The national tour of 1776 launches in America’s birthplace, Philadelphia. This is 1776 like you’ve never seen it before with a multiracial cast of female, transgender, and nonbinary actors portraying the founders of this country. Theatre fans will especially love that it’s directed by Tony Award-winning director Diane Paulus and Emmy-nominated local Resident Artist Jeffrey Page (Philadelphia Theatre Company). Below, cast member Gwynne Wood talks about their role as George Read (both on tour and as a standby on Broadway) and why this is such an important revival. Get ready to find out about the days surrounding the signing of the Declaration, beyond what was taught in your history books! 1776 comes to the Forrest Theatre, February 14th to the 26th. For tickets, visit the Kimmel Cultural Campus website here.
Q: Tell us a bit about your character, George Read, and his role in the events surrounding the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
A: Yes! George Read was one of the delegates from Delaware. He studied and practiced law, and eventually served as Chief Justice on the Delaware Supreme Court. Read became close with John Dickinson of Pennsylvania which we see the effects of in 1776, with Read often going against the other delegates from Delaware to align with the more conservative views of Pennsylvania and the Deep South. He voted against the resolution for independence, hoping to reconcile with Great Britain, but when the resolution passed, Read signed it with the rest of the Delaware delegation. While reading firsthand accounts of what Read was like, I found that generally speaking his contemporaries found him very intelligent, but rather “tiresome” in the constitutional conventions due to his “feeble voice.” Which as an actor portraying him, is very fun.
Q: The 1776 revival is unique because it features female, transgender, and nonbinary actors portraying the founders of this country. In what other ways do you feel this version is unique and stands out from the original?
A: I think that this revival does a great job of embracing the humanity of the figures who made decisions about our country rather than simply propping them up as the infallible, two-dimensional figureheads we read about in history books- all while honoring the identity of whoever is playing them. There’s a line spoken in the show by Benjamin Franklin played brilliantly on our tour by Liz Mikel that I think captures the duality of our production existing in both the history of 1776 and our present 2022 selves. She asks, “What will posterity think we were? Demigods? We’re men. No more, no less.” I hope that with our production, audiences perceive us onstage as human beings first. Fallible, passionate, determined people who were trying to do the best they could under incredible circumstances. None of the people in our cast would’ve been considered at the time of the signing of the Declaration, but it doesn’t make our existence in this country any less valid. We have a right to critique, embrace, and tell the story of the country we’re a part of. That’s what excites me about Diane Paulus and Jeffrey Page’s production.
Q: You were standby for George on Broadway. As standby, what did a typical performance day at the theatre look like for you?
A: I only joined the company for the final three weeks of the run, so I was very much still studying and refining my performance even after I made my debut. So, if I wasn’t on, I would go to my station with my little note cards and do my own version of the show in my head in front of the mirror. It was really such a blessing as well to have the other standbys available for me to ask questions and clarify things with. Especially Ariella Serur who plays Wilson on the tour. They were the full time Read when I joined the Broadway company and I’m pretty sure I asked them approximately 100 questions per day- they were always so helpful and generous to me which I so appreciated. So even if I wasn’t onstage every day, I was trying to get the tracking into my body so that now on tour it can feel more second nature.
Q: When you found out you’d be going on tour with 1776, did you feel like you had George nailed down or did you do any additional research to really step into the role for the tour?
A: I was cast on the tour first, and then brought to Broadway, so it was a super quick process. I started rehearsals the day after I found out I was joining the company so a lot of it was learning by doing and finding things out in the room. I learned everything at the same time so nothing was set in stone, there was a bunch of room for play and personal choice in the structure that had already been set which as an actor is a real blessing. As someone who was brought into the process after A.R.T. I reaped the benefits of the dramaturgy work overseen by Robert Duffley at Harvard. I’m still finding the balance of who George Read was as a historical figure and where he intersects with me as a human in 2022, but with Peter Stone’s brilliant book a lot of the specific characterization is already there. I think I’ll honestly being continuing the exploration throughout our run- that’s one of the benefits of live theater!
Q: You just wrapped touring with Oklahoma too…any advice for actors who are about to embark on their first tour with a show?
A: I’d say community is everything. Find the people that make you feel seen and heard, because you’re away from your family and friends for weeks on end and human beings need a support system. I am totally a creature of comfort- this time around I’m bringing my dog with me on the road so I’m really looking forward to traveling with her. Also I’d advise anyone to try and make memories outside of the show/theater. We’re so lucky to get to travel to these incredible cities and when looking back on my past year with Oklahoma, I treasure the times that we took a couple hours for ourselves and went out to enjoy our surroundings.
Q: Is there anything interesting you learned from the show that you may not have already known from what was taught in school?
A: Absolutely. Because in school we were being taught “to the test,” I personally found a lot of my education to be catered towards more broad strokes. The beauty of a show like 1776 is the short period of time it takes place over. It allows for so much more detail than I ever got during my tests in school. I knew the major players who signed the Declaration like John Hancock, Franklin, Adams, etc. but it’s been fascinating to get a more in-depth view on people like George Read who maybe get one sentence in a history book, but who have whole lives and histories for us to learn about. One specific thing that I’ve been really enjoying through the lens of the show is John Adams’ letters to his wife Abigail. Their marriage is described through their writings to one another and the contrast between such intimate writings and the grandness of campaigning the colonies to become a nation is something that excites me now, and I think really would’ve engrossed me in high school.
Q: What’s your favorite musical number in 1776? Why?
A: I have so many favorite moments in the show, it can switch around daily, but I think right now my favorite is “Momma Look Sharp” performed by Brooke Simpson as the courier. We’re all onstage with her supporting her vocally and physically as she tells the story of her two friends’ mothers who went looking for their sons in the field after the war. It’s heartbreaking, and both visually and musically it’s a change of pace from the rest of the numbers in the show. Brooke’s vocals and performance style are truly otherworldly. I can’t believe I get the chance to listen to her sing that number every night.
Q: The Forrest Theatre is so close to where the Declaration of Independence was signed. Are you looking forward to visiting any of our city’s historical landmarks while you’re here?
A: Yes, absolutely! I’ve visited the Liberty Bell a few times but definitely want to go back. I feel like I have a new frame of reference for it and I want to go with my cast mates. I want to go to Independence Hall to see where the Declaration was signed- I love that our first stop is Philly. I think being there and getting to see the actual rooms where our country was determined is just going to strengthen and inform our performances, and make them more personalized than they already are. Plus as an added bonus, Philadelphia is visually beautiful so I’m glad to be here to kick off our journey!
Q: How does it feel to bring this version of 1776 “home” to Philadelphia and on tour across the US?
A: It is so exciting. It’s thrilling because as we travel the show around the country, it’s about every person in the audience- no matter what state we’re in. In recent years it’s been proven that folks are craving media that both educates and questions our history as a nation, and this show does just that. I can’t wait to see what questions are raised from audience members, what ideas are brought up, and the mental images that last from this production. Meaningful art inspires conversation and I feel so lucky to be a part of the discussion. Getting to work with this team of people has taught me a lot and I’m so excited to keep learning, keep exploring, and to bring this invigorated version of 1776 across America.