When Rachel Dratch makes her entrance in the Broadway, all-female ensemble farce POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive, audiences respond with an enthusiasm that feels like the greeting of an old friend. Best known for the 1999 to 2006 stint on NBC’s Saturday Night Live that saw her holding her own among some of the show’s most popular casts – Will Farrell, Tina Fey, Jimmy Fallon, Amy Poehler, Seth Meyers and Darrell Hammond were just a few of the all-stars during those seasons – Dratch created one of SNL’s most enduring characters with in Debbie Downer, a never look on the bright side type who could sink even the happiest occasion with a gloomy observation. “Did you factor in the loss of life at the hands of the African diamond industry?”, Debbie might say to a newly engaged family member, at Thanksgiving no less.
POTUS audiences, though, will see only the barest, fleeting hint of Debbie Downer in Dratch’s POTUS performance – a Broadway debut that has earned the actress her first Tony Award nomination. She and co-star Julie White (a Tony winner for The Little Dog Laughed, 2006) have both been nominated in the Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play category (Beowulf Boritt’s costumes are also in the Tony running.)
As Stephanie, Dratch plays a White House secretary who, at least early on, is plagued with self-doubt and constant Debbie-like fear of getting the ax. Stephanie is one of the seven women of the title who work for, are married to, or have dallied with, an offstage President of the United States whose latest misstep – he has uttered, in public, a third-rail obscenity to describe his First Lady (Vanessa Williams) – threatens to bring down his Administration and, just maybe, world peace.
In a comedy – written by Selina Fillinger and directed by Susan Stroman – that features no small amount of slapstick with its satire, Dratch’s character transforms, with the help of some illicit substance that she unwittingly consumes, from nervous repression to freaked out scene-stealer.
Deadline caught up with Dratch, who can also be seen in the upcoming film I Love My Dad, to talk about her Broadway debut, her Tony nomination and where, exactly, she found the inspiration for Stephanie’s drug-induced hysteria.
This interview was edited and condensed for length and clarity.
DEADLINE: Tell me what your reaction to the Tony nomination.
RACHEL DRATCH: Oh my gosh, I mean, just, like, dream world. Like, thrilled, stunned, shocked, everything all in one, which is all good stuff.
DEADLINE: You’ve been on stage before, Off Broadway, but POTUS is your Broadway debut and you get a Tony nomination. Must be pretty dizzying.
DRATCH: I was already so excited to be on Broadway in this play. There’s tons of laughs every night, so that was already super fun and then the Tony thing was just this crazy icing on the already-very-cool cake.
DEADLINE: How did this project come for you?
DRATCH: I never really quite found out, but I assume it was because I had done a reading for Susan Stroman, the director, awhile back. And then she did this one-night-only show of Crazy For You at Lincoln Center that I was a part of, and I had the comedy role in that. So, I’ve worked with her a couple times. I think that’s why she thought of me for this big comedy play.
And I wasn’t sure about it at first. The Broadway schedule is no joke. And after Covid and everything, I was all excited to just have my summer. But I had a two-minute conversation with Susan, and then I was like, okay, I’m doing this. She’s very convincing without twisting your arm, because she just is a very cool person, so you want to work with her.
DEADLINE: Did she come for you specifically for this role? Because it seems so suited to your talents.
DRATCH: It was kind of like do you want to be involved in this show? And then I was like, well, is the part of Stephanie open? And she said yeah. It was one of the key parts that hadn’t been cast, and it was the part that really appealed to me because it’s such a clowning sort of role with so many different energies and things to play. That was the role that I was excited about.
DEADLINE: Did the role develop at all after you came aboard?
DRATCH: Everything was there in the script, all the lines and all the phases that she goes through. Selina, the playwright, had mapped out the whole thing. It was all from the mind of Selina.
DEADLINE: I’m dying to know what that chemical substance is that Stephanie.
DRATCH: [Laughs] Well, I’m assuming it’s…I mean, I haven’t done a lot of drugs in my time, so I don’t have much to go on, but I’m assuming it’s some sort of acid kind of thing. Never having done acid myself, but I did have…it’s funny. When I was 20, I made the mistake of…I was traveling. I was in Amsterdam. And I made the mistake of eating what was called a space cake, which I guess was straight-up hash. Little did I know that I would be able to use my bad trip many years later. It was the one time that I was on anything, and it actually does help for this part.
DEADLINE: Method acting.
DRATCH: One of the things I love about this part is that in the first act she is just this, like, mousy person that wants to do everything right, and that’s an energy that I can relate to. And then there’s her whole, let’s say, journey in the second act. One of the characters states the phases that she’s going to go through [“visions, belligerence, mania, unquenchable sexual thirst, and vomiting”] and she does.
And I’ve got to say, I have a sort of bias whenever anyone starts telling a story that begins, like, oh my gosh, the craziest thing happened to me. I’m just like, yawn, of course it did because you were on drugs. Like, where’s the funny in that? But for this, I think it’s funny because I can relate to being someone who follows all the rules and then gets to just bust out of it all. I guess I don’t really see it as I’m on drugs. I just see it as more someone whose id gets to come out – in a lot of different ways. That’s what’s really fun about it. That’s how I approached it – what if you could say anything you want, and not worry about who you’re going to offend, and just take all your power, you know, physically, emotionally, everything. That’s what’s really fun every night.
DEADLINE: Stephanie in some ways is the soul of the play, I think – she’s what happens when oppression and repression just sort of gets let loose.
DRATCH: Something I’ve just realized is that she does all these power poses at the beginning – there’s actually a TED Talk about these power poses for women, to make you more confident in the workplace. But then her whole second act is just about taking power, just naturally having power. It’s just fun going from point A to point B with that.
DEADLINE: How did SNL prepare you for Broadway? Or did it?
DRATCH: Well, like you said, I’ve done a lot of theater, but I’ve also done a lot of sketch, and the fun thing about POTUS is it’s all part of a play, and it’s acting with a capital A, but you still get to bring in a lot of sketch experience to it. I’ve been in plays where I’m sort of this little side part in the comedy, but this is the clown of the play. It’s a lot of physical stuff. For me it feels like a perfect mix. It might even be more of a Second City [feel] than SNL because you’re on stage every night in front of the live audience, like even though there’s a live audience at SNL, you’re very aware of the cameras, and you know, it’s just a little snippet of a scene. So it’s really fun to go on this ride with an audience and have this giant house of people laughing at every joke.
SNL was a dream come true and being in movies and all that stuff is so fun, but there’s something about just knowing your part and you don’t have to write anything, you know what I’m saying? It’s just you and the audience every night, and that is, like, my joy space.
DEADLINE: Does the audience change much night by night? Are you getting laughs in the same places?
DRATCH: Yeah, it’s pretty much the same every night, in a good way. I’ve been in some plays where you’re like, oh god, this isn’t working, where from one night to the next you might have a bad crowd, or let’s call it a quiet house, when the jokes just aren’t landing. I’ve been in those, but this one pretty much works every time we’ve done it.
DEADLINE: The night that I was there, as soon as you appear – the set rotates, and there you are – the audience went crazy. Does that happen every night?
DRATCH: Well, it’s me and Vanessa Williams in that scene. I’ve got to share…
DEADLINE: You can share.
DRATCH: But there’s a love there, yeah, I mean, it happens most days. All of us get our [entrance] moments. I think everyone is just excited to see all of us.
DEADLINE: Is there anything you’ve learned from your cast mates? I won’t ask you to go through each one but…
DRATCH: This kind of reminds me of SNL, actually. What I loved about SNL was that everyone was so funny but in their own very individual ways, and that’s this play too. It’s so well cast, and everyone has really different energy…
DEADLINE: Definitely different energies. You have Julie White, who theater audiences will know very well, and then you have Julianne Hough, who’s new to Broadway and known mostly for TV, and somehow, yes, they meld…
DRATCH: Julie White is so good at being, like, that stressed-out person that’s trying to keep everything under control and being the smartest person in the room – I love watching her do her thing every night – and then Julianne, who is so pretty and a dancer and this blonde beauty, just like her character, and you think the character’s going to be this kind of dumb blonde, for lack of a better word, only to find out that’s not what she is at all. And Julianne is so smart, too, and so funny. I love how her part unrolls every night.
DEADLINE: Have you noticed any difference in audience reaction since the Roe v. Wade news broke?
DRATCH: Yeah. There’s a line in there that almost seemed kind of incidental at first. You think that Julianne’s character is someone that’s going to be led around and fooled, but then every so often she has a line that’s like, oh, no, I’m actually really politically savvy. She has a line about affordable, safe reproductive healthcare being a basic human right, and the day that the news of the Supreme Court draft leak came out, oh my gosh, we had to pause for so long. I mean, granted, yes, we’re in New York, but we had to pause for so long while the audience just went nuts. Like, cheering and shouting and standing. And you could hear men yelling too. I mean, yelling in a good way. That’s been this moment in the show that people really respond to now.
But even things like…you know, I mentioned I do these power poses, and you know they’re kind of silly. But with everything that’s going on, now when I do the poses I’m like, Yes! Give me power! There was a line at the very end that was kind of tacked on. We do this little musical curtain call thing, and at the very end, I go out and I say “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal, bitches!” And at first I was like, okay, that’s a tieback to an earlier speech I do, but now when I say it, you can just feel this energy in the room. Like, people are yelling and screaming because they just want to be in a room with each other and share that line, you know?
POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive, written by Selina Fillinger and directed by Susan Stroman, stars Lilli Cooper, Lea DeLaria, Rachel Dratch, Julianne Hough, Suzy Nakamura, Julie White and Vanessa Williams. It’s playing at the Shubert Theatre.
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