The following is the final part a 3-part series of interviews on the forthcoming play, The Girl With the Red Hair. Written and directed by Anthony Laura, and featuring Casey Hartnett as Hayley Jones, Vivien Cardone as Doctor Watkins, and Samantha Yestrebsky as Courtney Dawson/Azura, The Girl With the Red Hair will begin a two-week run on December 5th at The Alchemical.
The opportunity to explore the inner-workings of a play, as it transitions from table read to stage has been one of the more fascinating explorations of the art I’ve made. Special thanks to Anthony Laura for offering me this opportunity. The Girl with the Red Hair is heartfelt, brilliant in scope, and has left a lasting mark on my perception and perspective of mental illness.
To close out the series, we delve into the characters of Courtney and Azura, the girl with the red hair, both roles played by Samantha Yestrebsky.
Starring Casey Hartnett as Hayley Jones, The Girl with the Red Hair, is an exploration of the damage rendered by sexual abuse, of a mind in turmoil as it attempts to cope with experiences far too extreme to process. In the ever-deepening shadows of the girl she once was, who is Hayley Jones, and will it be enough to simply be a survivor?
With The Girl with the Red Hair, Anthony Laura captures the true struggle of Hayley Jones in a troubling yet empathetic light. With the added insight of Casey Hartnett’s approach to portraying Hayley, they remind us that a victim’s experience never ends. That the struggle of coping is a solitary and difficult journey that pits the mind with the heart in a fight neither can truly win.
An Interview with Samantha Yestrebsky
Samantha Yestrebsky hails from Owasso, Oklahoma and moved to New York in 2016 to train at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts where she received her Associate’s Degree in 2018. During her time at the Academy, she performed in Blood at the Root, written by Dominique Morisseau and directed by Kareem Fahmy, and Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 1 as Charles and Somerset, directed by Lisa Milinazzo. She also side hustles as a librarian and dog walker. Samantha was recently nominated for Best Actress in a Drama for Mosaic at the New Jersey Webfest.
As an actress, you need to dig deep into a character to completely understand who she is. Who is Cortney Dawson, and what does her connection to Hayley say about her?
Cortney Dawson is a young woman who has been through a traumatic event and is having a hard time coping with it, hence the behavioral health facility. The specific reason she’s at this facility is not mentioned, but from what we can gather throughout the play, she is extremely intelligent and empathetic. I believe during her time at the hospital she hasn’t had much luck with getting a diagnosis, or getting help, which I believe leads her to shut herself off emotionally from the doctors and other patients. Hayley Jones is the only person who seems to understand her, and for some specific reason I don’t think we can palpably dissect, a small part of her feels vulnerable and free around her.
The Girl with the Red Hair delves deeply into depression, mental illness, and sexual abuse. How has the journey of Hayley Jones altered your view of these issues in your life?
Hayley’s story hasn’t necessarily altered my view on mental illness, but has actually validated it. I’ve always believed these stories need to be told in an unbiased way, without projecting any kind of political stance to the audience. I think it’s refreshing to read a play like this that encompasses all aspects and ranges of mental illness.
What appealed to you about the role of Cortney? What did you feel you could bring to the character?
I think many reasons why I took this role, and why many actors feel connected to roles in general, is that they see a part of themselves in a character. Cortney is extremely intelligent, honest, compassionate, and just so happens to have been living in a behavioral health facility for the last year of her life following a traumatic event. Cortney’s story deserves to be completely free of judgment, and I feel like I’m able to share her story from an unbiased perspective.
Toward the end of the play, Cortney tells Hayley a story about her grandmother. What do you believe she hoped to convey to Hayley in that moment?
In the scene, Hayley tells Cortney that she wishes people understood her. Cortney decides then and there that she’s going to allow herself to be vulnerable in order for Hayley to realize that sometimes it doesn’t matter if people understand or believe us, because, at the end of the day, we alone are the only people who fully comprehend exactly what we’re experiencing.
In addition to Cortney, you also take on the role of Azura—the girl with the red hair. How does your preparation differ for multiple roles?
Anthony made it incredibly easy to differentiate these two characters. The writing alone is usually all I need to prep for these scenes. Many times, when playing two roles, I want to make sure these two people are different in terms of physicality, the tone or pitch of their voice, their style, their hair—and I make a conscious decision about each aspect. The writing of this play honestly made all of those pieces come together naturally.
Azura mentions the sadness in the song Puff the Magic Dragon. She says Hayley is like Puff without his roar. What do you think she’s trying to say to Hayley?
Azura sings this song to Hayley because she believes there’s a fire inside Hayley that has diminished, and she knows that Hayley needs to get her wildfire back. In reference to a line Tabatha says in the play, “Some of us are supposed to be at this hospital, waiting for princes, and others aren’t.”
Both Azura and Cortney seem happy, yet aloof, both with their own memorable lines. Is there one line for either—or both—that sticks with you?
The most important line Azura says that sticks out to me is, “You really are a superhero, you know?” Although this is one of her more serious lines, I think it encompasses everything you need to know about Azura—she truly believes in the good in people, no matter what.
What about you? Do you believe in the good in people?
Truthfully, sometimes it’s really difficult. I want to! I really do, but living in a big city, you see a lot of bad things, and believing in the good in everybody can sometimes get you in some not-so-great situations. That’s why I really love playing Azura, because she’s so extremely different from me! It’s really refreshing to see the world through her eyes.
The art of writing and performing a script requires a great deal of collaboration between actor and director. In what ways did the collaborative effort affect the roles of Courtney and Azura?
I’ve worked with Anthony on a couple of different projects and I really respect and admire his approach to the work. The number one reason is because he trusts his actors. He allows me the freedom to explore my character (in this case, characters) and let me do my work. I feel free to make new choices with him, and he trusts me to pick whichever ones feel best to me.
What do you want the audience to take away from the roles of Cortney and Azura?
This is such a hard question for me because I believe a character’s purpose is to serve the story, and my job is to serve the character and tell their story as truthfully as I can. There are so many themes and motifs and images that are being expressed here and I believe it’s up to the audience what to take away from the play. With so many different themes I think each person is going to take away something different that they personally connected with. I’m so excited to talk with people who see the show to hear their thoughts and opinions on what they think the play is about!
The process of staging a play takes considerable time—from the first table read to the first performance. What about this process do you find most enjoyable, and to that end most frustrating?
My favorite part of putting on a show is absolutely the rehearsal process. Second to that is the table read because those are where the first genuine moments and reactions take place, but the actual rehearsal is my favorite part. We get to play around so much with these different characters and find choices that work and choices that don’t work and that’s where I find the most enjoyment. There is so much that happens in rehearsal that the audience will never see and to me that’s really special. On the opposite of that spectrum, I can’t think of anything I find frustrating about the process at all! I really do love everything about the process.
Tickets for the upcoming run of The Girl with the Red Hair are available now. For those considering the idea of attending, what would you tell them?
I would tell them they need to see it! This show is just genuinely good theatre, which I think sometimes is hard to find. It will leave you asking questions, discussing moments, and creating theories about the end of the play. We’re a cast and crew of passionate people who believe in telling good stories, and that essence shines throughout the whole show.