Magazine Feature

‘Rachel Calof’: A United Solo Festival Play

Written by Meagan Meehan for AXS.

"Rachel Calof” is a play with music inspired by a real woman of the same name. “Rachel Calof” tells the story of a Russian Jewish immigrant who came to the United States, at age 18, in the 1890s as a “picture bride.” Prior to her arrival in the U.S., she had never met her future husband or his family. Upon settling in North Dakota and running a homestead, Rachel survived many hardships with humor and perseverance.

She and her husband created a life in Devils Lake, North Dakota where they lived in a 12’x14’ dirt floored shack at the edge of the prairie with her in-laws, her husband’s brother, wife and children and two dozen chickens and a cow. Rachel went on to have nine children and, at age 55, she wrote a memoir in Yiddish. After her death in 1954, her children discovered her memoir and found her pioneer memories fascinating. Her writings were published in 1995 by Indiana University Press.

In the show actress Kate Fuglei portrays Rachel Calof. Kate was a company member of the first National Broadway Tour of “Spring Awakening” and played the part of Mrs. Webb in “Our Town” at the La Jolla Playhouse. She has played leading roles at theaters across the country—including the Guthrie Theater, Arena Stage, Shakespeare Festival, L.A. Shakespeare Festival, Utah Shakespeare Festival, and many more. She has also been seen in eight feature films, four films for television, and has over thirty television credits—ranging from “NCIS” to “Masters of Sex.” Recently, Kate spoke to AXS about her experiences working on this play and in the theater industry in general:

AXS: What inspired you to become an actress?

Kate Fuglei (K.F.): I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska and when I was ten my mother took me to a high school production of "Camelot.” I remember distinctly the moment I heard the song "I Loved You Once In Silence” which is about the deep pain that has come from a passionate but illicit love, and I felt sorry for the character, Guinevere. I understood that someone had written this song capturing this emotion and here was someone in Omaha making me feel so deeply. And I said to myself that I wanted to be able to do that, too. My high school drama instructor in Omaha, of all places, was a distant relative of Henrik Ibsen and so Mr. Ibsen had us doing "Ghosts" as freshmen as well as researching and writing our own plays. Not the usual high school fare. It was all incredibly inspiring.

AXS: Growing up what kinds of shows-plays, TV shows, movies, etc.- had the biggest impact on you? Why?

K.F.: Many people will remember their first movie as a Disney romp or some other children's film. The first film I remember seeing was "The Apartment" written and directed by Billy Wilder. I have no idea why my aunt and uncle took us to a drive-in to see this but there you have it. I'm sure they thought we'd fall asleep in the back of the car and my cousin Susan certainly did. But I remember being fascinated by the plight of Fran Kubelik played by the amazing Shirley MacLaine. Of course I was too young to understand exactly what was going on but I was completely captivated by her emotional life. I remember, too, the images of the hundreds of desks at the beginning and the whole feel of the film. I have been a lifelong Billy Wilder fan because of his combination of humanity, darkness, attention to detail and of course humor. I would say another strong influence was my time at the Guthrie Theater. I didn't have the money or the support to go to a fancy acting school but was lucky enough to be hired as an understudy/spear carrier (in this case a candy seller in Garland Wright's gorgeous production of "Camille") and for over three years’ time I had the great privilege of watching some of the best actors imaginable rehearse and perform while being surrounded by some of the most talented craftspeople in the business. I learned about giving total attention to preparation and research, how to be effective and productive in a rehearsal, how to maintain a performance over time and how to be giving to other actors. The two actresses which most affected me, and who I still admire above all, were Barbara Bryne and her Amanda from "The Glass Menagerie" and the great Lois Smith and her Ranavskya in "The Seagull". To me, they were/are my personal "gold standard" of acting.

AXS: You have appeared on both stage and TV. What are the pros and cons of both these formats? Do you like one more than the other?

K.F.: In my opinion anyone who says that the two mediums are the same and you just need to be a good actor is totally wrong. I feel that they each require a completely different set of skills. In the theater, for one thing, there is usually much time given to rehearsal, quiet contemplation, time backstage prior to going on, preparation. On a set, one must have that focus internally and hold onto it for dear life. My very first experience in front of a camera was for the television show "Picket Fences". I was a reporter yelling an endless list of questions at the character played by the exquisite Kathy Baker. As the camera was rolling, two of the background actresses were complaining about their pantyhose, two make-up artists came up to fix something on my face and when action was called I couldn't remember one line to save my soul. I finally got through it but what a lesson. Kathy Baker came up to me afterward; she seems to somehow understand that I wasn't an unprepared dolt, just new to it all, and she said, "My dear, you had the hardest job in that scene." I love the collaboration, the time in getting to know the other actors and artists and their vision that happens in the theater. I can't speak to what it must be like to work on a film as a lead for months because my roles in film and television have always been supporting ones. But one of the things I admire greatly on a television or film set is the vast amount of skill and stamina that each person must have to make it all work. The make-up artists, the crew and people who work behind the scenes often work fourteen hour days for days on end. I am always fascinated by the energy surrounding the "star" of the show or film and how it all changes when they sweep onto the set. Over the years here, I have gathered more and more respect for the camera persons and most specifically the directors of photography. I don't think people realize how important they are.

AXS: Thus far, what has been your favorite role?

K.F.: Blanche DuBois in "Streetcar"; I was given great advice from a brilliant actress, Helen Carey, who played my mother in a production of "Crime And Punishment" at Arena Stage. She had also played the role and when she found out I was going to do it, she said that she thought Blanche was not crazy in the least, not weak but totally justified in doing everything, very smart and very funny, just in the wrong situation. I was also able to prepare for the role with the great acting teacher here in L.A., Janet Alhanti, whose specialty was Tennessee Williams and Clifford Odets. The play is constructed so brilliantly that in every scene there is something visceral, physical, that happens to set you off. All you have to do is to get on the train. I was so fortunate to work with the amazing actor Marco Barricelli as Stanley, which didn't hurt either. It was a total, incredible experience; great role, great fellow actors, great play.

AXS: What most appealed to you about the RACHEL CALOF story and character?

K.F.: I am totally fascinated by this question: what makes a person resilient, able to come back, to survive horrible circumstances and brutal life situations? Is it something in the hard wiring or something in the way they are raised? So many people, myself included, were touched by the story of Louis Zamperini whose life was detailed in "Unbroken.” I had the great privilege of meeting him and talking with him not once but twice. He was very funny, humble, uncluttered, straight-forward. I imagine Rachel to be the same way. In fact, family members who grew up knowing her have told me this. She came from a horrible childhood, and I came from a tough background in many ways. So I have always been greatly interested in how people create love and loving families when they haven't experienced this. Rachel did all of this and it is my hope that in seeing her story and feeling her resilience, it will give hope and inspiration to others.

AXS: How did you come across the book the play was based on?

K.F.: A friend who was a docent at the Gene Autry Museum here in LA came across the memoir in the bookshop. She went to a quilt show at the Skirball Center in which a quilt made by Rachel was the centerpiece of a lecture. Halfway through the lecture, an elderly woman at the back stood up and said, "I am Rachel's granddaughter." My friend met and spoke with her. It was pretty amazing and my friend gave me the book saying, "This would make a great one person show." I read the book in one night because I couldn't put it down. I resolved then and there to create a one person show based on the book.

AXS: What has been the reaction to the play?

K.F.: It has now been performed in NYC and across the country even in Devils Lake, North Dakota, the site of Rachel's homestead. It seems to provoke a sense of connection, among many people, about what it means to be an American, or at least how they themselves are connected to the American spirit with their own family journey to this country. It seems to remind them of the sacrifices their ancestors made in order to come here, to stay and to make a life here. There are also universal experiences evoked; the difficulty of the in-law relationship, how a marriage grows and changes, what children mean to a relationship and what happens when they leave.

AXS: I hear that Rachel Calof's family is very supportive of the piece. Tell me more about that.

K.F.: Getting to know the family, the descendants of Rachel, has for me been one of the richest and most rewarding experiences of this work. They are the living examples of the beauty and deep meaning of her life. They are the gift to America and the varied examples of how immigrants have made this country what it is. Over sixty-five descendants came to Devils Lake North Dakota to see performances there. They came from all over the US, Canada, and one came from France. They are rabbis, doctors, therapists, teachers, parents, lawyers, film executives, dentists, you name it. I get emails all the time from family members and descendants, most recently a whole branch of Abraham's family in Israel, and so the ripples of connection keep growing. I have become good friends in particular with Joyce Aronson, Rachel's granddaughter, who lives not far from me here in LA. She is an incredibly intelligent, empathic, talented woman who has the trunk that Rachel brought when she came America in her home. Stan Calof, another grandson, who lives in Minnesota, has also become a great friend. When I performed the play there, he had a party at his home with five of the grandchildren and their many children and grandchildren. It was incredibly moving to me.

AXS: If you could be in any kind of film or play, what type of movie or show would you star in and why?

K.F.: I can only answer this with a list of artists that I deeply admire and would like to work with. A partial list, of course, as I could go on for quite a while with people I would like to work with. Stephen Sondheim, Kathryn Bigelow, Alexa Junge, Martin Scorsese, Michael Mayer, Michael Greif, Shonda Rhimes, Jeffrey Tambor, Twyla Tharp, Lois Smith, Jeanine Tesori. These are artists whose work has moved me and inspired me in the past year. I just worked yesterday with the amazing actress Martha Plimpton. I found her to be absolutely incredible. As a military Mom (my older son is in the 75th Ranger Regiment) I would also like to work on material which gives the public a nuanced view of the military, soldiers, military life and military families.

AXS: So far, what has been the most rewarding thing about being involved in the entertainment industry?

K.F.: The passion and fearlessness that I see and experience in the people who work in it; the focus, the courage to explore the contradictions in life, the mystery of what it means to be human and the beauty of their work, the friendships that have come from working together in such intimate and deep ways.

AXS: Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like to mention?

K.F.: I am gathering material and working on a cabaret show. I am lucky enough to have the incredible singer and artist Karen Morrow as a teacher and advisor.

AXS: Do you have any advice to give to someone who is aspiring to become an actress?

K.F.: I will quote David Brooks, whose column in today's New York Times about Lady Gaga should be read by any aspiring artist. "You have to have an equal amount of vulnerability and courage." You have to have a continuing passion to explore your deepest contradictions and to bring them forward in all their beauty and ugliness. And stamina--endless stamina!

Tony Howell