Education Dramaturg Ted Sod spoke with Kelli O’Hara about her work on Kiss Me, Kate.
Ted Sod: You've played some major roles from the musical theatre canon (such as Anna in The King and I, Nellie in South Pacific, and Babe Williams in Roundabout’s production of The Pajama Game). Why did you choose to do the role of Lilli Vanessi/Kate in Kiss Me, Kate? What do you find most challenging and exciting about this role?
Kelli O’Hara: I chose this role and show for the sheer fun of it. We did a one-night gala staged concert two years ago and had such a fun time that we decided to turn it into something. Thankfully, I have been playing some very rich characters in the past few years, but they have included some very dark storylines during a very dark political climate. So returning to this fun, feisty character on the stage, singing the way I love to sing, felt like a bit of a cleanser. I also love the people I am working with, and that is a huge factor for me right now as well. Finally, being able to choose that is something I am really grateful for.
TS: What kind of preparation or research did you have to do in order to play this role?
KO: As with every role, I deeply research the period, the material the piece is based on, and the text of the piece itself: its background, the score, and my relationship to all of it.
TS: Was reading Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew part of that preparation?
KO: Of course.
TS: Please give us some insight into your process as an actor?
KO: Hmmm. Processes vary according to the material and the circumstances for me, I suppose, but getting to the truth of a character and her journey is always very important to me. By that, I mean finding ways I can believe in her and make her human—both Lilli and Kate. This is (hopefully) accomplished in many ways, but, with this piece, mainly through the collaboration with my partners—like Scott Ellis, Warren Carlyle, Paul Gemignani, and especially Will Chase, among others—who, if all else fails, make my work joyous. I also take into account the time and political climate in which we are performing this piece, and how that will affect how to communicate it and how an audience might receive it. This process will be fun and challenging as we pay respect to its original form while adapting it to find its relevance today.
TS: What do you think Kiss Me, Kate is about?
KO: Well, I know it is about the wonderful world of theatre, putting up a show with a diverse, artistically colorful group of players, all bringing their personal histories to the table. It is about love and loss and love again. It is about desperation, baggage, and debt. It is about the one thing I love most in the world: being an actor in the theatre.
TS: I realize the rehearsal process hasn’t begun yet, but can you share some of your initial thoughts about who Lilli is with us?
KO: Lilli is an actress. She has been around the biz for quite a while. She is strong, but vulnerable in this moment. She is NOT a shrew. She has great insecurities, but ultimately, she is fair. Maybe lonely. Fun. Funny. Complicated and good. She is human.
TS: How is Lilli relevant to you?
KO: I have to find relevance in every character I play, because I have to believe in her, but for Lilli in particular, I think she is a woman in a powerful position. How she uses or abuses that power will be in the spotlight, as if the world is waiting for her to fail as she is directed by a man, man-handled by greedy doofuses, and put in a box by a wealthy male politician—all in the name of money and power. Yet, in the end, she is the one who extracts herself from the chains, swallows her pride, and chooses what she wants for herself. As we will play it, she doesn’t need to apologize for her choices, but instead, hopefully will help us all to recognize the occasional human failure to collaborate. She will ask for change and be heard.
TS: Will you talk about your understanding of the relationship between Fred and Lilli?
KO: My understanding is filtered through rose-colored glasses. I do these classic love stories because I believe in them. I believe Fred and Lilli love each other and always have. I believe it has been tumultuous, that neither has gotten over the other, that show business and stubborn egos have gotten in the way. I believe in them.
TS: Do you think of Fred as a real-life version of Petruchio? Or is Fred Lilli’s Svengali?
KO: The actress playing Lilli could never believe that Fred is like Petruchio. Lilli knows Fred is just posturing; otherwise, how could she believe in him? I wouldn’t give Fred that much satisfaction or credit to call him my Svengali. Fred and Lilli are equal players. Not every actress/starlet needs a Svengali seducing them, building them up, making them stars. Some women work their asses off right from the start, make their own careers, and fall in love on their own terms. They started together in the chorus. If Fred strayed after that, well, you can ask him why.
TS: What do you think binds them to one another?
KO: Chemistry. History. Love. Art. Fire. Love of ham.
TS: What do you look for from a director, choreographer, and music director when you are collaborating on a role?
KO: Consideration, teamwork, laughter, confidence.
TS: Where were you born and educated?
KO: Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, raised mostly in Elk City, Oklahoma, finished high school in Edmond, Oklahoma, went to college at Oklahoma City University and acting school at The Lee Strasberg Institute in NYC, and the school of life.
TS: What keeps you inspired as an artist?
KO: Open communication, education, and understanding. And love.
TS: Public school students will read this interview and will want to know what it takes to be a very successful actress—what advice can you give young people who say they want to sing, dance, and act in the musical theatre?
KO: I would ask them to define “success” for themselves. If they love this work and get to do it at all and with some consistency, that is success. And if they truly love it, always be true to themselves within it. If they expect anything else from it or compromise themselves to get it, rethink.