Coming into fruition after a rehearsal period of nearly 7 months, Stage East and Magnificent Liars’ Dear Elizabeth ran February 14-23, offering theatergoers a nuanced, immersive experience of Sarah Ruhl’s play about the friendship of poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, written using only text from the poets’ letters and poetry.
“They wrote more than eight hundred pages of letters to each other,” wrote Ruhl, who was inspired by the friendship revealed by the letters, which she first read—voraciously—while on bed rest, pregnant with twins. “It’s difficult to write about friendship. Our culture is inundated with stories of romantic love. We understand how romantic love begins, how it ends. We don’t understand, in neat narrative fashion, how friendship begins, how it endures. And yet life would be unbearable without friendship.”
“Lowell and Bishop were good writers all of the time, informally as well as formally” said Schuth, who initiated the project. “I liked the fact that the playwright did not hold your hand—there were gaps or leaps from letter to letter, and at a first reading the logic of their arrangement was not always clear.”
Schuth approached Smith last summer, and was thrilled and relieved at her writing that she was ‘in’ on July 18. The performers swiftly discovered a mutual passion for the poets, and spent months in avid study of their lives and works.
“It’s been a rare pleasure to share that kind of common obsession on a show,” said Schuth, who initially thought he’d be able to balance performing and directing the piece, but was overjoyed to welcome director, Mark Macey, who moved to Eastport in the fall. “He has a strong visual sense that emphasizes the essential in the action.”
“For me, theater is ultimately a physical endeavor,” said Macey. “The movement, the text, the lights, the music should all point to a sort of geography of meaning where we understand what’s unfolding on the stage by what actions take place where, how, and when.”
Despite a script which provides few moments when the actors are together and no exchanged dialolgue, the emotional and physical states of Bishop and Lowell were ever clear to viewers. Rather than literal depictions of the text, the production used stylized, poetic action. “The intent was to create layers of action over the space that could be read by the audience not intellectually but instinctually,” said Macey.
Augmenting the action was work by bassist and narrator Joan Lowden, who used her instrument to create a range of subtext: sound effects describing complex events; musical passages to set time, tone and clarify events; and to evoke a sense of place. “In the Maine scenes,” said Lowden, “I use a paintbrush against the bass pick-up to evoke the sound of a rope against a pier.
The critical backdrop for these artistic choices was the Shead High School Theater, an intimate space ideal for the production’s desired audience/performer ratio. “The play is both intimate and gigantic—the private communication of two people, scattered across thirty years, half the globe, and two very complex, difficult lives. Shead solved the problem of being huge and intimate at the same time: a wide, deep, vertical acting space in what remains a very small room.” A synergy with Shead students was a bonus benefit of the show’s venue. Lighting Designer RebeccaCrabtree, a junior at the school “Played savior in the lighting realm,” said Macey. “I had strong ideas of what I wanted scene to scene but very little lighting knowledge, so she came to our rescue.
And from the wealth of background provided by the Dear Elizabeth production team,
some additional comments:
On choosing (and staging) Dear Elizabeth
Schuth: “I was aware of Sarah Ruhl as a playwright—I actually had a copy of her book 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write before knowing any of her plays—but had never (and except for Dear Elizabeth, still have never) seen a play of hers. As of this summer, I hadn’t even read one. I saw a review of her Eurydice in the Bangor free paper one morning at Bagel Central while traveling to Boston, so I got on the Sam French website and ordered about 8 of her plays, Dear Elizabeth being one of them. I immediately responded to it—I have a love for mid-century American poetry, and although I knew Lowell and Bishop I knew writers like Roethke, Jarrell and (especially) Berryman a lot more, so the fact of this friendship was a surprise to me.”
Macey: “I came onto the project as a director after Jenie and Brian had already begun rehearsal, but I had read the show. I wasn’t sure how it worked structurally, but I thought it would be a fun challenge to try and find out. I love working outside traditional theatre forms and Dear Elizabeth certainly fits the bill there.
“What was interesting to me about the show then and what continues to interest me now is the idea of seeing a metaphor actualized in space. These moments were the most challenging part of the experience. Finding solutions for some of these more complicated stage directions (I.e. she steps onto a planet) kept us scratching our heads. I knew the team wanted a sparse and simple production but that we didn’t want to phone it in. Hence the sort of vaudevillian charm of the set and effects.“
Schuth: “What did I love about the play? I loved that although it was a play it didn’t have all that rickety ‘storytelling’ every person who writes show recaps on the internet knows about. We all know about A, B and C stories now, and we’ve been told there are only seven plots, etc. Like life, the play had direction, but not a goal or outcome. The language of the piece was also a large part of my interest—I’m personally a text person more than a visual person.”
On working in a ‘letters play’
Schuth: “Working in a letters play can be tricky, since a lot of what we think of as ‘acting’ is face-to-face dialogue. Letters are a little like monologues—but a night of monologues just sounds so dull to me. I found that much of my work consisted of figuring out how to keep the sense of connection between letters while respecting the fact that they are not dialogue—finding connection and warmth and friendship while never forgetting that the bulk of this friendship happened while the two friends were thousands of miles away from each other.
“We took the structure of the play as a challenge in rehearsal, but we never tried to force any shape on the piece—the logic appeared through repetition and became clearer as we began to understand the whole machine of it, the way it hangs together as a single work.”
On producing at Shead High School Theater
Schuth: “Usually when doing plays you think about audiences, big audiences—and while I want everyone in the world to see this show, I want them to see it in small groups—but I want them to never feel uncomfortable because the group is small. We’ve been doing about 20 per show this first weekend, and it never feels small. It would be hard to duplicate this at the EAC theater, which needs about 40 to feel ‘full enough to play to’. My own artistic inclinations are to the small, the intense, the austere—I’m truly fortunate to have found material, colleagues, and space which give me a chance to exercise that, and to do so with real dedication to the work. We’ve been at this for SO LONG, it has been a real luxury. I bought the play in early July. I believe we agreed to memorize the thing starting at the end of September. There’s a lot of ingredients to making good theater, but time and preparation have to be the most important…”
Making the ephemeral physical:
Blocking and music
Macey: “Another challenge was deciding how to block the show. We wanted to avoid creating set pieces or playing spaces that directly correlated to single locations in the play. For example, a box should not represent Yaddo and Yaddo alone. More simply, each set piece and playing space should represent multiple locations.
“Then the question of contact came in. When should Brian and Jenie be together or apart; making eye contact or playing out? Again we didn’t want a formula where distance on the stage correlated to distance in the play or where the only way intimacy was introduced was through touch or eye contact. All of this to say—we wanted a wide physical vocabulary and so blocking became pivotal to the production.
“We spent many long nights getting the minutia of sitting, standing, holding things, and crosses right. For example, Lowell’s slow walk across the front of the stage and collapse underscored by Joan’s bass are echoed in his crawl to the chaise, his long entrance after “climbing down his ladder to the moon,” and his eventual heart attack (among other moments). Bishop’s climbing to her planet also resembles Lowell’s climbing to his moon and her drinking is both underscored and specially lit and at later moments neither, but all drinking moments take place in the same area of the stage. In every case, these events don’t mirror each other, but they rhyme. The goal is always to clarify the story.”
Lowden: “Anne Moody contacted me after I had played bass on a couple of tunes at the Quoddy Voices concert in December. With much hesitation (I have no theater experience) plus some encouragement from John Newell I contacted Anne and was sent the script to consider.
“I read the script and noted some specific references to music within the script, plus other references to time and place that could be portrayed through music, but beyond that, had no clue and was still not convinced I could add value to the play.
“I met with Mark and Anne mid-January and after some more brainstorming and direction, I decided to go for it. Mark sent me a list of places in the script that needed either music, sound effects or a motif of some sort and I started putting ideas together and assembling music and sounds. He also asked me to put together a pre-show program to set the tone before the play. Things came together VERY quickly, within a 2-week period. It was all a bit dizzying.
“We mostly used the ideas that I had brought to the table, but there were two huge things that I got from Mark as we blocked the music and sound. I had initially incorporated a lot more background recordings, but as we fine-tuned, Mark convinced me to simplify and rely on solo bass. I’d never played solo bass before; I’d always played in an ensemble, but he really gave me the confidence to strip things back and go with the bass. I think that was huge, and ultimately very effective.
“When we did use music recordings and sound effects, there was ALWAYS bass played with them. We didn’t use electronic effects alone, to add warmth and authenticity.”
On hard work (and hard labor)
behind the scenes
Macey: “Mack Moody and Yuki Sakai helped with a lot of the minutiae of setting up the space. When it came time to move the flats, we found out that two of them (9.5-by-6-foot) would be too large for the truck. We met again and walked them up the hill, trying not to be spirited away by the light winds. Mack carried one on his own, which was even more impressive.”
Lowden: “I really appreciated Mark as a director—he was open to my concepts, but also had great ideas and input, was decisive and clearly communicated in a positive way. I was very impressed. The whole process pushed me beyond what I even imagined was possible and I am very grateful to both Anne and Mark for believing that I was the right person for this role.”
Schuth: “Mark is a real gift. I find that he and I share most of our theatrical principles while having radically different temperaments, which is productive and intriguing. He’s open to ideas but always ready with his own. He has a strong visual sense that emphasizes the essential in the action, while leaving plenty of room for play and ambiguity if needed. It’s been 8 years since I’ve had a major stage part, 10 since I’ve had one in a drama, and Mark returned some tools to me I had forgotten how to use, and did so at just the right time.”
Revisiting Stonington coast for poster inspiration
Lauren Koss (poster design collaborator): “John is a diligent researcher. He immersed himself in the script, and spent a long time considering which image might best represent the show. He then found an image of the Stonington coastline that Lowell and Bishop would likely have seen, and which Lowell recalled so poignantly in his letter nine years later.
“Playwright Ruhl references this letter in her preface to the script, and reveals that the genesis for the play was in her hunger to hear the letters—and particularly those that referenced this moment in the friends’ history—read aloud. “I particularly longed to hear letter number 161 read aloud … Lowell’s most confessional letter to Bishop.”
John Leavitt (poster artist): “I’d been looking at the work of Spanish illustrator Joaquin Pertierra, whose work appeared on lots of foreign paperback edition book covers in the 60s and 70s. That was my inspiration, but the end result is more in line with my own painting.
“In my research I discovered that there may only be one spot that functions as a proper beach in Stonington. It was easy to find in a Google search. Since Lowell and Bishop’s time in Stonington was so important to the play, I wanted to evoke the spirit of the actual place, if just for my own satisfaction.”
On the history of Shead High School Theater
Anne Moody: “It was originally the Band Room and occasionally a meeting room for the community. In 2000, my husband Michael Moody was hired to start a drama program for Shead. At least in recent years, they had not had one. He was given the Band Room to work in. He and Jay Skriletz hung the original theatrical lighting fixtures that year. Michael pulled together a play with three boys in it, “Mere Mortals” by David Ives, about three high steel workers in NY City. They took it to the One Act Play Competition and it won first place in its division. That was the beginning of Shead’s theatre group. Michael named the group The Magnificent Liars, a phrase coined by his acting teacher in the Drama Dept. of Carnegie Mellon University, who said all actors are ‘magnificent liars’. When Michael left Shead, the next drama coach changed the group’s name to The Mixed Nuts, so when Michael, Brian, Lou Esposito and I formed our own group in 2002, we called ourselves The Magnificent Liars. The only two people who have been members of BOTH groups are Caitlyn Stellrecht and Kathleen Dunbar.”