Celia Keenan-Bolger holds an unusual position in the theater world: She’s Broadway’s leading adult child star. Although she has proved her versatility in many projects, both musical and dramatic, she has also been the actor to call when you need a grown-up to play a kid really, really well. This week, she returns to the role of Scout Finch in Aaron Sorkin’s hit Broadway adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, for which she won her first Tony Award in 2019 (after three prior nominations). But she has also portrayed children or teenagers in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Saved and Peter and the Starcatcher, as well as some young adults with childlike traits: Laura in The Glass Menagerie, Clara in the pre-Broadway version of The Light in the Piazza. In conversation via video chat, she conveys the same intelligent, open and searching qualities that have served her so well on stage.
It’s nice to see you again! We ran into each other a few weeks ago at Todd Buonopane's cabaret set at 54 Below, which was a delightful show.
It was! That was one of the first times that I had been back out into the world and on my way there, I was like, What is this going to be like? Am I going to feel weird? Am I going to feel grateful? And it was a little bit of all of that, but overwhelmingly positive, and just so nice to be in the company of people I don't know. For the last 18 months it's been a lot of the same folks in my life.
And it was a lively and nostalgic show, which felt like a welcoming way back into seeing live performance. Whereas To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, though it's moving, is not exactly a feel-good a show by nature.
What this play is doing on Broadway feels like it means something different to me than it did when I performed it in 2019. It’s like, there is the connection that I had to it the first time that I encountered the book. And then there is my experience of encountering the play during the Trump presidency. And now there is my experience of re-encountering the play after Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and the racial reckoning that's happened in our own industry. What place does this story hold in the commercial theater, as we try to reopen Broadway? It feels pretty different.
One of the things that was interesting to me about Aaron Sorkin's adaptation is that it seems to reflect a modern way of seeing the source material. Atticus Finch's attitude in the book is quite generous toward all of his neighbors, including the ones who are doing horrible things. But the play seems a bit more stringent in that regard.
I totally agree. And I'm so curious for us as a culture to wrap our heads around what it means to have compassion and search for understanding of people that we don't agree with or overlap with, but also hold them accountable, and say, “Your beliefs are harmful to people I love, to people I work with, to people who are a part of my life.” I don't know if this is a product of social media or if this is actually the truth, but right now it feels as though we're all extremely polarized and we have very little understanding or generosity for the other side's point of view. I think what Atticus Finch is trying to say is that until you really crawl around in someone else's skin—and this is a Buddhist principle, too: If you had experienced life the exact same way as a person with whom you deeply disagree, you probably would act in the same way. So how do we as a production hold this idea that terrible racists are still, as Atticus says, our friends and neighbors—and also hold them accountable? And also say, I cannot participate in a community that says that this sort of behavior is okay? In revisiting the play, with everything we've been through, that is something I keep coming back to. I think that the kids [in the play] have a special point of view on it, because we get to sort of watch it unfold and make some decisions about how we want to go forward. I'm not sure that we have the answers. It's just more questions. But maybe it’s a good thing to have 1,200 people in the Shubert Theatre asking bigger questions of themselves as they leave, and talking to whoever they came to the theater with. Maybe those are good conversations to be having right now.
I think that's true. One of my problems with the dialogue that goes on around theater now, on social media and elsewhere, is that it often involves what to me seems like a bit of a misapprehension about how theater works—an expectation that it should model behavior or show outcomes that we want to be true, instead of confronting us with truths that we then wrestle with collectively.
I completely agree. Social media can get really complicated because it creates false narratives about what is actually happening. I feel like I have two groups of people in my head. There's one group that's, like, What is being asked of the New York theater community? We have gotten way ahead of ourselves! Everybody has to slow down! This is crazy! And there's another side that says, Broadway is never going to change. There's nothing anybody can do, and if you’re part of it then you’re part of the bad side. But if you're in the room, making the thing, neither of those are truths. Those are truths on social media. But in the experience of actually coming back to a rehearsal room with what we know, and the understanding that we have so far to go—there is a real change. The process with which we are making this production has enormous changes in the ways that we're approaching the material, in the ways that we are talking about harm repair and harm reduction. And we're talking about trying to make more just, equitable and compassionate work environments in the commercial theater. That has changed. Is it the endgame? No, but it is moving us towards something. And I guess where I have power as an actor is to try to choose pieces that reflect my ideals and the kind of art that I want to be out in the world, but that's holding oneself to a very high standard all the time for an entire career.
Karen Olivo cited the Scott Rudin controversy in her decision not to return to Moulin Rouge!, noting that she wanted “a theater industry that matches my integrity.” That show isn’t a Rudin production, but To Kill a Mockingbird was. What was your response to how that went down?
I'm so grateful that Karen Olivo did what she did and that she continues to be a voice in the industry because I think it holds me to a higher standard. I'm not going to make the same choices she makes, but the message has resonance with me. I have built a life believing that this thing that I love more than anything is a safe haven for me, and for all the people who made it—how lucky for all of us!—only to realize: absolutely not. It was built on the trauma of people of color. It was keeping marginalized people deeply marginalized. So how do I reconcile myself with an industry that, as Karen would say, chooses profit over humanity? I think it comes down to the age-old question: Do you leave the system and try to create a better one yourself, or do you try to stay inside of the system and make change inside something that many perceive as broken? I think I'm probably gonna continue to try to be in Broadway shows and Off Broadway shows, but great movements need disruptors. It's not always comfortable, but it’s good for all of us to have people who are saying, “This is wrong. This is wrong.” Do you know who your employers are? Do you know where they're giving money? These are questions that I think are really important to ask oneself.
I don't know what your experience with Rudin was. He was always pleasant to me in our limited interactions, but there seems to have been a substantial gap between people he treated well and people he treated very poorly.
I think that's right. I can say that one huge shift, at least in what I talked about with [director Bartlett Sher], is that I said, “I believe we should have five-day work weeks for rehearsal.” I would never have even put those words together before the pandemic. And Bart was like, “We'll see.” But if Scott Rudin were still the producer, that would have never flown. We were in previews for six weeks and we rehearsed every single day for that entire lot of time. When Bart would say, “I think they're good,” the response was like, “No, this is how we do it. This is how we make something great.” And I think this idea that working ourselves into the ground is the only way to make something great is something that could use some real reexamining.
Just to play devil’s advocate for a second: It irks me a little when people blithely say that Rudin is replaceable. He had excellent, adventurous taste and a real belief in the art form and the artists he assembled to make it. He produced a lot of very good shows.
But I would say that they would still have been that way without the toxic productivity. The artists that he assembled could have made something just as great without the pressure of constantly working. And we can't excuse the bad behavior just because he has good taste.
I'm not saying we should! I just worry he may be hard to replace.
I don't know. I mean, that's what's exciting about this time, and intimidating. Who are the producers that are going to step in and try to either take that place or try to do better? We have to wait and see.
Someone told me recently that you were one of the only white kids in your high school growing up. Is that true?
Yeah, from kindergarten to 12th Grade. We grew up in Detroit, and my dad's an urban planner and my mom was a public-school teacher, so my brother and sister [actors Andrew and Maggie Keenan-Bolger] and I went to public schools. It was the Eighties, and all the white people had moved to the suburbs, basically. In elementary school there was a little more diversity, but in high school I was, like, one of two white kids in my class. It was a brand new performing-arts school, and they kept adding students, so by the time I was a senior there were probably six to eight of us. I remember getting to college and being like, “This is the most white people I have ever been around!” But it was a really informative and helpful way to move through those younger years. I think it gave me a real sense of what it is to navigate spaces while being in the minority, and I think it has given me a special attention to the least powerful person or the seemingly least powerful person in the room. When someone isn't participating or doesn't feel welcome—my antenna is up on that. And Detroit is a place of such resilience; it’s had a hard time, and it is a helpful tool to grow up in a place like that if you decide to become an actor. I've got good hearty Midwestern-urban blood that has served me well when there's just not a lot of room to feel sorry for oneself. So that's another way that my childhood affected me.
You play a young girl in To Kill a Mockingbird, and you’ve played children in several of your most prominent Broadway roles. Other than the fact that you’re physically petite, what do you think may be going on with that? What draws you to these parts, or these parts to you?
That's a really good question that I’ve visited a number of times in my career. I have certainly gone through periods where I was like, I cannot play another child on stage—and then I just didn't work for a while. And then Peter and the Starcatcher was like, “We’ve got this great part and would you want to come in?” And I was like, I really want to work with Alex Timbers. Do I want to play a 12-year-old? Not really, but you know…I really just wanted to work. But I wouldn't say that that's been, you know, my desire, to keep playing kids. And one of the reasons that it felt so nice to move from musicals to plays is that suddenly I was getting to do other things. I'm 43 years old, and I have 43-year-old things inside of me that I would someday love to express on a Broadway stage. I believe that that will happen, but it's one of those things. You know, Kelli O'Hara plays a lot of ingenues because she has that glorious soprano and a sort of interior depth that is extraordinary for a person who usually plays those parts. And that's a gift; that's just what she came with. And I kind of feel similarly. It's also interesting that I trained in musicals and that playing a kid requires such a rigorous physical performance; there is probably something in there that is helping things along. But really, at the end of the day, I think it's just the equipment I was born with, whether I like it or not.
It’s interesting that you bring up Kelli O’Hara, because I was thinking recently about The Light in the Piazza, in terms of the types that people want for certain things. Because Kelli replaced you in that show when it came to Broadway in 2005, after you had been involved with it for a while, and the rumor at the time was that one of the key people behind the show wanted the change because he thought that she was more—well, the term I heard, and I don't know if it's true, was "more fuckable." Now, Kelli was really good in that show and you wound up on Broadway that season anyhow in Spelling Bee, which you were wonderful in, so in that sense it worked out okay. But it does raise the question of the opportunities available to different actors, and especially for women. Has enough time passed since Piazza to talk about that?
It’s so funny, because I started a podcast over the pandemic and Kelli and I had a conversation about this. We've continued to be good friends, but we had never really gone deep on what it meant—because she had been in the show with me for three years, we had become good friends, and then it became clear that they wanted her to play this part, and we had communications throughout all of it. But there is a part of me that always felt that, whether it was about being fuckable or not, it did have to do with the fact that I was not beautiful in the way that she was. And so I thought, Well, if I don't have that currency, then I have to figure out what my currency is. In an industry where women have to either be wackadoo character ladies, and nobody really cares how you look, or ingenues—what's the space in between? But I think there's actually language that you can give to actors if you want to go more in a certain direction. I guess what I would say is that it is a failure of imagination on the part of the creatives that they couldn't say, “We're looking for there to be more of a love interest.” I remember doing an interview after I had done this Bruce Norris play and the journalist was like, “That's the first time I've ever seen you objectified on stage.” And it was kind of nice! I think every actor is going to feel like they’ve been asked to do the same thing over and over again, or a variation on a theme. And a lot of us are hungry to go outside of our comfort zones, to be asked to do things that the last five productions didn't ask us to do. I think that’s why you sometimes see a crossover from plays to musicals, or crossover to television. It's an interesting landscape to try to navigate as an actor.
I know you have to get back to rehearsal, but I do want to ask you about the past 18 months, because everyone dealt with it so differently. What was your experience? Is there anything good that you took away from it?
I think it's important for all of us to talk about that. I love being an actor so much, so to not have this sort of processing and collaboration with other people felt…I felt so empty, especially in the first six months. Something I was faced with that was deeply painful was that I had basically been stockpiling career highlights and opportunities as a way to give my life personal meaning. If I am not striving towards something or getting a job or processing something creatively, who am I? I'm a mother who is virtual-schooling her four-year-old, and I'm a wife, and we were lucky enough to basically move upstate for almost the entire pandemic, so I was like, I guess I'm also a person who takes a lot of walks. [Laughs.] And those three things, I'm going to tell you, had not been my defining principles. The family that I came from and the family that I've been able to build are deeply important to me. But in my heart, who I was as a person was very much wrapped up in being an artist. When that was taken away, I had to face some real truths about myself and try to uncover what that might mean. I ended up reading a lot of adrienne maree brown and Richard Powers and Suzanne Simard, and they kept talking about the natural world. But if you grow up in Detroit and then move to New York City, your relationship with the natural world is, how do you say, just not that close. They all talk about fungus—how these small collaborative species are able to proliferate and survive and grow. And I was like, Is that what I am, both in the industry and in my family? Am I meant to be a connector for all of us to try to figure out what we're doing? I think the shutdown gave me this enormous gift of having to sit with myself and understand who I am when I'm not an artist. I was lucky enough: I shot a television show, I made a podcast, I was able to keep dipping my toe in. But in terms of the day-after-day-after-day, it was waking up, virtual school, taking a walk, making dinner. That is the opposite of what my life has been for the last 20 years. And I think now, having been faced with myself, I have some information that I am working to integrate into this reopening. What is it to be reorganized inside and to visit an old space? The good news is that it feels like a lot of the people I am with are also reorganized, and that we're all working to try to bring the good stuff we learned to this thing that we love so much and try to make it better—not just for the community, but also for ourselves.
To Kill a Mockingbird begins performances on October 5, 2021. You can buy tickets here. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.