It was an afternoon in March when I received an email from a casting director of The Public Theater with a subject line that read: "Offer for the role of Jane/Le-le-wa'you".
That's an actor's dream come true (or mine, anyways) -- to A) just get offered a role without having to audition for it and B) that it was for a place like The Public Theater. At this point in my career, even though I've only been working in New York for a few years, I'm already getting to the point where a good chunk of my theatre roles have been right out offered to me and I haven't had to audition for them. The Public Theater is also on my "bucket list" of theatres to work at so that was huge for me. It's the most prestigious Off Broadway theatre in New York and to get cast in a production at the Public was a huge accomplishment especially this early in my career.
I was actually a little bit surprised they offered me a role in Manahatta because I was in two staged readings of it a couple years back and I played Debra, the supporting female role--and since then two other stages readings were done but I was not cast in them. I just figured they were moving on without me, which happens in this industry. So I open up this email and see the offer is for Jane/Le-le-wa'you and I have to look at the script to see which role it was because it had been so long since I read the play--and I see that not only did they offer me a role without having me audition, they offered me the lead role (besides Jane/Le-le-wa'you being the lead female role, it's also the lead role in the whole play).
From The Public's website:
A gripping journey from the fur trade of the 1600s to the stock trade of today, Mary Kathryn Nagle’s MANAHATTA tells the story of Jane Snake, a brilliant young Native American woman with a Stanford MBA. Jane reconnects with her ancestral homeland, known as Manahatta, when she moves from her home with the Delaware Nation in Anadarko, Oklahoma to New York for a job at a major investment bank just before the financial crisis of 2008. Jane’s struggle to reconcile her new life with the expectations and traditions of the family she left behind is powerfully interwoven with the heartbreaking history of how the Lenape were forced from their land. Both old and new Manahatta converge in a brutal lesson about the dangers of living in a society where there’s no such thing as enough. Written in the Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group, Mary Kathryn Nagle's MANAHATTA is a stunning new play about the discovery that the only thing you can truly own is who you are and where you come from.
Manahatta is one of two inaugural plays for The Public's new 'Studio' program. PUBLIC STUDIO is a new performance series dedicated exclusively to developing the work of emerging writers. In a laboratory environment, writers will be in rehearsal with actors and a director, incorporate bare bones design elements, and open the process to an audience over a series of performances. More than a reading or workshop, but not a full production, this middle step affords early career writers the important opportunity to deepen their experience of working collaboratively over an extended rehearsal period and to see their work staged in front of an audience.
When they announced the rest of the cast I was thrilled! There were three New York based actors, Neil Huff, Daniel Oreskes and Andrew Weems, each of whom have very impressive resumes including work on Broadway. I was amazed I would be working with such top calibre actors. I would also be working again with Mohawk actor Brandon Oakes, who I had the pleasure of working with and getting to know while we were in Vickie Ramirez's Smoke at the Signature Theatre in the spring of 2013; a Yaqui-Tohono O'Odham actor named Albert Ybarra, who I hadn't met but admired his work in Woodbones; and probably the second most exciting part of this gig was I would get to work with and share a dressing room with Cherokee/Colville/Salish-Kootenai actress Kimberly Guerrero--it was the most surreal part of a it all and really full circle for me. I have been a fan of hers and have looked up to her since I saw her work in August: Osage County back in 2009 and now my name and her name are on a dressing room door together.
I had worked with Cherokee playwright Mary Katherine Nagle on her play Miss Lead at 59E59 and on numerous other staged readings. I always enjoy working with her and was very excited to bring Mannahatta to life. The director I would be working with would be Kate Whoriskey--I hadn't heard of her but saw she had quite an impressive resume.
It was a really short run (seven performances over 10 days) but still amazing nonetheless. Because we were at The Public we had so much support from the subscribers and from people that just will go there to see a show because they trust what they're going to put on stage. We were sold out every single night, which is something I've never experienced before!
Working at The Public really was a dream come true. This job was one of the most amazing jobs I've had in my life. I felt like I was spoiled rotten. Where do you go after you work at The Public (besides to Broadway)? The entire staff was so amazing--we had so much support from them. Even though Public Studio was a 'pared down' production it really wasn't that way at all, I felt. We had a full staging, full costumes, full tech staff and crew. The only thing that was pared down is that we only had TWO WEEKS to put the play up! This included ALL of the table work and only a short amount of rehearsals--and with a script that was changing on us every single day and wasn't locked until I believe it was the day before dress rehearsal.
The rehearsal process was very, very stressful because we didn't have a lot of time. I was constantly memorizing new pieces of the script and things were being rearranged daily. Kate was pushing us extremely hard and there was a moment--I think it was the second day of rehearsal on our feet--that I was almost in tears because I just thought she hated the work I was doing in she didn't like me. I later realized she was pushing me (and us) that hard because she knew she needed to do that to get us to bring the work to the level it needed to be to put this amazing play up in such a short amount of time. And she did it--we did it. I'm so glad we soldiered through because I'm extremely proud of the work we all did. It's also very special that we were a part of telling this story on this land and we brought awareness to people that had no idea about the history of the land we are standing on right now--the island of Manahatta.
On opening night the public had a reception for us and invited guests. There I met a woman named Carla Melman, an investment banker. Because I was playing an investment banker in the play she related a lot to what my character was talking about. Carla invited me to the trading floor at Wells Fargo, where she worked, so I got to see the action and all the chaos that happens. It was fantastic research for me and something I never thought I get to see. I'm very grateful to Carla for giving me that opportunity, it really helped me develop my character Jane.
Mannahatta is such an important story to tell--it is brilliantly written and it deserves to have a real run in a big theater in New York and I truly believe it will one day. (Click here for more photos)