Grace Experience honed acting chops in NYC, returns to local stage
MIDDLEBURY — Lincoln native Grace Experience, who stars in the upcoming Middlebury Actors Workshop production of “The Turn of the Screw,” grew up in a swirl of creative energy. Her mother (Victoria Blewer) works with paint and photographs, her father (Chris Bohjalian) with words. But when she talks about childhood inspiration Grace Experience talks about discipline.
“My parents get up early and do the work,” she said. “It’s not that loosey-goosey artistic style you hear about.”
When the 25-year-old actress moved to New York City and began getting up at 5 a.m. to go stand in line for casting calls, she would think of her parents and their work ethic.
Her own work ethic was well-established long before she left home, however.
“She’s worked and trained like a professional since she was old enough to talk,” said Dana Yeaton, an assistant professor of theater at Middlebury College who mentored Experience early on. “Once, when she was still in grade school, she played Little Ti Moune in a college production of ‘Once on This Island,’ and she basically taught the college kids how a dedicated actor prepares for a role.”
Her dedication has begun to pay off. Grace Experience (that’s her real name — Grace Experience Blewer) recently signed with an agent and became a member of the Actor’s Equity union.
When Yeaton saw her perform in an Off-Broadway show this summer, it was “such a charge,” he said. “It was grownup Grace, owning the stage.”
Next month, theater audiences in Middlebury and Burlington will get a chance to see her in action when she plays the Governess in Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Henry James’s 1898 novella, “The Turn of the Screw.”
“I thought it would be great to get her back to her hometown to star in something so challenging and intense,” said the show’s director, Melissa Lourie. “She is young, trained and dedicated. She has lots of qualities for this part, including a certain delicacy, vulnerability and loveliness. But she also has a capacity for complexity, depth and intensity.”
“The Turn of the Screw,” a gothic tale of suspense, horror and repressed sexuality, is a staple of literature surveys and is probably James’s most widely read work.
A young governess journeys to a lonely English manor house to care for two recently orphaned children. But she is not their first governess. Her predecessor had drowned herself when she became pregnant by a sadistic valet, who was himself found dead soon afterward. When their ghosts begin to haunt the orphans, their new governess is determined to protect them, even as she herself is tortured by questions: Are the ghosts real or are they the product of her own fevered imagination? Are the children in danger or are they actually in league with the specters?
Hatcher’s adaptation distills the story into dramatic form, but with a twist: There are only two actors. Experience plays the Governess, and her co-star, Bruce Campbell, plays everyone else.
“It’s like they’re inviting you into a haunting story, using a combination of narration and acting out of the events described,” Lourie said. “There are no props, no costume changes, very little scenery. It’s very much in keeping with James’s intent: to make the audience use their imagination, and to create meaning out of ambiguous and tantalizing clues.”
At the same time, she acknowledges, these are extraordinarily strenuous roles.
“I feel very protective of my two actors because they have such a huge job to do. They are onstage at all times and talking continuously and the story reaches very melodramatic heights, so they have to be strong, vocally and physically and emotionally.”
Experience talks onstage so much that she’s begun to take care of her voice the same way she would if this were musical theater, she said.
Still, she knew right away that she wanted the role.
“It has a crazy arc,” she said. “The story is told from the Governess’s point of view, so she’s the vessel for what the audience is seeing and understanding.”
Working with a new adaptation of an old text put her in mind of Shakespeare, she said.
“The role has the feel of a Juliet or a Lady Macbeth. It may be an old text, but “The Turn of the Screw” still retains its sinister power. When Experience, a seasoned actor and award-winning audiobook narrator who was already familiar with the plot, sat down to listen to an audio version of James’s tale, she found it genuinely chilling.
“It was spooking me out when I was alone in my apartment listening to it,” she said.
Middlebury Actors Workshop brings the spooky to Town Hall Theater for four nights next week and after a 10-day break will bring their production to Burlington’s FlynnSpace. Presenting the show in dissimilar venues — Town Hall Theater’s vast proscenium stage space vs. the low-ceilinged basement-bar feel at FlynnSpace — poses a few production challenges, but in both cases Lourie is hoping to create “an intimate experience for audiences,” like “being told a spooky story in your living room, and having it acted out all around you.”
Though Experience would love to hang out more in her beloved home state, she will spend most of the 10-day break in New York, where her agent is “eager to get started,” she said. January and February will find the young actor in Boston for the Lyric Stage Company’s production of Sarah DeLappe’s “The Wolves,” an ensemble piece about a women’s soccer team that was staged at Middlebury College last winter.
But for now, she’s focused, happily, on suspense and the supernatural.
“Working with Melissa is a master class in itself,” she said. “She has high standards, which I love.”
“The Turn of the Screw” plays Nov. 1–4 at Town Hall Theater and Nov. 15–16 at the FlynnSpace. For Middlebury ticket info visit townhalltheater.org or call (802) 382-9222. For Burlington tickets email [email protected] or call (802) 863-5966.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].