My ears perked up the other evening when Nina Hellman, who is giving an affecting performance as Olivia in Greater Clements, told me what goes on in the women’s dressing room before, during, or between performances. “We have a table where we do jigsaw puzzles. We’re on our third one now. It shows a geisha in a flowing kimono, with clouds in the sky.”
I practically leapt at the metaphor: doing a play requires the assembly of multiple pieces, turning things over here and there to see what fits. How has Hellman, whose Olivia is leading a petition drive to save what she considers essential to her small Idaho town, put together her character? How does she envisage a typical day in Olivia’s life?
Hellman answered: “Olivia always checks in with Maggie” – played by Judith Ivey. “Maggie is the centerpiece of Olivia’s life. They are half a generation apart, so Maggie is not quite a mother and not quite a sister. Olivia looks up to Maggie and cares deeply about her. Maggie was there for her at a difficult time in her life. So Maggie is crucial to Olivia’s well-being, but so is caring about her town.”
And once Olivia’s typical day is over? Hellman said the character goes home to fix dinner. “During rehearsal, I wondered just what her husband does. I thought perhaps he’s a lawyer, who is helping all the people from California who are buying up property in the area. They’ve raised three kids, who are now all out of the house. So the play takes place at a crucial moment for Olivia – she’s suddenly an empty nester.”
Hellman’s own upbringing was non-Western. “I spent my first 11 years here in New York, and then in Westport, Connecticut. Acting was something I was drawn to as a child. I was always in the plays at camp and at school.” After two years at Colby College, in Maine, Hellman transferred to NYU, where she completed a BFA in the school’s experimental-theater wing.
I asked Hellman to describe her routine during the course of doing Greater Clements. She replied, “I usually get here an hour before curtain. I go into one of the free rooms backstage and do 10 minutes of yoga. That centers me. It gets the New York City out of my head and lands me in Clements. Then I get dressed. Edmund Donovan” – who plays Joe – “and I usually head backstage five minutes before curtain and have our check-in. We ask each other about our days went – we work out the various trials and tribulations before going on.”
Greater Clements makes significant emotional demands of its actors. How have they affected Hellman? “Most actors have this over-abundance of empathy that we carry around. This play in particular has brought that out in deep ways that have become more apparent with each week. The heartache of the play can weigh on you. Sometimes, after I do a big scene, I’ll cry a little after I come offstage, because the emotion of the scene was so much. It’s a release, but in a good way.”
Hellman said that Olivia maintains her mental health not only by keeping close to Maggie but by taking classes. “She’s always learning something new – jewelry, pottery. It’s not just about making art but about being around people. She takes the classes in Coeur d’Alene, which is probably a 45-minute or hour-drive away from Clements. Those distances are normal outside New York City. My family goes to Maine every summer, and you can’t go anywhere without driving for an hour, either on the highway or on the back roads.”
Hellman has her own craft-centered hobby. “I needlepoint backstage. I call it ‘mindless productive busywork.’ It’s mindless yet you’re producing something.”
As our interview wound down, Hellman and I returned to those backstage jigsaws. “One of the things I’ll most remember from doing Greater Clements is the day when we decided to get going seriously with the puzzles. The women in the cast ran around backstage, rummaging through rooms to find a table to do the jigsaw. That was such a great moment of community. We’ve really taken care of each other backstage, just like the characters try to do in Clements.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com