Where Are They Wednesday: Leigh Barrett

One of the great joys of SpeakEasy’s recent 30th Anniversary Concert was the chance to reconnect with some wonderful friends and revisit their legendary SpeakEasy performances. Among those gracing our virtual stage that night was Leigh Barrett, a member of Boston Theatre royalty, whose SpeakEasy credits include starring roles in such memorable and wide-ranging productions as The Drowsy ChaperoneThe Mystery of Edwin Drood, The Great American Trailer Park MusicalElegiesA Class ActPutting It TogetherAdding Machine: A Musical, and Songs for a New World.
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Following the concert, we had a chance to reminisce with Leigh about her long Boston theatre career, including the role she says put her on the map, Fosca in SpeakEasy’s production of Passion.
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It was so great to see you perform an excerpt from Passion in SpeakEasy’s recent 30th Anniversary Virtual Concert, which premiered on Thursday, November 19.  What was it like for you to revisit that show and the role of Fosca?
It was great to be asked to revisit that role. It’s not the first time since I did Passion at SpeakEasy that I’ve gotten to bring Fosca out. I got to be her again in Sondheim on Sondheim at the Lyric. And Fosca is someone who is actually always there for me. Not sure what that says about me – LOL – but I hear the music and I’m right back in the BCA, where I first performed the role.

Leigh Barrett and Sean Roper in Passion. Photo by LBK Photography.

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You have performed so many iconic roles over the years.  Is there one that is your favorite? Why?
I’ve been really really lucky in my career. I’ve had the gift of  inhabiting some extraordinary people. Fosca in Passion at SpeakEasy ranks right up there on the list; but my favorite is probably Florence Foster Jenkins in Souvenir, a role I’ve been lucky enough to play twice. Why? For one, I LOVE to play actual people (though, to be honest, every role I play is real to me). But Souvenir was the first time I got to put together two things I absolutely love – singing and making people laugh. But more than that, I found it so compelling, so heartbreaking, to understand her story, and the unimaginable pain of loving music so so much and not being able to really do it. (Florence, of course, never realized that herself, since she was living every single note and they were all pitch perfect to her). But the heartbreak at the end, when she realizes that the laughter she thought she was sharing with her audience was actually coming AT her – devastating. And playing opposite Will McGarrahan. An absolute joy and the BEST scene partner. So present and so supportive.
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If you could choose, what new role would like you to tackle once theatres are back up and running?
Well before the lights went out, I was scheduled to take on Elizabeth Arden in War Paint – sad to say that’s no longer on the table. But I’d love to have the chance.  I’d also love a whack at Mrs. Lovett – that’s one in the Sondheim canon that I haven’t gotten the chance at… yet. 😉

Leigh Barrett, reprising her role as Florence Foster Jenkins, with Will McGarrahan in Lyric Stage Company’s Souvenir. Photo by The Boston Globe.

What do you miss most about theatre while sidelined during the pandemic?
I miss the connection with an audience, reaching and communicating with the people in a dark room; strangers and friends sharing a common experience in real time. But more than that, I miss the electricity of the rehearsal space, and the collaboration of discovery and making something work.
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You have been a go-to performer in Boston theater for some time now. How did you get your start in the  community? What was your debut role?
Well that’s kind of you to say. I think people think that, once you’ve “made it,” you’re the “go-to”— that you’ve been there all along — but that would not be true. I was going to do a cabaret at one point and call it “Didn’t You Audition for That?” Didn’t seem to matter what I did or how I did it, I just could not get in anywhere. But that’s the “game,” right? And I always say – you just need one – one person to give you a shot, to see something in you. For me, that was Paul and the role was Fosca. If I had a “start”, I guess it was actually Isabella at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum — that was my start. That was the role where I just said “F” it and settled into myself as an actress. I stopped questioning myself; I stopped looking around for something else. Then things started… Sunday in the Park at Lyric, I honestly can’t remember if Passion or Songs for A New World was first… LOL. “Getting there” (wherever we think THERE is) is hard, but I’d say staying is harder. There’s an expectation that wasn’t there in the beginning, and living up to that is scary. Both my expectation and someone else’s.
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Your two sons are now grown, but what was it like for you to be a working mom while building your career?  How did you balance the two roles?
I could NEVER have done all that I have without my husband Peter, who was my support system. We both started out acting, that’s how we met; but he is SO great at so many things (looks on with jealous eye, I mean admiring), that he was able to find a job that could actually support us financially. And luckily, he’s happy doing that; and I’m so grateful. But it was hard. At that time, there was almost no part-time child care, and theatre is not always a child care friendly place (much as some places do try). I was lucky and found some, and I had my family around to pick up the slack. But it was freaking hard. And my sons are two of the most incredible humans. I’m so so proud of them.

Leigh Barrett in The Great American Trailer Park Musical. Photo by Mark L. Saperstein.

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Prior to the pandemic, you were slated to direct the Lyric Stage’s now postponed production of Legally Blonde. Is directing a new career direction for you?
Actually, my professional directing debut was Closer Than Ever at New Repertory Theatre with David Foley, Brian Richard Robinson, and Kathy St. George — all SpeakEasy alums! I direct a fair amount, but I’d love to do more. Last fall, I directed Urinetown (oh the irony!) at Northeastern University. Every artist I know, with little exception, has a patchwork of a career, mostly because this profession just doesn’t pay a living wage — no one’s fault, but the truth nonetheless. But while directing is not a new path, it’s definitely a path I’d like to keep on.
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What do you think has been the most important or noticeable change in the Boston Theatre Community in the last decade?
I think there have been a few but there needs to be so many more. I think the pandemic has given us all a chance to really examine not only why we do what we do, but how we do it. And I’m not just talking about “Zoom.” I’ve long thought that the process by which we do theatre needs to change. I think there are many voices that need to be heard, and I’m hopeful.
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While the stages are dark, you have been busy making and selling masks.  How did you get started on this project?  And where can folks see your handiwork?
Well that’s nice of you to support that! It really all came out of a need to help in some way. In the beginning, there were no masks; and since I have many friends and family in the medical field and on the front line, I felt truly helpless. My mother-in-law Larch was a Broadway wardrobe supervisor and also worked at the NYC Ballet for years. She was also a camp counselor at a girls camp in Maine. When she passed away, we inherited boxes and boxes of old camp uniforms. Fabric for masks was impossible to get at the time, and you couldn’t go into a store to get it either. Also, who had the money right? So I was like, what the heck am I gonna do with ALL This flipping material?! And it was like she spoke to me.
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Larch was a major crafter, and she could use every single scrap of anything! She was a genius. And I said, hmm I guess I could take this stuff apart and use this. And the “face pajamas” were born. (That’s what Aimee Doherty calls them – LOL.) Now, I’m no seamstress, that’s for sure. I practically failed 7th grade Home Ec class. But I watched a few Youtube videos, found a pattern that wasn’t too hard, got out my mom’s 1970 Kenmore, and started sewing. I used all her old thread and stuff and those uniforms, but ear elastic was impossible to find. BUT I had some old black para cord that we used for a theatre project and DING!!! NOBODY was lookin at that stuff. I felt like I found this secret because I was in the theatre! Those first masks were not my best. Every day, I think, I want to make new ones for all those first mask buyers cuz I’ve figured it out now!! I literally think of them every day. I feel bad. But I’ve donated a lot, and that feels good too. People can find me @TheMillery on Instagram ❤️ . I do mostly custom orders.
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Leigh Barrett with (from left-to-right) Emily Swanson, Jon Blackstone, Joe Siriani, Gretchen Goldsworthy, Will McGarrahan, and Andrew Miramontes in SpeakEasy’s A Class Act. Photo by Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo.

What do you hope is the takeaway for the theater community from this long pandemic intermission?
I guess what I mentioned before. That we realize what’s not working for our art form and do our best to fix it. That we don’t just go back to the old ways because that’s easy. That we remember what’s important about what we do and why we do it. The humanity, the life force, the connections made, the stories shared.  I know for me, this has been a time of very deep reflection. We’ll be back and those lights will be brighter than ever because we’ve been in the dark for so long ❤️.