January 26, 2009: Barry Cauchon
Hi and welcome to another “An Awesometalk With”. Today I have the pleasure of speaking with Miss Laura Frances Keyes. Laura is a talented actress and researcher who lives in Rockton, Illinois. She has an impressive resume, having performed in over 30 different plays in the past ten years. But now, 2009 brings a new challenge for her. Laura is taking on her first ‘one woman show’ with a performance of Mary Todd Lincoln, a historical figure who is near and dear to Laura’s heart.
BC: Welcome Laura. It’s wonderful to speak with you today.
LK: Thank you. This is really an honor.
BC: Well, it’s actually an honor for me because I have never spoken with a Mary Todd Lincoln performer. So thank you for joining me.
LK: Of course!
BC: I want to start off by asking you about your ‘one woman show’. Would you tell us about it, along with the setting and how you portray Mary?
LK: Well, as you said, it is a one woman show. My working title is called “Mrs. Lincoln”. If I come up with anything snazzier later on perhaps I’ll use it (laughing). It is currently in development, which means that just a couple of weeks ago I was still doing research and I am still finishing up writing and editing the play. And in a sense, it is a play. Some people might call it just a 45 minute monologue but I consider it a short play because it has a setting. It has characters. It will have development. It has a short introduction and it will have an ending and not have me just saying a final sentence and walking out of the room.
BC: What is the time period of the piece?
LK: It will be set in the late afternoon of Friday, the 14th of April, 1865 which, as many scholars will know, is just a few hours before the Lincolns leave the White House to go see the play “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC.
BC: That’s an interesting time period you chose for Mary Lincoln for sure. What lead you to use that particular moment as compared to a different one in her life?
LK: Well, to be perfectly honest, I did choose another time period in her life to start off with. My first thoughts were to set the one woman show in the middle of 1875 when she was confined to Bellevue Asylum after she was declared insane.
But through a number of persuasions and other decisions, I decided to go with this.
I did choose this day because there had been so much sadness in Mary’s entire life. Her mother died when she was 7 years old. And people just kept on dying throughout her life. By 1865, she had lost two of her sons, her father, and her grandmother with whom she was very close. Many of her brothers and brothers-in-law she had lost, not physically, but emotionally, because they had fought for the Confederacy. In essence, they were lost. She never spoke to them again. She had known so much loss in her life.
But then, for five days, from the 9th of April, when the war ended, to the 14th of April, that was probably the happiest time in her life. There was nothing bad that could happen. The war was ended. She might have been looking forward to reconciling with some of her siblings although that’s very unclear. We do not have definitive evidence one way or the other. So to answer your question I set the play on this day because it was so happy. There is evidence in letters and journals that said Abraham and Mary were both so happy on this day. They took a private carriage ride and were looking forward to when and where they would retire, after his term was over. And then the whole world comes down around her ears.
BC: So by choosing this particular setting, you’ve put Mary in the moment before the crisis, in the calm before the storm. It’s a really nice piece of theatrical staging because your audience knows what’s about to happen, but you, as Mary, are not yet at that stage. You…are still in that happy place.
Briefly how is the play set up? Do you just speak for 45 minutes or is there a preface before the start to help explain the premise?
LK: There will be a short introduction done by another individual. Usually the host of wherever I will be performing. And that introduction will be written by me and I will just hand that person the card to read. And as you said, it will simply set the scene, it will remind the people of the date, because I do think that is important to really make clear that Abraham is still alive. Then the program will be for about 40 minutes followed by a social time for me to answer questions that the audience might have.
BC: You’ve really impressed me with your vast knowledge of Mary Lincoln. You’ve obviously done an incredible amount of research on her. From what you told me before the interview, you have a background in professional research. Do you not?
LK: I do indeed. I have Masters Degree in Library Studies which I earned in 2007. And before that, I was English major. And so I am very used to doing lots of research and writing about it. The difficult thing in this process has been to write this performance because I’m used to writing in a detached, academic way. I’m not used to writing in first person. I’ve had lots of fun while doing it. Many times I would just continue reading the books and then I’d have to go back and remind myself to take notes.
Many of the books written in the past three years have been of great benefit to me because some new evidence has come to light regarding Mary Lincoln. And they have been more…well researched. That’s just my opinion but I think they are better researched than ones from a couple decades ago.
BC: And you’ve obviously combined this talent for research with your love of acting. As I hinted at the beginning of this interview, your resume is quite extensive. I was quite amazed to see that you have performed in over 30 different plays since 1999.
LK: That is correct. And that is how I got involved in this.
BC: And to that point, our audience should know that this is not the first time you’ve played Mary Lincoln.
LK: You’re absolutely right. This whole thing started a little less than a year ago when a friend of mine that I had previously worked with called me up and she said “I’m going to be doing a play in the summer and I want to send you a copy”. Now we’ve acquainted with each other for awhile so I knew that she was not outright telling me that she was going to give me a role. That would have been unprofessional. However she definitely wanted me to read it and she wanted to know my opinion of it. And in conjunction with the sesquicentennial of the Lincoln-Douglas debates (http://www.lincoln-douglas.org/) that were first given in 1858, Freeport, Illinois (which was a site of one of the original debates) was going to produce a play. And their original intent was to produce a play about Lincoln. And when my friend, Lynn Jones, was searching for a play, she actually found that a lot of plays about Lincoln were kind of boring and kind of dull and kind of blah! And they always ended the same way. And so she found one simply called “Mrs. Lincoln”. It was written by Thomas Cullinan published in 1969. It was very gripping. One year ago I did not know everything that went on with Mary and her being declared insane. After reading the play I started my own research. So when it came time to audition I was there the first night. And still, I was shocked when Lynn cast me in the role of Mary. Mary was 56 years old in 1875 and, at that point in time, I was 25 years old. I was shocked. I thought that she had made a joke, but she said that I could do it. And it took me a couple of weeks to be convinced that I could do it.
BC: And just to clarify, the setting for this particular play is 1875 versus 1865 which you will be doing now.
LK: Yes. That play that I did in the summer of 2008 was set in the summer of 1875 when Mary Lincoln was declared insane by a court of law and confined to Bellevue Asylum in Batavia, Illinois. It was very intense, but I found that I was immediately drawn to Mary and to her story and to her struggle that she went through to be understood – to try and convince people that she was not insane. And that’s why I first started to do my research. I shared whatever I found with the rest of the cast.
BC: You mentioned that when you played 56 year old Mary you were 25 at the time. So to age you on stage, that must have been an interesting process. How did they accomplish this and will you be following a similar approach in your current play?
LK: First of all it won’t be a similar situation if only because right now I am portraying Mary at 46 and because I want to keep the idea of her being happy and, in a sense, full of life I’m not going to age myself that much.
However things could change. Perhaps I will receive comments that I should age myself. But for now, my decision is to keep her young looking.
Regarding what happened in the play, early on we made that decision that we were going to age me actually beyond 56. Our aim was early 60s because our thought process was that Mary had been through so much stress in her life. We did have one photograph of Mary taken in 1875. And she looked older; she looked old and tired, like a very stressed woman. And so our aim was to make me look like someone in her early 60s.
I had a team of one hairdresser, two make up artists, and a personal costumer who worked on me every single night. And it was such a process! It took an hour and twenty minutes from start to finish. On the last performance, I asked someone to take photographs of me going through every stage of the process. I wanted to remember this. Not only did I want to remember the people who helped (because I couldn’t have done this on my own), I wanted to remind myself that it took a long time to get into that. And that was just the outward appearance of her. I had to work on adjusting my posture. Not just because I was in two different corsets throughout the play, but it was the idea that one would not have moved very quickly in 1875. Nowadays we are used to moving very quickly – jumping up from your desk or go running and talk to the person over here and answer the phone. But back then there was no reason to move very quickly…unless there was a fire or something.
LK: I had to work at moving a little bit more slowly, but not so slowly that people thought I was under water. I did read somewhere, but can’t remember the reference, that she did suffer from arthritis so I tried to be careful of that. Also, I added some gestures and little ticks just to make her an interesting person because no person is ever perfectly, perfectly still. They have little habits that people don’t even notice that they are doing. And there are other little things that I added, especially in one scene where Mary has a very long discussion with her son. There were moments of silence which were actually very uncomfortable on stage. As an actor you’re trained to never want silence… you always want something going on. Well there had to be silence in this scene because the silence spoke just as much as the words – there is a reason why these people weren’t speaking. And so I had to think of something to do while there was silence. And so all of these outward appearances, they all came together to be Mary Lincoln.
I put so much time and effort into this, that when it was over I cried because it was such a wonderful experience. But I never thought that it would continue.
BC: You had a lot of really great feedback on your performance and because of that it started you thinking about portraying Mary again. Is that correct?
LK: Yes. Three different people within three weeks called me and asked if I would give a talk on Mrs. Lincoln. And at first they didn’t want me to come dressed up. They thought that I would just come and share my experiences and share the research that I had done. The first person that asked me I said “Oh, maybe. I don’t know. Let me think about it.” And the second person that asked me I said “Oh, well, that would be interesting.” And by the time the third person asked me (and these people did not discuss amongst themselves. I know they didn’t) I was so surprised I actually said “You know, there might be something to this . . .!” And that’s when I started talking to some friends who are Civil War re-enactors. My friend Donna said “Oh Laura, this could be great. You would love to do this. This would be perfect for you.” And so it was through the help of a number of my friends, especially these Civil War re-enactors, that I started down the right path on First-Person Interpretation.
BC: What is the premise of your one woman show? Do you address the more somber side of Mary? Her history of mood swings, ill temperament, etc. Or does the play center on just the happy time you discussed earlier? Is any of Mary’s history brought up in the story?
LK: This one woman play won’t really address the different mood swings and behavioral issues that were very prevalent in the play that I did and have been much commented on. And I’ve decided not to address them because I would like to focus on the good times and the happy moments. I have set up a situation where Mary is talking with her seamstress, Lizzy Keckley, who is also a little known person in history. But Lizzy is slowly making a comeback.
BC: …a former slave who became her seamstress.
LK: That is correct. By many accounts, they were very close friends. Lizzy was a seamstress who owned her own store in Washington DC; She closed that down in order to be a companion to Mary Lincoln. And they were very close. There were many letters showing that they were very close friends. And so the situation that I have set up in my one woman show is that Mary is reminiscing to Lizzy and the audience just happens to be there and be listening in.
BC: I did want to ask about you how you got into theater? Did your family get you into it or visa versa?
LK: Kind of visa versa. I was always interested in theater through elementary school. When I was in 5th grade I had the lead role in the Wizard of Oz – I was Dorothy.
BC: That’s not on your resume (laughing)!
LK: It isn’t because that was 5th grade.
BC: Thirty-one plays and counting!
LK: Throughout high school I took theater classes; I was in the drama club. And it broadened my horizons to learn that sometimes it doesn’t matter how talented you are, the director still casts her favorite.
LK: So soon after that, I did branch further out into community theater. I became involved with a few theater companies. I was on the Board of Directors of one for a while. And after a few years, I began to get my father involved. My father has a very good singing voice and has always been a bit of a clown. Slowly but surely I got him to audition for things. And to this day, he really enjoys doing it. He’s had some very good roles and I’m very proud of him.
The rest of my family has gotten just a little bit involved. My younger sister was happy to help with costumes and such before she got into Nursing school which takes up a lot of her time right now. And my mother enjoys being on the script committee and participating behind the scenes.
BC: Did you make your own costume or dress for this?
LK: I did not, no. While I do have a number of costume credits to my name, I purposely tried not to volunteer myself for doing a lot of things for the play in the summer of 2008, because I knew I would be really involved learning all those lines. I did do little things such as point out lots of historical inaccuracies (laughing). After awhile I think that those costume and prop ladies didn’t like my suggestions, although I was trying to be nice about it. But I would point out things like “You know, they didn’t have Velcro back then. You might want to change that”. Or “They didn’t have plastic back then, might we get a cup made out of china”? They had a ball point pen on stage …
LK: … and I said “No, no, no. fountain pens I believe were invented in 1885. We’re talking about 1875. No one has a time machine here”!
And so for my presentation, I’ve actually purchased one of the dresses that I wore in the play. It was leant to the theater by a local seamstress and once I knew I was doing this presentation, I called her up and I made her an offer and she accepted it. The dress is very well made. It had to be adjusted just a little bit as the hemline was a little short for me. The dress was adjusted by my friend Donna and now it fits me wonderfully. It looks gorgeous. I had my portrait taken in it…
BC: …which looks fantastic. Two of the photos are posted here in this article.
LK: Yes, thank you for including them. The photographer Andrioli did a wonderful job.
I did make many items that will be used during my presentation – my reticule, things like that that. Also …umm, okay, I made all the underclothing; there I can just say it!
LK: …but you’ll never see those. And that’s actually many layers of underclothing that you’ll never see that I made myself.
BC: Knowing what Victorian undergarments even looked like along with knowing what was required to make those dresses … ahh … ‘puff out’, is definitely not my specialty (laughing) as you can tell.
BC: So I will trust that your sewing talents have been true to form.
Umm…after that awkward little moment, let me ask you this Laura. Where and when is your first performance?
LK: It will be on the 12th of February, Abraham’s birthday. And it will be at Talcott Free Library (www.talcotfreelibrary.com), here in Rockton. The ladies there have always been very good to me. A couple months ago when I when I first started this research they noticed that I was checking out lots of Lincoln books and I was requesting Lincoln books from different libraries. Eventually they agreed that any new Lincoln books to come in, I was the first one to get them. And so it’s kind of a small town library atmosphere. But I’m really looking forward to it. I will truly be amongst friends when I do it for the first time.
BC: Terrific. Do you have any future plans or hopes?
LK: I did receive, through a third party, a name and phone number of a woman who wants me to give a performance for them back in Freeport.
Also, I have just received an invitation to do the same presentation for a group of librarians in Rockford (IL) in April, so we are just making those final arrangements.
I have applied for membership with the Association of Lincoln Presenters which is an association that has about 250 members.
BC: And that’s nationwide, too!
LK: That is correct. They have number of members from all over the nation. This association does have a website and also a link to Abraham and Mary presenters that interested parties could contact. I’ve yet to learn if I have been accepted into the Association. I had to write some small essays in order to apply for membership.
They have a very good mission statement. On the application form, they asked me what evidence I could give them to show that I have done this before and if I had, had I done it successfully. And so I had nothing to give them except the newspaper clippings that were written for the play. I was interviewed for the newspaper a handful of times during the summer of 2008 while the play was going on. So, I sent that in and hopefully I will learn about that soon.
BC: Laura, I hope it really works out for you. It’s been a very interesting and informative interview and I’ve really enjoyed talking with you today. Is there anything you’d like to share with the folks here before we close off?
LK: I want to say thank you to you, Barry, and everyone else who is reading this interview. I appreciate the interest in Abraham and Mary Lincoln. I really do. Even though I am not a history major, I’ve always been interested in history and as some random famous person once said “Those who do not know history are cursed to repeat it”! I do agree with that in the sense that I think everyone should know their history. My personal mission is that I want to educate people of Mary Lincoln’s true life. There are so many books out there but a lot of people would much rather sit and listen to a 40 minute presentation rather than sit and read a book that would take them a weekend to read. So that is my mission. I can only hope that I accomplish that mission and I thank the people for being interested in reading this blog and for possibly coming to see a performance.
BC: Laura, thank you very much.
LK: Thank you.
BC: If anyone is interested in contacting Laura to book a performance, you can either contact her at the following email address: Keyes97 AT aol DOT com or leave a message on my email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll make sure she receives your inquiry.
Other interviews posted to date: