The Lady Is a Champ: Show-Stopper Grace McLean Talks Great Comet, The Necessity of Art and the Importance of Being Weird
It has been quite a season of The Broadway, there’s no denying that. And what a joy it is to see the heralds and nominations lavished upon Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. It is a show I was dragged to against my will several years ago, was sure I’d hate, and have since been back to see no less than 7 times. It's addictive as hell, and no show feels better when mainlined directly into the carotid artery.
I won't ramble about the greatness of the piece, as that's been done ad nauseum by far greater sycophants than I. By now, there's no secret about the fact that it IS the show of the year. So let's take a Ritalin, turn out the lights, put on our Tolstoy hats and focus.
Today, we talk to one of my personal favorite performers, who has been slaying it in the role of Marya since the first immersive tent staging. Grace McLean defines the word multi-hyphenate, as you’ll learn in this interview. We all know her from her unforgettable performance as the matronly, “old-school grand dame” of the stage… but wait! There’s more.
In a statement aggressively solicited by this writer, Olivier Award-winning producer, singer, political firebrand, bon vivant, raconteur, romantic, philanthropist, bench player and snappy dresser Martin Giannini had this to say of Grace:
“Grace is a thrilling, ferocious, natural talent that has been supercharged by an expansive mind and an intellectual curiosity that are equally rare. The memories I have of her in childhood are now almost surreal, considering what she’s grown into. She’s a nexus of classicism and futurism. An artist both out of time and tailored for the moment. That she can simultaneously be an indispensable asset to a running Broadway hit and a boundary-pushing solo artist speaks both of her stamina and overflowing creative engine. To me, there is no more essential artist working today.”
Thanks, Martin. Good work outta you. You are the Shane Battier of the higher arts. Actually, Shane Battier is the Shane Battier of the higher arts… but literally nobody reading this has any idea what I’m talking about.
Moving on, let’s talk to Grace!
How did you first get your start performing and what are your most memorable roles and experiences from the Orange County scene? Any particular mentors?
I started taking acting classes at the age of 8 at South Coast Repertory and really loved it. It was my sort of after-school thing; my brother had sports and I had theatre games. And I had my first professional stage gig at SCR, too. When I was 11, I was in their annual production of A Christmas Carol and had so much fun getting to rehearse and perform with these local vets at this totally cool regional theatre. I hope I get to go back and work there as an adult!
Later, I went to OCHSA, the Orange County High School of the Arts, a charter arts school in my area, and learned a lot from the array of students at this school, with so many different artistic interests- I was in school with designers, playwrights, filmmakers, visual artists, actors, dancers, musicians- all constantly collaborating and performing and challenging each other.
Two of my favorite teachers I still keep in touch with, Steve Whelan who taught acting my first year there, and Joey Ancona my stage combat teacher. Steve started this amazing extracurricular thing called the Experimental Theatre Club I think, and we made a piece called The Bard Witch Project, riffing on a popular movie with a similar name, but performing the spookiest parts of Shakespeare.
We made a devised piece called This Is Not A Rave which, you guessed it, attempted to break into and explore rave culture. It was all very challenging and fun and exploded my ideas about what theatre could be. Steve also encouraged me to apply to the NYU high school summer program, which I did, and ultimately made me want to move permanently to New York, which hadn't been my plan before that. So thank you Steve!
Prior to Comet, what was your New York theatre and cabaret experience like?
I had been working a lot with composer Liz Swados and her community of downtown artists, which I'm so grateful for. I did a lot of recordings for Liz, wrote and performed in an early incarnation of Political Subversities, a political cabaret which has since taken off in the hands of people much funnier than I, and got to be a part of some very cool productions of hers.
Before Comet, I was doing maybe one cool project a year, usually somehow related to Liz- I went to Edinburgh with her opera about the triangle shirtwaist factory fire. I went to Italy, Croatia and Serbia with her oratorio about her friend and mentor Ellen Stewart. And even my involvement in the early days of the Jeff Buckley/Romeo and Juliet project The Last Goodbye traces back to Liz, because of her longtime music director Kris Kukul.
I was also writing and playing with my band GraceMcLean & Them Apples, we had some cool opportunities to develop our performance style at Ars Nova, The Flea Theater and Joe's Pub.
Tell me how you first got involved in Comet and what keeps you coming back for more.
I was about to leave New York when I auditioned for Comet. I had been living here for 10 years at that point and as I said, was working on about 1 cool project a year, but was not consistently performing. I decided that, by the end of 2013, I was going to be in school somewhere else, maybe Naropa in Colorado.
About the time when I was grappling with this decision, I saw the closing night of Great Comet at Ars Nova, this was November 2012. And I was blown away, blown to smithereens. I have always loved Russian Literature, read “War and Peace” for some fun summer reading years ago, and knew I had to catch this production - and I was so glad I did. It was constantly surprising, constantly reinventing itself. Just when I thought I knew the style it had settled into, it would change or revert or circle back and layer on top of itself.
I was taken for a total ride through excitement and innocence and deceit and falling in love and seduction and vaudeville and rage and loss and betrayal and finally to the clincher. The heart of the show… the real beautiful, quintessentially philosophically Tolstoyian part of the show which is this moment of true forgiveness and love. These two characters in a state of wretchedness, seeing each other's essence and being redeemed by that. That's what I saw in 2012, that's why I auditioned for the show even after I had decided to leave New York, and that's what keeps me going 8 times a week.
As you've been with the show since the tent stagings, how significantly it changed for you physically and in terms of spacing and audience interaction? Any particularly interesting stories about audience interaction?
Bottom line, stairs are rough! Technically speaking, it's just a lot more physically involved purely because there's more ground to cover. But I'll say I'm grateful for the learning experience of the tent days (read: tripping so many times in my big carpet of a skirt) so that I know how to move in this bigger space to (hopefully) avoid any catastrophes!
Now that the show has made it to Broadway, how do you feel performing on a proscenium in such a large house? I was amazed how well it seemed to maintain its intimacy.
I think the large space really serves the story well. Not only are we maintaining the intimacy that Ars Nova afforded by having the audience and the actors EVERYWHERE, but the space I think helps you follow the real meat of the action without having to crane your neck. It's better than ever at the Imperial, I think!
The show is clearly a megahit, with a marquee name and a crazy number of nominations. Now that it's no longer a "well-kept secret" and you're getting a wider range of audiences, what is it about the piece that you feel resonates so well with so many people?
It's Tolstoy! There's a reason people still know that work (even if they haven't read it) 150 years later! It's about human beings, living their lives, experiencing their passions AND doubts AND depressions, taking action AND not, making horrible decisions and THEN, finding something true and redemptive and profound inside of their own wretchedness.
Yes, the show is a party and it's fun and surprising and seductive, but people keep coming back to experience that small elusive moment of intense love and forgiveness that the whole show is working towards.
I absolutely despise this term, but for lack of a better descriptor, you are FIERCE onstage. And you're working hard the whole show. Do you have a favorite moment for your character?
I love Marya so much. She is a beast. But my favorite moment is probably the end of “In My House,” when Marya is at her least beastly and at her most humble, when she takes care of Natasha. They've just had this huge balls-out fight, and then Marya has to take care of this little creature who has betrayed her and who she has just alienated with her rage.
How do you stay healthy and energized for such a beast of a show?
I sleep so, so much. I almost want to feel bad about it, but if my body needs it, my body gets it. Lots of water too, and stretching and warming up and PT and Epsom salt baths. And B12 is a big help, too.
Needless to say, we have had a dramatic history with Russia, and times are always getting more interesting. I recall the show stopped serving Russian vodka for a time due to the country's policies on homosexuality. Given the current relationship and sentiment toward Russia and our own national identity, have you felt a notable political impact in the show?
I don't think of Comet as a particularly Russian show. Yes we are telling a story that springs from and is embedded in a Russian identity, but it is a story about and for human beings. I think if there are political reverberations around the show, they are happening outside of the Imperial. If anything, I think it shows the power of art transcend borders and time.
Moving a bit away from Comet, you have another career as a renowned singer-songwriter and other hyphens. What other projects are on the table in your scarce free time?
I’m working on a full length album with my band Grace McLean & Them Apples! We have a few singles and a music video that we’d like to release this year, so keep an eye out for those goodies.
Your work has taken you all over the world. Is there one single place that stands out for any reason? As an educator, tell us more about why the arts are so vital on a national and global level, and what you might encourage people to do to support the arts in the current political climate.
One of my favorite experiences was in Belgrade, where I was traveling with Liz Swados’ La MaMa Cantata. We were doing a workshop for a bunch of college students there, and afterwards we had an amazing talkback with the students about their struggles to find support to identify and foster their own creative voices.
It was amazing to see how much Ellen Stewart’s journey of keeping La MaMa alive (the birthplace of off-off Broadway, the original downtown scene, the home of experimental theatre) resonated with these kids who live in a place that simply doesn’t have the resources to support their passionate voices.
It was the first time I realized what a privilege it is to live in a place like New York City, and indeed the United States of America, where a kind of artistic entrepreneurship is possible. But we can’t take that for granted!
Luckily our government doesn’t censor art, but if funding for things like the NEA dries up, that’s a bad message for individuals and institutions that foster and create new works that continue to tell our story. But of course it’s not just about shaking our fists at the government - if you care about the arts, you should engage in them, and especially, I think, you should engage with things you think you won’t like!
I read some article in the Times about making yourself read books that you don’t like, I think that’s true for experiencing any kind of art, whether you don’t like the style, message, medium, whatever - that kind of engagement helps you define what it is you DO value... not just in art but in how you live your life.
If you weren't busy enough, you also wrote a musical! Tell us more about it, and where we can expect to see it staged.
Yes! I’ve been working on a music theatre piece about 12th century mystic Hildegard von Bingen for a few years, and LCT3 recently commissioned it. It’s still very much in the workshop stage, but I’m excited about where it’s headed. It’s the story of Hildegard’s early life, before she shook the world with her apocalyptic visions, haunting and forward thinking musical compositions, scathing and inspiring letters to popes and kings, and composition of the first morality play.
When Hildegard was 8 years old, she was given to the church as a tithe by her family, and she went to live in a cell with an anchoress, Jutta von Sponheim. The two women lived in darkness and seclusion until Jutta’s death 30 years later. The piece explores what it means to value individual progress over engaging with the world around you, and the cost of denying yourself love for the attainment of an ideal.
How long will you be with the show, and do you have any plans for what is next?
My contract is up in October, and then who knows! I’d like to keep working with my band and on my musical, and hopefully I’ll have more time for both soon. Also, I’m getting married next year, so I’m planning on carving out plenty of time for a big celebration!
Thank you for your time! To close it out, do you have any words of advice or inspiration for young actors/singers/writers who aspire to any of the various fields you've dipped your pen into?
I think it’s very important to find out what you’re obsessed with and lean into it. Find out what turns you on, and go there hard. And then find out what that means in practice - develop a habit of craft. Make things, don’t judge them, and then make something else.
You get better by doing, and you’ll want to keep doing if it’s something that tickles you. If you want to be weird, get weird, but figure out how the weird translates in form; how can you say best what it is you have to say, so that others can hear you say what you mean? And if you’re having fun, you’re on the right track.
Matt Blank is an arts journalist, educator, designer and lecturer. He most recently spent a decade on the editorial team for Playbill.com and as Editor-in-Chief of PlaybillArts.com, publishing over 7,000 articles and covering five Tony Award ceremonies. Follow him on Twitter @MattBlankPlease and Instagram @brdwymatt.