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(From top) Kelsey Mathes, Jacqueline Raymond and Amanda McDowall, photographed in New York City by John Emerson.
Theater grads in New York pursue their dreams with grit and creativity, determined to succeed on their own terms
Story by Laura Barlament
On a Saturday morning in August, Kelsey Mathes, BFA ’09, and three other members of the musical theater improv group Big D and the Closers are rehearsing in a small, stuffy room—a typical Manhattan rent-by-the-hour studio space. Musical theater improv is what Mathes does. She also acts professionally, on stage and on screen; writes plays, one of which was produced this spring; studies to become a health coach; works 40 to 50 hours per week at a West Village bar; and runs a theater production company, which she founded late last year with fellow UB theater alumnae Jacqueline Raymond, BFA ’08, and Amanda McDowall, BFA ’10.
For now, though, Mathes is fully immersed in an “invocation”—an improvisational form. “How does the invocation start? ‘I am’?” inquires Frank Spitznagel, the pianist accompanying the group today.
A chorus of voices blurts, “It is, you are, thou art, I am.” “IIIIII am,” Mathes sings dramatically, echoed by teammate William Kean in baritone. “Let’s cut the ‘I am’ segment,” objects Miles Lindahl, another team member. After a few more quick words of discussion, Kean calls out, “Let’s just do it, let’s go!” “Yeah, all right,” says Lindahl. He turns to the reporter in the room: “We need an object, please.” “Ball,” she offers. “Ball? Ball,” echoes around the room.
One second of silence, and then Spitznagel plays two dramatic minor chords.
“It is spherical!” Lindahl declares, followed by two more suspensefully modulating chords.
“It is globular,” Mathes emphasizes. Chord, chord …
“It is the plaything of children,” Kean cries. Chord, chord …
“It is cooovered in muuuud,” intones the final team member, Patrick Reidy.
After a few more rounds of invocation, the pianist begins a jaunty tune, and Lindahl starts singing along: “We’re having a great day … We’re haaaving a great day. … And things look sooo optimistic … We’re haaaving a great day!” Mathes and the others join in for another round, harmonizing as if they were reading off a sheet of music and building to a grand finale of, “We’re haaaaving a great day!”
For young actors in New York City, “having a great day” does not come easily, but Mathes, Raymond and McDowall are improvising their own creative identities and careers with tenacity and commitment. Last fall, the three close friends who met at UB decided they weren’t going to wait around to be cast in their dream roles. Instead, they launched their own theatrical venture: The Radium Girls, a company dedicated to promoting women’s roles and women’s voices.
Ever since she can remember, Raymond has wanted to be on stage. She dates her conscious decision to become an actor to age 7, when she performed in the musical “Annie” and cried all the way home after the last show, because she didn’t want it to end. “It’s a strange thing that kind of picks you,” she muses. From her home in Saratoga Springs, she followed her older sister, Monique Raymond Cohen, BA ’05, to UB. There was no question that she would major in theater.
One year later, Mathes arrived at UB from the Rochester suburb of Fairport, where she had fallen under the spell of Midge Marshall, Fairport High School’s beloved drama program director. (Claim to fame: Philip Seymour Hoffmann was a Marshall protégé.) As a high school sophomore, Mathes had seen a touring production of “Rent.” Her face soaked in tears as Mimi and Roger confessed their love, she decided, “I wanna give people that feeling. Not crying,” she clarifies, “but feeling.” A few days later, her father asked what she was planning to do in college. “Theater,” she said. And that decision never changed.
Meanwhile, in Queens, McDowall was following a similar track. The deal was sealed for her when she won admission to one of New York City’s performing arts-focused public high schools, the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts. She, too, came to Buffalo to be a theater major, one year after Mathes.
The three women got to know each other well in the very selective and intimate theater program. Faculty like Maria S. Horne, an internationally known master teacher, became powerful role models for them. “We had kick-ass female professors in our department,” says McDowall.
One of Mathes’ favorite roles at UB was Juliet in a Shakespeare adaptation that she, Raymond and other UB students staged at a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) theater festival in Romania. Raymond, meanwhile, enjoyed meaty roles like the headstrong Lydia Bennet in a stage version of “Pride and Prejudice.” McDowall ran the annual student review, “From the Wings” (good preparation, it turned out, for running a theater company), and starred in the boundary-breaking play “Tattoo Girl” by contemporary playwright Naomi Iizuka.
The three women worked with enormous dedication, balancing heavy courseloads, rehearsals, work and classes. After graduation, they all moved to New York City—trained, confident and ready for anything.
Scene from The Radium Girls’ recent production of “Five Women Wearing the Same Dress.”
“In school, they told you, ‘You can play every role you want, and that you have the potential to book any role,’” says McDowall one recent day in her Harlem apartment, which she shares with Kevin Zak, BFA ’10, a fellow Buffalo theater alum.
“But I’m at this audition, and there’s 300 of me,” she says. “What do I have to do to make myself stand out of the crowd?”
That, the three women have all found, is the essential challenge of making it as an actor. Talent, training, energy, passion—they simply aren’t enough. Among the reasons they cite for not getting a part are: 1 inch too short; 1 inch too tall; didn’t like the shirt you were wearing; wearing the wrong perfume; hair the wrong color. “I’ve had so many moments where I’ve been sitting in a casting office and been so close,” says Raymond, “but ultimately didn’t get it. It feels tangible yet so far away.
“In school,” she adds, “you learn technique and craft. You watch all of the great performers, and you read all of the great plays. When you get out, you have to learn how to market yourself. You only learn that by jumping in.”
“It’s a business,” Mathes chimes in.
That’s not to say the three haven’t won parts. At the same time, they have learned how stereotyped women’s roles can be.
McDowall, for example: With her curly brown hair, curvy figure and husky voice, she’s usually cast as “funny, or bitchy or the sidekick.” “Some roles have been good,” she says—she especially enjoyed a short, independent comedy film she appeared in this year, “Future Assassin.” “And some I just chalk up to experience,” she adds.
Although Mathes has struggled to distinguish herself from (in her words) “all the other girls with brown hair and blue eyes,” she has started to find her niche. She enjoyed her work with “School Spirits” for the Syfy network, for example, which reenacts reports of on-campus paranormal events. “It was an amazing experience of what being on set is like,” she says. She spent about six hours in a swimming pool for one episode, doing laps to the point of exhaustion. Is she a swimmer? “Not really,” she says. “That’s why I’m an actor. To experience life from different points of view, to live another life for a few minutes.”
Raymond is represented by two agencies, which is a huge step for an actor. She’s in the adult and youth departments—and because of her small frame and high-pitched vocal range, she is almost always cast in teenage roles. “I’ve been cast as a character named Minnie,” she laments, and she recently voiced Sally Brown for a “Peanuts” animation. But she has also played Tricia in the play “Dog Sees God,” which reimagines the Peanuts characters (Tricia = Peppermint Patty) as troubled teenagers, at an off-Broadway theater. One reviewer called her “the perfect ‘Mean Girl.’”
At the same time, the reality is they also have to have “survival jobs,” as Raymond calls them: McDowall is a wardrobe supervisor—she regularly works for Juilliard and picks up work for organizations like the Joffrey Ballet. She is also a teaching artist at the Harlem School of the Arts, an after-school program. Mathes works full time at a bar, and Raymond is a maître d’ for a restaurant and sells skin-care products.
“You need to be able to sit in the middle of this teeter-totter,” says Mathes, holding out her hands like the scales of justice. “And keep them in balance. You are your own enterprise, and you have to treat it as such in order to survive—for your own sanity, and to get in front of the right people.”
“You never have a day where you’re not doing something,” says Raymond. “You’re always running, running, running.”
Then, they decided to start setting their own pace.
One day late last year, Raymond and Mathes took a scene study class together. It’s the kind of thing motivated actors do to keep themselves sharp. While rehearsing, they got to talking—and dreaming. “We said, you know, let’s do something we can be in control of,” recalls Raymond. McDowall joined in the conversation about roles they’d like to take on, books they had read and plays that had inspired them, in particular, plays in which female characters were not just talking about shopping or men.
Within a month, they had held a launch party for their new company, The Radium Girls (TRG), named in honor of an inspiring group of women from the early 20th century (see sidebar). “The great thing about TRG is that each girl brings something interesting and necessary to the spectrum,” says Kashana Young, one of the company’s major backers. “There is nothing these girls can’t do. If there is, thankfully for us, they know their limitations. TRG are grounded and realistic and do not waste time with fanciful dreams.”
There was no time for “fanciful dreams” between TRG’s launch party in December 2012 and the May 22, 2013, opening of their first show, Alan Ball’s comedy “Five Women Wearing the Same Dress,” at Manhattan’s Bridge Theatre. The three pulled together and did everything from securing a theater to learning their parts to casting the other roles to selling tickets.
“Our professors always told us about this,” says Raymond. “‘You’re going to be doing theater in the smallest spaces. You’re going to be sweeping the floors yourself, doing your own hair.’ For this show, I was hanging wallpaper, sweeping floors, acting and producing. I was like, ‘Wow, this is exactly what they were talking about!’”
They swept up quite a few talented collaborators along the way and inspired them to donate their time and talents—people like Jaime Torres, a friend of McDowall from her wardrobing work, who did the costume design. It’s a key position in a play that revolves around five bridesmaids for a Southern summer wedding. “[The dresses are] supposed to be tacky without actually looking terrible,” Torres explains. He located peach-colored readymade dresses and added lace and beads to fit the part, and created hats for them as well. “I logged a lot of hours,” he says with a laugh. “It was a lot of hand-sewing. But I had a very personal connection to the show and wanted to give them the best they could get.”
The work paid off. Two among the attendees of their sold-out audiences were Henry and Jo Strouss, who got to know Mathes from her “survival job” as a bartender and have become her patrons. “It is easy in New York just to go to performances on Broadway,” says Henry, “but it is critical for young performers to enter the profession for the art to survive. Working on a shoestring budget, these young women put on a highly enjoyable show.”
For The Radium Girls, though, the biggest triumph lies in the opportunity they took to define themselves. “When your vision, your point of view is clear, everything falls into place. That’s what they don’t teach you in school,” Mathes says. “Cultivating your own importance, your own way of doing things, is when you hit gold.”
Laura Barlament is a New York-based freelance writer and editor of Wagner Magazine at Wagner College in Staten Island.
While Jacqueline Raymond, Kelsey Mathes and Amanda McDowall were mulling over a name for their new venture, Mathes heard a podcast and McDowall read the book “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee, which includes the story of the early-20th-century female factory workers known as the Radium Girls. These young women worked for the United States Radium Corporation in Orange, N.J., painting watch dials with radium-laced paint—a substance the company deceitfully told them was harmless. After they contracted cancers, some of the women fought back in the courts and won. Their efforts led to groundbreaking worker-protection laws.