Photos Alexander Berg
After a very well-received workshop presentation of Take What Is Yours at the New Ohio Theatre in October of last year, Erica Fae and Jill A. Samuels have now brought the show to 59E59. This multi-disciplinary performance work focuses on the imprisonment of Alice Paul, a leading suffragist in the early 1900s. During her time in prison Paul undertook a hunger strike, to which prison officials reacted by placing her in solitary confinement, and force-feeding and interrogating her. At a time when politics seem bent on marching us backwards, it seems worthwhile to reflect on the hard-won and bitterly long fights that others endured in the past and which continue today.
In late April I stopped by the Gowanus rehearsal studio where Fae and Samuels were putting the final touches on the show before packing everything up before moving into Theater B at 59E59 (the show runs through May 27). I was interested to speak to them about the process of creating the show, their first collaboration; and about how they’ve blended historical texts with elements of contemporary performance. Fae and I began the discussion, with Samuels joining us later.
Can you start by telling me a little bit about the show—what is it about, what happens on the stage?
Erica Fae, co-writer and performer: We wanted to make sure that we were true to the history in the piece, at the same time that we didn’t want to stay there. So, there’s a balance of historically accurate things in the design or in the way that the piece feels or even in the way that the performers are behaving, but it’s always balanced with contemporary elements—like the sound score and visual field. The text is all historical text.
What kind of historical text—journals or speeches?
EF: A lot of it comes from a publication called The Suffragist, which was a weekly publication that the National Women’s Party made at that time. Then there are transcripts from court trials, hearings before the Judiciary Committee, some newspaper articles, some interviews, and some of her speeches and other women who were suffragists at the time, whose speeches were put into print. And we’ve edited it quite extensively, both in terms of selecting which pieces we want to use, but then also in some of the dialogue scenes. There are two main characters—there’s Alice Paul and this character called The Man, and we’ve really woven source material together to create those scenes.
The visual design is really Jill’s—she designed the set and has created a field that is visually edited in a way that we feel partners with the way the text is edited. So there’s something quite cinematic about how the piece renders itself visually—that things are moving on the stage and we don’t know how they’re moving. The stage space is sort of the image of Alice’s cell walls opening and closing depending on what she’s going through, and that creates a kind of visual editing. I would say the tone of the piece enters a realm that has a very subtle magic realism, in a way, and sometimes it’s hard, cold realness.
When we were balancing the history, we were careful to not present just a historical story. I think about it that we’ve placed the personal over the political or historical—we’re really looking at this as an event that happened to this one woman. Though we use the name Alice Paul, and Alice Paul definitely was a real person, we’re also not in the business of trying to do a bio-play.
So, it’s loosely based on facts that are part of her life, but it’s not wedded to those facts?
EF: The facts are there, we don’t invent any romances. The main thing that we’ve done is we’ve given Alice some speeches that other suffragists spoke. Our Alice is, in a way, a symbol of the women of that movement. And again, in acting her, I’m allowing myself that room. I could go, wow, I really want to figure out certain things about her life and what she was really like and do all of that, but I thought, you know what, actually, we want to tell a moving story and so in certain instances I’ve allowed myself to look into the personalities of other key women in that movement and draw inspiration from their personas. Namely, Lucy Burns and Rose Winslow and Inez Milholland, who are three others who I’ve really looked at in composing this character of Alice.
She’s a kind of composite, then?
EF: Yeah, we talk about her as a composite character, absolutely. And also The Man is also a composite character. He plays a man who comes to interview her, which happened many times to Alice in jail. What could be said about his role is that he’s representing a male viewpoint of these women at that time, and he has a real arc—he has a transformation in the play, he doesn’t end the play with the same opinion that he begins with.
We have three other actors involved in the piece and they do a lot of physical movement in the show, to kind of make Alice’s cell come alive.
Are they actual human characters, or are they metaphorical?
EF: They play the guards and the nurse in the cell, but they also are often unseen—sometimes we only hear their voices.
Kind of like a Greek chorus, in a way?
EF: Yes. Sometimes I refer to them as Company. The other thing that play is doing is it cross-fades, in a way, between these conversations with The Man and Alice re-inhabiting key moments in the suffrage movement. The frame of the piece is that it’s set in jail, she’s on a hunger strike, and from that structure we’re really allowed to watch her fray a bit and to relive things in a way that is not naturalistic, per se.
A key thing for me about that piece, actor-wise, is that I do play more characters than just Alice. A really important distinction, I feel, is that it’s not just Erica the actor playing Alice and then playing so-and-so and so-and-so—all of the characters are processed through Alice’s perspective. So it’s really Alice playing all of them. I view it that I’m playing her the whole time and that she fractures into these other memories or visions because of the state of being she’s in.