Kendall Rileigh is no stranger to jumping through hoops. In addition to standing by for Tovah Feldshuh in Broadway’s “Golda’s Balcony,” and playing opposite Tina Fey in TV’s “30 Rock,” the nimble actress began training as an aerialist in 2007 and co-founded Only Child Aerial Theater in 2010.
Little did she know how her training would prepare her for “The Astonishing Times of Timothy Cratchit.”
Q. So I understand you play two characters, Miss Lily Tulips and Momo. Tell me a little about them?
A. Miss Tulips is one of Timothy’s housemates at Mrs. Poole’s Boarding House. She is awaiting news by letter of her beloved William, who is serving in the war. She can’t read, so Timothy reads William’s missives to her and eventually teaches her to read. She is shy, sweet, hopeful, nurturing, romantic, and a bit daffy. She is preparing her trousseau for marriage to William, and she dreams of their move to a house in Portsmouth. She loves letters and poetry, and learning to read opens up a new world for her.
Momo is a mute acrobat in Grimaldi’s circus troupe. She is intended to be female, but I see Momo as residing outside of either gender. Momo is young, flexible, excitable, loyal, and very sensitive. Her only family is the circus troupe she travels with, and she finds great joy among her eccentric circus mates.
Q. How do you think Momo may compensate for her lack of speech?
A. Because she lacks the ability (or chooses not to exercise the ability) to speak, she is fully communicative through body language. She has been a tumbler and aerialist in the circus since a very young age. I think her handicap (her muteness in this case) incited her desire to become an exceptional physical performer. By necessity her facial expressions have become large and specific, and she has learned to “speak” with posture and gesture.
Q.What kind of challenges did Momo present? And how has your background helped to create her?
A. Momo in particular has been a wonderful challenge because her story is told nonverbally. It requires even more listening than usual because my intentions are not indicated in my own dialogue (I don’t have any!). I’m drawing on my imagination and on what I know about Momo through other characters to know how she would react. I’ve loved being able to use my gymnastics and aerial background to create Momo because not many roles I play call upon those specific skills. It’s a lot of fun working with Madeline (the choreographer) to figure out how certain movements translate emotionally. There’s been a lot of trial and error. My physical training has helped, certainly, but I can also relate to what it means to be in a circus troupe. I started training at a professional circus school in 2007 and over these years have become familiar with the circus culture here in NY and elsewhere.
In 2010 I started a company with Nicki Miller called Only Child Aerial Theatre. The circus community in NY is such an unusual and wonderful collection of talents. Not unlike theater folk, I have found circus artists to be exceptionally brave, focused, disciplined, and supportive. To be involved in circus is to be odd and to embrace that that oddity can be a gift. Momo is a great example of embracing oddity. Also, performing in a circus (in my case, performing aerial work) is about the most exciting and terrifying feeling in the world. I think Allan Knee (and Andre Catrini) have really captured the thrill and magic of circus in this musical
Q. It seems pretty astonishing to find a project with that blend. Tell us what it was like to when you found out you’d get to play this role.
A. I was beyond thrilled! I have been familiar with this project for years, back when it was a play with no music. Over the last 3 or so years I’ve done 4 readings of it and have had the pleasure of witnessing its evolution into a musical. I knew it deserved a production – I just hoped that the theater gods would allow for one and that I would get to be in it. I’ve been a fan of Allan Knee’s work for many years and am so grateful to get to be in this
Q. How are you enjoying the rehearsal process? What do you look forward to when you get to performance?
A. Rehearsals are wonderful! I am blown away by the talent in the room — both the cast and the creatives. And they are also just really fun people to work with. We laugh a LOT! I’m not used to doing musicals, and so it has been really fun for me to observe and explore that process. I am learning a lot. In a few weeks I’ll look forward to our sharing this beautiful story with an audience. There are several elements to the show that depend on an audience, and that energy will really complete the show. I think it’s going to be wonderful!