Kathryn Kelley on Playing Emily Dickinson in ‘The Belle of Amherst’ at Bay Theatre Company by Joel Markowitz

Kathryn Kelley is portraying the poet Emily Dickinson in Bay Theatre Company’s production of The Belle of Amherst, and is receiving raves from local critics and audiences. I asked Kathryn to talk about preparing for this demanding role and working with Director Jerry Whiddon.

Kathryn Kelley as Emily Dickinson in 'The Belle of Amherst.' Photo by Stan Barouh.

Joel: Why did you want to be involved in Bay Theatre Company’s The Belle of Amherst?

Kathryn: Jerry asked if I had any ideas for a small-cast play he could direct at The Bay Theatre, and something in me sprang forth and proposed this project. I hadn’t really realized how much I wanted to do it. Tana Hicken’s magnificent performance (directed by her husband, Donald Hicken) at Round House several years ago was my first exposure to the play. What I remembered most – that Tana’s Emily drew my own grief and joy straight to the surface – the true healing and catharsis we often seek in the theatre. When Jerry called Tana and Donald to let them know we planned to do the show, we were unprepared for their supreme generosity – they loaned us the white dress that Tana’s seamstress had created for their production. The dress is copied from Emily’s own dress (her ‘white renunciation’) on display in the Amherst museum. The Hickens also loaned us their antique stereopticon pictures and viewer, photos of the Dickinson family, books, and other inspirations.

What kind of research did you do to prepare for this production?

I read several biographies, and essay collections, the most startling and inspiring being Emily Dickinson: Accidental Buddhist by RC Allen. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Its premise is simple but radically fresh:

“When buddhas don’t appear
And their followers are gone,
The wisdom of awakening
Bursts forth by itself.”

Kathryn Kelley

The wisdom of awakening bursts forth in her poems. She arranged her life to be present to translate that wisdom into poetry. Discussing one of poems  –“Tell all the truth but tell it slant” -which appears in the play, Allen writes, “Satori is lightning in the mind. It may ‘appall,’ because the sudden death of the ego-self may raise the spectre of madness. ED suggests creating a “gradual dawning.” (Buddhists recognize the existence of both sudden and gradual enlightenment).” And further -and you just have to smile at his invitation and accept it!  – “Perhaps long immersion in ED’s poetry will make you eventually realize what she is talking about.” Allen’s insights into her poetry jump past conventional critical explorations of the poems, straight to the mystic level. I also enjoyed everything I could find that Billy Collins has to say about Emily. Jerry and I both found a PBS documentary called Loaded Gun – which examines the kind of anarchic, rebel, punk quality of her personality and work  – very useful.

What were the main challenges for you in preparing to play Emily Dickinson?

The solo aspect, and the sheer amount of text. I never attempted a memorized solo piece. I did work intensely for several weeks last year with Deborah Randall at her Venus Theatre on a solo piece by John Carter called Lou, about Lou Andreas Salome. The piece was performed with script in hand. Deb helped me understand the challenges of a solo piece, and gave me the feeling that it might be possible, and I’m extremely grateful to her.

Jerry had done two solo shows before, so he had the necessary faith! Fortunately, Emily’s poetry and her personality (her letters are amazing!) are a living river of inspiration, and when I feel that the audience wants to go swimming in that sweet river, then we’re all home free!

What did you both learn about Emily Dickinson that you didn’t know about her before you became involved in the production?

I really knew very little, so I have to say I’m meeting her for the first time. I admire so much how she withstood the disappointment of not being published in her lifetime, and how she persisted, to write her ‘letter to the World.’

What was the best advice Jerry gave you about playing your role?

Emily Dickinson. Photo courtesy of Amherst College Library.

Impossible right now to sum up all his brilliant advice. He helped me find as many different colors as possible.

One thing which gave me hope when things were very difficult… he said,”We’ve had steeper roads than this to climb towards an opening!” I thought, “We HAVE?”

But something about the trust which his comment implied gave me courage.

What are some of the challenges and benefits of working and directing in the Bay Theatre Company space?

The challenge: it’s intimate. The benefit: it’s intimate!! The Bay Theatre staff is delightful and devoted. I want to give a shout out to our incredible Stage Manager, David Elias, too, as well as the wonderful design team.

Why do you feel Emily Dickinson’s work is still so popular today?

Love and Death and Time and Immortality – these ideas and her beautifully crafted explorations of them – never go out of style here on Earth!

Romantic eccentricity is an added draw!

What do you want audiences to take with them after seeing The Belle of Amherst?

Faith, love, hope, humor, and a great recipe for Black Cake!

The Belle of Amherst plays through May 6, 2012 at The Bay Theatre Company – 275 West Street, in Annapolis, MD. For tickets, call the box office (410) 268-1333, or purchase them online.

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Read Amantha Gunther’s review of The Belle of Amherst.

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