We shall find peace. We shall hear angels, we shall see the sky sparkling with diamonds.~ Anton Chekhov
I am heartbroken. My dear acting coach, Jeanie Hackett, passed away from cancer yesterday. She was one of the purest devotees of art I’ve ever known and was vibrantly creating until the very end. Art was her fuel and, in that, she was a kindred spirit. Meeting her seemed like kismet from the beginning. As a teenager, I read every acting book I could find at the library, and one of my go-to favorites was authored by her: a compilation of interviews with her mentor at Williamstown Theatre Festival on the subject of Chekhov. Fittingly, she was rehearsing a reading of The Cherry Orchard over Zoom during her final months.
After I moved to L.A., I learned and grew so much from various teachers and studios, but the last place I landed was with Jeanie. I wanted someone to take me deeper into my craft and a friend recommended I come study with her. At our first meeting, I saw a black-and-white photo hanging on the wall of her office, which was of a group of her castmates at Williamstown that included Christopher Reeve. It took a bit to realize that I already “knew” her. For a girl growing up isolated in the cornfields of Indiana, who tried to educate herself, it felt surreal to be studying with someone I had been drawn to so long ago.
My Tuesday nights and Saturday mornings in Jeanie’s Workroom were the happiest hours for me, a respite from a grind that was increasingly unraveling, as I wrestled with whether I should leave Los Angeles. Jeanie’s coaching was rigorous, thoughtful, unbelievably intelligent, and inspiring. I often sat in my seat shaking, trying not to throw up, before I stepped on stage for a scene or monologue. I felt safe to fail, which I did over and over, until those glorious moments when the work finally kicked in. She deeply and passionately valued process, which cannot be rushed, and she encouraged us to work on scenes in chunks, for long periods of time, before putting it all together. She was unrivaled in her approach to text analysis and to the physical embodiment of that text.
While Jeanie was kind and compassionate during the work, a compliment from her had to be earned. If she thought I did a good job, I could trust that I really had. That kind of integrity is invaluable to an actor. The last scripts I worked on with her were some of the most challenging pieces I’ve ever tackled. Most of the time, I didn’t think I could do it, but the fact that I found moments of success was truly a testament to her coaching and to the craft I had honed in her class. I can judge my work as an actor as Pre-and-Post-Jeanie. My family even asked what had happened at one point, when they saw the difference, and I told them, “It’s Jeanie.”
I spent my final night in L.A. attending a Preview of her production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night at the Geffen. She workshopped the play in class with us for a long time as she prepared to direct, and I was one of her readers during auditions. I loved the deep dive into that classic work and her insights will still be with me if I ever get to play Mary.
Jeanie was one of the people from my L.A. world who affirmed me even after my move back to Massachusetts. She thought I was doing exactly what I needed to for my art; not abandoning my dream but rather creating a new and beautiful version of it for myself. She told me that I often came up in her conversations. Her studio is one of the things I have missed the most and I hadn’t given up hope that I would work with her again.
In May, I received a last message from her: Just thinking of you and wishing you were around. Me too, Jeanie. I’m wrecked that we’ve lost you and so very grateful that I knew you. Thank you for being my teacher and for helping me to become the artist I always wanted to be.
“The light comes at the same time as the Voice…I would that every one could hear the Voice as I hear it.”
Every actor has at least one dream role they must play before they die. For me, that role was Saint Joan. I still consider her the most profound and invigorating acting challenge of my life and I am deeply grateful I got to play her before I was too old. I do, of course, wish that I could go back and take another crack at it, knowing what I do now, with all of the experience I’ve gleaned since then. Joan is notorious, though, for being a tough nut to crack and I know that I did the best I could for her at the time. I’m sure the timing was right, anyway, because spending countless hours in her skin gave me the courage I needed in other areas of my life back then.
Any time I write about Joan, I mention that she won’t leave me alone, and that she still crosses my path even 12 years later. I was looking through a box in my closet the other day and came across this photo that I hadn’t seen in forever, that I had completely forgotten about. Sure enough, it was coming up on an important date. Jeanne D’Arc died on this day, nearly 600 years ago. It’s obvious to me that her spirit lives on.