A Conversation with Heidi Kettenring
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First Davis, then Bacall, now Kettenring. That’s what the graphic from Porchlight Theatre Company read, advertising Heidi Kettenring’s turn as Margo Channing in Applause. And if you ask anyone who has seen Heidi perform, they would tell you that Addison DeWitt’s analysis of Margo in All About Eve could just as easily apply to her: “Margo is a great star, a true star. She never was or will be anything less or anything else.” Onstage, you can’t argue with the comparison to Margo, and undoubtedly Heidi will soon have even more pages of glowing notices to add to her collection, just like Bacall and Davis. But to get a real sense of what has made Heidi one of Chicago’s most beloved leading ladies, you need to dig a little deeper than that. As impressive as she is as an actress, and she is very impressive, there is just as much to be said for her offstage. There is an intellectual ease with which Heidi analyzes a text, a genuine passion for the collaborative process and a deeply rooted belief in the power of truth, kindness, and understanding. Put it all together and you can begin to understand the reviews she gets, not just from the critics, but from the people who have come to know her over the course of her multi-decade career in Chicago.
We sat down for coffee in Evanston, Illinois, and talked about the iconic roles she’s played, what it means to “have it all” as a woman in the theater industry, and why she doesn’t care what Hillary Clinton wears.
Kelly Wallace: Let’s start with some basics. Where are you from? Where did you grow up?
Heidi Kettenring: I’m originally from Metairie, Louisiana, which is a part of New Orleans. I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, and moved here to go to Northwestern, and just…stayed.
KW: Why acting? How did you come to the decision to pursue it professionally?
HK: I don’t think I really knew that until I was about 24. And honestly…other people? I graduated; I was never very confident. In particular, in my abilities as an auditioner. I was never good at that. I always sang the wrong stuff and walked in too shyly. And so when I graduated, I auditioned for three things, one of which I got. It was Healthworks Theatre and you travel to schools doing health – mostly at the time HIV/AIDS –education shows. And I was doing that while I decided what I wanted to do. And I auditioned for two other things and one of the experiences was so bad that I quit. I waited tables in three different restaurants and did Healthworks for about two years, and then a friend of mine basically called me out for being miserable and told me to go audition at the Wagon Wheel Dinner Theatre, which I did. I got cast in everything there, and I met people who did theater in Chicago professionally. One of the gals there convinced me to audition for a show at Drury Lane, which I got cast in. And that’s where I met my future husband, my future agent, and got my Equity card.
KW: Now, you’ve chosen to stay here in Chicago. In theater, as you know, there’s a common wisdom that New York is the center of everything, and that Broadway is the standard. We would challenge that assumption. There’s a huge diversity of opportunity out here, especially for women. What made you want to be here in Chicago specifically, as opposed to pursuing a career out in New York?
HK: I mean, initially, it was because once I started doing theater, I was successful pretty quickly. I love this town. There are tons of opportunities. And then as I got older and was sort of faced with the choice of…well, I could go to New York. At the end of the day, I do think when people first start doing theater…Broadway is the brass ring. It’s the brass ring that’s in your head of…well, I’m going to be on Broadway someday. But my brass ring wasn’t ‘I want to be on Broadway,’ it was ‘I want to be a working actor’ and â€˜I want to have a certain kind of lifestyle.’ Meaning, I love having my own home. Not that you can’t do that in New York, but it takes a lot more money to do that. But immediately in Chicago, I met people like Paula Scrofano and John Reeger, like Roger and Jill Mueller, and looked at them and thought, “They have the life that I want to live. They have a home, they have a family, their job is being an actor. That’s their job; that’s what they do.” And when I was first starting and waiting tables and doing theater at night, that was so exhausting to me. I thought, “I just hope that, sooner rather than later, I get to the point where I don’t have to do all of these other things to put food on my table.” That’s what I wanted. And that’s what I got. It’s just never really been part of my reality to want to move to New York. It’s not a hugely glamorous answer. Every now and then, you think, “Oh, wouldn’t that be great? To be on Broadway and live on the Upper West Side” and then, pretty immediately, I think…no. I love my house, I love this town, I love the supportive nature of it. I mean, I’ll be standing in a room, at an audition, with five women and we’re all audition ing for the same part, and we’re basically saying to each other, you guys would be great in this! As opposed to not talking to each other. And part of that, maybe, is because there’s a lot of opportunity, and you know that if this one doesn’t work out, hopefully another one will.
Lila Morse, actor, The Diary of Anne Frank:
“I learned a lot from her about being a principled artist and professional. Regardless of the circumstances offstage, or any mishaps onstage, she always focused her energy on supporting the rest of the cast and giving the audience a wonderful show. Not only was it a comfort to know that kind of support was there, I find it to be a great example of a standard to have in my own work. And that she was never mean or awkward around me after I busted her elbow and sent her to the hospital.”
KW: You came here and saw Paula Scrofano and Jill Mueller having the life that you wanted to have. Do you feel like you needed to “see it to be it”?
HK: I do. Because I didn’t know what to expect. I think that’s sort of why I was reticent at all turns to go into this field. I think being able to see anything and be able to put yourself in those shoes and try to see…and know that it’s possible. That’s great. Kudos to people who don’t have that and decide to do who they want to be and what they want to do and they just trailblaze and make it happen. But I know it helped me. I know it helped me to be able to meet people right away who were mentors to me, who were kind to me, but I believed them. I never felt like I was being condescended to or told that I was better than I actually was. I felt like I was truly being mentored here. Truly, right away. Sam Samuelson was one of the first people I met and he was married to Mary Beth and they were making a go of it and making it work. And I thought, well that’s fantastic. It’s not just about, oh, they have a relationship and they’re doing theater. It was, well, what are all the elements of life that I would like to have. Not just “I want to be an actor,” because that has never been all that I was. Can I read my book for an hour? Can I work hard at what I really love doing? Can I cook myself a meal and walk in my back door to my home? All of these elements of things that, over time, I cobbled together…that’s what I want. And I can do that here.
KW: Mentorship is a huge issue; there should be so many more opportunities for young women to be able to have that experience. You’ve taught before, and some of your former castmates have said you were a great teacher to them backstage. Is it important to you to give back in that way?
HK: Absolutely. I feel like it’s interestingly part of my job. I’m reticent to use the word job; it makes it sound like it’s something I’m supposed to do. But in a positive way. I feel like it’s something that we’re all supposed to do. What is life without being able to help anybody with the knowledge that you have? It is. I love it when people are asking me questions about what have you done to create this life that I would very much like to have. At the end of the day, everyone’s experience is going to be different. But I know as a woman, as a female in Chicago, as an actor, what it has been like for me. It’s one of my favorite things about working with younger people, is helping if they want my help. If they don’t, that’s fine. But if somebody wants it, it’s my honor to help.
KW: Sometimes there’s a lot women aren’t prepared for or don’t know about being an actor, and one of those things often is being comfortable saying no. Did that take you time to learn?
HK: Oh absolutely. I think that there’s always a fear of…they don’t know me, I don’t want to be perceived as difficult.
KW: Which can be such a uniquely female problem, to be called difficult or a diva, and then it makes you worry about your ability to work.
HK: Right! It definitely took me a long time to learn that. Even in just over-booking myself. That ‘no’ is a perfectly acceptable answer. It doesn’t mean that I’m not being agreeable, it means that I just can’t. It just doesn’t work. Yes, I could technically do that and run myself ragged and be really tired, but that doesn’t help anybody . Learning how to say no, I think, for anyone, but especially for women, is a really difficult lesson to learn. And to realize, why do I want to say no? Do I want to say no just because I want to say no? I want to say no because the answer is actually no. And I want to say yes because the answer is actually yes, I don’t want to answer any question unless the truth behind it is the truth behind it. But yes and no…they really are, they’re sentences unto themselves. When am I meaning it? And when is it important to say? It’s a wonderful, difficult lesson to learn.
KW: Seeing people like you be able to do that and say that is really important. Were there women you worked with who you helped you develop that skill as a performer, both onstage and off?
HK: Oh yeah, lots of them. I mean, Susan Moniz is one of the first people that pops into my mind. Just from an audience perspective, oh my god, she’s incredible. And then being offstage with her, she’s lovely and delightful and kind and works hard, but when it’s not working for her…she’s perfectly delightful in her way of standing up for herself and getting what she needs and wants. It’s my honor and pleasure, there are countless women in this town that I consider mentors. And a lot of them are my age, and part of that is because I was a little late to auditioning, it was really fun to meet people who initially felt like they were older and I was younger, because they’d been doing this longer, but we actually were very similar or the same age. Truly, the dressing room is such a wonderful, sacred, awesome place. The things that I’ve learned about how I want to be in rehearsal, backstage, onstage, are from watching and learning from all of these magnificent women that I’ve gotten to spend time with. And ones that I don’t want to emulate. Learning from, “Oh, I don’t want to behave like that. I don’t want to learn like that. I don’t want to be perceived like that.” It has been invaluable for me.
KW: What’s onstage can be just as inspiring. Seeing women take on challenging, powerful roles can really help aspiring performers find inspiration to pursue their own art as well. What performances have really changed you?
HK: Oh god, what would they be? There’s so many. Kate Fry in a production of Hapgood. A Tom Stoppard play, I don’t remember the play; I haven’t read it since. This was when I was a student at Northwestern. I will never forget that. I don’t remember the play at all, and I don’t know if I’d met Kate yet. I’ve known Kate since 1991 and we’ve never worked together, which is crazy to me, but we’re good friends. I remember she was doing this scene and food was flying out of her mouth and she was having an argument of some kind and just going for it, and I had never seen anything like it. I have truly never seen anything like that, to the point that I don’t remember anything except her in that play. That was a life-changer for me. And honestly, since then, everything I’ve seen her in, I have felt that way about. She just has – and she’s like this in life – she’s just an honest, true person. And it reads onstage. She comes to everything from a completely honest and true place, which sounds so easy and it’s so hard. That’s a big one.
KW: Have you seen anything recently that really struck you?
HK: Renee Elise Goldsberry, the woman who plays Angelica in Hamilton. That was a performance that knocked me out, just knocked me out on every level. And part of it is that the material was so surprising, I didn’t know anything about it when I saw it. I hadn’t listened to it on purpose. So you know, the fact that this elegant, beautiful woman comes out and then starts rapping like a, just, diva, for lack of a better word, and then singing like an angel and emoting with every inch of her body…the whole show was mind-altering, but that performance for me stood out. She was my favorite.
Dara Cameron, actor, Little Women:
“I feel so lucky to have gotten to share the stage with Heidi several times and she is one of my dearest friends. The first time we worked together, in Little Women, was a magical experience. It was one of my first professional jobs and I remember feeling instantly comfortable with Heidi. She has this ease about her – we became close very quickly. We got to sing a beautiful duet together and I’m not sure I’ve felt more connected with someone onstage (except maybe when playing opposite my husband…maybe…). She is a uniquely respectful and attentive scene partner, and one of the most honest actors I’ve ever encountered.
We were also lucky enough to perform in Hero together, also at the Marriott, where she schooled me on holding a coffee cup realistically onstage (you have to hold it like there’s actual hot liquid in there!) and where we consistently had the hardest time keeping it together in one of our scenes because we just were having too much fun. Every night I got to listen to her sing her big act one solo number while waiting in the wings to enter and I remember marveling at her both her consistency and her spontaneity. I love going to work with Heidi because she takes herself and our business exactly the right amount of seriously.”
KW: So, since you started, you’ve gotten to play some of the most well- known roles in theater history. You’ve played Fanny Brice, Eliza Doolittle, and you played one of my personal heroines, Jo March.
HK: Oh, Jo is one of my favorites too!
KW: Let’s talk about Jo and Little Women. She’s one of my favorite characters, I know you’ve said in the past that she was a big love of yours too. Why do you think she’s become such a hero for women?
HK: I think a lot of the time when women are represented as strong professionally or strong as a leader, their femininity is left out. Their ability to love and be loved is left out, and what I loved about her is that she – surprise surprise – she can do well at that and she can love as a sister and love as a friend, with Laurie, and love as a lover, with the professor, but more importantly than that she…I don’t want to say she’s unforgivingly who she is, because she does try to be kind and she struggles within herself and asks, am I doing the right thing? But she knows what she wants to do and who she wants to be and she does what she needs to in a healthy way, to get it done. But at the same time, she is open to following love, and getting married if she wants. I think that for so long there hasn’t been a heroine that embodied all of that, even from a time when that wasn’t considered the norm, it wasn’t considered something people would want to be read about, and go figure, they did. It was sort of interesting proof of that we’ve come so far, but then we haven’t at all.
KW: There’s a lot of academic debate about Jo’s ending, in the book and onstage, about whether ending up home with her family and her husband is a betrayal of her pursuit of her career and her independence.
HK: I don’t agree with that at all. That’s one of the reasons why I love her, you don’t have to sacrifice one for the other. She [Louisa May Alcott] isn’t in the room for us to ask, but that’s an interesting thing. I can understand that point of view, “Oh well, she got professionally what she wanted, but it’s just not enough, I have to be something for a man” but I don’t think that’s it. I think there’s a wonderful partnership with the professor and Jo does doubt herself a lot at the time. There’s something sort of wonderful, I feel, about the fact that he helps her. I mean, it would’ve been just as good for her to handle everything on her own, but how wonderful that she didn’t have to. There are many ways to be fulfilled and she happens to fall in love while she was becoming an author.
KW: I think that’s one of the things that’s important to touch on: the fact that there’s not one path, there’s not one way to be a woman or to be strong. But that there’s room for all different kinds of choices and that real empowerment for women is about being able to make the choice…
HK: Right! And not necessarily what that choice is.
KW: Obviously, her relationship with her family, and with her sisters, is at the heart of the piece. You did the show out here at the Marriott Lincolnshire, with a lot of other great women…Dara Cameron, Morgan Weed, Abby Mueller. How do you feel like you all worked together in the rehearsal process to make that bond really present onstage?
HK: It was immediate. It was really immediate. I had been doing Wicked for two years when I did Little Women. I had been out of the loop of Chicago theater, really, for two years. I knew Abby because I had worked with, at that point, Roger…I think Roger was the only Mueller I’d worked with at that point, and I’d worked with him a lot. So I knew them from when they were kids. But it truly was immediate. I mean, that whole company was just really, really awesome. And the show is set up that you kind of – at least with the sisters anyway – if you can’t create that bond, you’re gonna have a terrible time. And I don’t think you can play Jo; I mean, I feel this way about any show. If you’re playing Annie in Annie Get Your Gun, or Fanny in Funny Girl, if you go into it thinking ‘I’m Jo March,’ then the whole thing is doomed to failure. You’re part of an ensemble, in any show that you do. So that’s what we were collectively, although we did have an issue when we got our sweatshirts. And we got pink ones, and the guys were really mad. ‘Cause they were like, I don’t want a pink sweatshirt that says ‘Little Women’ on the back, and we were like…’tough!’. That was maybe the one time we weren’t very ensemble–ish. But, it was funny.
Annaleigh Ashford, actor, Wicked:
“Heidi Kettenring is an astoundingly versatile and wonderfully gifted actress that is such a treat to work with onstage and off. It is no wonder that her craft and work ethic has made her known as Chicago’s leading lady. I had the great pleasure of working with her in the Chicago company of Wicked, a show that celebrates female empowerment and female driven stories.”
KW: You were in Wicked for quite some time.
HK: I did it for three years! I want to say I did over a thousand performances of that show.
KW: That show attracts such a young, passionate female fanbase. Did you have the opportunity to really engage with the fans of that show?
HK: I did. It took me awhile to accept that. It’s such a phenomenon, and that’s something that here…nobody hangs out, really, at the stage doors. I never experienced that before. It’s gotten more –which is kind of exciting – that people now know that they can do that. But for the first year, I was able to get out of the building before the orchestra had finished playing. And I’d be at my car before people were even out of the theater. And it was actually somebody in the show who said to me, “You know, it might behoove you to go to the stage door. Because there are hundreds of girls, there are hundreds of young people and not-so-young people…there are tons of people hanging out at the stage door, and they just want to meet you. They want to talk to you.” And I’m really good at being onstage and behind lights, but I get really nervous about when I have to do a concert and be myself, or speak in front of people as myself. I get really, really nervous. It was a really big learning curve for me. But once I started doing it…you know, I loved it.
Facebook started really becoming a thing during Wicked . And I am still Facebook friends with a lot of the fans. I’m actually almost grateful, because I think if Facebook had started now, I would probably not have accepted a lot of friend requests from people I didn’t know. But at the time, I was like, “Oh, sure!” and I didn’t know who these people were. And what’s interesting is that these people who were teenagers, young teenagers at the time; I’m still sort of seeing their lives in an interesting way. And we’re still in communication, and there’s a handful of them who will every now and then drop a line about how important that thirty seconds was, at the stage door, of just saying hello. And I don’t regret that first year, because that’s how I learned how much I enjoyed it, by not doing it, but there’s a little part of me that wishes I hadn’t waited so long to actually experience that. And it’s not because it makes me feel good to have people say, “You’re so good!” It’s almost the opposite. That’s the part that makes me uncomfortable, once I get beyond that, and they’re telling me how good they feel because of what they just experienced…I love that. And there’s still a handful of people who now come see me in things all over the place because of that. Yeah, I mean, it’s kind of it’s own weird form of…it’s not mentoring, but it’s the same kind of feeling of like…realizing I’ve just done my show for the 725th time. But this is the first time for this person, who just spent their money to come experience that and how singularly awesome that is, the responsibility and opportunity that I have even when it’s over, to say thank you. Thank you for coming.
KW: The stage door after a show is a place where people really have access to their heroes. Anyone can go, anyone can say hi and share their experiences.
HK: Yeah, we’re all standing out there wearing our coats and our hats and our scarves at that point. I’m not wearing my costume that was designed by somebody standing on this big fancy stage. I’m just standing in an alley next to a dumpster and we’re complete equals talking about what we both just experienced from two sides of the stage.
KW: Have you ever met or worked with someone that was an idol to you?
HK: I’m sure. Well, Susan. I keep bringing Susan Moniz up, and it’s fun, because she’s such a good friend of mine, but I remember being in a show with her for the first time…I was just knocked out because I had seen her when I was at Northwestern; I had seen The Hot Mikado at the Marriott Lincolnshire and we’re sitting next to each other in a dressing room and it was just crazy, crazy, crazy to me. Ben Vereen! Oh my god, he was in Wicked for one week. He did the show for one week. And the Wizard didn’t walk onstage for 45 minutes, he could’ve shown up at half hour, and gone to his dressing room. But he came up on the deck at places every day, shook everybody’s hand. He said, “Make some magic out there!” He learned everybody’s name before he got there, for the one week he was there. Oh man, that was incredible.
KW: Have you found that the people who are the most engaged and kind and honest offstage are often also some of the best performers you’ve worked with onstage?
HK: Yes. I’m sure there are many who are not, but from my experience, the more open you are…being a good actor is reacting to what is coming at you. ‘Cause even a one person show, you have to react to the music, you have to react to the lights, you have to react to the audience, you have to react to your own self. And if you have a block up for that, then I don’t know how you can really truly tap into being a really good actor. If you can’t look someone in the eye and say hello, how are you gonna look someone in the eye onstage and see, “Oh, today their energy is a little bit lower, I gotta maybe kick it up a notch a little bit,” or vice versa.
KW: And in the moment you’re lost in the world of the show. But now we live in a world now where technology has enabled a lot of people to react offstage and share opinions on what they saw or how they feel. Do you read reviews or reactions to your performances online?
HK: I do read reviews. I went through a period of thinking, don’t read reviews, they’re detrimental. I’m the kind of person who…I almost even have a hard time not flipping through and reading the last page of a book. For me, it’s ripping the band-aid off. Yeah, sometimes I read stuff that I don’t wanna read, but I find they help me. I don’t necessarily listen to them, but I like to get that over with. Reactions…on the flip side, I learned very quickly, especially with Wicked, I don’t go to blogs, I don’t read message board type stuff. Because it’s too easy for people to…like, when people are driving a car and they feel like they’re in the privacy of their car and act horribly, sometimes I feel like behind the screen of a computer, even if people don’t necessarily mean to be really mean, I’ve read some really hurtful things about myself. And I don’t need that. But there’s something about, in the confines of a review, I can’t not. Every time I try to not do it, I end up thinking, “I wonder what they said. I wonder what they’re saying.” And I find that for me, it takes the mystique away. I read it, it’s done, and then I can move on with my life.
Jessie Mueller, actor, She Loves Me:
“Heidi and I did She Loves Me together at Writers’ theater and it’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever seen her do. She’s just kind of dreamy to work with. She knows how she works and how to work with others – when to get down to business and when to have fun. You’ll realize after a day of rehearsal that you’ve laughed your butt off AND gotten the scene blocked too. She’s also a gem of a human being and a great friend – the kind that can help you look at this business with a keen eye, or a healthy dose of humor. She’s a great human being and a great actor. You’d be surprised at how rare that is.”
KW: One of the other big shows you did here in Chicago was She Loves Me at Writers Theatre
HK: I love that show, I love Jessie Mueller.
KW: Ilona is so interesting as a character. She’s very open about sex and sexuality in a time when a lot of women were not, and that was a controversial thing to be. She’s very resistant to marriage and she’s even slightly afraid of Paul, whom she later marries, when they meet. The lyric is, ‘he looks really strong, I wonder if he could hurt me’.
Where do you think that comes from? Why does she find herself able to let Paul in, in a way she hasn’t been able to before?
HK: If somebody is bigger than you, somebody’s stronger than you…you don’t know them. It’s wise to be trepidatious about that. But for her, she finds him very attractive, but also it’s the first time that she’s allowed herself to be interested in somebody because of their mind, and he’s interested in her…they probably both find each other very attractive, they’re talking about books. They’re talking. They’re sipping hot chocolate and actually talking. They’re not flirting. It’s not just â€˜a really attractive man has walked into the Parfumerie and I’m going to flirt with them,’ it’s â€˜Oh, this respectable guy with glasses has asked me a question, asked me if he could help.’ There’s a moment, where the lyric is, “Clearly respectable/thickly bespectacled man,” by the second verse she’s singing “slightly bespectacled man,” it’s like even she stops looking at his surface because of what he’s giving her from the inside, to her inside.
KW: Have you ever had to do a show where you get the script, and you look at the text, and you don’t necessarily identify with your character or their story arc? How do you proceed from there?
HK: Oh sure. There are definitely times when technique has to come into play, if my human experience isn’t going to help me. Angels in America was a really hard one for me to tap into. The language is so beautiful but a little difficult, and the subject matter was difficult to tap into. I do tend to then lean a little bit more on technique. But interestingly, even those, after awhile they become easier, almost because they must. The longer they’re in your body, and the longer you work on them…your body as a vessel, it does become easier, just because it must, for lack of a better way to put it. In order to lose yourself into a performance, while at the same time bringing a lot of Heidi into everything I do, because I am who I am, so the more challenging ones, I think, the more of myself I let in, it helps me with that.
KW: Jessie Mueller she said something similar about playing Carole, that she felt that you can’t just play the character without bringing some of what you are into the role. Have you ever had the experience of playing a real person? How was that different?
HK: Oh, Jessie! Fanny Brice was the big one, probably.
KW: Did you lean on the biographical material? How do you combine that with finding your way into it as Heidi?
HK: Because of the nature of who I am, I am sort of a natural mimic. So I try very hard to not do too much visual, audio research because I will just innately have a difficult time shedding that. We actually talked about this a lot with The Diary of Anne Frank [Writers Theatre, 2015] actually. Some people read the actual diary and some people didn’t. 99.9% of the time, the words on the page of the play that I’m doing are gonna give me the information that I need. If I don’t understand something or I’m speaking of something historically that I don’t really know what that is, I’m gonna look it up so I know what I’m talking about, but if the scene on the page didn’t happen, knowing what really happened doesn’t help me tell the story I’m trying to tell. So playing somebody like Carole King, when there’s so much out there…it’s a really fine line to walk. You don’t want to do a mimicry of Carole King’s voice, but, you know, I’m Jessie. There are certain things that are quintessential that people are gonna think about…it’s a really fine line to walk.
KW: And a show like Funny Girl, people come into it with a certain expectation of what they think that character is or what it should be. You come in, and you surprise people. Do you enjoy that?
HK: I really do. I mean, playing Patsy Cline in Always Patsy Cline is one of the funnest times I’ve ever had. And it was really complicated. Now that’s one where I listened to her recordings over and over, because I’m never going to sound like Patsy Cline. I’m not Patsy Cline. But…she’s an iconic singer. So, I love that, I love the idea that there is no way I’m going to sound like Patsy Cline, but what can I do to give grace notes to her so that within a few minutes, people have forgotten the fact that I’m Heidi Kettenring playing Patsy Cline. And that was really fun, people knew she had died years prior, but you hear people saying, “I thought she died?” like, they would actually lose themselves into thinking, “Oh my god, I’m watching Patsy Cline in a play”, and I think that’s wonderful and fun and cool and such a challenge. I don’t want to do it all the time, because it’s a whole other element of taking a little bit of the freedom away as an actor. You do have to work to fit into that mold, but it’s a fun challenge.
KW: There’s been some controversy around Madeleine Albright lately but there’s something really interesting she wrote in an op-ed, “In a society where women feel pressured to tear one another down, the real saving grace we have is our willingness to lift one another up.” How can we do better about lifting each other up?
HK: I almost feel like if I knew the answer to that, the problem wouldn’t be there. All I do know is that it is the truth. It’s something that I don’t understand why it’s a conversation we need to keep having but we obviously do. Knocking people down isn’t going to help. Building people up is going to help. It helps you as a human being to build somebody up. It blows my mind that it’s a conversation we will need to have. So we have to keep having it. We can’t be afraid of having it. Don’t be afraid of, “Oh no, somebody might call me a feminist!” So? Be a feminist.
KW: Do you describe yourself as a feminist?
KW: Some people would say that it’s a loaded word. What does that word mean to you?
HK: Right, I think maybe I am because I don’t think it’s a loaded word. I’m a feminist because â€”maybe it’s a naive reactionâ€” I’m a feminist because of the fact that we still have to ask if it’s okay for me to say I’m a feminist. I am a woman who believes that Iâ€” in every way other than my actually physiologically differencesâ€” I’m tongue-tied about it, evenâ€¦
KW: “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people”?
HK: Yeah, exactly! Like the fact that it just blows my mind that we’re gonna have a conversation about what Hillary Clinton wore. It seems so irrelevant. I sit there and I’m like, okay, she wore a gold outfit. Show me a time that one of the men shows up not wearing a suit and a red or maroon tie, y’know? And even when they do, we’re not gonna talk about it. Because it’s not what’s important. I guess because of that it has this stigma that it’s a word that means I’m shrilly, speaking about what I’m owed and what I’m deserved…the fact that there still needs to be a conversation about what makes people equal…that alone makes me a feminist, because how could I not be? I’m a woman who in no way doesn’t think in every way we’re equal.
KW: Have you ever felt treated differently because you were a woman?
HK: Yes. That’s definitely been the case. I’ve never been one to be actively physical, I’m not a hugger. It takes awhile for me to walk up and kiss a friend of mine that I don’t know very well. In theater, that’s an interesting thing, I don’t know if it’s a gender thing or a me thing, but I do think it’s a gender thing. The immediate intimacy that a lot of people have…I don’t immediately have. Words come up like “lighten-up” or “oh, you’re such a prude” in that regard, and it’s not all the time, but when it happens my wall immediately goes up. “Oh, I’m a prude because I don’t like the fact that you just smacked my ass? Okay.”
KW: Do you feel like there’s that pressure onstage too…to “lighten up”, to be more likeable?
HK: I do. Yes. I do. And a lot of it is, in particular, with words that I’ve always hated. “You’re making her really shrill, you’re making her really strident.” As a woman, why are those a bad thing? That is actually the timbre of my voice. When I’m getting angry, I get a little “shrill” or “strident”, so really what you’re telling me is that you want me to be likeable. Well, in this moment, she’s not likeable. I’ve never heard “shrill” used towards a man. And…ugh, I just hate that word so much.
KW: We were talking before about politics, which feels relevant here…Donald Trump, who comes from a place of anger so much of the time, or even Bernie Sanders, who come from this place of being loud and having raised voices…if Hillary Clinton or Carly Fiorina matched that tone, they’d certainly be (and are) called “shrill”. But somehow with men, it’s seen as strong.
HK: That’s exactly it. People don’t realize that they don’t want to associate women with anger or strength until they actually see it happening. They’re like …ugh, what is this unladylike behavior? But at a debate, when a man is doing it, it’s not even considered.
KW: What do you want to see in the future? For women, for theater, what is your vision of where you want to be in 10 years?
HK: My hope is that, the gilded lily hope, it’s a conversation that we no longer need to have because everyone is on the same page and on the same foot. My hope is just that it’s not, “Oh my god we have this wonderful female director, we have this wonderful female…” that it’s just “wonderful director”, so what if it happens to be a woman. And that there’s just more. More opportunity to talk about it. To talk about it like this, like we are right now. More to actually do. That it’s not avant garde for there to be a play of all women. That it’s not avant garde that the team is all women, you know? The fact that it’s news in 2015 to have on Broadway the creative team for Waitress is all women…my hope is that in five years that not only is that not a conversation, but it’s not even a question. It shouldn’t be a novelty. I don’t want it to be a surprising thing. It’s just a thing. Well, of course it’s all women. They were the best ones to do the job. But there doesn’t have to be a press release, because of how great and unusual it is, and right now it is great and unusual, but it would be great for it to just be great.
Barbara Gaines, Artistic Director, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, directing the upcoming Tug of War:
“Every performance I see of Heidi’sâ€”no matter what the playâ€”is my favorite performance, because she is the ultimate chameleon. She changes characterization depending on the show and the demands of the role. She completely blows us away with her versatility, and with her profound understanding of human nature. Besides that, having her in the rehearsal room is nothing but a complete and utter joy. She is a fantastic human beingâ€¦wise, warm, and she makes the best egg salad I’ve ever tasted. I feel truly blessed for all of the opportunities we have had to work togetherâ€”and for the great adventure we are embarking on this year with Tug of War.”
KW: Now, you’re on to Tug of War at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, a six-hour marathon of a show.
KW: Barbara Gaines is directing that…do you feel like the energy in the room is different when you’ve got mostly women?
HK: Oh yeah, just as we were saying before, the inherent fact that she’s a woman is different. Barbara for me is a singular, wonderful person to work with because she’s so strong and she’s so nurturing. She embodies for me all these wonderful elements of being a strong, full woman. She’s smart, she commands a room, she’s nurturing, she’s kind, and not that I haven’t worked with men who are like this, but there’s something about this petite, spark plug, lovely woman who I feel completely at ease talking to. It’s just a different energy. I don’t know what’s better, what’s not, but I love working with women, and with Barbara. She brings a positive, kind, strong forward momentum into the room every day. And I so admire that about her.
KW: And then, working on Applause, with Margo and Eve…their relationship starts off with a conversation at a stage door.
HK: Right, like, you’ve come to see me twenty-four times. You’ve earned my attention.
KW: Her instinct is to be the mentor. The break-up of that friendship feels like it is a product of the idea that there isn’t room for everyone. Eve feels like it’s her OR Margo, but there’s a place for both of them.
HK: That’s where my Margo is coming from. She’s mentoring her. Eve, unfortunately, I mean, it turns sour, because of the fact that…when Margo sees her with her, “Oh, I’ll take care of that, I’ll do that, I’ll sew your clothes” and then she goes back into the room and she’s bowing and holding Margo’s dress up to her. I don’t think –I mean there is the undercurrent of Margot feeling old, so there is that element of it. Women can have less opportunity as they age. But y’know, what I see for Margot, because I’m coming at it on her side now. I’ve played Eve years ago. Margo’s reaction is to the dishonesty. As much as Margot is this sort of flamboyant, fabulous personality, she is unabashedly who she is. And here is this woman who is hiding completely who she is so there’s that part of – you’re trying to be successful by being completely who you are not. The number, “Who’s That Girl” she sings when Eve is there – y’know, does he want to marry this Margo, that Margo, or the one on the TV – well I don’t feel like she’s saying that’s not who I was, this is who I am now, that’s what I was, but I think one of the many things that bothers her about Eve is that she is completely not in any way who she says that she is. She’s covering up, whether or not she’s doing it because she’s a woman or because her dad was so horrible to her as a child; she is not who she says she is. It’s an interesting piece. What I’m struggling with is the end, is how to make the end not unpalatable. Because of the fact that Margo, the words to it are beautiful, ‘there’s something greater,’ I don’t need to just be the person on the screen. But then it’s like, she just gives it all up to be with Bill. So finding the way in a non-1960s world, to take that and make it work in my brain and not make it, “Well, I’m giving up the theatre so I can be with my guy!” That’s become a really interesting, fun, challenge.
KW: Gloria Steinem said in an interview with PBS a few years ago that women can’t “have it all” until we realize that not only can women do anything men can do, but men can do anything women can do, because women end up expected to do two jobs, one in the home and one out of it. Do you feel like you’ve been able to “have it all”? What does that mean to you?
HK: I do feel like I’ve been able to have it all. Well, all I wanted in the the time that I wanted it, if that makes sense. Because I don’t think anyone can or should have it all, because then…what do we need other people for? I was actually having a conversation with my husband just last night. We were talking about all kinds of stuff, but the conversation we had recently was that you can’t possibly understand what I’m feeling because I’m a woman. And he said, “I do, I understand”. And I said, “Well, no, I think it’s actually okay that you don’t. And it’s okay that I don’t understand everything that you’re going through since you’re a man. You’re a man, I’m a woman. The difference is how we handle those things and how we interact because of them. Because we’re all innately different. For me personally, yeah, I think, and I don’t look at it in any way as giving up anything, how do I want to say this…I feel like I have what I need and I want because…I try, I work very hard all the time and in every phase of my life to look at my life and think, “What do I need, in this moment, to have the full life that I need right now?”
KW: I’m really glad that you brought that up. The idea that we can’t ever completely understand what someone else is going through when you have such a different identity or life experience is something some people are afraid to say. Man and woman is one example, race is another. It’s important to have the conversation.
HK: Right, absolutely. I always feel like, if I don’t understand, which I can’t, with race, with gender, with class…you know, we’re all different. Talk to me about it. Explain to me what, you know, I’m going to say or do something “wrong” just from the sheer fact that I don’t know. And so…help me. Educate me. And I will do the same. Because it is impossible for me to understand the full experience of a man, of anyone of a different race than me, because I just am not those things. But I want to. I want to do everything in my power to understand that because we all walk the face of the earth and we should all walk it together, as much as we can. But I cannot pretend that I understand everything because I just don’t. I would like to learn as much as I possibly can. And I think that, I hope, that’s part of why I’ve been able to lead the life that I do, and that I’ve wanted, is that I try to have as much empathy and sympathy to the degree that I can, and I want to live to my honest and true self.
Heidi Kettenring’s favorite Chicago credits include: Wicked (Nessa) with Broadway in Chicago, The Diary Of Anne Frank (Mrs. Van Daan) and She Loves Me (Ilona), at Writers’ Theatre, The King And I (Annaâ€”Jeff Award best actress in a musical) and Funny Girl (Fanny Brice), at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, The Merry Wives Of Windsor (Mistress Ford) and The School For Lieu (Eliante), at Chicago Shakespeare, Oliver (Nancy) at Drury Lane Oakbrook, as well as work with Chicago Commercial Collective, Court Theatre, Northlight Theatre, Theatre At The Center, Drury Lane Evergreen Park, and American Theatre Company. She toured the U.S. in Disney’s Beauty And The Beast. Regional credits include work at Fulton Theatre, Maine State Music Theatre, TheatreWorks Palo Alto, Peninsula Players and Bar Harbor Theatre. Ms. Kettenring has also sung concerts for Artists Lounge Live, Ravinia Festival, the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra and at Millennium Park. Heidi can be heard singing on two Disney Junior Books and can be seen in the film Man Of Steel. Television credits include Cupid and Chicago Fire. She is the recipient of a Joseph Jefferson Award, 7 Jeff Award nominations, the Sarah Siddons’ Chicago Leading Lady Award, an After Dark Award, the Richard M. Kneeland Award and is a graduate of Northwestern University. She is a proud member of AEA and wife of actor David Girolmo. Heidi can be seen this Summer and this Fall in Tug Of War at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.