Preparing for the stage is an extended process. After learning your character(s) over the past several months, how would you describe them?
Nicole: Pamela Jones is lost. She loves her daughter dearly but doesn’t know how or why. She is reactive and switches from being fiercely independent to utterly needy in the space of a conversation. Her mental illness is her crutch, downfall, and trophy. The world would revolve around her if she only knew who she was.
Pamela Jones never knew what she wanted to be when she grew up. She wasn’t good at much. She did things, not because she wanted to, but because it was what she thought she was supposed to do. Some days the world is her oyster and playground, other days even the outside seems like an aggressive adversary. Life is exhausting, and she often wishes she never lived it.
Michelle Watkins is flailing. An accomplished doctor who truly cares about her patients, if she can fix them now, she can focus on herself later. She is very intuitive but doesn’t sit still long enough to use it. Michelle Watkins hasn’t been on a vacation in a couple decades. If she were to slow down long enough to focus on herself, she wouldn’t know what to do with it. Personal time is a punishment. Too much time to think.
Michelle Watkins hasn’t thought about a romantic relationship and over a decade as she is already in a co-dependent relationship with her patients and aunt. She has been so ground down by taking care of others that her own self-worth is completely tied up with her success rate at work.
Her mother didn’t know how to love her, so now she seeks out all of those who feel abandoned…except herself. Unfortunately, healing doesn’t include looking in the mirror.
Chelsea: After spending some time with Janice Brooks, I would describe her as a tough lover. She tells it how it is but there is always a level of gentleness accompanied with it. She’s a hard worker who cares about the best interest of her patients and the facility. She is resilient, gracious, inviting but simultaneously a firecracker.
With Hayley, it’s clear that her mental health has been affected by a multitude of things. What do you think we can do better as a society to recognize the signs of a mental health crisis and help individuals like Hayley get the attention they need before things spiral out of control?
Nicole: Mental health and Neurodiversity are a part of everyone’s life whether they choose to admit it or not. For generations, mental illness has been condemned, marginalized, and shamed in a way that blamed the patient. Unfortunately, those stigmas are only now being challenged, but, as a young member of Gen X (or Elder Millennial), I can say that things are getting much better and I have hope for the future. Millennials and Gen Z have normalized so many things that were hidden away when I was growing up. Seeing the status quo of shame around weight has shifted to a celebration of body-positivity. The same goes for sex and gender. The speed in which these social and medical mores have shifted is even more amazing. While some people my age and older see younger generations as “snowflakes” or “weak” for issuing trigger warnings before speaking about sensitive issues or announcing their pronouns, the fact is, these generations are the first to truly follow the golden rule. Empathy is being celebrated over “strength”; well-being is finally more important than how much one can “handle”. Killing ourselves in a job for money is becoming an archaic idea dropped in favor of personal truth and fulfillment. Self-care is finally being encouraged. The entire paradigm is shifting. Thankfully. All of these factors are conducive to a society where people actually care about one-another. As a result, mental illness is finally beginning to be seen as it truly is: an illness like any other. Trauma is finally being acknowledged as the too-common cancer that it truly is. And most importantly, individuals are beginning to be able to live their lives as they truly are. As these generations grow, they are beginning to take their places in the positions of power that dictate systemic norms, and they are making changes accordingly. It may have taken some time, but we are well on our way.
Chelsea: I believe as a society we have to know the signs of a mental health struggle first because in order to be aware you have to have the knowledge on what to look for. And from there it’s only about actually listening and being present for the people in our lives we see struggling. It’s easy to get caught up in our stuff but it’s important to look around and effectively communicate/check in with those you love.
The role(s) you played aside, what character do you resonate with the most and why?
Nicole: I resonate most with Hayley. I think most people will in one way or another. Within her confusion we find insecurities that we all share. Through her illness she asks the questions we all ask ourselves. We might not know exactly why, but her fear is familiar. That is another reason I love this show so much. Through Hayley, we are given permission to ask ourselves the questions we know need to be asked, and mine our own subconscious for the answers we may be afraid to acknowledge. She teaches us a lot about being human.
Chelsea: Definitely Coury! He is just so sweet and never meaning to say the wrong thing but can often find himself doing so. He feels deeply and conjures up the strength and the words to be expressive. I don’t know, I think in some way Coury is all of us (laughs)
If your character(s) could leave the audience with one message about mental illness, what would it be?
Nicole: Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. Shaming it is.
Chelsea: It isn’t linear. It isn’t only presented in one way. Every character is going through their own struggle and we all see how differently each one handles it. That is a testament to life.
The process of performing gives you repeated runs through the entire script. What is the one scene, monologue, or line that sticks with you, or stands as your favorite?
Nicole: Wow. Let me try to say this without giving anything away. When it comes to Dr. Watkins, every interaction with Hayley is something special. Jaclyn is such an incredible force of nature in this show, and we have such strong chemistry (along with everyone in the cast) that each scene is different every time. Watkins is fascinated by Hayley, and I’m lucky enough to get to be fascinated by Jaclyn every show. So, we never know what’s going to happen, but we are always excited to find out. When it comes to what most lives in my head rent-free, as Pamela, the memories that are played out onstage are only second to the memories we’ve created for the history of the Jones family…both good and bad. Something the audience rarely knows is that, as actors, we spend a large amount of time creating the life stories of the characters we play. Those crafted memories become the reason we do and say what we do in the moments you see on stage. So, for me, they are some of the most joyful and devastating parts of the show that no one outside of the cast ever gets to see.
Chelsea: My monologue about the girl with the red hair will always be meaningful to me because it means different things every time I do it. It’s a touching moment between the two of us and really sets the tone for our relationship.
What was it about the story of The Girl with the Red Hair that drew you to it?
Nicole: This show is so hard to explain. It is touching, violent, sexy, sad, joyful, painful, and true all while being theatrically innovative and quickly paced. These characters grab you and don’t let go, even after the show in some cases. It’s one of those shows that ensures you will need a drink and a conversation after the curtain falls.
Chelsea: It’s a unique story with a female driven cast! What more could you really ask for! (Laughs) Anthony is an amazing writer who captures the nuances of each experience he touches on in a way where everyone can see themselves in the story.
At one point, Nurse Janice offers to Hayley that “People are hard because life makes them that way.” Given her comment is regarding Doctor Watkins, do you agree with her perspective?
Chelsea: Yes I still agree with that statement. Watkins is going through her own set of struggles that influence her decision making. No character believes they are wrong. Whatever actions they’re taking, they truly believe it is for the greater good. I know that Doctor Watkins feels that exact way even if her methods clash with Janice’s.
As a matter of professional necessity, Doctor Watkins keeps an emotional distance from Hayley in their sessions. How did you prepare for this aspect of the role, and did you agree with her approach?
Nicole: Dr. Watkins tries to keep an emotional distance from Hayley, I’m not sure that she succeeds. In terms of preparation, I did my homework, learned a lot about trauma and the biological and psychological aspects of mental illness. I studied different courses of treatment and paths to diagnosis, but that will only take you so far. Emotionally, exhaustion plays a large part in Dr. Watkins ability to remain professional. Her situation at home is one I have personally gone through, so I can strongly identify with what that does to person…and I use that experience to inform her emotional state. I won’t say if I agree or disagree with her approach because that would be judging her, and as an actor I can’t do that. Ask me after the run is over…lol.
If Pamela Jones could change one thing about the way she raised Hayley, what do you believe she would change? And more importantly, would she have the ability to see it through?
Nicole: As Pamela, I know that she regrets many things about the past. One of the biggest is probably her own self-care or lack thereof, but again I won’t comment on how or if I think she could have changed the past. I will say that either way, it wouldn’t have been easy, and it may not have prevented what is happening in the present.
Nurse Janice comes off a feisty, but fiercely protective of those in her circle—a “firecracker” as you mentioned earlier. Is it this something you could relate to, or something you learned from?
Chelsea: Absolutely. When it comes to those I love, I do not play around. I will never allow them to hurt in my presence if I can help it. My love ones fuel me and they are whom I get my strength from. Janice gets a lot of her strength from her patients as well. Her ability to care for them and do her job well means everything to her. My ability to love and be there for those in my life means everything to me too.