SALT LAKE CITY — A famous queen and a famous actress are tough shoes to fill, but actress Celeste Ciulla — who plays Eleanor of Aquitaine in Pioneer Theatre Company’s “The Lion in Winter” running from Jan. 4-19 — is no slouch, even if she feels a little awed by her character.
“Queen Eleanor has lived a bigger life than I have,” Ciulla told the Deseret News.
Although Eleanor — who was the wife of King Henry II of England — was popularized thanks to Katherine Hepburn’s famous portrayal in the 1968 Academy-Award winning film of the same name, Ciulla’s life and career has been anything but small.
In her blood
Born to parents who met as students at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, which, according to its website, boasts alumni who have been nominated for 110 Oscar, 317 Emmy and 94 Tony awards, Ciulla spent most of her childhood mingling with her parents’ theater friends.
“(They were) some of the most well-read, well-traveled lives and seemed to be … open-minded toward people and loving toward the world,” Ciulla remembered. They were lives that Ciulla as a young woman found appealing.
“I wouldn’t say that I had a dream to (act)," she said, "but I figured I would do it until I found something that I did better or was more fun. I’m still looking for that.”
After participating in plays throughout high school, Ciulla graduated from Northwestern University with a BS in theater. She went on to graduate school, getting a degree from the American Repertory Theatre’s Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University.
Following graduation, like most theater students, Ciulla join the daily grind for a few years, working at a law firm to supplement her income. When asked if there was ever a time when she questioned if it was worth it, Ciulla released a sigh, “Oh, always,” she said.
“(Sometimes I thought), ‘I don’t want to deal with that attitude, that’s a toxic environment,’ or ‘They’re asking me to do something I’m not comfortable with’ or ‘I have to have 20 auditions and 10 call backs before I get a job?,’” she said.
Despite these moments of frustration, Ciulla now has over 20 years of acting experience and has spent time acting for New York's now-closed Pearl Theatre Company, the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, and the St. Louis Repertory Theatre, to name a few. In these theaters, she’s played nearly every notable female Shakespeare character, including Lady Macbeth, “Twelfth Night's” Olivia and Hermione in “The Winter’s Tale.”
And after all of this, her love of theater remains strong.
“When we are watching live theater in a community of people, we are encouraged to think things we might not have thought, feel things we might not have (felt),” Ciulla said. “We live in a world where you can stay at home to date and shop … but to sit in a room with a group of people and stretch your emotions and your mind (is amazing).”
An unlikely transition
While performing a show in St. Louis, a fellow cast member who worked with Recorded Books — the world’s largest independent producer of audiobooks — asked Ciulla to audition to become a narrator. As an audiobooks and reading fan, the opportunity seemed like a perfect fit for Ciulla — especially since while recording, it wouldn't matter what she looked like, unlike in theater. She has since voiced nearly 60 audiobooks, including some by best-selling Utah author RaeAnne Thayne, as well as the award-winning novel “Great House,” by Nicole Krauss.
However, making audiobooks isn’t without its challenges.
“It’s not easy because … when it’s not (a best-selling book, there’s only one narrator), so you're every single character in every situation — that’s very challenging,” Ciulla said. “In audiobooks, every character (that you voice) has to be legitimate and have a point of view.”
Another challenge Ciulla runs into while voicing characters in genre fiction, especially romance and science-fiction novels, is dealing with dialects and pronunciations. Because she hasn’t had formal audiobooks training, she has imagined some funny predicaments.
“I do fear that when I’m (voicing) a science-fiction book with 500 characters (that) the author (will) specify (one character) is from Nigeria while his father is from Sweden (who also happens to have) a voice as deep as thunder," she said with a laugh, admitting that the scenario isn’t far from the truth.
But even still, Ciulla said that she finds recording audiobooks “incredibly exciting” and is eager to get home to work in her new professional audio booth, called a Whisper Room, waiting in her New York apartment.
“I’m looking forward to (being able to) record whole books in my room,” she said.
A new stage of life
While working two jobs to make ends meet is now a problem of the past, Ciulla’s new industry hurdle is a more subtle one — age.
“Being a woman of a certain age (means) you disappear, (and) it’s to the 100th degree in theater or film and television,” Ciulla said.
Which is why the chance to play Eleanor is especially exciting. The role is rich, intellegently written and full of great dialogue.
The 1966 play by James Goldman opens over Christmas in 1183. Eleanor has just arrived at the castle of her husband, England's King Henry II, who had her imprisoned for 10 years. The story unfolds as Henry plans to announce his successor, even while he, Eleanor and their three sons, Richard, Geoffrey and John, engage in a battle of wills — and otherwise — over who will take the throne. As the family gathers, tensions and plots brew as each person tries to sway the king’s decision.
“On one hand this is an epic play of power and manipulation and destruction," Ciulla said. "On the other hand, it’s about a family with history that has loved each other deeply and hurt each other deeply, which is kind of the side of it that I’m trying not to let go of. In the middle of it is just two people, the queen and the king with all their family, trying to be with one another … (It’s also as) brilliantly funny as it is heartbreaking.”
Although Pioneer Theatre Company is a regional theater, meaning it often features out-of-state actors, Ciulla, who was last seen in PTC's "Clybourne Park_"_ in 2013, is consistently blown away by the talent in Utah, stating that “there are some amazingly talented actors in Salt Lake City.”Comment on this story
As a seasoned actress who has experienced the setbacks and triumphs of the acting world, Ciulla still remains mystified by the power live theater grants audiences.
“(In live theater, people) are crying and screaming and laughing (with others) and … your experience is magnified because of those others in the room,” Ciulla said.
“It’s rarer and rarer that we experience that these days.”
If you go ...
What: Pioneer Theatre Company's "The Lion in Winter"
When: Jan. 4-19, times vary
Where: Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East
How much: $32-$45