When Associate Professor of Theater Abigail Killeen first heard about the opportunity to act in an episode of the Smithsonian’s “America’s Hidden Stories,” she did not realize that she was auditioning for a starring role. Earlier this month—almost a year after that audition—she made her debut as Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union spy who fought for the abolition of slavery during the Civil War.
“I [had] submitted an audition tape to the producers, expecting to be considered for a small role,” wrote Killeen in an email to the Orient. “I was shocked when I was cast as Elizabeth!”
Through a series of isolated episodes, “America’s Hidden Stories” illuminates heroic figures and forces of America’s history that often go uncelebrated and underappreciated. Killeen’s episode, which chronicles and commends the work of Van Lew, was shot in late June outside of Lewiston. Aside from an air conditioned basement, where cast members took turns cooling off, Killeen and the rest of the cast spent 12 to 15 hours outside each day filming in 90-degree weather.
“[The biggest challenge] … was the heat—not because it was uncomfortable, but because I was trying to keep my face from sweating too much on camera,” wrote Killeen. “The days were long and hot, but they were also meaningful and really fun.”
As Maine’s COVID-19 cases climbed over the summer, the cast and crew took extra precautions to remain safe during production. A COVID Safety Coordinator was on set at all times to enforce CDC-issued guidelines and to conduct routine temperature and symptoms checks.
“We maintained [COVID-19] protocols—physical distancing, masks and separated [and] boxed food on meal breaks, so it was very different [from] other sets I’ve been on,” wrote Killeen.
Although the production process was unconventional, the cast maintained their enthusiasm and strong work ethic while shooting.
“The organization was incredible,” wrote Killeen. “Everyone felt so lucky to be working after quarantine, so spirits were high.”
Killeen’s episode aired on the Smithsonian Channel on February 1. Killeen admits that she was initially nervous to watch the episode but was ultimately proud to watch herself play Van Lew.
“I felt so honored to portray this little-known woman who leveraged her privilege for justice,” wrote Killeen. “It was also great to work with Lisa Quijano Wolfinger, a female director, working on a story that highlights women who risked their lives for a cause they believed in.”
Killeen is not only grateful for the opportunity to star as Van Lew, but also for the support she has received from the Bowdoin community and beyond since the episode’s release.
“The biggest reaction that has been shared with me is people being fascinated by Elizabeth Van Lew, and thankful to have learned more about her,” said Killeen. “That, to me, means I’ve done my job!”
Killeen’s episode, “Southern Women, Union Spies,” is available for streaming on the Smithsonian Channel website.