Friday, February 24, 2012

5 1/2 years in the making

Anyone who has done a home improvement project knows from experience that your actual completion date is always weeks, maybe months after your desired or planned for completion date. The reality time line wins out….it takes twice as long to do the work than you expected. In the creative world of the arts, the same is true. Reality is painful and discomforting…even Emily Dickinson would agree with that statement!

Brought together through the death of our friend, Tim Vernon, Barbara Dana and I have become friends and creative colleagues. My blog of January 20, 2010 introduced our collaboration on an Emily Dickinson project.

Barbara has written a book about Emily, “A Voice of Her Own: Becoming Emily Dickinson.” Beginning in the summer of 2006 we began discussing the possibility of working together on an Emily show based upon Barbara’s book and including song settings of Emily’s poetry. Upon completion of her book, Barbara began the task of writing a script for the show. The premise of the story would be Barbara performing Emily and I would be the eternal Emily, the one who cared for and challenged Emily from her soul. As the show evolved, Barbara decided that I would not only sing, I would speak lines for six different characters including Emily’s mother, sister, father, girlfriends, a doctor and shop keeper. A challenge for my acting skills made easy by Barbara’s loving script.

I researched hundreds of Emily songs, whittling that number down to 50, and eventually we came to 8 -10 songs to be intertwined with the script. We invited five composers, Martin Hennessy, Drew Hemenger, Michael Conley, Shirley Hoffman Warren and Shirley Smith, to write songs for me. Martin was invited to be our musical director and accompanist. In addition, he composed all the incidental music that gave “I Told my Soul to Sing” a magical feeling in performance.  Six beautiful songs to premiere is quite an honor.

Kate Bushmann was asked to be our director.  She guided us through the many versions of the script with her depth of theatrical knowledge.  Her input into our project was invaluable. The story line changed and took shape with each script improvement.

Delays are delays. Barbara is not only an author and playwright, she is a wonderful actor. While writing our script, she was performing the Emily Dickinson play, “Belle of Amherst” by William Luce. I was performing my Gena show. And, Kate, well, our director Kate was hit by a truck one morning on her way to a read through of the show at my apartment. She spent weeks in the hospital undergoing a number of surgeries. Once out of the hospital, Kate had months of rehab.  Thankfully Kate is fully recovered and working as hard as ever.

We remained on track by staying in touch, continuing our work whether rewriting the script, learning new songs or doing research on Emily. Gradually in the spring and summer of 2011 we began detailed readings of the script inserting the songs. Amelia Campbell joined us for two readings while Barbara sat back and listened to her written words. We had a good working script that molded the story of Emily Dickinson’s life from age 9 to 24. Her life during those 15 years unfolded in front of our eyes….Emily’s humor, doubts, strengths, love, insecurities and fears, friends, love of nature, family issues and her self-realization that … she was a poet flowed through Barbara’s words and the songs that I sang. What a joy to come to this point in our work.

Throughout October and early November 2011 we rehearsed diligently, working on lines, pacing, characterization and incorporating the music. Our first performance, a semi-staged reading was held Sunday, November 20th in a rehearsal space in Manhattan. We were using the 9th revised copy of the script....yes 9 revisions in 5 1/2 years.  An invited audience of 35 people including the composers was in attendance.

For 90 minutes Emily Dickinson’s story based on Barbara’s book flowed from us. To say the least, it was a thrill to perform this new work. I think Emily would have been pleased, too.

Now, where do we go from here? Suggestions and ideas from the audience gave us a new perspective and now Barbara is rewriting the script yet again. Some of the songs will be eliminated. And, we continue to work and discuss this marvelous new work.

5 ½ years in the creative making for “I Told my Soul to Sing” to have its first performance….and it is still a work in progress.