There was a point, deep into the pandemic, when Clare Arena Haden thought her career as a professional actor had reached its end.
“I've lost all my acting work and I've lost all my gigs, and I was without a job,” recalls Haden, a veteran actor and teacher perhaps best known to Madison audiences for her roles in Forward Theater Co.’s productions of "Silent Sky” and “Mary Jane.”
“It was really taking stock of, like, 'Do I even still have something to offer? Do I even still want to do this?'” she asked herself.
Luckily for Haden and her audiences, there was a light in the darkness. Two lights, actually: Forward Artistic Director Jennifer Uphoff Gray and playwright Lauren Gunderson.
In 2021, Forward commissioned Gunderson — who had worked with Haden when the latter played Henrietta Leavitt, the lead role in Gunderson’s “Silent Sky” — to write an original play, which turned out to be “Artemisia,” the story of the largely unknown and dramatically under-appreciated Italian baroque-era artist/prodigy Artemisia Gentileschi. Gray and Gunderson asked Haden to audition for the lead.
“I read the first draft, and it was just like, 'Oh my god,'” says Haden. “I've never felt so closely connected to a character before and felt so seen.”
Haden submitted a video audition, and unsurprisingly, landed the role. But as she’s gone through rehearsals and dug into her portrayal of a woman who painted her earliest work at the age of 17, Haden’s been surprised by the depth of the affinity she feels with a woman who lived and created works of unforgettable art more than four centuries ago.
“There are these things that happened to her that could have completely derailed and taken her out of that creative drive that she had, and it only made it stronger,” says Haden. “It’s like she put all that pain and grief into her artwork.”
Some of the connections between role and actor have been deep and painful. Gentileschi was raped by the painter Agostino Tassi when she was 17, and subsequently subjected to a painful trial in which she was tortured to prove her testimony was true. At 14, when she was in middle school, Haden was assaulted by an older man and also experienced sexual harassment by her eighth grade English teacher.
“I was so confused and so alone,” Haden recalls. “Because it was the early '90s, they weren't like, ‘Oh, let's support you.’ I was the one removed from the classroom.”
Haden turned to musical theater to deal with the trauma she had experienced and found her tribe and an outlet to help her begin healing and discover different parts of who she would become. Eventually, she found something even more important.
“By the time I finally, really came home to myself and who I was, I got my friend ‘Chesco,” says Haden, humorously referring to Francesco, the character Artemisia loves (but doesn’t marry) in Gunderson’s play. “Only he was a bald Irish guy named Scott Haden.”
Haden is Forward Theater’s marketing and communications coordinator and has appeared on stage in several productions with his spouse, including Children’s Theater of Madison’s production of “Big Fish.”
Clare Haden also sees personal parallels in the relationship between Artemisia and her father, Orazio, a headstrong painter who raised her largely alone, and her relationship with her own father, a small town dentist in Waterloo, Wisconsin.
“They butt heads constantly, but it's because they're so alike,” explains Haden of Artemisia and Orazio. “They're both such stubborn, prideful, independent, creative people. My own father has the heart of a lion with the soul of a poet and he's just an amazing person, but we are very much alike. And a lot of times, we get very stubborn with each other.”
Haden recalls her father waking her one night as a young girl, bundling her up on a winter night and driving her to the woods to see a horned owl by the light of a full moon. He built a fire to warm her when they returned, and he read Robert Frost to her.
All these personal connections to the role she’s playing have given Haden a new perspective on her craft and, perhaps more important, a renewed purpose and energy to pursue it.
“I've never felt so at home as when I've been on stage in my life,” she says. “And I knew from a very young age, like Artemisia did, that this was what I wanted to do. After the pandemic, I needed to come at it from a new perspective. I needed to give myself a lot more grace and compassion, to accept myself for who I was and not needing a lot of approval and validation. It's almost more intimidating, I think, to play a role that you find so many connections to yourself.”
“Artemisia” is Forward Theater’s contribution to World Premiere Wisconsin, an event that challenged theater companies across the state to commission and stage new works. It runs through April 30 in the Overture Center’s Playhouse. Tickets are available here.
Aaron R. Conklin is a contributor to Madison Magazine.
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