Whether she is appearing on Broadway or off, in a musical or a dramatic role, Celia Keenan-Bolger infuses her work with a palpable, often-heartbreaking emotional honesty. For her Broadway outings, the Detroit native—who launched the first season of her Sunday Pancakes podcast on Playbill this past March—has earned Tony nominations for her performances in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Peter and the Starcatcher, and The Glass Menagerie, and she won Broadway’s top honor for her acclaimed portrayal of Scout Finch in Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
The Broadway favorite, who stepped back into the role of Scout opposite the Atticus Finch of Jeff Daniels when the memory play reopened at the Shubert in October, recently chatted with Playbill about returning to the critically acclaimed drama post-pandemic.
Can you describe how it felt to be back in the rehearsal room on the first day you and the cast reassembled?
Celia Keenan-Bolger: Well, it was both weird and wonderful. The results from my COVID test had not come in, so I had to run uptown and get a PCR rapid results test before I was allowed in the rehearsal room. For weeks, I had imagined myself walking into that first day with ease and openness and excitement, and instead I ran in late and sweaty. I was so happy to see some familiar faces from the original company and excited to meet the new cast members. But then we read the play, and that felt pretty wild. I performed Mockingbird for a year, and I've said those lines over 400 times, so there was a deep familiarity with what I was saying. However, the world is so different from the last time I said those words. I'm a different person since the last time I performed the role of Scout, and I began to wonder how I was going to bring this new self with my new understanding of the world to this material.
This story of racial injustice seems particularly relevant. Is there any part of the role or the show that speaks differently to you now or resonates even deeper following the events of the past 18 months?
CKB: I have been incredibly moved by the conversations the cast and creative team have been having around race during these past months. I processed the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery alone during the pandemic, so to be in a room with other artists talking about the history of racial injustice in our country felt not only important to the play but helpful for my life. Coming back, I have really had to sit with the two different systems of justice in To Kill a Mockingbird: one that protects Boo Radley and one that allows Tom Robinson to be murdered. I have some different ideas about how that lands on Scout in 2021.
What did it mean to you to win the Tony for this role?
To win a Tony for playing one of the greatest literary heroines of all time, in a play that is asking big questions about America's relationship to justice and race and compassion and community feels like an actual dream come true.
You started your Broadway career in musicals, and your last several outings have been in plays. Was that a conscious decision? Would you be interested in doing another musical?
I feel so unbelievably lucky to have been able to perform in both plays and musicals on Broadway. I trained in musical theatre at The University of Michigan and never really imagined I would get to be in a play on Broadway. But the vocal stamina required to sing eight shows a week in a musical became incredibly stressful for me, and so I started auditioning for more plays. It's been interesting because the vocal demands of To Kill a Mockingbird are so rigorous it's actually made me believe I could do a musical again. I can't wait to age into those really good Sondheim roles for women.
Do you have any dream roles?
I'm not sure that I have a dream role, but I certainly have people I dream about working with. I would love to be in a new play written by Amy Herzog with Stephen McKinley Henderson, Didi O'Connell, and James Saito, who are all actors I worship and look up to.
Do you have any other theatre/film/TV projects in the works?
During the pandemic, I shot a new television show for HBO called The Gilded Age. It's written by Julian Fellowes and is full of extraordinary theatre actors. I had never been a part of an ensemble on TV before, and I get to play the housekeeper of one of the households, so our little "downstairs" crew felt like we were making a play every day we came to work. I was also able to make a podcast that's distributed by Playbill with some of my favorite theatre artists during the pandemic. Since all of New York theatre was shut down, I wanted to see how my colleagues (Kelli O'Hara, Phillipa Soo, Joshua Henry, among them) were navigating the pandemic and what they had to face while we didn't have a space for creative output. It's called Sunday Pancakes, and you can listen to it wherever you get your podcasts.
What did you learn about yourself during the past year-and-a-half that you didn't already know?
I think my biggest takeaway from the past 18 months had to do with my relationship to motherhood. I've been working as an actor since my son was five months old. I love what I get to do for a living. But before this pandemic, I spent a lot of time feeling inadequate inside of motherhood. I felt guilty for working and for feeling exhausted all the time. I felt disappointed in myself for how difficult I found aspects of motherhood. Then the pandemic hit, and my family was together all day, every day. We ate dinner together every night. We sat through the mundane of an unscheduled day and the difficulty of virtual school. We learned to be with one another in a completely different way. And inside of all of that, I learned that I could, in fact, feel like a good mother, or at least a good enough mother. I am hopeful that I'll be able to carry that feeling into this time performing in To Kill a Mockingbird.