If someone mentions Emily Dickinson, you might think: American. Poet.
But do you also think Lonely Old Maid? Shut Up in Her House?
“I did have this image of her from decades past of a sad spinster, alone in her house,” actor Laurie McCants admits. “I really changed my mind after reading her poetry. I actually think she was very happy with her career choice.”
Dickinson is a theme in “Industrious Angels,” a one-woman play McCants created and will present at 7:30 tonight to open the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble’s Women’s Solo Performance Festival.
Rounding out the festival will be Leigh Hendrix’s performance in “How To Be A Lesbian In 10 Days Or Less” at 2 p.m. Saturday, Martha Kemper’s “Me, Miss Krause and Joan” at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Kali Quinn’s “Overture To a Thursday Morning” at 3 p.m. Sunday.
“Each show will nudge each audience in a new variety of storytelling,” Quinn said.
While some of the shows deal with dark subject matter — from the very personal, true story of a rape that happened in Bloomsburg in Kemper’s show to a fictionalized description of a pregnant teen’s journey to a home for unwed mothers in Quinn’s show — a sense of hope always runs throughout.
“The overwhelming feeling is real joy,” McCants said.
McCants has seen Kemper’s autobiographical performance, “Me, Miss Krause and Joan,” and said audiences can expect to see a “pretty hilarious” depiction of Alvina Krause, the acting teacher for whom BTE’s theater is named.
“It’s about trying to learn acting from this octogenarian who was pretty fierce. Yes, she was eccentric, and she just demanded that if you were going to be an actress, you had to plumb the depths of your soul. Your acting had to come from a deep desire to illuminate and change the world.”
It was years ago, after a triumphant play in Bloomsburg, McCants said, that Kemper was attacked as she walked home.
“It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t usually happen in Bloomsburg,” McCants said. “It was some drunk guy who was angry with his girlfriend. Martha did come out of it OK. Miss Krause was wonderful with helping her come through it, and so was the Bloomsburg Police Force.
Kemper’s play is “about how Martha found the courage to deal with this event in her life. Her training as an actress helped her,” McCants said.
“Just to give you an idea of the tone of the piece, she starts out delivering Joan of Arc’s speech from her trial. Joan of Arc’s own words are ringing through the air, and then (Kemper) takes off this medieval kind of jacket she’s wearing and says ‘I’m 56 years old. I’m never going to get cast as Joan of Arc’.”
There’s humor in Kemper’s lifelong obsession with the French heroine, and as you might suspect, Hendrix’s play contains lots of laughter.
“My show is decidedly a comedy,” Hendrix wrote in an email, citing “outrageous characters and a personal story that is at turns hilarious and pretty earnest.
“I’m interested in inviting audiences in,” she continued. “Each piece of the show positions the audience in different roles through direct address. They get to be clients for a motivational speaker, audience for a performing artist (and) the people at a National Coming Out Day event I ran in college.”
Incidentally, she said, “this is a show for everyone. The title might make you think it’s for one audience, but it’s an accessible story about creating who you are.”
She has performed the show for Lesbian/Bisexual/Gay/Transgender audiences, for college students and “for a roomful of people from my past in my hometown.”
While Hendrix’s performance deals with topic of “coming out,” Quinn’s show deals with the topic of keeping family secrets.
In “Overture to a Thursday Morning,” she portrays three women — a young musician, the musicians’s estranged mother, and the grandmother who sent the mother to a home for unwed teens long ago.
When she was growing up in the 1980s, Quinn said, she heard such places existed.
“People would say, ‘If you’re not careful you’re going to be sent to Father Baker’s.’ They meant Father Baker’s Infant Home.”
Quinn’s character will play the violin and compose music during the show, and she’ll use props in a variety of ways.
“When the daughter finds a red rotary phone it brings out a lot of angst. She remembers the last conversation she had with her mother,” Quinn said.
Later the telephone cord will turn into a jump rope the character can skip and chant, “Mama, I feel sick. Call the doctor, quick, quick, quick.”
In “Industrious Angels,” McCants uses plenty of props, too.
“I basically raided my house,” she said with a laugh. “There are a lot of books and toys, a lot of dolls — some were my mother’s and some were mine — and a lot of art supplies. I actually construct puppets.”
Wearing a “beautiful white kid glove” that had belonged to her mother, Billie Lee McCants, the actor uses shadow puppetry to tell part of her story. “There’s a lot of playfulness about mine,” she said.