It’s a story that has become New York theatre lore: When beloved Tony-nominated actress Celia Keenan-Bolger went to see the 2002 Atlantic Theatre production of George Kaufman’s showbiz satire The Butter and the Egg Man she developed a crush on one of the show’s stars. In a twist of fate, Sarah Saltzberg (Keenan-Bolger’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee co-star) met said crush, John Ellison Conlee, during the Zipper Factory run of her revue Don’t Quit Your Night Job. At a “group hang,” Saltzberg slyly set up Keenan-Bolger with her Butter and Egg man.
Conlee quickly became embedded in the whole Keenan-Bolger clan, which includes Celia’s silbings actor/author/filmmaker Andrew Keenan-Bolger and playwright/activist Maggie Keenan-Bolger. Despite the height difference between the petite Keenan-Bolgers and the strapping Conlee, he fit right in. The couple gave birth to their first child, William Conlee, in April of 2015. This summer they found new levels of admiration for each other when they starred in their first show together: Clubbed Thumb’s absurdly hilarious Wild West musical, Tumacho. This month, Keenan-Bolger will take on the role of Varya in the much-anticipated revival of The Cherry Orchard beginning previews September 15. Her first Broadway outing as a parent—and her first time doing Chekhov—it’s proven to be a challenging experience that would not be nearly as possible—or fun—without Conlee by her side.
This summer’s Clubbed Thumb production of Tumacho was the first show you ever performed in together. How was that experience?
John Ellison Conlee: It was amazing
Celia Keenan-Bolger: I totally agree. Having just gone through the first year of parenthood, making something creatively together felt like a break, and also something that was just for us in a beautiful way. I don’t know how I would feel if John was directing me in something but…
JC: You’d feel great.
CKB: I think being two actors makes working together really, really fun.
Did you learn anything surprising about each other in the rehearsal room?
CKB: I’ve only gotten to see the finished product of John onstage, and to watch him play in a rehearsal room made everything so much more fun. I feel like everybody felt that way. I’m not even just saying that because I’m his wife. I was just so impressed at the way he was always in pursuit of what was funny or what was important. If he would do something one day and it got a really huge laugh, the next day he would almost always find another bit. I thought that was really, really impressive.
JC: I don’t know if I learned anything new, except that it was a reminder of what an extraordinary fan I am of my wife’s. Again, only having gotten to see the finished product, it’s just fun to see how it’s built. I think pretty much the whole world agrees on this, but being in a room with Celia and working on something is just a great thing. It was fun for me to be a part of that rather than just hearing about it, and knowing and understanding.
CKB: Yeah, I feel like both of us had moments where we were like, “I’m married to that person!”
That is so sweet! Celia, have you brought anything to The Cherry Orchard that you learned from John in Tumacho?
CKB: If only The Cherry Orchard was as full of laughs as Tumacho. I’ve never done a Chekhov play before, and it’s hard. And, of course, one of the things that’s really great about being married to an actor is that you can come home and talk about it. [When I was preparing] for my Cherry Orchard audition, I was so wary of my competence of being able to deliver that material, and John was super helpful in just talking about what things to have in your mind about Chekhov, which I took into my audition.
JC: They were all wrong, but she was able to overcome them. That’s how good she is.
John, had you done Chekhov before?
JC: Only in grad school. I’ve never done a professional production.
What did you tell Celia to help her?
JC: It was a similar conversation that we had when Celia was auditioning for Shakespeare at one point, even though doing them is really different. I think that there are barriers that people [who were trained in musical theatre] carry around. Celia is a really brilliant actor, and the technical skills in Chekhov are not anything that she can’t do. It’s just a question of doing all the things that she ordinarily does, and not being intimidated by the idea that it’s Chekhov. You can have awe and respect for the quality of the writing, but use that to help you, rather than to create a barrier.
Did that advice help you to wrap your head around The Cherry Orchard in a different way, Celia?
CB: Yes. Definitely. There are all kinds of ways that you can feel insecure as an actor, and it helps sometimes to just give voice to it and hear how you sound.
How do you make time for each other now? Was starring in Tumacho almost the same as a date night?
JC: We did get that a little bit by working together. We had lots of dinner breaks together and things like that, but we have tried to maintain at least the occasional date night, which I do think is an important thing for us to have—at least every once in awhile.
CKB: We are so lucky that we have a child who sleeps. That’s a huge part of connecting at the end of the day. We’re watching The Night Of right now, which though it may not seem particularly romantic, it is a highlight of my day to watch that with my husband after dinner. We were always a couple that was very invested in travel and in good food and making space for ourselves. In some ways, that’s been a hard part of becoming a parent, because obviously that’s just not as available to us anymore, but it’s also been a really great foundation. We had so much of it for so long that it feels like we built up a little reserve well that sustains us during the times when we don’t get as much of the other person as we might like. We were together for seven years before we had a baby, so we had some really wonderful experiences together and, in fact, had a whole conversation when we were talking about having a baby and we said, “Our life is so good. Are we really just going to give up all the freedom? Is that genuinely what we want?”
JC: And we did. It’s really been great, but that was a legit conversation, and I think it could have gone either way. We’re thrilled with the situation that we’re in now, but it’s pretty different.
Celia, is there anything else that’s surprising or refreshing about going back to Broadway and being a parent?
CKB: I went to all of the parents I’ve ever worked with prior to [becoming a parent] and said, “Did I ever say that I was exhausted or tired? Because I would never say that now.” I have so much respect for anybody who is doing it in this business, because it is a lot of work. I think this is true across every career, but the difference about being an actor is that a lot of the time you are being called upon to access your emotional reservoir, and if I leave my kid in the morning, and he’s having a really rough time, I bring that in to rehearsal with me, and I either have to figure out a way to use it or get rid of it. When I think of all of the parents that I have worked with, they never let me know that that was a part of what they were going through. I am just so impressed with people that are doing this in the business.
I know your famous family is also on hand to help out. For instance Maggie is watching William while you do this interview! John, when was the first time you met the Keenan-Bolger siblings?
JC: The first time I really hung out with them was also [our first] Thanksgiving [together], when we rented a little house in the Hudson Valley. Celia, Andrew and Mags had met up the day before and they were like, “This is such a great house! We’ll have Thanksgiving up here, and it will be fantastic.” I came up the next day, and it was a great house, but the whole kitchen had been part of a much older house and I could barely stand all the way up in the kitchen, which is a problem that none of the Keenan-Bolgers had noticed. I basically had to duck between the beams of the ceiling. That was my first Bolger family hangout.
Celia you guys probably felt right at home!
CKB: I remember John getting there and being like, “Is the reason that we feel so comfortable here is because it’s a miniature house?” It had not crossed any of our minds.
John did you feel like you fit right in to the Keenan-Bolger clan?
JC: I feel super lucky to be included in the Keenan-Bolger family at this point. That’s been really fantastic for me.
CKB: That’s honestly one of the things I valued so much in John early on. He didn’t try too hard to be a part of the family and was always like, “If you want some time with your siblings I can join later.” It’s a gift to be with somebody who’s emotionally aware and sensitive. It felt really organic because he didn’t impose himself. My brother and sister and I are really close, and I can imagine coming into that dynamic and wondering where your place is. We have had all of these references and jokes from many, many years. The fact that John was up for that and continues to be up for it, and really not only respects our relationship, but fits in so beautifully with my family is absolutely one of the great joys of my life, because I don’t think I could be married to someone who didn’t have a relationship with my siblings.