Interview: Kimber Elayne Sprawl Returns to the North Country
Sprawl stars in Bob Dylan and Conor McPherson's haunting musical at the Belasco Theatre.
Girl From the North Country had the unfortunate distinction of being the last show to open on Broadway before Covid shut everything down. This acclaimed musical, featuring a haunting, Depression-era story by Conor McPherson set to the music of Bob Dylan, had taken a while to move uptown from the Public Theater — roughly 18 months elapsed between its off-Broadway premiere and eventual Broadway bow, the same amount of time between the Covid shutdown and its recent reopening.
At the heart of it all is Kimber Elayne Sprawl, who plays one of the leads in this ensemble piece, and has seen the connections this show has built among its cast family across long periods of absence firsthand. But returning to the piece this time is different. So much has happened in the last year and a half that it couldn't not be. But still, there are the constants — family, friends, and the prophet that is Bob Dylan. Here, Sprawl tells us what it's like to be back.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How does it feel to be back?
It feels really good. I'm happy to be back with the cast, and I'm happy to have a schedule. I don't think my body was used to being so tired again, and I wasn't used to dealing with so many people at one time. You forget how much energy it takes to just be in a theater with 50 people, to interact and show up and be present for them. I think that was the most exhausting part for me. It's a lot of energy just to keep up.
You all had done the show at the Public, and then there was a long break before you moved to Broadway, and then right after you guys opened at the Belasco, there was obviously another long break. Knowing that history, what was it like to return to the Belasco to start up again and reconnect with everyone after such a long time?
It was surreal. I was talking to Austin Scott and I was just like, "I feel like we're in an alternate universe." It feels like we were just here yesterday, you know what I mean? I showed up in my dressing room, which I share with Caitlin Houlihan, and it was exactly the same. I forgot that we had decked it out. It was unreal. But we've always been connected. It never left. It's not lost on us that if we want to create that family spirit onstage, we have to invest in each other, as people and artists. And we got new cast members and welcomed them right away, and I guess that was instantaneous.
With all that has gone on over the last year and change, with Covid, with Black Lives Matter, with the general cultural shift in the world, does it feel like the same show now, or does it feel different?
I think things are ultimately different, and for good reason. I feel different, and I know everyone in the cast is different. Everyone's more conscious and our producers and general management has done such a good job with showing up and making sure that they not only support us with, like you said, Black Lives Matter and things like that, but that it's put into the workplace and we actually have action.
Really quickly, we hired a Black woman to do my hair. I wear my natural hair in the show and I had been doing it myself and it was super tedious and exhausting. It felt like a full-time job. And they came to me and they were like, "Listen, we understand that we haven't showed up for you in the past, and we're making it a priority to have someone there to do your hair." Because everybody else, all the white women in the cast, they have someone on staff to do it. It took a while, but we interviewed people and they were very open to the things that I needed as a Black woman.
How does it feel to be doing this particular show, with the themes of connection and family and loss, after everything that we've lived through?
Honestly, this show continues to teach me something. We've been doing it since 2018 and I've learned a lot of lessons with this text. Even now, there are things I experience that are so indicative of what Conor and Bob Dylan are talking about. The show is just so special that it's been super healing. Bob Dylan is a philosophical genius, and he and Conor are always talking about how genius the other person is, even though I think they've only met twice. They're not friends, and yet, through their work, they just respect each other so much. If Conor is talking about Bob, he's like, "Yeah, he's a prophet." And Bob wrote us a letter to read at our reopening night, and he was like, "To be able to work with Conor is one of the highlights of my career." They just get each other on some, like, unconscious plane that nobody else is privy to. And I just feel so lucky to be in the middle of it.