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Megan Hill stars in the world premiere of Open, her third new play in six months
It's fitting that Megan Hill is currently playing a magician of sorts because over the past six months she's pulled off quite the hat trick. After almost a decade of being a busy character actress in under-the-radar black boxes, she landed two profile-boosting Off-Broadway gigs back-to-back. In January, she channeled '80s pop-metal god David Lee Roth in the gender-bending romp Eddie and Dave at Atlantic Theater Company, a gonzo turn that earned her rave reviews and her first Drama Desk nomination. A few months later, she garnered more critical love as a hilariously high-strung office drone in the absurdist workplace satire Do You Feel Anger? at the Vineyard Theatre.
Now she's completing the trifecta as the star of Crystal Skillman's Open, a heart-wrenching one-woman play about Kirsten, an aspiring writer and amateur magician trying to save the life of her lover Jenny. Initially presented as a magic show, with Kirsten miming various feats and encouraging the audience to believe in things we cannot see, the show transforms into an exploration of how romance opens you up, and leaves you both stronger and more vulnerable. To reveal more would break the spell of the piece, which unfolds like a mystery on an empty stage, with Kirsten painting vivid pictures of her life with Jenny through lush language.
Skillman and Hill first worked together eight years ago on a reality TV show send-up called Cut, but the playwright admits she didn't initially pen Open with the actress in mind. Once Hill did a reading of an early draft, however, Skillman knew she wanted to develop the show with her. "It was absolutely electric," Skillman recalls. "Something extra happened in the script."
Hill specializes in collaborating with dramatists on new plays -- she even went to school for it. "I went to undergrad at Cornish College of the Arts and was an original works major," she says. "You do all the acting training but you also do playwriting and directing and your thesis is to produce a full production. The mentality was always, if there's not work, make work."
During the lean years, Hill did just that. In 2016, she wrote and appeared in The Last Class: A Jazzercize Play, about a downsized exercise instructor's existential crisis. Her costar was Amy Staats, who wrote Eddie and Dave, and the director was Margot Bordelon, who directed Eddie and Dave and Do You Feel Anger?.
"This season all the productions I've been part of I helped develop," Hill says. "We workshopped Eddie and Dave for three and a half years, and Amy wrote that for me. When the Atlantic said they were going to do it, I kept waiting for the phone call saying they wanted someone fancier. But they understood that it was a package deal: me, Amy and Margot. With Anger, I did a first draft reading of that script and I thought it was so special. A few months later they got the Humana production and I auditioned for that. That play haunted me -- I couldn't let go of it. And I was lucky enough to continue to do it with the NYC production. You just never know what's going to happen, whether you'll move with a show or not."
Hill is speaking from experience. Back in 2011, she originated the role of Jessica in the world-premiere production of Robert Askins' Hand to God at Ensemble Studio Theatre. The raunchy dark comedy about a group of misfits trying to put on a church puppet pageant became a surprise hit, transferring Off-Broadway and, eventually, to Broadway -- but Hill was replaced by Sarah Stiles along the way. (Stories like this are what prompted Actors' Equity to pressure commercial producers into a groundbreaking deal earlier this year, which gives performers who help develop successful shows a percentage of the profits.)
"It was definitely a very painful experience, but we were so close as a company, so as sad as I was for myself, I was happy for them," Hill says. "As an actor, even if you've developed something, you're lying to yourself if you think you're the only person who can play that role. You like to think you have ownership over work you helped create but, ultimately, you don't. It's a good lesson in letting go. The last thing I want to do is become bitter. What's cool is I helped create something and it's gone on and lived an incredible life beyond me."
Open, which is running at The Tank and co-presented by All for One Theater, is a world premiere, and Skillman acknowledges that Hill's input over the years has been invaluable. "Megan is an incredible actor who can straddle the worlds of naturalism and non-naturalistic storytelling," the playwright says. "Whatever she's portraying, there's a realness and an honesty to it, but she's not afraid to push the envelope and be edgy and show the ugly side of a character as well. For the stories I create, it's a perfect match. Also, Megan is a great writer herself, so I appreciate her feedback. She doesn't hesitate to tell me what she thinks."
Having that chance to build a piece of theatre from the ground up is why Hill relishes what she does, despite the disappointments. Perhaps there will be fewer of those now considering the last six months she's had.
"I love being in the room and switching on my dramaturgical brain," Hill says. "It's like a big nut to crack and it's so satisfying when you crack it open. That's when I'm like, doing new work is worth it."
Top image: Megan Hill in Open. Photo by Maria Baranova.
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