After making her Broadway debut in Trouble in Mind, Danielle Campbell is remembering how to play make-believe again.
For many of us, the pandemic served as a reset button and forced us to ask one question to ourselves: are we really doing what we are meant to be doing? After working consistently for well over a decade, actress Danielle Campbell experienced the same worry. When the world began opening back up again, Campbell was given the greatest gift: a chance to fall back in love with her craft through her latest project, Trouble in Mind.
The play, which was written in 1955 by the incomparable Alice Childress, follows an experienced Black stage actress as she undergoes rehearsals of a Broadway production with Childress weaving themes of race, identity, and ego within the stage world that are as topical and relevant today as they were in the ’50s. Campbell plays ingenue Judy, a somewhat naive actress who is incredibly keen and excited to get her career going but is somewhat blind to the different levels of privilege she has within the theatre world. For Campbell, who started acting as early as 13, Trouble in Mind has not only encouraged her to fall back in love with her craft but also reach back to her inner child and remind herself that playing make-believe is exactly what she’s meant to do.
1883 Magazine’s editor Kelsey Barnes chats with Danielle Campbell about debuting on Broadway with Trouble in Mind, the importance of art as a place to open up thoughtful conversations, soothing your inner child, and more.
Firstly, congrats on your Broadway debut!
Thank you so much. It’s honestly been unbelievable and such a blast.
It must be such a bittersweet moment because it’s been such an incredible run and the final performance is on Sunday.
Yeah, it’s pretty wild. My cast mates and I have been having all of these ‘lasts,’ like we had our last two-show Wednesday yesterday. It’s a strange time to be on-stage at the moment because everything we’ve heard and read from the reviews and the comments from people that stay behind to talk about the show have all been so positive so far, it would’ve been a different experience had COVID not existed! Either way, I’m just trying to take it all in.
I was reading some reviews and everyone has nothing but great things to say about it which must be so motivating for you as an actress stepping out in a Broadway production for the first time.
It is. I think the play has sparked me in so many different ways. It’s been the most fascinating experience for me because, like everyone, I’ve had so many lows and experienced a lot of confusion over what the future holds. I’ve been unbelievably lucky to work consistently in my career and COVID was the first low period where I went the entire year without anything. I did an indie film for two weeks and that flew by and, thankfully, I started to feel creatively fulfilled again. I was creating something that was helping me remember how much I love what I do and that I get to be able to do it. I got to a point where I thought I was never going to act again!
With this show… I know you haven’t even asked me a question yet [laughs] but I just want to say what I love so much about it. When I was 10, I started acting and I was lucky enough to work in film & TV consistently from that age. I’ll never forget after filming Starstruck for the Disney channel around the age of 13 and entering my freshman year of high school a semester late so I could film it. At that point, everyone already made friends and knew each other and I was the new girl who made movies. There was a lot of attention on me that I didn’t exactly want, so I became pretty shy and didn’t know how to handle it. I was just looking forward to acting. I was quickly told by my teacher that I wouldn’t be able to make any sort of commitment to theatre which, as a young girl, I took that as me not being good enough for it.
Booking this play has given me a sense of pride I didn’t know existed. The play and the messaging behind it allows for really insightful conversations to be had which has elated me in so many different ways. The excitement I have about the world—and that I got to prove to myself that I am good enough—has been such a joy. Do you know when they ask you what advice you’d give to yourself as a kid? I had to tell myself that now as an adult. I just needed to really believe in myself.
It sounds like you’ve come full circle and you’ve been able to fall in love with your craft again.
You’re completely correct. I have such a new perspective with acting and a newfound respect for what it takes to be an actor. When people say that stage is where the real craft comes in, I completely have that understanding now.
Let’s chat about that — were you just more aware of the audience or was it something different?
It’s so different! I keep getting asked how it compares to film and TV and the only thing I can compare is that it feels like I’m actually playing make-believe, it’s just a different playground. When I talk to my castmates, I refer to it as playtime—this is how adults get to play. I look forward to taking that into my next job so, so much. In theatre, you’re forced to listen to your classmates on stage because we have different things happening every night. Sometimes someone misses a line, someone’s phone is going off, or one of the props flies across the room—yes, that happened—and you need to really be present in the moment. That is what makes it so special and unique every night, and the audience gets to be a part of that.
Now that you’re in this new mindset where acting is like playing, can you now see how you’ve grown as an actress since your first role back in 2006?
Yeah, I think I can. When you said earlier about me going full circle, I think there’s a part of me that strongly relates to that. Obviously, I’ve changed as a girl becoming an adult and I’ve taken on so many different people, their emotions, and their opinions. I’ve observed and learned that throughout all of these years, but I think in the last 2 years or so I’ve had the time to reflect and refocus on what I want. There’s a part of me that really wants to explore and have fun instead of it being solely about what’s next or how it is going to serve the trajectory of what I want for my career. There’s a part of me that’s taking a step back and knowing that whatever is going to come, is going to come. I can’t really control anything. I can only enjoy the process and enjoy what I have right in front of me.
As a kid, when I got into acting, that’s what makes kids so special; they are not trying to do anything, they are just playing make-believe and having fun. There’s a part of me that wants to tap into that for the rest of my career. I’ve gone through so many different stages, and I will continue to do so, but I’ve definitely taken back ownership of that little girl who wants to play. I’m letting her play again.
I feel like throughout COVID, a lot of people were questioning if they were on the right path. There must be so much gratitude and peace in knowing that you’re just going to embrace each step as you take them which eventually landed you this play.
I 100% agree with that. It’s all about how you look at it. I’m trying to view things as steps and I’m not always going to succeed with this, but I’m trying to use those moments—the ones where I feel like I’m struggling or like this isn’t what I want to be happening—as times where I can take a step back and take a look at the bigger picture and feel nothing but gratitude to be able to do what I do. This play is so special to me and the woman who wrote it is absolutely incredible so I just feel lucky that everything that has happened, so far, has brought me here.
Yeah, I read that it took 65-years for it to arrive on Broadway after it was meant to be performed back in the late 50s; the playwright Alice Childress refused to bow to the demands of producers who requested her to tone it down.
She’s one of the bravest and most inspiring women. The fact she wrote this back in the 50s with the voice as strong as she did… I’m just glad she didn’t change the show or tone it down. They wanted her to pull back her pain and messaging of what it is to be a Black woman in a white man’s world. She did a beautiful job articulating everything through her voice and the white men of Broadway at the time didn’t want that to be showcased because they didn’t want that truthful depiction of themselves. Toning it down for Broadway would mean literally going against everything the play stands for. It’s about a Black woman who is speaking out against the hardships she’s facing as a woman who wants to act.
What is especially unique about this play is that it’s a bit of inception; it’s a play that looks at ego, prejudice, and identity in the world of New York theatre. What was it like to explore those themes?
It was really transformative. The topics that we talk about in this play and the conversations that we have amongst ourselves as a company between the director and my fellow actors have been incredibly special for me. Even just as Danielle the person, the topics that we covered and the discussions that we had when we were developing these characters—going over the hard topics and issues that some people aren’t aware of—was such a transformative process. I’m continuing to educate myself and doing this play allows for everyone to let their guard down. It allowed me to ask questions and to not feel fearful that I was hurting someone with my ignorance.
There was a warm, inviting, and loving environment and I think that speaks to what the play does. I know it is now getting performed around the world—in London and it’s about to begin in San Diego—and I hope it continues to get people talking and open up whether that’s about their experiences or giving the space for one another to acknowledge when they said something wrong or hurtful. I hope that people are willing to listen because I think we need to listen and have these conversations to make impactful change. More than anything I really hope that this allows them some freedom because the conversations that we’ve had with any audience members who come to see the play have been so incredible. Honestly, I’m just really grateful to be a part of such a powerful message.
I feel like art is the best way to explore these topics because there’s something so universal and human with everyone coming together to see a form of art.
I agree, somebody’s always gonna relate to it. I think art is one of the most beautiful expressions of what it is to be human.
You play Judy Sears who is an ingenue that’s a bit naive at times. In one of the reviews of the play, they mention Judy’s whiteness and privileged background somewhat blinds her to racism, yet she still suffers from the director’s misogyny which I thought was an interesting point. The play has a lot of layers.
Everyone has their flaws in this play. I think the way Alice gives everyone so many dimensions through the way she articulates the characters is incredible. Playing Judy felt natural to me; she wants to say the right thing and wants everyone that she’s happy to be there and wants to act and be a part of the company. The acknowledgement or understanding that she is still different but has a lot of privilege is not lost on her and that becomes a topic discussed throughout the play. Being a woman during that time—and even now sometimes—is something that still rings true and is something Alice was obviously aware of and felt hindered by. Alice created a full spectrum of these characters.
Now that you’re wrapping up the play, what do you hope to take from it with you—whether that be advice you learned from castmates or something else—as you start your next project?
A couple of things. I hope this continues to open up conversations and I hope people continue to participate in the messaging of Alice. I hope it grows and spreads and people continue to open up and talk to one another. For me, personally, I hope I take every moment I’ve had with my castmates on stage and bring that to every single project I do. I’ve been learning from a masterclass of actors and I’m looking forward to taking everything I’ve learned to my next project, like listening the way that I do on that stage. I really just want to remember how I feel right now and continue to play the little girl in me.
Lastly, if you could manifest something for yourself in 2022, what would it be?
I would love to do a movie or a series where I get to play a character very different from Judy. I love going in the opposite direction after playing a character, whether that’s a really dark character or a romantic comedy or a romantic drama. Personally, I’m dying to travel. I can’t wait to travel again, I’m looking forward to getting out and seeing the world again.
Interview by Kelsey Barnes
Photography by Alexandra Arnold
Styling by Sarah Slutsky at The Wall Group
Hair by Marc Mena at Exclusive Artists
Makeup by Megan Lanoux at The Wall Group