Facing the Storm Together: An Interview with Cody Nickell and Kate Eastwood Norris

A storm is a great metaphor for all the chaos and turmoil in our lives. But what happens with the storm is not only a metaphor but a literal storm breaking down the door? Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company is now presenting Obie Award-Winning Clare Barron’s Baby Screams Miracle on the 2017 side of its current season. In a TheatreBloom exclusive sit-down interview, we’re speaking with yet another married couple housed within the company to explore the working dynamic of this mighty storm in this powerful work.

Thank you both for giving us your time, if you’d give us a quick introduction, we’ll get started.

Kate Eastwood Norris
Kate Eastwood Norris

Kate Eastwood Norris: I’m Kate Eastwood Norris and I’m a company member here at Woolly. And in this last year, though this may all not be in this last year, but you’ve probably seen me at The Folger in Mary Stuart, and in Animal at Studio. And the last one here was Stupid Fucking Bird.

Cody Nickell: I’m Cody Nickell, I’m playing Gabriel in this play, Baby Screams Miracle. This is my first show as a Woolly Company Member though I have done other shows here. I did Clybourne Park, The Vibrator Play, Stupid Fucking Bird. And I was also in Mary Stuart and Animal both here in DC.

You guys work together quite frequently. Is that by chance or intentional?

Kate: It’s interesting. I think it’s that we work well in a room together. We don’t argue too much or make-out too much, from the other end of the spectrum. So we have that chemistry there and we really like it. We’re based out of North Carolina right now so we travel together. Theaters get two actors out of one housing, so that works out pretty nice. It just sort of happens that way.

Cody Nickell
Cody Nickell

Cody: I would say it’s more by design than by chance. We didn’t used to work together very much and then we were making sure that we each met the other’s directors and went to the other theatres that we were each working at. People started to get to know our work, and they started to like having us work together and that juts fell into place. We would make sure that everybody knew when we were available together.

Kate: Sometimes we don’t have a scene together, or only a very small one.

Cody: Like in Mary Stuart.

Kate: Oh yeah. I had about ten seconds where I fell into your arms and that was it.

Is it challenging working together often? Do you find that it gives you an advantage, maybe gives you an upper hand? Or does it make it more difficult?

Cody: I don’t think it makes it more difficult at all. The upper hand I would say comes into play in a few ways. I think it gives us that built in chemistry, I think we come in with this short-hand that we have that is helpful, and I think we feel pretty free together in the room. We trust each other. So we know that whatever choice one of us makes the other one is going to support it, play with it, and lift it up. I think we bring some pretty big strengths to the room because we know each other so well and because we work together so well. We’re also very different.

Kate: Yeah, we work very differently.

Cody: The way we work is very different from one another so it’s not like we’re colluding or taking up more of the oxygen or energy in th room. We both bring a lot of different assets to the table that balance each other out.

Kate: The only difficult thing I would say is out of the rehearsal room like when we’re at home. Say if I was frustrated that day but he had a really great day, when we get home he’s my husband so he has to listen to me be frustrated, you know what I mean? Sometimes it’s hard to stop talking about the show at home when you want to stop talking about the show. Work comes home with us but the roles don’t.

What is it about Baby Screams Miracle that drew you into wanting to work on the project together?

Kate: Well, Howard (Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz) we love Howard. He’s directing this one. And he’s the most gentle mad scientist in the world. I love him and he’s crazy and so smart. We love Woolly and we’re both company members here but also, for me, the play is wild. It has lots of technical elements that I just want to be a part of watch happen. The two people— we actually play a married couple in this— they’re having some troubles but they love each other. It’s just a real relationship. I thought it would be really fun to play. I think it’s very different from what usually play, these two characters. It’s not a tempestuous romance or something Shakespearean. It’s very real people struggling and loving. These people happen to be very devout Christians. So I thought that would be neat to put that on stage without mocking it, which this play does not do. I thought that would be an interesting thing to do. That’s what I have to say about it, what do you have to say about it?

Cody: First and foremost for me it was the script. I think this play is unique, lovely, and a voice I hadn’t seen represented on stage, which I thought was really important. I thought these characters were really beautifully, delicately drawn while being so funny. I think it’s a very funny play and a very touching play. I think Clare (playwright Clare Barron), her voice is unique. It’s something I hadn’t come across and I just needed to tackle that. It’s really very a truly an ensemble piece and I love being a part of that. And of course Howard and Woolly as well. I do think the play presents some pretty challenging staging problems and I knew Howard would be—

Kate: Creative!

Cody: That, but also that he’d be an interesting person to be paired with and to work with while he figured out what those solutions were.

Kate: And Sarah Marshall’s in it.

Cody: Oh, yeah, the cast too. They’re great. I’ve only worked with Sarah once, which was Taming of the Shrew, at Folger— also with Kate— and I’ve just been dying to work with her again.

Kate: Yes, she’s really incredible.

Cody: And then the other young women in the cast— we have two twins playing one character, and they’re Ryan Rilette’s (Producing Artistic Director of Round House Theatre) daughters. I was excited to meet them. And then Caroline Dubberly who is also in the show, she’s new to town and she is just tremendous. We were able to do a workshop of this show about a year ago and a couple of times since then. We’ve known members of the cast since then and meeting Caroline and seeing her work then, she’s really, really great.

I’ve heard you mention all of these women, but no other men…

Kate: He’s the only dude!

Cody: I am the only man, and that is super cool.

What has that been like? Being in this intimate ensemble piece where you’re the only man?

Kate: Well he gets his own dressing room.

Cody: That’s right! I get my own giant cavernous dressing room. But I’m actually loving it. I always, since a young age, have been very comfortable around and prefer to be around women, more than men. Because men can be kind of weird and douche-y. But, you know that’s a gross generalization. I love this environment. At the very first read through we had some board members and some donors watch the read through and we had this dinner afterwards. At the dinner they were all asking questions and somebody asked, “if I felt like I was in a female drama?” I don’t. It doesn’t scream to me that this is a female play or a feminist piece. It explores gender roles but in a subtle and wonderful way. It doesn’t seem to be skewed to be about feminism or masculinity in any way.

Kate: There’s a big storm in the play. He’s the guy outside fixing everything. The other deal is that both I and my daughter are both five months pregnant in this play and Sarah Marshall plays the grandmother. So it’s not like we sit there and let him do everything. We’re moving beds and shouting at the storm like everyone else, but we’re pregnant. The only— how do I say this?

Cody: Gender normative thing.

Kate: Yeah, the only gender normative thing here is that he’s out there getting hit by boards in the storm.

Cody: Yeah, that’s the only “man’s jobs” versus “women’s jobs” thing really happening in the show. But I love it. I love these women. The energy is great.

How are you finding these two characters that you’re taking on? Are they similar to yourselves or different?

Kate: Carol, the woman I play, is pretty depressed. And she’s repressive of things. I’m going with the idea that she had an addictive personality and that might have gotten her in trouble in the past. Now she’s trying to be a good Christian, but she loves a rush. I think the storm gives her a little bit of ecstasy there. And coffee! Things like that, but she’s got a lid on her stuff. I believe the storm helps open that lid. For me that’s different because I’m not very repressive at all. I just let it out and then it’s gone, whereas she would keep it in and let it fester. That’s very different. She’s pretty sad, which I’m usually not. So it’s a challenge, but I think she’s capable of great joy and excitement, so I like that part about her.

Cody: There’s a lot that’s similar and a lot that’s different which is one of the reasons that I think I was drawn to the show in the first place. They’re all people who keep trying to do well and to do right. I love that and I think that’s similar to me. You just pick it up and you keep trying. You try to find the positive in the face of negative. I love that about them. I love that they are really trying to be a family through these kind of extreme circumstances, and they don’t necessarily always succeed. But we’re different. I am one who likes to talk about my feelings and my life. He does not. I don’t think he has the same kind of tools that I have as far as self-expression, self-examination, and self-awareness. But it’s fun to play somebody who sits back and doesn’t talk about those things. Because he’s kind of alone. As much as he’s trying to have this family connection, he’s alone in this world and that’s an interesting dynamic.

Kate: I think everyone is like that in this play essentially. The existential aloneness is just right under the surface with everybody. But we also have these connections that are just so beautiful. You know how it is when your power goes out and everyone has to be together in one room, things start to click, people start to connect. You make connections whether you want to or not. The bonding of a natural disaster is bringing this family together. Everyone is alone but they’re trying their best to make these connections.

What has been the biggest challenge of this process for you guys?

Kate: Right now? It’s acting like there’s a storm when there isn’t one. I am so tired of staggering about in a completely quiet room, acting like there’s leaves and debris blowing all around. I just cannot wait for the tech to come about! The Stage Manager says “wind” and then we’re doing this whole scene in the “wind” but there’s no wind. That’s been really hard. Also repressing myself. Howard is forever saying, “Hold down, make it smaller, you gotta get into a box.” And I just can’t stand it! But I have to do it.

Cody: This is a really special script. Like I said earlier, Clare’s voice is wonderfully unique, and powerful and subtle.

Kate: And absurd and surreal, yet so real. There are some amazing moments in here.

Cody: It’s surprising. But I mean the challenges are the usual challenges of making theatre: finding the connection with your director, finding the connection with your cast, finding the connection with your character, trying to ground it in realism. We’re in this epic storm, but also we want to ground it in realism. There is this wonderfully fake thing that we have to create that we then have to live in in this real way. That’s always a challenge in theatre and one that I’m excited about. Howard is really pushing the kind of naturalism/realism acting style in this while also having a very heightened theatrical tone. It’s a wonderful blend of all the things that theatre can do while having this very stark realistic and naturalistic acting style that’s being brought to it. That’s challenging, living realistically within a heightened theatrical world. How much access do we give the audience? How much do you give them? How much do you want them to lean in? How much do you need to do to get them to lean in without doing too much but without doing too little? It’s super exciting.

Is there a moment somewhere in the show that really defines the play for you?

Kate: Yeah. There’s a scene with Sarah but I don’t want to say because it might give it away! Let me see if I can be vague enough to be interesting but not give it away. There’s a scene with Sarah where we are cleaning up after the first or second bout of the storm. A lawn chair gets blown into the doorway. So we know the storm is coming back. We have this beautifully crafted page of anthropomorphizing the storm, and yelling at it. Then something comes and we’re really empowered. And then something comes that’s so big that it just turns us into puny unempowered humans again, as one often is. That metaphor is funny and sad and tragic but it’s hilarious. It’s that moment where, “you think you’re something? You’re not. You’re a puny human.” That metaphor of “stand strong” and then getting cut down but bouncing back again— that’s just what these people do.

Cody: I think the kind of amazing thing about this play is that every scene is so different. It’s lots of different scenes and they kind of jump around. It’s a straight forward timeline but the play does feel like it moves in different ways. Each scene typifies this play in a really lovely way. You get a little bit of what the play is in the first scene, and then you get a little bit more of what this play is in a different way in the second scene. Each scene creates part of this whole and I think the individual parts of this play don’t add up nearly as beautifully as they do once the whole thing washes over you. In that sense, I feel like every scene I’m in is adding a little bit more to the puzzle that is this play, which I love. For me there’s not one where I go “this is the one.” There are ones that are extreme in various veins of my character and that is such an exciting thing for an actor to live in because it’s not like you’re gearing up for this one scene. Every little scene you get a drip and drab of who I am. It makes my work easier in some ways and more exciting. Each scene I get to invest deeply in but in different ways.

What are you hoping people will take away from seeing Baby Screams Miracle?

Kate: Life is precious. Faith, in anything, is a gift. It’s a wonderful thing. It can be a rock. Belief, hope, all of those intangible— and I don’t know if Christians would say their faith is intangible— it’s a perspective and a mind frame that you can’t put your hand on. I guess that does make it intangible. Those things, if they help you, hang onto them. They’re wonderful to have. I’d say there’s that and then families are a pain in the butt. But they are wonderful to have too.

Cody: Family and faith, I think life is precious. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again.

Kate: And there are lessons we learn after natural disasters. The storm is real in this play. It’s also metaphoric, it operates on that level. The way that a storm just puts everything into perspective when your house gets destroyed or people die or whatever, that cleansing? That destruction and that aftermath? That just makes you go, “Okay…” and for a while everyone gets along. There’s that brush with mortality and how fragile life is, and I hope this play brings them that perspective.

Cody: I think there’s a lot of tension in this play. I think there’s a lot of sadness and grief in this play. Ultimately this play feels like it is life affirming and funny. Ultimately we are each our own master of our destiny. Even when we’re not. There are things that happen in this play that so clearly indicate that we are not the masters of our destiny; there’s this huge outside force that comes in and wreaks havoc on this family. And yet in the end you’ve got to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start yourself all over again. That’s where we are our own masters.

Kate: And whatever enables you to do that—

Cody: Whether it’s family or faith or self-determination or grit and bearing down— gumption and elbow grease! Whatever it is— just get it done!

What has this process taught you about yourself?

Kate: Well it’s still happening.

Cody: Being in the process that’s tough to answer. Coming across a play in a company like this— not Woolly but the company of creatives that are working on this thing— it really reaffirms my belief in theatre. I just love being an actor. You can forget that sometimes by creating a career where you’re working four or five shows a year. Sometimes it can be a slog and you move onto the next thing and you pull it together— but this one really reminds me that I love what I do and I love that I get to do it with these people. It’s teaching me that right now. I think once we’re in front of an audience this play will teach us a lot of things about ourselves as performers and as humans, and I’m really looking forward to that but right now I’m just blessed to get to be in a room creating with these people.

Kate: I felt because of this workshop, where we had the designers in as a part of the workshop, we all were designing together in a sense. That is so collaborative to me. I’ve had the feeling lately that acting is collaborative in the sense that you might get to say what you want but the director decides so that’s pretty much where the collaboration ends. It’s been bothering me. But I feel like I have more of a voice in this particular process. That’s been really nice. I’ve also been questioning what is my intangible belief system and is it working. Just that whole big, deep thing, and I’m still thinking about that.

Why should people come out and see Baby Screams Miracle?

Cody: They won’t be bored!  

Kate: I think it will be really inspiring and I think people will really see that.

Cody: It is full of what life is full of: love and joy and pain and awfulness and redemption and death and sadness and rebirth. It’s got it all. And all without pounding you on the head with it. It has all of these universal things. Just come to watch Sarah Marshall play this character. I mean I could point at everybody and say, “Just come watch Kate do this one scene” or “Just come watch Caroline do this one thing” or the little girls who blossom in front of you. They’re these wonderful, precocious, smart, talented, little ten-year-old girls.

Kate: They have GRE vocabulary.

Cody: They make me say, “Wow! What was I doing when I was ten? Not what these little girls are doing.”

Kate: They’re just— wow.

Cody: The design is spectacular. I think it’s inventive. I think the imaginations that have gone into creating this play, from Clare alone writing this play kind of intuitively spilling out these wonderful things on the page to all of these creative minds that are bringing it to life on stage, I just think it’s a really special one.

Kate: And if you might be one of those people who are feeling overwhelmed right now and feeling like things are a bit too much— and what the heck am I going to do and how in the world am I going to go on? If you might be feeling that way, this is an example of some people feeling just like you, who might be different than you and who might approach it differently than you, but it’s just an example of dusting off and having the courage to get up and keep trying. Come and see it for that experience.

Baby Scream Miracle plays through February 26, 2017 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company— 641 D Street NW in the Penn Quarter District of Washington DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 393-3939 or purchase them online.

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