Elise Arsenault
Same-sex attraction wasn’t socially acceptable when Virginia Woolf penned the original story of Orlando. She wrote the novel as a love letter to her female companion, but was forced to use a sort of code so as not to raise suspicion. The story spans centuries as it tells the tale of an enthusiastic heterosexual man who wakes to find himself transformed into a woman.

Times have changed and so has Virgina Woolf’s Orlando, as evidenced by the recent production of Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, directed by A. Nora Long. Now in its final weekend, the show has earned high-praise, heralded by the Boston Globe as a “delightfully propulsive and clear-headed production” with “an outstanding six-person cast.”

Actress and Musician Elise Arsenault is one of the six, who took on several roles in this new celebrated production. In addition to starring as part of the ensemble and transforming into androgynous Russian Princess Sasha, Elise also plays the cello live throughout the show and stepped in as the Musical Director.

Theater-goers will recognize Elise from her previous performances at the Lyric Stage in Avenue Q (Elliott Norton Award, Best Ensemble), My Fair Lady, City of Angels, Into the Woods, and Company[i]. She also recently appeared at Merrimack Rep, Stoneham, Ocean State Theatre Co, Colonial Theater, HowlRound, and Ivoryton Playhouse.

I recently had a chance to catch up with Elise Arsenault to find out more.

What’s the story you’re telling with Virginia Woolf’s Orlando?

ELISE: This is Sarah Ruhl’s lyrical adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel. Our title character, Orlando lives through almost 5 centuries in our story, as it begins in 1588 and ends in “the present moment”. Halfway through his journey of love, self-discovery and loss, he is transformed into a woman one morning, after a wild night of partying in Constantinople, and from that moment for faces the challenges of womanhood. This story explores love, desire, and the power that gender roles play in our society.

How does the cast deal with the idea you're living in different centuries -- any physical or mental adjustments?

ELISE: We definitely make physical adjustments in both character physicality and in costume pieces. During the rehearsal process, we studied paintings & social dances from each century and explored how men & women might comport themselves in each time period.

You’re part of the ensemble, but you also portray Sasha -- tell us about her.

ELISE: Sasha, the Russian Princess, represents something foreign to Orlando. Unlike the other ladies at the Elizabethan court, she does not speak English or follow most gender norms. Because she is royalty, she has a sense of freedom about her. She IS still a woman in 1588 though and centuries later, when Orlando is transformed into a woman, she remembers Sasha’s freedom, and questions if she was truly free.

You also play the cello in the show and took on the role of Musical Director -- what’s that been like?

ELISE: Playing the cello in this piece has been a true dream come true. I’ve been wanting to incorporate my instruments onstage for quite some time, so for the opportunity to be in a play of such importance, I could not feel more fulfilled. As the music director, it was my task to find music which would introduce each century. Working alongside our director, A. Nora Long we explored music as diverse as Turkish folk songs, Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and “We Found Love” (originally performed by Rhianna). In rehearsal, it was a delight to find moments that might benefit from additional underscoring. The resulting score is a mix of actual published music from each century combined with juicy improvisations.

Can you share the biggest lesson you learned from working on this show?

ELISE: I learned so much… I really enjoyed listening to and contributing to the current conversation of gender roles and gender identity. The ensemble of actors I work with in Orlando is bold, inventive and confident, so I’ve really learned to trust myself more, basically “go big, or go home!” Our director, A. Nora Long, encouraged each actor to bring endless ideas to each rehearsal, many of which we incorporated. It was both a challenge and reward to have such a say in the creative process.

What do you hope audiences will take away from it?

ELISE: I hope audiences will question how far we have or have not come with regards to gender norms. I hope the piece inspires them to learn more about Virginia Woolf, and then further explore the current conversation we are having involving gender identity.

And, now just for fun:
Who’s your favorite actor/actress?

ELISE: I’m a huge fan of Jessica Hecht’s work. I first saw her onstage in Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House at Williamstown Theatre Festival last summer. I love her vulnerability, humor and facility of language. I also LOVE Bette Midler- her fearlessness and sense of celebration motivates me!

What role from the past do you wish you could have played?

ELISE: Hmm… I look at the leading ladies from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and think, I need a vehicle like that to book my series regular, but I also think the time will come when I am ready to create an original web series, exploring the specific stories I want to tell. Not sure what they are yet, but perhaps they involve my cello, puppets, or (my husband, Justin’s dream) playing the next comic book heroine!

Favorite show from your childhood.

ELISE: Childhood: Full House and Family Matters; Teenage Years: Dawson’s Creek and Felicity.

Tell us one thing that would surprise our readers to learn about you.

ELISE: I love owning a home in a suburb with my hubby which overlooks a golf course. I’m in a place in my career where work is consistent and I believe that with diligence, persistence and consistent hard work, it’s possible to make a decent living as an actor wherever you want to live :) Of course, I absolutely LOVE to travel, so that helps as I’m often on the train/in the car for business and pleasure!

How can fans keep up with you?

ELISE: Head on over to elisearsenault.com link and join my mailing list or follow me on social
Instagram: @elisearsenault.actor link
Twitter: @workwithelise link
and FB: @workwithelise link
Elise Arsenault in "Virginia Woolf's Orlando"
Elise Arsenault in "Virginia Woolf's Orlando"