Seven times a week, Caitlin Collins takes the Red Line down to State and Lake, gets in costume and steps onstage at the Goodman Theatre, one of the oldest and most historic theaters in Chicago.
Collins has performed in a prolific stable of plays at Northwestern, but she said her performance in Magnolia is understandably a huge change from student theater at Northwestern. The Goodman Theatre holds 856 patrons on two levels. Northwestern theaters tend to be considerably smaller: Wallis Theater and Shanley Pavilion struggle to hold 150 students. While Cahn and Pick-Staiger may hold over 1000 each, it’s rare for a student group to perform there.
While performing in Amadeus in the Theater and Interpretation Center last spring, Collins — a Communication junior — met Northwestern professor and Broadway director Anna Shapiro, who invited her to try out for Magnolia, a new play by award-winning playwright Regina Taylor set to open at the Goodman Theatre.
“I got extremely lucky, to be honest. It was a right place, right time sort of thing,” Collins said. For most actors, landing a role in a high-profile professional theater at such a young age is near impossible. Not for Collins: “The consistent level of her commitment is unique,” said Daniel Cantor, her acting professor.
“It’s really totally corny and cliché, but it’s a dream come true,” Collins said.
Producers have chosen an ideal time to perform Magnolia. A re-imagining of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, Taylor set the story in 1963 Atlanta at the precipice of the civil rights movement. Collins’ character, Anna, lives a sheltered life on a plantation until its foreclosure, when Anna is forced to confront what lies beyond the magnolia groves.
“It’s an incredibly relevant and topical play, and it raises a lot of important questions and issues,” Collins said. During rehearsals, Taylor told Collins, “When I first started writing this play, they did not have a black president. Now that it’s over and done with, we do.”
Magnolia runs eight times each week, including twice on Thursdays, when Collins is required to be at the theater by 1:30 p.m. The show begins 30 minutes later.
“For me, that’s too close for comfort,” Collins said. She leaves Evanston at noon, takes the Red Line to State and Lake and arrives at the theater by 1 p.m. every Thursday. Collins’ character in Magnolia, Anna, has a “crazy ‘60s hairstyle,” so she visits a stylist before getting into costume.
Five minutes before the curtain rises, the cast gathers backstage, holds hands, and “puts in good thoughts for the show,” Collins said. Alongside her stands Annette O’Toole, Academy Award nominee for songwriting, film and stage actress and probably best known among college students as Clark Kent’s mother in Smallville. Collins is the youngest of the 12 cast members, but she doesn’t feel intimidated. “There’s still moments of [intimidation] now and then, but everyone’s been so kind and wonderful. I’m just trying to be a big human sponge and take in as much as I can,” she said.
Collins first met O’Toole immediately after arriving at the Goodman Theatre for the show’s first rehearsal.
“[O'Toole] was the first person I saw and she said, ‘You must be playing my daughter,’” Collins said. O’Toole wrapped her in a giant hug. Then Collins realized, “Oh, okay, this is going to be okay,” she said. Despite their star power, the actors she works beside are “really wonderful people in addition to being amazing performers.”
Yet even after weeks of rehearsals, Collins still felt daunted by her fellow performers. In the first few performances, once the leads stepped off-stage she began to fret: “There was a little part of my brain going, ‘Oh no, the audience doesn’t want you! They want the other people to come back onstage! Why are you even up here and talking? They don’t deserve this,’” Collins said.
“Then I was like, okay, back up,” she said. “It’s actually not helpful and productive in any way, so I just have to shut up and do my best to help tell the story.”
And that she does well: reviewers have raved about her role as the conflicted Anna. Cantor calls Collins “very humble,” but she can certainly command attention onstage. Cheeky Chicago says Collins “proved that she had more than enough gusto and sparkle to stand amongst these fine actors.”
The play, which closes Apr. 19, has drawn in tremendous crowds from across Chicago and nationwide. She gestures across the table. “Say I’m sitting this far away from someone that I’m acting with, and it’s a very intimate moment. But there’s someone standing in the back row of the mezzanine,” Collins said. “How do I send my voice out to them? That’s just tricky. We struggle with that [at Northwestern], too, but in this space in particular the challenge is amped up.”
For someone achieving success so early in their career, Collins is still dedicated to performing in Northwestern shows.
“She has a tremendous commitment to whatever she does, from the smallest exercise in class to a big role,” Cantor said.
But if the acting thing doesn’t work out, Collins has a back-up skill prepared: circus performing. Collins takes classes at the Actors Gymnasium, a school for circus and performing arts at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center in Evanston, where she learns trapeze, juggling and aerial and other circus skills.
Even though Collins claims she is “not particularly good at anything” circus-related, she still enjoys her time at the Gymnasium, which she uses as “stress release” to forget about Magnolia, homework and impending midterms.
“If you’re hanging from a trapeze, you can’t really be worried about anything else,” Collins said.
Cantor thinks Collins has the drive and ability to make it on her own. “She has very big eyes, and those big eyes are emblematic of who she is, because she just takes things in, is a sympathetic person and just wants to observe things,” he said. “Regardless of what kind of career she has, she has what she needs to do well in the world.”