Rachel Flynn, College '09, recently spoke with our Faculty of Arts and Sciences Green Program Manager Brandon Geller on her upcoming role in the new musical "Rachel," based on the life of noted environmentalist and author of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson. Flynn, who plays a young Rachel Carson, was a resident of Quincy House and graduated with a degree in Religion. The musical premieres Monday, July 20 as part of the Fresh Fruit Festival in New York City. Learn more about the show. 

Brandon Geller: Can you tell us a bit about the new play?

Rachel Flynn: "Rachel" is a new musical, by writing team Jared and Jessie Field, that explores the life and struggles of environmentalist Rachel Carson. Two actresses (one of 'em is me!) play Rachel at different moments in her life—from her days as a young student to her days crusading as an conservationist and a groundbreaking author. It is a deeply human story; a show that explores themes of family, illness, and the individual's responsibility to the greater good.

It is a deeply human story; a show that explores themes of family, illness, and the individual's responsibility to the greater good.

BG: What have you learned about environmental issues from this experience?

RF: My twin sister, Emily Flynn, works in the sustainability sector at the Sustainable Endowments Institute, and I have been lucky to learn quite a bit from her about contemporary issues in sustainability and environmentalism. My role in this play is providing fantastic experience and insight, drawing a line backward from current discussions of climate and environment to the work of Rachel Carson.

Carson introduced most Americans to the idea of environmentalism. Silent Spring was perhaps the first time Americans were forced to ask "what are we doing to the world around us?" and "what are the chemicals we use in our environment doing to us?" She was also a strong proponent of the dissemination of information, which I believe is the best hope we have of being informed, responsible, global citizens. We must ask questions of ourselves and our elected officials, and question our own relationship with the environment.

Photo by Michael MarkhamPhoto by Michael Markham

BG: How did your experience at Harvard prepare you for this role?

RF: One of my favorite parts of theater at Harvard was the incredible fearlessness everyone brought to all sorts of projects, especially new works and devised pieces. It really shaped who I am as an artist and what I wanted out of a career in the arts. 

I've been very fortunate to work on mostly new works since leaving school, and that's truly where my heart lies. I think new works have phenomenal potential to address immediate and current issues, challenges, and ideas which might otherwise go unexplored. 

I work in New York now, but I constantly run into artists I met when we were all awkward balls of energy in the Loeb Drama Center, and these folks are continuing to create stunningly beautiful, brave, and important new works. It's really thrilling.

I think new works have phenomenal potential to address immediate and current issues, challenges, and ideas which might otherwise go unexplored. 

BG: As someone who has worked extensively in theater since graduating, what do you think is the role of theater in activism?

RF: Truly, I spend a lot of my life doing silly, angry, rock-focused musical theater. The goal is to inspire and create laughs, fun, and excitement. Still, I've never met a show that didn't have the power to shape and alter the brains of its audience, for good or for bad. 

Theater, whether its goal is to push a message or not, is constantly advocating for something. It's a supremely powerful tool for changing minds. I think the trick is to focus on storytelling, not activism. Audiences can spot a show that's "preaching" to them from a mile away. But, a show that simply seeks to tell its story, honestly and with heart, can advocate for a belief, a cause, or an idea until the cows come home. 

Audiences can spot a show that's "preaching" to them from a mile away. But, a show that simply seeks to tell its story, honestly and with heart, can advocate for a belief, a cause, or an idea until the cows come home. 

Audiences are smart, and it's why a show like "Rachel" is even smarter. Will audiences leave thinking about their role in making the world better for future generations? I hope so, but not because we scolded them or pushed them into it. Our goal is to tell the story of a remarkable woman—her wants, her loves, her hopes, and her frustrations. On a really good night at the theater, this will be exponentially more effective than going out "to change minds."

BG: Do you have any advice for students interested in sustainability and the humanities?

RF: Take every class you find interesting, even if you don't see how it fits into your goals or plan. It will fit. It will expand those goals. Don't buy into the idea that there are only sensible and reasonable career paths out of Harvard. The number of Harvard grads I have found working in theater, in non-profits, in music, in strange off-the-grid hippie rock-climbing communes would've blown my mind as an undergrad.

As Harvard students we are often fearful of blowing the opportunity our Harvard degrees provide by "choosing the wrong path." It can't be done, so go ahead and try something crazy and fun.