Kendall Rileigh '02

Drawn to the stage
April 1, 2009
Kendall Rileigh '02

Courtesy Kendall Rileigh

This is how Kendall Rileigh summons a character: She begins with the music, something vocative—Debussy's Syrinx for solo flute.

Then, she overlays the image: the languid nymph, reclining feather-light on the tendrils of a flower. And last, when the scene is set, she begins to move: through the stretches, the cartwheels, the back flips, infusing them with something otherworldly, the casual fluidity of enchantment.

She does this so that, standing just offstage at Manhattan's Theater Ten Ten one chilly night in late December, waiting for the storm to subside, the pleas of this character running through her head—Let me remember thee what thou hast promised, / Which is not yet performed me—the words are her words, the words of Shakespeare's Ariel, all flame and ether and amorous magic.

But a night like this was far from inevitable. When Rileigh arrived at Duke in the fall of 1998, she had never even seen a play, not until the night Tom Stoppard's Arcadia arrested and set its hooks in her. The following spring, she took an introductory performance class with former faculty member Christine Morris (now at UNC-Greensboro), who became a mentor, and on the strength of that experience took another and another and another. She auditioned for a student production of Aaron Sorkin's Hidden in This Picture, not even knowing she was supposed to prepare a monologue, but ended up being cast anyway.

More plays followed: Don Juan, Our Country's Good, The Changeling. She declared a drama major. She took up playwriting.

She declared a second major. Psychology. Traveled to London in the summer of 2001 to interview Holocaust survivors, to learn what inner resources had seen them through. Their coping mechanisms—faith, humor, ability to dissociate—became the subjects of her thesis. Their stories, in all their harrowing power, became the subject of her first full-length play, Typhus Vision Two, staged in 2003 as part of a Duke series, The Arts in Times of War.

She learned that she loved preparation even more than performance, the discovery that happens in the process of rehearsal. She learned to step outside herself and question motivations, to see the possibilities inherent in each moment, each action. "For me," she says, "the appeal of theater is the discovery that happens during rehearsal."

She graduated with her sights set on acting. Over the next four years, she worked with theater companies throughout the Triangle doing Shakespeare and Chekhov. She wrote a one-act play, Marginalia, which has been widely produced. As a favor to a producer friend, she spent three days in New York, taking care of administrative duties while the friend staged a reading. The producer introduced her to director Bob Kalfin, who was looking for an Irish girl to cast in his production of The Melting Pot. "I had to tell him," she says, "I don't actually live in New York."

She got the part. Deciding to test the waters, she packed up in less than a week and hurriedly found an apartment. After the show finished its run, she briefly returned to North Carolina, but within two months had moved to New York for good.

That was two years and some fifteen productions ago. At the end of that December evening, Rileigh was already preparing for the next day's rehearsals with Theatre of the Expendable, where she would be Olga in Chekhov's The Three Sisters. There was music for that role, too—Kansas' "Dust in the Wind"—and a pencil drawing of her own, in which the young woman is seen hooded, weeping.

She, too, would be summoned. Soon enough. Another night, another stage, another life, another voice.