Celia Keenan-Bolger and John Ellison Conlee Balance Theater and Parenthood With Tumacho

Leigh Silverman directs Ethan Lipton’s new play, a production of Clubbed Thumb.

"I worship these people. I want that to be the headline," director Leigh Silverman says of Celia Keenan-Bolger and John Ellison Conlee, the veteran New York actors who are starring in her Clubbed Thumb production of Ethan Lipton's new play, Tumacho, at The Wild Project.

But honestly, what theater fans don't worship them? Whether one listened obsessively to the Full Monty cast album (a show that netted Conlee a Tony nomination) or saw Peter and the Starcatcher multiple times (the play that earned Keenan-Bolger her second of three Tony nominations), it's hard not to adore this married pair of artists, who are only now working together for the first time, and performing in their first production since the birth of their son, William.

While Tumacho, a play with songs set in the Old West, may be hard for the pair to describe, it turned out to be the exact thing they needed to lure them back on the boards.

Celia Keenan-Bolger and John Ellison Conlee star in Tumacho at the Wild Project.
Celia Keenan-Bolger and John Ellison Conlee star in Tumacho at the Wild Project.
(© David Gordon)

How would you describe Tumacho?
Celia Keenan-Bolger: I have been in pursuit of this blurb. It's more complex and weird than anything else I have been a part of. I say that in a way that is exactly why I'm doing it, not in a "this is so crazy and I want to keep it at arm's distance" way. The first day of rehearsal, Ethan said, "I was really interested in writing something about violence and guns that appealed to my ten-year-old sense of humor." And I was like, "I'm on board with that."

He wrote it, I think, after Newtown. Who would have thought that would be such a huge conversation that we're still having? To make a piece about that [subject] is very hard without alienating people or making them think they're being preached to. So he was smart enough to set it in the Old West, where guns and violence are something we take for granted. John plays the mayor of a town.

John Ellison Conlee: And Celia plays Catalina Vucovich-Villalobos, whose parents were killed by Big Bill Yardley, the thug in the town, who's played by Danny Wolohan. And she's been plotting revenge ever since and practicing her gunplay on cacti and drowning her sorrow in booze. That's the one thing our characters share: We're both drunks, though hers is more justified, perhaps, than mine.

This is a company of heavy-hitters, with the two of you, and Jeremy Shamos, and Jennifer Lim, and Leigh Silverman directing. That says a lot about the quality of Ethan's play.

Celia: I agree. I kept saying, post-baby, it's going to take something really special for me to want to spend that much time away from this kid. And as soon as this came up, I said, "This is it." This is the thing I would feel so excited to be a part of, even though it reaches a small audience, even though we share a dressing room with zero space.

John: The reason we're all there is because we love this play so much. The economics of it, nobody could make a career, as an actor, of just doing things like this, but it enables a certain experience to happen, which is kind of the thing that made us all get into it in the first place. We really become part of a team, with the shared experience of having nowhere to stand in between scenes. It's actually really fun, as a change of pace. It reminds you of why you do it.

Celia Keenan-Bolger and John Ellison Conlee star in Ethan Lipton's Tumacho at the Wild Project.
Celia Keenan-Bolger and John Ellison Conlee star in Ethan Lipton's Tumacho at the Wild Project.
(© Elke Young)

Have you changed the ways you look at your careers now that you're parents?

John: It's slightly different for each of us. "What you will devote that amount of time to" becomes a different question. What is worth taking this much time away? We both believe that it's important for our child to see us working. The idea of sacrificing it all and being at home all the time is neither what we want, nor what we think is best for our boy.

This is the first theater thing either of us has done since he was born. You work long hours a day at a time, or a handful of days at a time, or even weeks at a time, but the schedule is just better, film and television-wise. I did a movie in New Orleans for five weeks last year, and Celia and William came down for about half of that time. I had some days off, a lot of days on, but the hours were better and I was able to spend time with them. You make a little bit more money, and when you're not working, you're not working at all. You don’t have to miss the tucking in at night. That's nice. But we both love the theater and will continue to do it.

Celia: Part of why I wanted to have a baby is that I felt like it would make my world bigger, which it certainly has. Except in one way. It magnified how much I love being an actor. There are people when I was pregnant who said, "You may never want to work again" and I was like "Maybe?" It would require a change in personality, but maybe that's what a baby does to you.

In other ways my world got smaller, in that I missed it pretty quickly. I didn’t feel entirely proud of that, either. Everybody says it goes so fast and this is the most magical time. As a mother, I was feeling like, "I would do anything right now to have some place to go and to do something else," and that feeling was uncomfortable.

All of this is a work in progress. There are going to be times where I really want to be around at this stage of his life, and there are other stages, like now, where I feel less like being there every minute of the day is important. That's life's work, figuring out what that is. But my tank is so full right now in a way I haven’t had in a while, and that is a lot to do with working in the theater, and working with my husband.

A photo posted by Celia Keenan-Bolger (@celiakb) on

In a way, you're both Broadway babies. What is it like to do a downtown theater piece as a change of pace?
Celia: What's great about doing something downtown, where the audience is not just necessarily coming to see themselves reflected and be entertained, is that you get to reach so many more people. We had friends come last night that said, "We saw a show with six Tony nominees, for eighteen dollars. That is such a gift."

John: [Clubbed Thumb] is a great organization. They're twenty years old and producing new playwrights, living playwrights, who have an opportunity to work on a show during the rehearsal process.

Celia: We live in a city where it feels like, to consume theater, you have to be one of the elites, or wait in line or put your name into a lottery for a year. Clubbed Thumb is making theater that everyone can afford, and that is something I really believe in and want to be a part of.

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Closed: July 9, 2016