Photo courtesy of Rachael Holmes
At the intersection of theater and social activism: Citizen Artist Rachael Holmes. [26:52]
Rachael Holmes—Podcast Transcript
Rachael Holmes: Acting is something about being in touch with yourself and being extremely empathetic, so empathetic that you can actually put yourself physically and vocally and every other way in someone else's shoes.
Jo Reed: That was Rachael Holmes as Sophie in Arena Stage's recent production of Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize winning play, "Ruined." Welcome to Art Works the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
Rachael Holmes is a young actress of enormous talent and range with an ability to transform herself from play to play. We just heard her as Sophie in Ruined, a young girl who finds refuge in a brothel after being a victim of the systematic rape that is carried out in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. But Rachael Holmes is equally comfortable playing Queen Isabel in Richard II and Princess Katharine in Henry V. And her subtle comedic style was on display recently, in the play, The Book Club Group. Although mainly a stage actor, she's also performed on television and does voice-over work as well as commercials. It is a busy, complicated life. But Rachael Holmes adds another dimension (or two) to the mix: she is a teaching artist -- believing that arts education is necessary to open doors for creativity in any field. And she's also what she calls a “citizen artist,” meaning she takes care to regularly choose productions that allow her to portray characters who are typically not heard in plays that pose challenging questions to the audience. She looks for plays like “Ruined,” with its story of the aftermath of unspeakable violence, or Dream Acts, which relates the stories of undocumented students, or Good People -- which is a sometimes funny, sometimes jarring exploration of class and race.
Interestingly, rather than taking the more recognized route of an actor who eventually discovers political activism, Rachael Holmes comes to acting through her commitment to social activism.
Rachael Holmes: Absolutely. When I was about 15 years old I received a Fulbright to study in France for the summer through World Learning - Experiment in International Living, and it absolutely changed my life, and I was about 15 years old and one of the things we did was we had an internship where I ended up working with very young children in a particularly diverse part of Paris, the 18th arrondissement, and it's called la Goutte d'Or, a taste of gold, because it's so diverse. You have immigrants from all over but there's a tremendous population from northern Africa for example. And it was very clear to me how quickly the arts, doing theater games with these children, singing and dancing with them not only calmed them because these are children who perhaps are born in France but their parents are immigrants so their parents are being deported if they're there illegally. They might be doing the grocery shopping for their parents 'cause they speak the language, they might be in charge of the household in a very basic way even though they're barely ten years old, and it was amazing how the arts just allowed them to be kids again and open up in a way about what was going on with them. I am a teaching artist as well and hands down arts in education is absolutely necessary to open doors for creativity. It's not a question about if a student is going to become an artist professionally but even if you're a scientist or an athlete creativity is being programmed out of us on a daily basis I do believe and the arts is a fantastic and necessary way to keep us in that creative world that we all are in when we're children. Anyone who has children or has been around children can attest to the wonderful world that they inhabit and how easily they can draw you in to it. So along the way the activism has also turned into very specific things. I attended an all girls' school in New York City. It became very clear to me gender inequality is in every country, not just third world countries but also right here in the United States. So a lot of the work that I choose to do whether it's original work or something that I might go out and audition for I love it when it's possible to kind of use both of my degrees 'cause I have a Masters in Arts and I have a bachelor's in political science so I love being able to merge those worlds especially to give voices to the voiceless.
Jo Reed: Well, you did that in a play. I saw you here in Washington, D.C., in Ruined.
Rachael Holmes: Oh, yeah, yes, at Arena Stage.
Jo Reed: You played the role of Sophie.
Rachael Holmes: Uh huh. That's right.
Jo Reed: Tell us about your approach to that role and how it really did combine both your degrees.
Rachael Holmes: Oh, wow. That was amazing. So yes, it was Ruined at Arena Stage, directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, one of my dear friends who's about to openMotown on Broadway, and I played the lead character of Sophie, an 18-year-old girl who had been gang raped in the Congo where a civil war is going on. And I mean that- that's one of the most challenging roles I've ever played and I guess as a result one of the most rewarding. The first thing I actually had to work on with Sophie was her walk because she has a fistula from being assaulted so deeply and she can't walk correctly anymore, and once I got that into my body that was actually the hardest part. It was very real and there was a moment when I was practicing my walk, we'd have rehearsal at ten in the morning or something and I get there early. And I'm just walking around in this walk and it dawned on me for the first time ever that almost a good ten years before when I was studying in Paris doing an internship in the 18th arrondissement or the 18th quarter that there are women who I used to see walking that way and being a young, kind of naïve person I had no idea. I thought oh, maybe they hurt their legs or they had sprained ankles and I now realize that these are women who have been raped and this is how they're surviving so something as tiny as trying to find the first physicality of a character was a real tipping point for me. But it was a perfect world of merging the political with the arts, and I do consider myself a citizen artist. I wrote a letter to the Rwandan and the Congolese ambassadors in D.C. to come and see the show and it was pretty special to be able to write to them and I actually wrote the letter in French. I speak fluent French after studying in France for a while and these amazing people whose job it is to try to bring their issues to the forefront of the world came to see this play. And they're not used to going out to see shows like that and they had no idea that you could go and see a piece of theater and walk away with as much information as maybe a press conference or some kind of political meeting on the Hill. So it kind of opened their eyes in a way of what is possible for the arts so that was a- very much a dreamy situation where I was able to blend both. And of course a lot of homework had to be done with the- what the situation is in the Congo and how lucky I am to be able to have the luxury to be bringing this story to people through a play and then being able to go safely home myself as a young woman and not have to be living those nightmares that many, many women are experiencing as we have this interview right now.
Jo Reed: Piggybacking on that but talking to you on a more personal level taking on that character and being in that situation every night I understand can't compare to the women who have actually experienced it…
Rachael Holmes: Of course.
Jo Reed: …but still it's a lot to take on.
Rachael Holmes: It is a lot to take on and it can really wear on you, and there are a lot of different methods to acting. I didn't formally train as a method actor for example, but there was something about that play. There's a term we use as actors like "phoning it in" and "phoning it in" means you're not really feeling the emotions; you're just kind of playing something by rote, which sometimes can happen if you're doing eight shows a week for something, let's say something of not amazing relevance. It's something that's very light, maybe a light comedy or something. You get your muscle memory; you know your lines; you kind of go out there and just perform. You do the show and then you come off stage, get out of costume and you're on with your life. That was not the case with Ruined. The more that we did the show the deeper we got into it and it was very important that we took care of each other on a mental level. Very realistically, it is absolutely possible to become very depressed working a show like that and Charles, our director, did a phenomenal job of taking care of us and I always say that is the first job- first and foremost job of a director is to take care of their actors 'cause if they're not taking care of their actors there's no way those actors will feel safe enough or open enough or be able to access their talents enough to realize the vision of the director. So the very first rehearsal Charles actually had all the men in the room raise their hand and they outnumbered us. There were four women in the play basically to maybe fifteen men and he said, "Men, take care of these women. You have no idea what they're about to go through" so it was really tricky and it was hard to shake off. It actually took me a good week and a half after the show closed to stop feeling the need to walk in that way. It was very scary and haunting. Yeah.
Jo Reed: Now do you tend to prepare for a play? We talked about Ruined it was getting the walk but do you tend to do it with physicality or through the words, the atmosphere?
Rachael Holmes: Yeah.
Jo Reed: How do you approach it?
Rachael Holmes: It really depends on the play and the genre. My first love was always Shakespeare. My family's from Jamaica West Indies and my father loves great works and I mean I knew lines of Shakespeare by the time I was three years old 'cause he would be reciting them and those were words to live by in his book. So if I'm approaching a classical play I do believe the answers are all in the words no matter what vision the director might want to put around it, but with a more modern play, especially with a living playwright who if you're lucky is in the room with you, then the conversation can start. It depends on the story. For me the reason I started Sophie with the physical is partially because I think I had an understanding of where she was coming from already psychologically as much as I can understand having the luxury of not having gone through such hell on earth, but I knew if I could get into her body 'cause she's the heart of that play and if I could actually just feel what it feels like to walk in her shoes physically I knew it would take care of the rest. And I think part of that comes from the fact that I started dancing very young so my first love has always been to kind of express myself through my body and through song if anything, not, I think so much can be said without words so it does really depend on the project.
Jo Reed: How important is the director?
Rachael Holmes: Oh, amazingly important. I mean the director is- in the healthiest of relationships I consider my director to be my mirror and my collaborator and I've been brought on because this director is trusting me to realize his or her vision so it's absolutely paramount that we have extremely open avenues of communication. And that's in any relationship in life; that's not just an- a director-actor relationship. That's with friends; that's in- if you're a scientist. Communication is key, trust is golden, and the director is very important, and it's sad at times when communications break down. One of the tricky parts of being an actor who does do a lot of your research and understands different stories is there comes a time when you are realizing this director's vision and you do have to stick to that. You might not always agree with it but I do think it is possible to remain completely open, and if the director is doing a fine enough job in their own account of it and justifying their choices then absolutely it can be a really wonderful relationship.
Jo Reed: How do you cope when in fact the communication is fraught and the trust is not quite there?
Rachael Holmes: Yeah. That's a very realistic question that happens. I feel lucky that that hasn't happened with me too often. I mean there are myriad answers. I mean realistically you can always leave a show if it's that bad that you're just not getting through. I think the avenues have to be open and it's a two-way street. It's not a question of the blame game; it's chemistry. When you book a play you've met the director maybe twice, that preliminary audition, then you get called back, and then you book the role. An audition may last anywhere from five to fifteen minutes. That's not a lot of time in which to really discover or realize if this is someone that you can work with for many, many hours a day for up to four and a half weeks. . Casting is one of the last things to be done when you're putting a production together. The director already has their designers, they're working with the dramaturge. It's really not easy to walk in to a room and kind of be stared at by a room full of people who are often looking at you like a commodity. I just came in from a commercial audition where I was told to turn around twice and the camera went up and down on my body. I mean how many people have to do that for their line of work? <laughs> It's not an easy job. It's not easy and it's- it is very hard. So it can be tricky, but that's when you have to remember that we're professionals. And when I'm in the classroom I actually run a lot of my classrooms in a professional manner. I ask my students to bring their best selves to the table and- because I think there's something to be said for that. And that old adage "Being a professional is doing the thing you love on days when you don't want to do it" <laughs>--I know you'll chuckle at that one--but things can become fraught. And as far as I'm concerned I love a good debate- I love a good, hearty debate and as long as the debate is about the work then your heart is in the right place. When it starts to veer off to the side-- I mean we all have this. If you're arguing with someone about a point and then all of a sudden it gets personal in some way, someone's calling you a name, I mean then you really have to check the situation, but another thing that I subscribe to which my really good friend, Sarah Chalmers Simmons, actually introduced to me many years ago was the phrase "Hold on tightly but let go lightly." And basically that means have your idea and fight for it and be ready to back it up as confidently and as succinctly and articulately as you can, but once you see it's not serving the greater good, the bigger vision, feel- be free to let it go and trust enough to let it go and that you're in good hands, and it comes back to trust. When you're part of a production it's about trust and it's a very delicate process. ‘Cause we all know especially teaching children we all know we play better when we feel safe to play and feel safe to try things and fail so that we can learn what doesn’t work and then arrive at what does.
Jo Reed: You talked about being a citizen artist.
Rachael Holmes: Yes.
Jo Reed: Say a little bit more what you mean about that.
Rachael Holmes: When I think of a citizen artist I think of an artist whose main goal is to spark civic dialog through their work, an artist for whom it's important to give back to their community, to give voice to the voiceless, to educate. It's not about booking the fanciest job; it's not about the shiny new materialistic thing or being in with the fad. It's understanding that through the history of time art has been such a bastion of courage and a symbol, a force for expressing a civilization and showing where the civilization might go, rebirth, renaissance. A citizen artist to me is someone who understands that they're just a tiny speck of this whole world going around and has decided to give their life to trying to make the world a more educated place, and notice I didn't say, "Oh, make it a better place." I'm not about to sing We are the World but I'm very realistic, but I think art is extremely important and I grew up being smothered in the arts from my parents. I also grew up being smothered in math. I'm very good at math. I went to an all girls' school. I'm a feminist. I don't think there's anything a woman can't do and I'll always stand behind that. I do think that arts are just as important and inspiring as math and science. I don't know all these discoveries in technology. These are scientifically gifted people who are dreaming, who are saying, "What if?," "I wonder if" and troubleshooting and failing and learning from their failures and moving on and scheduling their work and being diligent and trying and trying again even when they're failing. They don't get that grant, they haven't discovered the new gene, but they're still in the lab plunking away. That is exactly the process that I do as an actor with a role or when I'm writing. There's nothing different.
Jo Reed: Another work that you recently did I think that certainly is an indication of your commitment to citizen art is “Dream Acts.”
Rachael Holmes: Yes. Yes. Dream Acts is just a groundbreaking piece of theater and it deals with stories of undocumented citizens here in the United States and that's close to my heart. I'm first-generation American, my family's from Jamaica again, and I have undocumented citizens in my family. The beauty of that play-- I mean there are a couple things but one of the things that really struck me with that script is the fact that you might not know that a friend of yours is undocumented. That's not something that we kind of wear on our sleeves. You can't tell by someone's accent; oftentimes they don't have an accent. They're from here; they came here very young. So once again in terms of being a citizen artist I love the idea of arts keeping the pulse on a civilization and seeing where the different paradigm shifts are coming, where those shifts are being created, how the world is reacting to those shifts. And Dream Acts is a wonderful piece of- sometimes people kind of wince at the term "political theater" but I think it is a piece of theater that sparks a very important dialogue that is happening right now in this country and has been happening for quite a while. And it's incredibly important because it's yet another thing that's going on where a lot of people just have no idea. We just did a reading at New York University and it was amazing to watch people's eyes just open at certain statistics and just- they just had no idea. It's not that they don't care; it's not that they're lazy. They just don't know 'cause we're living in an age now where we are so bombarded by information. Every second there's a tweet about something. Sometimes you get so bombarded that you kind of check out and it's hard to know what to pay attention to and what to believe and how do we research. So Dream Acts is a wonderful way again to give voice to people, real people. This is off of real interviews and it's not necessarily verbatim theater; it's not word for word but it's inspired by real stories and real events that are happening, and I love that it's about young people. This is about a 13-year-old. I teach 13-year-olds every day so this is very important when I go to my classroom looking around the room who has that onus on them. We like to think that you have all these inalienable rights here in the United States. Do we? A citizen artist loves to pose questions. I don't consider myself some kind of solver. I want that civic discourse. I want people who would never normally talk to someone on the other side to have that cup of coffee and have that conversation 'cause I think that's where true answers can be fleshed out. And going back to something that makes an actor's job, I think the most scary part is being that empathetic, being that open personally to be able to understand someone else's story. It's pretty profound, and I'll go so far as to say as a teacher, as an educator, empathy is also something that is endangered. I think it's an endangered trait and that scares me. I think the more that we can educate each other to be more empathetic and understand that everyone has a complex story behind them -- -I don't know anyone who's walking around a hundred percent got it, a hundred percent perfect and so happy, it will change; things will change. It takes a long time. I mean I don't expect to see some of the changes I dream of in my lifetime or in my children's lifetime but something like Dream Acts I think that's something that has momentum. That's something where if you have productions of that going on around the country and steam behind that and the discourse that can happen post show, the audience development for post show discussion, that's huge and it's very important.
Jo Reed: How long have you been teaching? How long have you been an educator?
Rachael Holmes: I started teaching in college and I was so scared to do it 'cause part of being the youngest of a large family is just everyone's kind of done their own thing already. My dad was an Olympic boxer for Jamaica and my mother was this beautiful woman who came over from Jamaica on her own with my siblings before bringing my father up. I mean that blows my mind like if I would just pick up right now and go to another country with four kids and be a single mom. Amazing, amazing stories. Immigrants are amazingly courageous, out-of-this-world people, and getting back to Dream Acts for a quick second that is one thing I love about that play. My really dear friend told me when we first met, "Just because I speak with an accent doesn't mean I think with one.” And I say that again, "Just because I speak with an accent doesn't mean I think with one," and I'm at the point now I won't tolerate it when someone's denigrating someone for being from a different place or speaking with an accent. By the way, it means that they speak another language, a full other language that you probably don't, <laughs> but getting back to teaching it's amazing how every classroom feeds you 'cause every child you meet is completely different than the child before and every classroom dynamic is different. And I'm currently a teaching artist with the New Victory Theater here in New York City and I was living in D.C. for a couple of years and I was teaching with the Shakespeare Theatre down there, and wherever I do a show-if I do a show regionally--I did a production of Good People in Boston last fall--I always visit the schools and I always try to teach a few classes while I'm in that city to get a taste of what their school system is about and the whole world over children--a Chuck Mee quote--"Children are the windows of the world." They are and it is our job to nurture and protect them and in a lot of ways we haven't been doing that job. I never thought of myself as a teacher. AI'll go home and I'll tell them, "Hey, class went well" and my parents will be like "Rachael, wow, I really can't believe you're a teacher now. Look at you." So it's very- it's a wonderful feeling to be able to share that hope and get their creative juices flowing 'cause part of being young is not knowing. You don't know what you're good at yet or maybe you're good at everything and all of a sudden real life happens and you realize wait, but what did you enjoy doing; fine that you're good at everything but what feeds you?
Jo Reed: How do you see children, let's say the 13-year-olds you are teaching in New York, how do you see them evolve through the acting class?
Rachael Holmes: First of all, I just have to give you’re a shout-out. Classroom teachers are just the heroes of the world, <laughs> full stop. As a teaching artist, I'll go in for maybe one or two classes to prepare them to see a show or perhaps I'll have a longer residency where I go in maybe once or twice a week for a few months and then I'm out; I've moved on to another school. Classroom teachers are there day in, day out, living, growing with these children and 13's a tricky age. We all know there are a lot of things- a lot of things are happening to you, physically changing, you're figuring out- you're trying to find yourself, figure out yourself, but also it's a time in a lot of the schools that I've seen under the school system in greater New York but also in D.C. and definitely in Boston where kids really do start to get left behind. And it's really interesting how the arts can- I wonder if the word is kind of protect them from be- from being let down in a way 'cause I think there are cracks that are to be mended, and I have seen seen amazing turnarounds from the first day of a residency to the last day. I've seen a 13-year-old student who is very angry at the world, something went wrong somewhere, somewhere they were hurt, perhaps they're coming from a really tough home life and they don't fit in in school, and I've had students who refuse, are unwilling to participate up until the last day. And all of a sudden they see everyone having a good time and they decide they want to step on stage for just one minute to say one word, and that seems like oh, that's not a very good average, that's not good, but I'm going to say that that is actually important and that moment- if you get to see that moment it's pretty powerful.
Jo Reed: Let’s talk about your teaching process. When you walk into your classroom, how do you start?
Rachael Holmes: When I go in to the classroom and I'm working alongside with a classroom teacher, we're a team, and with my partner teacher or if I'm a solo teaching artist, just myself with a classroom teacher, the goal is to open their minds. And a lot of my exercise in my basic craft has to do with the body again. It is very normal for me to walk in for something that we have to rehearse but we spend the first ten minutes stretching and I ask them how their day's going, "Do you guys have a test today? How's class going?," just checking in with them. You'd be surprised how many people don't check in with children, the whole "How was your day?" That question goes a long way, not the "What are you doing?" but "How are you doing?" to show someone you actually care and you're actually giving them your undivided attention in a time where we all have these phones and computers that are constantly beeping and demanding our responses. So it's really a safe zone and in my own self I know that that is something I wish I had earlier on in my school life so it feels wonderful to be able to give back and supply that now.
Jo Reed: Rachael thank you so much. I really appreciate you giving me your time.
Rachael Holmes: Thank you for having me.
That was actress Rachael Holmes. You've been listening to Art You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpts from "Ruined," used courtesy of Arena Stage.
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Next week, author Lillian Faderman discusses her memoir about her mother's early life.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.