Artist to Watch: Hillary Clemens

makeup styling by Hannah Zuercher of Soft Glow Studio / photo by Jim Barcus

The Kansas City actress shines in multiple roles, including pairings with her husband, actor Matt Schwader

By the age of 8, Hillary Clemens was already active in community theater and doing some on-camera work. The young actress and Liberty native steadily ascended to roles with KCRep, Heart of America Shakespeare Festival and the Coterie, where she was a member of the Young Playwright’s Roundtable. At 11, she was on stage for KCRep’s “The Christmas Carol” and played the character of the street urchin spirit, Want, for three seasons.

These early appearances presaged a stellar career and a steady stream of accolades. “Hillary Clemens gives arguably the finest performance I’ve seen in Kansas City, maybe ever,” KCTV’s Tim Scott exclaimed of her portrayal of Nora in Kansas City Actors Theatre’s 2019 “A Doll’s House.” “She is incredible, and I cannot overstate that.”

Clemens has also made her mark at the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, starring in “Shakespeare in Love” in 2019 and as Ophelia in “Hamlet” in 2017, a performance praised by “KC Studio” theater critic Robert Trussell as “vivid,” “specific” and “deeply felt.”

More recently, she delivered what “KC Studio” reviewer Grace Suh singled out as a “sparkling, assured performance” in “Spider’s Web” at Kansas City Actors Theatre.

Clemens is a graduate of Loyola University, Chicago, and The School at Steppenwolf. She remained in Chicago from 2000 to 2015, where she was casting director of Gift Theatre Company (she is still an ensemble member), and graced the stages of the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Court Theatre, Steppenwolf, Lifeline, Apple Tree and Writers’ Theatre. She was twice nominated for the “Jeff” Award, Chicago’s version of the “Tony,” and played roles in “Chicago Fire” and in the film “In Memoriam.”

Clemens met her husband, actor Matt Schwader (now director of Performance Studies at Avila University), in Wisconsin in 2010, where they played Rosalind and Orlando in “As You Like It.” Since then, they have paired up in at least 10 productions, including stints as Romeo and Juliet at Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival, and as Gatsby and Daisy at Indiana Repertory Theatre, where Clemens learned she was pregnant on opening night. (Off-the-stage, off-the-page, Gatsby’s dream was finally fulfilled.)

They married in 2014 and moved here in 2016, drawn by the vibrancy of the Kansas City theater community. Together, they joined the Kansas City Actors Theatre team, working alongside John Rensenhouse and Mark Robbins, and are now board members and on the artistic committee, which selects plays, proposes projects and ensures production excellence.

At KCAT, in addition to “A Doll’s House,” Clemens was in “Lie of the Mind” in 2017, as well as several classic radio plays, which she recorded in her basement during the pandemic for KCAT and for Chicago’s Gift Theater.

In addition to her acting talents, Clemens is also known for her strong sense of social and political consciousness, which she expressed in “Harbor Roundup,” a Facebook project (titled for her married name of Harbor) she developed following the 2016 election.

She explained, “On the Monday after Trump’s inauguration, I was nursing my then-7-month-old baby and reading about all the disturbing things that had already happened in just a few days. On a whim, I put a whole bunch of these items into a Facebook post, encouraging people to stay as informed as possible . . . and then I did it again the next day. And then the next.”

The postings became a daily and then weekly summary of “painstakingly fact-checked, primary-sourced, opinion-free verified information.”

Urged by followers, she started a Patreon entity, enabling her to collect small donations so she could continue the work and send out written and audio versions. “It took hours and hours of my life to do this project for four years (virtually all of my ‘free’ time),” she said. “It also took a pretty intense toll on my emotional and mental health.”

Clemens discontinued the project on the day of President Biden’s inauguration but stays informed “through the sources I cultivated during those four years.” She occasionally resurfaces, recently posting about the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago. Otherwise, “I am almost never on Facebook these days — other than to promote KCAT — and that feels really good.”

She added, “It means a whole lot to me to get to work, in this phase of my life and career, with some of the same artists I looked up to and learned from as a young performer, on some of the same stages.”

Undoubtedly impressionable young thespians are looking to her with those same stars and ambition in their eyes.

Rebecca Smith

Rebecca Smith is an impassioned supporter of local performances of all types, who welcomes the  opportunity to promote them to KC Studio readers.

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