Rachel Leslie’s scalp ached beneath her wig when she took the stage as Andromache, the bereaved wife of a warrior, in “The Trojan Women” last Saturday at the Shakespeare Theatre.
She was used to being bald. But her flowing fake locks, lovely gown, and even the 50-pound child she lugged across the stage were all signs that evening. She was the understudy no more.
At least for one day, Rachel Leslie was a star.
Like the women of Troy answering the call of the gods, Leslie knew her destiny. The theater was her home and final destination since she began performing arts school at age 9. Now 23, the 1991 GW graduate has already played an array of roles and shows, many of them during her four years at the University on a Presidential Arts Scholarship. On stage and off, Leslie was closely acquainted with the GW theatre and dance department and remembers her experiences as uniquely educational.
“Because of the way the GW program is structured, it allows you to explore a liberal arts education as well as an education,” said Leslie, who majored in psychology. “Many conservatory programs confine their participants to students in the major, but at GW, anyone can give anything a try in the department.”
Leslie starred in many plays and musicals at GW, including “Hamlet,” “A Little Night Music,” “Cabaret” and “Agnes of God.” On some shows, she also worked as an electrician and lighting designer.
“I learned so much here from my professors,” she said. “They are wonderful people, and one of the reasons I was so excited to come back to Washington to work.”
The Cincinnati native moved to New York after completing her graduate studies at Temple University. But she said she loves Washington and enjoyed going to school in the city. At the Shakespeare Theatre, she is only a few Metro stops from her alma mater.
“Many of my professors came to see me in the show,” she said. “It felt wonderful to know they were there.”
Nate Garner, a professor of acting and directing in the theatre and dance department, gave his former pupil a rave review.
“She has a charisma on stage that makes audiences want to pay attention to her,” he said. “I thought she was the best in the show, but of course I’m biased.”
Garner, who directed Leslie in several shows, said it is rare for an actor to achieve her quality of work so soon.
“This business is so hard, so emotionally trying, that it really takes guts along with natural talent and skill,” he said. “I think Rachel is showing signs that she will have all that and more for a long time to come.”
Since completing her a master’s degree in acting last summer, Leslie was featured in the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival and toured in “The Color of Justice.” She spent February and March preparing for “The Trojan Women,” Euripides’ 415 B.C. tragedy about the human aftermath of the Trojan War (see related story, p. 13).
Speaking in unison, the traditional chorus of the Greek tragedy emerges after every scene to comment on the actions of the gods. In “The Trojan Women,” Leslie and the other five actresses in the chorus comprise a sad and suffering corps of women bound for sale into slavery or worse. They are the wives and mothers of the conquered nation, treated cruelly, adrift in a world in which they are uncertain of their future.
To prepare for their roles, Leslie said each woman wrote a personal history of her character and her emotional turmoil. Though the audience didn’t know the stories of the chorus women, the exercise made the character’s lives more real for the actors, she said.
“In talkbacks with the audience, many people have compared the similarities between the show and the situation of Kosovo,” Leslie said. “It is eerie how relevant the show still is. That just makes it more powerful.”