What drew you both to The Belle of Amherst? What are you discovering about Emily Dickinson through this process?
Sean Graney: When I was in college, I would spend a lot of time in the library reading as many plays as I could. When I came across The Belle of Amherst, I loved it. It has a darker theatrical quality, where Emily Dickinson is actively trying to solve problems.
There is existential questioning underpinning the charm of The Belle of Amherst. Why are we on this earth? What am I doing with my time on this earth? Emily is reflecting on her life, her definition of success, her relationship to writing, and her relationship to society and withdrawal from it. She actively questions her choices as she relives them. As Emily’s time on earth is ending, she wonders if she spent it well.
Kate Fry: In the famous Dickinson daguerreotype, Emily looks prim and docile. This is not the woman I am meeting at all. She is playful and witty, and there is an enormous depth of feeling. I can’t think of anything she does halfway: life, work, relationships, gardening, baking, reading—nothing is trivial. Her love is forceful. I’m sure that was off-putting to people. There’s something so bold about that.
However, we are never going to know her completely. Anyone that claims to know her is reaching for something impossible. I think she is purposely oblique and that is part of her mystery.
What was your relationship to Emily Dickinson prior to working on The Belle of Amherst?
Kate: I have admired Emily Dickinson’s poetry and used some of her poems in working on other characters, particularly as Viola in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night [at Court Theatre in 2001] and Sonia in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. I didn’t perform the poems, but used them to understand something that was happening in the character.
In working on Viola, what reminded me of Dickinson was being isolated, intense, harboring very strong feelings, and not being sure that they are being returned in the same way. I found that “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers” fit particularly well. There is an intensity and distillation of passion that I found useful.
When I started preparing for this production, months before rehearsals began, I didn’t read letters or biographies—I started with the poems. I wanted to start with just her words and her thoughts, without other people’s lenses. Once that process was sufficiently underway, it was only then that I felt like I could focus on the script.
Emily Dickinson herself was subject to a society with very limited options for women to be heard, and chose to recuse herself from it. The legacy that she left is a story that has been told and retold, from being a shrinking violet to a courageous revolutionary.
Sean: Emily Dickinson is one of the geniuses of American literature, and I don’t think that she gets the credit that she deserves. It certainly has to do with misogyny, and also that the choices that she made—to not marry, to isolate herself—made her a bit of a pariah. She has been seen as provincial as opposed to canonical.
She was living in a farmhouse and asking deep, universal questions—similar to the ideas that Henry David Thoreau was interrogating at Walden Pond. Why doesn’t she get credit for that? If she had built a hut in the woods and lived in it, what would our relationship with her be? It probably would have made her even more of a pariah.
Emily Dickinson died in 1886. The Belle of Amherst was written in 1976. What function does this play serve for an audience living in 2017?
Sean: I think we need to listen to women more. When women are speaking, a lot of society dismisses what they are saying, interrupts them, or doesn’t give their words as much weight as what men say. We need to address that as a society.
I think that this is an opportunity for a woman to hold space, and where people must listen to her. I think that if people who have a hard time imagining women in charge can listen to Kate for two hours, they leave the theatre knowing that they can listen to women.
Kate: I love that we are doing this play now. I think there is so much meaningless information floating out in the ether right now. There is something so refreshing about having this prim looking woman penetrating like a laser beam into some of the most confusing emotions and conundrums of being alive.
My current favorite poem is “I tie my hat – I crease my shawl.” It reflects people who are overly attached to their routines, to their trivial acts, the seemingly meaningless ritual of an average day: cleaning, putting flowers in a vase. You think she’s just enumerating her tasks, but then you realize, she is hanging onto life by her fingernails. There is something so modern about that.
I would like to see her in 2017. I can’t imagine her “liking” something on social media; she would be like, “I’m in LOVE with that.” She wouldn’t be tepid about anything—she would do it her own way. She didn’t like any of the options so she chose to create her own. ■