In 2013, Olivier-winning playwright Jessica Swale wrote a play about the life of actress Nell Gwynn, one of the first women to trod the English stage, and who became a celebrated actress during the 17th century Restoration period. Aptly titled Nell Gwynn, it premiered at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in 2015. Last year, it made its U.S. debut at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and is now making its East Coast premiere at the Folger, under the direction of Robert Richmond.
Known for her comic wit, Gwynn became the object of affection for King Charles II and became a long-time mistress, with folktales rejoicing of the heroine’s rags to riches journey. You see, Gwynn’s upbringing was very unfortunate; she grew up in a brothel and earned money by selling oranges on the streets of London, before finding success in the theater.
Actress Alison Luff first read the play in 2018 prior to its Chicago run, and immediately fell in love with the character.
“She’s a woman that I had never heard of growing up in the United States although she made extraordinary history,” she says. “She was one of the very first women to ever act on the stage in the 17th century and she didn’t start out with the best life. She took every opportunity she could to become an actor and really made a living for herself and is said to be one of the very first realistic female actors that brought realism to this stage.”
Luff wasn’t available for that initial performance run, but when she learned Folger was doing it this year, she knew nothing was going to stop her from playing Nell Gwynn this time around.
“I was really impressed with her talent and her wit, and she went down in history as one of King Charles’ greatest loves—she was his mistress for 18 years,” she says. “I love the fact that she paved her own way, started from nothing and really made a name for herself. That’s what drew me into this story and this role.”
Luff could relate to the challenges Gwynn experienced early in her career and sees similarities to what many actresses go through today.
“What inspired me was she made the best out of not so great circumstances and I think that’s something that we can all aspire to do,” she says. “Especially as a performer, that attribute when you’re told no and then it happens and it just shows you that it can happen, no matter what others say or how many people try to keep you down.”
Luff started performing very young, and had her first professional gig at the age of 10, so it’s all she’s ever done.
“The very first thing that got me into theater was, at three years old, seeing the pre-Broadway run of Beauty and the Beast in Houston, which is my hometown, and I knew that that’s what I wanted to do and had to do,” she says. “Luckily, I had super supportive parents and even though they knew nothing about how to get me in the arts, they did research and they figured out how to saturate me in the arts and theater.”
She moved to New York straight out of high school and worked in various shows, getting on-the-job training.
“I went to New York with an audition and I was lucky enough to book that show—it was a musical version of As You Like It, which was called, Like You Like It, and that got me an agent and things started to unfold a little easier.”
Luff still lives in New York and divides her time between the city and Los Angeles, but she’s thrilled to be performing in D.C. for the first time.
“I’ve always wanted to do a show here and to do it on Capitol Hill, and this show especially, I’m truly pinching myself that I have the opportunity to do this,” she says.
at Folger Theatre
closes March 10, 2019
Details and tickets
Although Luff has done a few musicals, she hasn’t spent much time inside the world of the 17th Century and she’s enjoying getting to learn about some of its history. She also loves the gorgeous costumes, designed by Mariah Anzaldo Hale, that she gets to wear and calls them the “most beautiful costumes I have ever put on my body.”
From the first audition, she admired the way director Robert Richmond worked with everyone in the room.
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“In the callbacks for this production, he really worked with the actors and played around with us and I enjoyed working with him and was very excited when I got the offer because I knew by the way that he was working with us that he was going to be a very collaborative director and that he communicates well with actors and really comes from a place of storytelling,” Luff says. “This has been one of the most collaborative experiences I’ve ever been a part of, which is extremely refreshing when working on a play, especially because it is a newer work.”
Being only its second U.S. production, Luff likes the fact that not many people will be familiar with the play going in. “It’s not going to be like any production of Nell Gwynn done before. We’re really playing with it,” she says. “It’s a romantic comedy, which is always fun. And it does have music, which is a really fun. We’re experimenting with getting into the mind of Nell Gwynn and seeing it through her perspective because that is the way that the story is told and so we are shaping it around that in the most interesting way we can think of.”
It’s a perfect date night show because of the romance and laughs it inspires, she says, and notes even people who may know a bit about Gwynn and her history will learn something bigger and see the relevancy of her story today.
“I hope people walk out thinking that although history repeats itself, slowly but surely we’re constantly making progress and seeing change and by believing in people and treating others as equals, we’re able to witness extraordinary things come out of that,” Luff says. “I hope people learn to not necessarily judge the way someone began, but more so what they decided to do with their life and some of the sacrifices they might’ve had to make to really benefit their life. I’m very, very grateful that I have the opportunity to play this extraordinary woman.”