that view. You know, I never felt particularly Western when I lived out there, and I never knew how much I'd miss it until I left. 

2) What has been your most memorable acting role and why?
There's a gig I have right now that I'm enjoying: CIT (Crisis Intervention Team) training for police and corrections officers. We actors research various mental health issues, substance abuse symptoms, etc., then use our craft to help teach non-violent approaches to de-escalate a situation. It's all improvised, as we're reacting largely to what we're given by the officer, and I think it's made me a much more daring performer. I spent part of a recent training with one hand thrust straight up in the air, screaming, "I am a vessel!" As you can imagine, this was quite terrifying for the officer, but they got to practice talking me down and figuring out how to get my character into the squad car without the first thought being to use a taser or worse. From the feedback we've gotten, they've already used this training to save people in their communities. It's not glamorous work, but it is one of the rare opportunities I have to use my weird bag of tricks to do something real and helpful.

3) In Aunt Raini, you play Katherine, the fictionalized grand-niece of Leni Riefenstahl. Can you talk a little about your own family’s experience during the Holocaust? What is it like performing this character with whom you have an opposite family history?
My grandfather, his brother, and one cousin got out after the Austrian border closed, and it was quite touch and go for a while, trying to find safe places, food, and resources. Here and there they were helped by several organizations throughout France, until they were eventually sponsored by Rabbi Isaac Alcalay (a relative) to come to the United States. They lived with multiple families in a small Brooklyn apartment, sending all of their extra money to try to get everyone else out.  

My great-aunt and her husband were put on a train to Auschwitz, where he was gassed immediately, if memory serves, for his refusal to work for the Nazis. She was determined to stay alive, however, and through a combination of sheer will, luck and miracles, she survived until the camp was eventually liberated by the Russians. I was so fortunate to know my great-aunt, and to be able to spend time with her while she was alive. While many members of my family were understandably very angry about what had happened to them, she had really come to be at peace with herself, with her past, and with Germany. She did not blame the Germans for what happened to her, but instead would say that their ability to have such hatred for those they perceived to be "the other" was a very sad, but universal part of human nature.

I think many people would agree with the statement that the world would be better off if there were some way of just getting rid of the "bad" people, so only good people were left.  Simple, right?  But I agree with Anne Frank, that people are really good at heart, and it is their circumstances, the way they are taught, or perhaps our universal capacity to get caught up in quite dangerous, but simple-sounding, too-good-to-be-true promises that lead us to commit atrocities. I think it would be unfair to blame many (although not all) Germans for succumbing to it. They, too, were really good at heart. They just got caught up in believing a hideous myth about how to make everything better for their country. And I think instead of villainizing the Germans (which, in a way, applies the same kind of thinking they had about the Jews), we should learn a different lesson about how similar we all are, and how easily we can be seduced. 

4) Are there any lines from the play that you find really striking or any epiphanies you’ve had about the other characters?
Yes, there are lines from the play that I find very important for my character, but they're often small moments. Probably nothing that an audience would pick up on, or even find that interesting! When I take on a role, I usually try to take my character’s side, even when she's wrong, and only try to know what she knows. So while I am enjoying what the other cast is doing, I feel bad about withholding as much information as I do about Katherine.  But I want the others to misunderstand her sometimes, because I think that is natural and human. When I see these moments of confusion and hurt reflected in their eyes, it helps me feel Katherine's isolation and frustration at being perpetually misunderstood, and by those whom she loves most.  

5) This is your first show at MJTC. How is working with MJTC veteran Kurt Schweickhardt?
Kurt and I actually are very much aligned in how we approach things. We both feel that humans are flawed, that we don't always make sense, and we're full of contradictions. We also both use sensory experiences to kick start our creative journeys...with one key difference. I use music and imagery, in a solitary exploration. Kurt uses movement and touch, in a group. Now, remember that I grew up in a cowboy culture. One aspect of that culture is that casual touch just isn't done. My extended family also has a trait that finds casual touch from anyone we don't know very strange. As we kept moving in this direction of physical exploration in rehearsal, I started feeling more and more like an over-stimulated cat at a toddler's birthday party. Once I finally blurted out that I was hitting a wall and feeling more defensive instead of receptive, Kurt was very accommodating and kind about it. I am so grateful that Kurt was understanding, so I hope he doesn't mind my sharing this story. 

As we continue to work through this process, it's been very collaborative. I feel a great deal of freedom to explore moments with my character, which is always fun. And it's also been very interesting to work with a director who is so keen to explore early character work. I think we are making something we will be proud of.