By Richard Mayne
“I have always been a teacher and a practitioner.”
It’s a cold January morning in Worcester, MA, as Rachel Wiese makes her short walk to work. She leaves footprints along her way in the dusting of snow that fell the night before. Wiese is an adjunct professor in the Visual and Performing Arts department at Worcester State University, where she teaches acting to both theater majors and non-theater majors.
She has worn many hats as a theater professional over the last fifteen years, all of them different from each other, with different intricate designs and vibrant colors to match those designs. At times, Wiese has found herself training as a dancer in New York and working as a choreographer. At other times, Wiese has found herself teaching musicals to students in places like Ecuador and Italy, using theater as a means to teach the English language.
It’s 8:20 am on a Thursday as the lights come up in the Fuller Theater. Students are scattered among the seats, waiting for Acting I to start in ten minutes. As the class is going through their routine warm-up exercises, two stragglers make their way into the theater and onto the stage. Wiese’s prior experience as a director and performer comes into play when the class is asked to rehearse their mid-term performances for the first time in front of her. Her input is constructive and at the same time genuinely encouraging. For the midterm, she has personally chosen many of the scenes that are going to be performed, with specific students in mind.
Wiese’s students come from all majors, with varying levels of experience and interest in theater.
“With Acting I as a cross curriculum option for all majors, I teach the course as an introduction to the craft, which students could absolutely use as a jumping off point for professional endeavors or simply as a tool for being more aware of human nature and the choices we are all making,” said Wiese.
One the students is taking the class because she’s a theater major and wants to pursue a career in acting. She seems naturally talented with a work ethic to boot. Another one of Wiese’s students is there because he’d rather take Acting as one of his electives over Biology; he was one of the students who meandered onto the stage mid-warm-ups, still half asleep. One student, a writer, wants to see how a little acting experience can affect how he pens a potential play. As an actor, he doesn’t seem to know what to do with his hands most of the time on stage. And, while you wouldn’t know it at first, the quietest student in the entire class off-stage has the deepest, most booming voice, tailor-made for the stage.
Acting can be an empowering tool both inside and outside of the theater, which may be the reason Rachel Wiese’s classes attract as many students as they do. She’s well-liked as an instructor and earns strong recommendations by word of mouth, reputation, and on websites like RateMyProfessor. It’s hard not to enjoy an acting class, and the theater environment as a whole, when the person teaching it is a practicing professional who brings her experience, compassion, and insights to work with her every day.
Wiese became renowned for her work in the one state where everything’s bigger. While in Texas, Wiese was a producer for the Exchange Artists, a successful, independent theater company in Austin, where she became an innovative and award-winning director. In 2012, she won a B. Iden Payne Award for her direction of the Exchange Artists’ production of The Man Who Planted Trees.
“I really loved this show and felt so good about it. The collaborations were astounding and all so positive,” Wiese recalls, giving additional credit to the entirety of the cast and artists involved in the production. “It was gut-wrenching every time I watched the show, and I didn’t want it to close.”
Other productions Wiese was involved with, such as 2011’s The Story Seekers and 2014’s Circle the Wagons were both praised for their originality and experimentational qualities, with David Glen Robinson of CTX Live Theater calling the former “a play with a bountiful sense of ‘play’” and calling the latter “exceptional.”
Since moving to Worcester, Wiese has remained active as a theater professional, notably becoming an Artistic Associate with the Boston-based ensemble theater company, Liars and Believers. Wiese has been a performer in numerous productions in her time with LAB, including: Who Would Be King, Beowulf (in collaboration with Poets’ Theatre), Yellow Bird Chase, Irresistible, and The Story Beyond – A Musical Fable. The last of these, The Story Beyond, Wiese is credited as a lead writer. Boston Public Radio’s Jared Bowen called the production a “must see” during its run. Wiese will also be a performer in the forthcoming production of #ELEKTRA to be released some time in the future.
Wiese is the co-founder of new Worcester-based theater company, Heart Forward, created alongside Dr. Lisa Kramer, a fellow theater artist and adjunct professor in WSU’s VPA department. The two created the company in late 2018. Its mission is to “empower communities through the creation of innovative artistic projects—at home and abroad—that challenge ourselves, our audiences, and our collaborators to find strength in shared stories.”
“Heart Forward is a sapling. It’s busy building its roots before it offers much fruit.”
Their first production, Walking Toward America, was a one-woman show starring Wiese, which took place in May 2019. The script was based on the memoirs of Ilga Katais-Paeglis Vise. The production was well-received and attended by many types of people who experienced—or have family members who have experienced—hardships like Ilga (the play’s only character) faces in the show.
In January 2020, Heart Forward put on its second production. A one-night production, Light on a Cold Winter’s Night, focused on transformation and humanity’s relationship with the natural and supernatural worlds.
Taking place at Nick’s Bar in Worcester’s expanding Canal District on Millbury Street, the smaller venue made for a more intimate experience, and even so, the venue was near-capacity. WSU student Dominic Paretti called the show an “enjoyable experience.” The junior English major added, “[The performance] showcased a small group of actors with a range of skills using different types of scenery, props, and imagery.” It should come as no surprise that a theater artist with a track record like Rachel Wiese’s made an unorthodox venue work. She has been thinking innovatively as a professional theater artist for almost twenty years.
There hasn’t been a viable, productive, independent theater company operating out of New England’s second largest city since the closing of The Foothills Theatre, which closed its doors in 2009. The question is whether or not Heart Forward can grow to become just that. With two well-received productions under its belt, and with talented theater artists like Rachel Wiese as part of the team, Heart Forward seems to be gaining confidence that they can have an impact on Worcester’s theater community.
“I think Heart Forward can add to the mix with our original material and unusual offerings,” said Wiese. “I hope we inspire other theatre artists to work and produce [in Worcester] as well so that we can grow our shared resources and reputation.”
It’s up to Worcester.
Hopefully, the city will nestle itself in the shade created by an orchard’s worth of theater company saplings that have grown into trees, with Heart Forward among them.