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Local Playwright Pens Drama About Emily Dickinson

Dickinson: The Secret Story of Emily Dickinson by Lynx Performance Theatre
Dickinson: The Secret Story of Emily Dickinson by Lynx Performance Theatre

Local Playwright Pens Drama About Emily Dickinson
A local playwright has taken on one of the most enigmatic figures in American literature, poet Emily Dickinson. Lynx Performance Theatre will stage the drama Dickinson: The Secret Story of Emily Dickinson, portraying the reclusive poet as a brilliant, bold and sexual woman frustrated with Victorian society and suffering from bouts of mental illness.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

Dickinson: The Secret Story of Emily Dickinson opens on Thursday, July 23rd through Friday, August 7th, 2009, at North Park Vaudeville Theater on El Cajon Blvd.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Emily Dickinson, one of the greatest poets of the English language, only had seven of her poems published during her lifetime. Aside from that being a very depressing fact for poets alive today, it is one of the many tantalizing ironies in the life of this complicated woman. A play opening next week here in San Diego presents the story of Emily Dickinson, not as a fragile, spinster poet, but as a brilliant, sensual and wounded woman. It uses her life, her letters and most of all her poems, to try to unveil the many secrets of her solitary life. My guests are William Roetzheim, who wrote the play "Dickinson." He is the author of five plays, 22 published books, 20 spoken word audio CDs, and although he joins us by phone today, he lives here in San Diego. William, welcome to These Days.

WILLIAM ROETZHEIM (Playwright): Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Al Germani is directing the play, "Dickinson." He is the founder and artistic director of Lynx Performance Theatre. Al, welcome.

AL GERMANI (Director): Hello.

CAVANAUGH: And a bit later we will be hearing a scene from the play performed by Rhianna Basore as Emily Dickinson, and Diana Sparta, who plays all the other female roles in the play and also provides vocals. Let me start, though with you, William, if I may. Remind us of the scope of Emily Dickinson's career, when she was writing and her impact on American literature.

ROETZHEIM: Most of her writing was roughly in the time of the Civil War so it's at that mid- to kind of early-late 1800s. She was really one of the first poets to write with a modern style where she broke away from the rigid reliance on meter and rhyme and so on and kind of moved more towards images and ideas. So that was groundbreaking at the time. And it was actually a shame that her work didn't get out until later. Her work wasn't actually put out to the public until the late 1800s, almost the 1900s.

CAVANAUGH: Now why is it you wanted to write a play about her?

ROETZHEIM: I think she's an important person and a fascinating person and just her whole life story is really amazing. And a lot of people don't really know the complexity of her. They have this idea that she was some prudish spinster. They may know that she was kind of – remained in her house all the time but they think she's a prudish Victorian spinster, and she was really quite a wild woman in many different ways. And I think that getting those aspects of her out are important.

CAVANAUGH: Now you did an extensive amount of research. Tell us a little bit about the stages of that research, if you would.

ROETZHEIM: Sure. The first step is, I go through and read the different biographies. And my rule of thumb is, when I'm writing a biographical play, I want to read as many biographies as it takes to start hearing repetitions. And with Emily Dickinson, that was many more biographies than normal because there's so many different people that had a different slant on what her motivations were in her life. Then the second step is with that biographical background, I go back and reread all their work, so anything that they published, like any poems and so on, of theirs I read. And then I go back and I read all the letters that they wrote and all of the letters that were written by the people around them so that were either written to them or written by her sister, by her cousins and so on so that I can develop a really good sense of how they speak, kind of tones, and also start to look for patterns, trends and even kind of what's not there. In other words, if something was happening but no one was talking about it, why were they not talking about it?

CAVANAUGH: And the full name of your play is "Dickinson: The Secret Story of Emily Dickinson." And I'm wondering, from your research, what did you uncover that was secret? What surprised you about Emily Dickinson?

ROETZHEIM: Well, I think that one thing that surprised me initially was just how vibrant – vibrantly sexual she was. But then as I delved into it deeper, another thing that kind of came to the surface was a fairly substantial body of evidence that she was abused by her father. And this is something that, really, I hadn't seen before. I did run across a Ph.D. thesis that talked about it a bit but it wasn't something that was out in the popular biographies. But the more I researched it, the more I looked at it, the more convinced I became that that was the case. And since then, I've talked to many Dickinson scholars and what they've told me, universally, is it's something that we suspected but we didn't have enough hard evidence so we didn't include it.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, since you did all this research and you uncovered perhaps – or you came to this hypothesis that this was a secret in Emily Dickinson's life, what we know about her life was that she lived in one place for most of her life and was a recluse for the bulk of her adult life. How do you turn that story into a play?

ROETZHEIM: Well, although she was – her physical body was more or less confined to her room—she very seldom left even her room, not – much less the house—her mind went everywhere. And so what we do is, we get inside of her mind and we make the setting of the play, as much as anything, the inside of Emily Dickinson's mind.

CAVANAUGH: And how – can you explain how you do that? What are the actual – What's the technique of doing that?

ROETZHEIM: This might be a good time to transition over to Al and have Al talk a little bit about it.

GERMANI: Bring in the shrink.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I'm just wondering how it is you put a mind onstage.

GERMANI: Well, I think the first thing that's important is, is that right from the get-go I was excited about this project is because we wanted it to be kind of a synergistic, you know, the best of what art can be in that it's compelling, entertaining, educational, historical, progressive and also functioning on a level that it's kind of deconstructed, meaning that you don't know, is it her dream? Is it the playwright's dream? And most of the time when you're watching the play, it's not necessarily literal but you're seeing what really went on dramatized inside this woman, brilliant, brilliant woman who was actually in a tremendously oppressive situation. And I think this play kind of accomplishes that. And one of the things that I also was excited about was that Bill wrote the play and it's actually culled from her own words, poems, correspondence, and so on. So even in the regular dialogue, most of this actually Bill took it from historical inside – the stuff that came out of her mind itself.

CAVANAUGH: Right. And what I was actually getting at is what I've read, is that the structure of the play is that there's the – Emily Dickinson actually spends a lot of time talking to the playwright and we don't know whether or not it's the playwright's dream or if it's actually Emily. And in that way, she is allowed to talk about her life and unveil herself through the play. Al, I'm interested in the structure that you added by putting a soundtrack – giving the play a kind of soundtrack. Talk about that.

GERMANI: Well, one of the things that – The first thing we worked on was developing the spine of the play and what I realized was with people like Emily and Mozart and people who are functioning kind of isolated inside their own mind because they're so brilliant, is that they kind of – most of the people around them are entranced by them, enthralled by them and scared of them. So one of the spines that we're using in the play is that everybody loves Emily but everybody's scared of her and everybody's trying to control her. Everybody's trying to encapsulate her. So what I was thinking of was lullabies. Lullabies and all the lullabies that are sung by Diana—she sings them a capella in the show—they are to calm the child. So we use them kind of like as a metaphor that everybody is terrified of the brilliance of this woman and – but they're always trying to get her to tone down, and it actually comes out in all these areas of her life. And then she actually got caught up in this by almost just having Vinnie, her sister, destroy her own poems.

CAVANAUGH: Right, Yes, right.

GERMANI: So it also creates a nice dynamic, compelling, dramatic situation…

CAVANAUGH: Speaking of dramatic situations, let's move on to a scene from the play. We have the two actresses, and the woman who plays Emily Dickinson here with us. This is a scene between Emily Dickinson and her friend Susie. Rhianna Basore plays Emily. Diana Sparta plays Susie. Al, is there anything that we should know about this scene before we go into it?

GERMANI: Well, one of the four or five issues that really don't get answered completely but are the primary ones with Emily: Is she mentally ill? Was she sexually abused by her dad? The other one is, is was she gay, was she lesbian, was she not? Was she just brilliant and experimenting? And Susie was probably her closest friend and maybe her lover, so this is one of the most beautiful scenes from the play. The other thing I think is really important is, is this – this scene is actually a poem, one of Emily's poems that we kind of deconstructed and created into a dramatic scene for the stage, to go back to what you were saying. So you're seeing inside Emily's poem with these individuals inside the dream.

CAVANAUGH: Here's a scene from the play "Dickinson."

(audio of scene from "Dickinson")

CAVANAUGH: That is a scene from the play "Dickinson," performed by Rhianna Basore as Emily Dickinson, Diana Sparta and with assistance by Al Germani, who is directing the play. William, you heard that scene and you talk about – I guess both you and Al talked about the idea of whether Emily's brilliance sort of also morphed into mental illness. How did you deal with that in the play?

ROETZHEIM: Well, there's actually points in the play where we show her breaking down because it's – I think it's clear that during her life, she did have mental breakdowns. And so we actually have parts where she does have breakdowns and retreats into her closet and so on. The real question with Emily isn't whether she had mental breakdowns but what triggered them, and so that's the mystery.

CAVANAUGH: And also, as you were saying, earlier in our discussion, you suggest in the play that she was sexually abused by her father and I wonder what gave you that idea from the research that you did?

ROETZHEIM: Well, a lot of her poetry, especially the poetry that wasn't published until much, much later, talks about that. For example, the one that comes to mind is the worm poem, which is one of the most creepy poems I've ever heard and almost any reading of it would kind of give you that interpretation. We also had a lot of the symptoms that she manifested during her life match up with the symptoms that an incest survivor would exhibit, so there's actually an internationally recognized incest survivor checklist that's used to kind of diagnose that and she manifested virtually all of the symptoms that were on the checklist.

CAVANAUGH: I think this is fascinating but I guess you must've grappled with the idea that extracting autobiographical details from someone's creative writing is a sort of risky business.

ROETZHEIM: That's true but I also had access to a wide variety of letters. There were several thousand letters and, presumably, in the letters we're going to be getting more to the truth.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, you know, and I want to ask both Al and Will this, why is there so much conjecture about Emily Dickinson's personal life? I know that we don't have the documentation but it does seem, as you were saying, William, from the amount of biographical – biographies that have been written about this woman, it's almost an obsession. Al, what would you say about that?

GERMANI: Well, I think she's one of those people who, from history, that became this enigmatic character and then she becomes like a Rorschach so people cherry pick the 1,700 poems. You can pick five poems and say she was a spinster and quiet, sitting in her closet. You can pick five other poems and say she was sexually abused. Although, I will add, though, that if this presented in my psychiatric office and I had all this information in front of me, while it's not a court of law but you would look at this and go, something happened in reference to this woman and her sexuality development. But that's also one of the reasons why I was excited to do this play because when you have enigmatic characters, especially who there's a lot of ideas that have been created over the years, maybe even prejudicial ideas, I think that's what the best of what art can do is when people can come and see a show – I think of shows in the past, "Dances with Wolves," other things that I've seen. Even seeing the Degas, original Degas works in Europe for the first time, I realized, man, I was wrong about this guy and his pastels. So it changes you and I think that's one of our goals that, is you see this play, you're going to walk out and your whole sense of what Emily Dickinson is and was will be changed forever.

CAVANAUGH: And, William, about the obsession with Emily Dickinson?

ROETZHEIM: Maureen, I think it's because anyone who's read a book of Emily Dickinson's poetry has fallen in love with Emily Dickinson.

CAVANAUGH: And wants to find out more.

ROETZHEIM: And want…

CAVANAUGH: Wants to find her secret.

ROETZHEIM: That's right. That's right. But she's someone that we care about deeply because we fall in love with her.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank all of you so much for being here performing for us, talking to us today. I've been speaking with William Roetzheim, who wrote the play, "Dickinson: The Secret Story of Emily Dickinson." William, thank you.

ROETZHEIM: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Al Germani, director of the play "Dickinson," thank you so much.

GERMANI: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And Rhianna Basore and Diana Sparta are two actresses. Thank you so much for performing for us today.

DIANA SPARTA (Actress): Thank you.

RHIANNA BASORE (Actress): Thanks.

CAVANAUGH: And "Dickinson: The Secret Story of Emily Dickinson" opens on Thursday, July 23rd and runs through Friday, August 7th at North Park Vaudeville Theatre on El Cajon Boulevard.