What this is all about

Based on the WMRA show "The Spark", hosted by Martha Woodroof, this project looks at the creative passions of college students in the Shenandoah Valley area.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Rachel Ratkowski, the Actor

When I ask her how to pronounce her name she says, “Rachel Ratkowski. It’s like a rat and a cow go skiing.”
Rachel has worked with children in the past, so I could tell that this introduction was one that she’d used often. She was talkative and enthusiastic; exactly what you would expect a performer to be. Rachel’s a graduate student in Mary Baldwin’s Shakespeare and Performance program, and I can imagine her outgoing nature brings her characters to life. Rachel’s passion is not only for the stories that she is a part of, but for sharing them with the world. 
Rachel was three years old when her parents put her in her first play. She was the “kid with the turkey in a Christmas Carol”. She’s come a long way since then; all the way to the biggest female speaking role in Shakespeare, as Rosalind in As You Like It.
Her father is an actor, and she says her parents love telling the story of how she nagged them throughout her childhood, saying over and over “I want to do what daddy does”.
Her theatrically inclined parents (they met at Catholic University while working on their Master’s in Theater) fully support Rachel in her acting dreams. She received her undergraduate degree in theater at Adelphi University in New York, and took her first job for Prairie Fire Children’s Theater, a traveling theater, in Minnesota.
With one of the children at Prairie Fire
“It was me and one other person, and we would go into a town every week and teach up to 80 kids a whole musical in a week and perform with them. It was fun. It was theater boot camp-and-a-half, but it was wonderful.”
Spending her time working in the children’s theater helped Rachel realize how much she loved sharing her passion for theater, but in order to teach she needed to go back and get her master’s degree. Her love of Shakespeare brought her to Mary Baldwin, where there was a perfect mix of theater and education.
The first two years in the program are focused on scholarship and academia, but in the final third year the students are really able to dive into the theater aspect. The program turns them into their own theater company, Roving Shakespeare, where they put on five productions a year. A third year student, Rachel is almost done with her theatrical journey, at least in this program. They just put on a performance of King Lear, and in March will be performing As You Like It.
One of the greatest benefits of Mary Baldwin is its close relationship with The American Shakespeare Center. I’ve been to Blackfriars Playhouse several times— originally as part of my undergraduate Shakespeare course, but even after it was over I kept coming back. It’s a small theater, without any of the fancy lighting that modern theaters show off, but it’s precisely that intimacy that I found so appealing. The theater program at Mary Baldwin is privileged to be able to use the theater for performances, and the actors even occasionally teach courses.
Of course acting is not the only part of theater. In Rachel’s program they get to try a taste of everything, from directing to lighting, even costuming.  Rachel’s favorite play so far has been The Queens, a modern piece about the women in Richard III, directed by fellow student Michael Wagoner. Although she’s been grateful to taste all the different facets of a theater production, Rachel’s favorite part remains acting.
From the Original musical "Mashed Monsters in Minneapolis"
             with the theater group People Sitting Around Doing Theater.
            But being an actor isn’t all smiles and applause. Rachel says the challenge of balancing coursework with performances, as well as working a job on the side to help pay the bills, can be difficult, but in the end she’s sure it will be worth it. After graduation she hopes to teach, although ideally she’ll continue performing. She says she would like to teach any age group, and go wherever someone will need her, but after her time working in a children’s theater it seems to her that children just might be the ones who need theater most.
“Even if kids don’t grow up to be actors, I think it’s really important to have theater in the sense that, it builds your confidence to get out there and do a book report. . . it’s a fun way to do it.”
Rachel is the Fool. She is Miranda of the Tempest.  She is Puck, Rosalind, Gonzalo, and any other character she decides to become. She loves her craft and fully embraces every aspect of theater, and it was wonderful to have the chance to speak with her. Of course I did not think this interview would be complete without seeing her perform.
I drove down to Staunton to see the performance of King Lear at Blackfriars, but, unfortunately, it seems I will need to wait until their next performance to see her on stage. I got stuck behind an accident, so I decided to find a new route. What normally would have been a half hour drive turned into an hour, and after several wrong turns I realized the play had already begun and I would not make it. As disappointed as am I, I am even more excited to see her perform on March 16th. This time I think I’ll aim on getting there an hour early instead of twenty minutes, because there is no way I’m missing this for a second time.
Although I missed the full performance, I did manage to get a small taste of it. Rachel recited several lines from King Lear, which she is letting me share with you now. 

         If you’d like to see her on stage, Roving Shakespeare will be performing As You Like it March 16th,  in the Masonic Building at Mary Baldwin, and March 18th at Blackfriars. Both shows will begin at 7:30, but if you get there early you can enjoy the music starting at 7:15.
So stay tuned. My next conversation is with JMU's Paulo Dorado, to be posted with the next show.

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