By Bill Hirschman
In this time of quarantine, subtle resonances echo the underlying thread of Emily Dickinson’s isolation in Palm Beach Dramaworks and Actors Playhouse’s co-produced filming of the live play, The Belle of Amherst.
The one-woman play slated for an early April cyber-release focuses on a multi-faceted depiction of the legendary poet. She was widely depicted in popular culture as an eccentric recluse during much of the 20th century. But as later biographies and even a current cable comedy contend, she actually lived a vibrant and varied life earlier than her seclusion period, and her work encompasses wry humor and even erotic tones.
Therefore closer study show her work and her circumscribed lifestyle have lessons for those living in isolation less voluntarily, said William Hayes, Dramaworks’ producing artistic director and line director of the piece.
“It is very timely. There is a world we have taken for granted, the flowers, the animals, everything” that Dickinson spotlights in her considerable oeuvre, he said. “The isolation enhanced her ability to see the world differently.” Now, with his audience having been stranded in isolation themselves, he hopes that patrons can relate more readily with this attention to the details of the world around them.
The project will produce a three-camera shoot of two live uninterrupted performances by Margery Lowe without an audience. It will be under strict health restrictions set by the Equity union including everybody in the building getting tested three times a week. The edited piece will be offered only in one-time online streams available anytime between April 2-6. The full production will use Michael Amico’s sets, Brian O’Keefe’s period costumes, props, Ronald Arnold’s sound design and a crucial lighting design by Kirk Bookman.
The event will be free to 2020-21 subscribers who did not ask for a refund and rolled their subscription over to the 2021-22 season. A ticket to see the stream anytime during the short April window will cost $30.
While the bare bones budget using existing resources and a tiny staff is not designed to make a profit, Hayes sees the long-term paradigm as the potential for a self-supporting revenue stream without any intent to abandon or short shrift live performances.
“We hope to make money, but we’re doing this with the imperative that you send a message of strength to the community that we’re alive and well and supplying programming,” Hayes said.
Inhabiting William Luce’s 1976 play will be veteran local actress Lowe who played a much broader version of the poet in Dramaworks’ droll fantasia Edgar & Emily in 2018. Lowe must not only play Dickinson here but Dickinson impersonating the different personalities of a dozen other characters in her life.
“Margery is a lovely actress, and she has a great warmth onstage,” said David Arisco, artistic director of Actors’ Playhouse. “She’s an interesting combination of maturity and youthfulness in her performances, so she’s a terrific choice” because Dickinson ages 36 years during the play.
A major asset is that Lowe and Hayes have worked together in numerous productions for 15 years and they have a shorthand that will be valuable in a short rehearsal period. While Lowe has performed in two-handers, she never has done a solo piece with no one to play off, or, in this case, not even an audience. She has done some film work, but never a piece in which she can’t pay attention to the cameras and must pretend to be playing to an audience.
Another problem is that while she does plenty of pre-rehearsal research – scads of it for Dickinson – she usually prefers to memorize lines while the show’s movements are being set by the director. Facing a short rehearsal period, she is already awash in memorizing Dickinson’s poetry and Luce’s lines.
But the enforced isolation of 2020 resonates for her as well: “We’ve all been waiting around for a year now and there’s so many of my colleagues who are in the same boat where we’re just all waiting and I just feel so much gratitude about” the opportunity.
The part was originated by Julie Harris and directed by Charles Nelson Reilly whose production conquered Broadway and then toured the country for many years including a stop at the Jackie Gleason Theater in Miami Beach. It’s also been mounted a few times locally but not recently. Lowe joked that she and Harris share a short stature and, most appealing to her, red hair.
She will be playing a far more complex person than was the common shorthand assessment of Dickinson for much of the 20th Century as a fragile, naïve, hermit with little social experience. In more recent years and subsequent scholarship have depicted a more rounded person whose work relates to many types of people and experiences – which has meant that people see their own qualities in her.
“Her words are so vibrant. That’s why she’s a genius and that’s why she’s so read. They really speak to humanity and, I think, to the humanity in every person. So I can see why so many different versions of her have been done, because everybody says, ‘Oh, no, she’s like me,’ ” Lowe said.
The playwright, who developed the show with Harris and Reilly, is “trying to show a different side of someone that’s human, that’s normal, who had bigger ideas than the rest of us and was incredibly passionate. Bright and funny. Even in her letters, she is so witty,” Lowe said. “Sometimes there’s sarcasm or she likes to mess with people.”
There was considerable darkness as well. But one poem talks about wanting “ ‘to climb the stairs to ecstasy’…. She had so much death in her life that came along but that there was always the joy that always won out.… This is a very hopeful Emily … that also shows a brighter side along with her existential depression and introspection.”
Arisco and Hayes hope the co-production paradigm flowers.
“It seems logical that we’re entering a new era for regional theatre,” said Arisco, who will participate in some rehearsals and be present during filming. “The need for co-pros and collaboration now seems more evident. We realize we’re not antagonists, we’re not competing. This could lead to future co-productions when we’re back in our theatres, because even though we share a region and we share critics, we don’t share an audience.”
Dramaworks had hoped to have a co-pro in 2018 with GableStage of the play with music Indecent, but an Equity rule sidelined that project—although Dramaworks loaned its costumes to the Coral Gables company when it did an independent production after Dramaworks’ own edition. But last winter, the two companies joined to produce the world premiere of Ordinary Americans about TV pioneer Gertrude Berg and the blacklist.
But few companies in the state have tried it more than once or twice. “We were living in our own little bubble,” Hayes said.
But cooperation has intensified since the shutdown. Hayes said previously confabs with Judy Mitchell, CEO at the Kravis Center, and Andrew Kato, producing artistic director at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, became regular brainstorming sessions. “We were all friends before but we got really tighter and that’s a kind of beauty that came from it,” he said. That paradigm spread as artistic directors around the state began conferring regularly and Dramaworks’ Managing Director Sue Ellen Beryl joined national conference calls with her colleagues across the country.
So when Hayes and Beryl projected an initial loss of a third of their regular audience when full productions begin in earnest someday, Hayes began exploring numerous ways to produce additional income. He has become an enthusiastic advocate for filming live theater to distribute around the country and the world.
He reached out to the veteran Arisco because, among other reasons, he had “treated me with respect and kindness” even as Dramaworks was getting started. Like GableStage, the geographic distance from Actors Playhouse meant they expected no conflict in their patron pool.
Hayes expects more expansive co-productions post-pandemic as a regular facet of the local troupes – designing and physically moving shows between participating theaters’ stages.
“This is the beginning I think… of the new attitude, and we are trying to set the tone and hopefully an example of what can work and send a message to the community.”
The Belle of Amherst is available to download for a single livestream at the patron’s convenience April 2-6 from Palm Beach Dramaworks and Actors’ Playhouse. Subscribers to the 21020-21 season who did not request a refund have free one-time access. Others can buy access for $30. For technical reasons, tickets can be purchased only through PBD’s website: www.palmbeachdramaworks.org or box office: 561.514.4042, ext. 2
Dramaworks will produce an entry in their Dramawise series via Zoom: An in-depth conversation about the play and a conversation with Hayes and Lowe on Wednesday, March 26, from 10 a.m. to noon. Tickets are $15 for non-subscribers and complimentary for subscribers.
Today’s Isolation Echoes In Local Co-Pro Of The Belle Of Amherst
By Bill Hirschman