Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Belle of Amherst with Lisa Egan Woods

Each fall, I eagerly await the new season from the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training. Although I might not always love the play selection, the caliber of performance by the second year students is uniformly high. (There's a reason the school is one of the top ten acting programs in the country.)  The only problem is that I get attached to the students and miss them as they move on in their journey.  Going to performances in the Late Night Series is one way to counteract my separation anxiety.

Lisa Egan Woods as Emily Dickinson
As I understand it, the Late Night Series consists of performances that third year students have put together on their own.  The first installment in this year's series was a one-night only performance by Lisa Egan Woods of "The Belle of Amherst," a play about Emily Dickinson. It was wonderful. 

You don't have to be a poetry buff to know Emily Dickinson's name and, quite likely, some of her work. She is, after all, one of America's most significant poets. The story of her life yielded some surprises, though. 

Dickinson grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts and lived her adult life in seclusion in her family home. She spent a year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, a school whose evangelical fervor did not suit her. Students were classified as professed Christians, those with hope, and those without hope. Dickinson found herself in the last category as she struggled with her faith. (As a Mount Holyoke alum, I found this history of the school particularly interesting. When I attended the women's college nearly 140 years later, it was no longer religious in nature. Nonetheless, the lights still went on and boys were ushered out when parties were declared over at 1 a.m.)

I loved the way poems were interspersed throughout the play. I was surprised to learn that only seven of Dickinson's nearly 1800 poems were published during her lifetime and that those poems had been heavily edited.  (A complete collection of her work was not published until 1955, almost 70 years after her death.)

Only known picture of Dickinson
The play includes a meeting between Dickinson and Higginson, a publisher with whom she had had a long correspondence. Dickinson believed that Higginson had come to visit for the purpose of deciding which of her poems to include in a book. Instead, he made it clear that he found her poetry--with its short lines, slant rhyme and seemingly random capitalization and punctuation--unworthy of publication. Her dream shattered, she wrote the poem "I'm Nobody." The poem packed an emotional wallop when put into the context of an isolated woman whose desire to communicate with the world through her poetry has been crushed. 

I'm Nobody!  Who are You?
by Emily Dickinson

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us - don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

(Side note: Higginson also declined to publish Walt Whitman.)

Wearing Dickinson's trademark muted colors, Woods truly inhabited the role of the poet. The play contained humor and sorrow and resignation, and in each instance Woods struck the right tone.  (In fact, in a brief conversation with her after the show, I was surprised by the differences between her "Dickinson" voice and her own speaking voice.)  It was a performance of which Woods and her fellow students who helped with direction, lighting, set design and direction should be proud.

The Asolo Conservatory season is kicking off soon with two absurdist shows in one -- "The Actor's Nightmare" by Christopher Durang and "The Real Inspector Hound" by Tom Stoppard.  Tickets for the four show season are only $100, one of the best deals around.  I can't wait. 

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