Betsy Wolfe exemplifies leading ladies at their finest: versatile, sincere, and strong. With each role, Wolfe approaches the script from her heart and incorporates her whole self into the process. This is true for how she’s made the character Jenna Hunterson her own in her current show Waitress. Wolfe’s impulse towards exploration has allowed her to craft a completely unique performance, with fans lining up at the box office to see the magic happening inside the Brooks Atkinson Theatre eight nights a week. In this interview, Wolfe discusses how she found “her Jenna” and her place on the Great White Way.
When did you catch the theater bug?
I caught it super early on. I grew up in a small town where there were activities all around, whether it was church or school performances, or what not. I just loved singing for as long as I could remember. My family would take us to go see shows in Los Angeles and San Francisco. That was when I was like, “Wait. This is a thing? I can do this?” I had no idea that it was a job. And I obviously didn’t care about the money aspect when I was a kid—I didn’t know anything. I was just like, “This is amazing!” I loved the illusion of it all. It was exciting.
Did anyone or anything inspire you to pursue a career in theater?
I would say my first memory of seeing a show and connecting with it on a different level was Phantom of the Opera. It had gorgeous costumes, it was elaborate, it was grand. It was very magical. That was probably one of the first things I had access to as a kid. It sounds so cliché: “I saw Phantom in my hometown.” You know, the big touring show. They came through.
I’m always so interested when people grow up away from Broadway—like you, growing up in California. What was your conception of what Broadway and the theater world was?
Well I had no idea of what the word “Broadway” even meant. I didn’t even understand what it was. I was just like, that’s a Broadway show. That’s a good show. I had no idea [Betsy laughs]. I remember watching Into the Woods. Someone gave my family—because they knew I was interested in theater—a VHS tape of Into the Woods. I was obsessed with it. I watched it constantly. There was one summer I think I watched it every single day. That’s what I thought Broadway shows were. People get together and they’re really, really good and they do theater. That’s Broadway.
What surprised you the most about it?
I think that for people who aren’t in it, I think it looks really, really fun. And obviously what we do on a professional level is really fun. I think the thing a lot of people forget about is that it’s a really intense job. There’s a lot that comes with it. There’s personal life sacrifices and sometimes you’re missing personal events to make sure you’re at the theater. There are just a lot of things that go into it that you don’t have any idea about until you’re a working professional.
You studied at University of Cincinnati – College-Conservatory of Music. How did that training help set you up for success?
I think it was a great transition into what is very much a business. It was nonstop training…I took classes in every kind of field. I took make-up classes, I took stagecraft, I took stage management. I think when you encompass and learn all different aspects of it, you’re more well rounded to know what’s going on onstage. A lot of people say, “I just want to be a triple threat. I just need to study acting, singing, and dancing it I want to be a triple threat.” Obviously the more you know, the better equipped you’re going to be. You’ll have a better understanding of the whole process.
You’re playing Jenna in Waitress now. The role requires such an output of emotional energy and you really carry the show in a way not many leading ladies get to.
That’s so true! I’m so glad you noticed that. Yes, it’s very true [Betsy laughs].
Did you have to change your lifestyle at all coming into the show in order to prepare for each performance?
Yeah. You know, it’s funny. What’s so crazy is I woke up today for the first time and audibly said, “I am exhausted” [Betsy laughs]. It is an absolute thrill to do this show. Like you said, I never leave the stage. Very rarely does a female character come up that is so well explored and fleshed out. That is such a gift. But of course, with that and the emotional journey of the show, comes making sure you are 100% healthy. With other shows I think it’s easier to have maybe more of a social life. This show, for me, has taken precedent where I give 150% of myself to the show. It takes a lot to make sure you are physically well enough to perform. It’s exhausting in a thrilling, thrilling way.
One of my favorite aspects of the show is that we get to see Jenna in the context of many different relationships. On an actor to actor level, what are some rewarding things your cast mates have offered you getting to lock in with so many of them.
I was so fortunate that I got to come into the show with someone who was also playing Earl. Although he’d done it before—he’d done it at A.R.T.—he brought something new. Being able to rehearse with him and develop a real sense of camaraderie helped us explore what Jenna and Earl look like for us. I think that’s one of the harder moments in the show. I don’t take it for granted that we actually got to rehearse together. That to me was a huge gift. I think we were really able to find our own story. I think it’s very different then what’s been done before, but it works. It works for him and I. I’m grateful I had a chance to come in with someone. Even to get to work with two different Dr. Pomatters. It’s been thrilling to get to explore and play and see what makes each of them tick. Every show you learn something else. That’s what I’m loving about this journey. The show just has so much to explore. I don’t know if I’ll ever stop exploring.
What’s your pre-show routine?
It’s usually just making sure that I get up earlier—especially on a two show day. For me, so much of singing is speaking quite a bit and making sure I warm up properly. The best way to do that is waking up and talking. I don’t eat too much before two show days just because the last thing you want is a full stomach. I’m pretty chill. I’ll warm up in my dressing room a little bit, but other than that I don’t have some crazy routine [Betsy laughs].
What’s your advice for aspiring Broadway performers?
You know, I’ve been getting this question a lot lately. And it’s not for lack of creativity that I honestly think the same thing. The more I say it and the more I talk about it, it really resonates as something I could have told my 18 year old self. That is, just stop emulating other people and just find the things that make you joyous. Find the things that make you excited. You’re going to think that there are rules. If you could throw out the boundaries of “this is what this role should look like” or “this is how you do this” or “this is what being broken and rejected looks like, so I have to do this.” I think the more we can strip away those conventional rules that we’ve somehow set for ourselves, the more exciting theater will be, the more we’ll bring to it, the more original we’ll be. I think that starts with young kids just deciding to be themselves.♦