Before Hildegard von Bingen became a saint, before she even became one of medieval history’s most powerful and creative women, she spent 30 years locked in a cell. Much of that time was spent sharing a room with a woman who not only taught Hildegard how to read and write, but was a foundational figure in her extraordinary life. And yet history has largely forgotten Jutta, an anchoress (a person who isolates him or herself to lead a life dedicated to isolated religious studies) whose hardline approach to life—and towards Hildegard—captivated singer-songwriter actor Grace McLean.
In the new musical In The Green, McLean asks us to consider a historic figure’s early life and the woman who raised her. “Hildegard spent half of her life not engaging with the world, which was amazing to me because her philosophy was very ahead of its time,” says McLean. “She led such an explosive life. What was the origin of that?” The world premiere of In the Green, directed by Lee Sunday Evans at Lincoln Center Theater’s LCT3, marks McLean’s professional writing debut and stars the composer, performer, and playwright in the role of Jutta. The musical depicts Jutta and Hildegard’s fraught mentor-mentee relationship while also looking at the kind of trauma that might lead a young woman to confine herself to a cell for life.
“In addition to writing about powerful women, maybe forgotten women, and definitely flawed and human women, I’m interested in writing about trauma,” says McLean, “and trauma that is particular to women.” One way McLean has done this, is to have three actors—Rachael Duddy, Ashley Pérez Flanagan, and Hannah Whitney—all playing opposite her as different versions of Hildegard. “Not only was that choice about finding a way to embody [Hildegard’s] explosive and uncontainable qualities, it speaks to her trauma as well,” says McLean. “It’s a vehicle I’m using to speak to her deep understanding (as evidenced in her writing) about suffering, doubt, and depression.” Jutta, too, is fractured, her shadow played by Mia Pak. It’s a highly theatrical approach, which is at the heart of how McLean approaches storytelling.
With In the Green, she combines the singing voices of her cast and the music of a four-piece band with live looping technology. Most of Jutta’s songs are performed as solo numbers, using McLean’s own voice—looped over several times—as accompaniment.
A longtime devotee of Hildegard and her work, McLean pays tribute to a little-known figure on the sidelines with In the Green. “I’m interested in the people who are near the really successful figures and what their stories are,” says McLean. “[Because] they usually get lost…and I didn’t want to brush her aside.”