Stage Struck: from Kemble to Kate
A First Online With Fran Interview with Mari Lyn Henry
What does the perseverance of Fanny Kemble, a British born actress who comes to America, survives a scandalous divorce to become a renowned author have to do with a plucky sixteen-year-old actress Clara Morris with the playful personality of Kate Hepburn? Mari Lyn Henry, chair of The Heritage Committee for The League of Professional Theatre Women has collaborated with a team of 5 women to create Stage Struck: from Kemble to Kate, a 90-minute performance piece that aims to provide an authentic presentation of voices from the 19th and 20th centuries to remind us of the challenges that women faced during this time period: “It’s women telling their stories. . . real stories [of ] real women who lived and what they went through for their principle, their integrity.”
Melody Brooks, who serves as the director and dramaturg of the project, threads the narrative journeys of five actresses from the 19th and 20th centuries to provide audiences of all ages with a glimpse into the obstacles and triumphs that these women faced. As President of The Society for the Preservation of Theatrical History, Mari Lyn Henry is committed to showing how “the echoes of the past are being echoed again today.” Despite the accessibility of historical information through Wikipedia and other internet resources, Mari Lyn’s goal is to insure that the lessons of the past are preserved so that we can continue to appreciate and acknowledge the sacrifices that these women made through an historical lens at a time when actresses were considered to be fallen women: “No respectable church-going women,” noted Mari Lyn, “would be seen on a stage.”
Towards that end, the objective of the project has 3 goals: to educate, to enlighten and illuminate, and to entertain. Since much of theatrical history has been reduced to a chapter, at best, in today’s educational curricula, Mari Lyn feels the urgency to lay a foundation to connect our past with our present: “I like seed planting. We’re planting seeds, out of which we want to encourage people to start looking into the past, reading the books….”
Frances “Fanny” Anne Kemble (1809-1893) made her stage debut just shy of her 20th birthday in October 1829. Fanny did not care for the stage and felt that it was forced upon her because of the pressing debts of the family, which included maintaining a stake in Covent Garden. In 1834, Fanny married Pierce Butler of Philadelphia, one of the richest plantation owners in the United States. The marriage was contentious almost from the beginning; they bickered over her Journal of America, published in 1835, and then they argued over her “aberrant” idea that women and men should be equal in a marriage when, at the time, a married woman was “owned” by her husband with the rest of his property. Kemble went on to divorce her husband to become an avid abolitionist. In 1863 she published her Journal of Residence on A Georgian Plantation (1838-1839) which became an immediate sensation in England and then America. A comprehensive Study Guide that includes details such as these is provided as a supplementary resource. “Our goal,” states Mari Lyn, “is to reach out to educators, acting programs, conservatories, etc. to present this information to them so that they understand the legacy and the rich heritage of the past.”
Listening to these women, audiences benefit firsthand from their wisdom through their personal storytelling. Clara Morris (1847-1925) grew up in the shadow of poverty. Her mother’s sewing, cooking and housekeeping skills kept her employed in a number of boarding houses. Clara’s love of reading and telling stories to the boarders caught the attention of teenaged Blanche Bradshaw who felt that Clara could gain work in the ensemble at John Ellsler’s Academy of Music in Cleveland. At sixteen years of age already an accomplished actress comparable to the likes of Sarah Bernhardt, she found herself acting opposite the formidable talent Edwin Booth. He paid her a compliment about her performance and “when Edwin Booth gave you a compliment you felt like a goddess floating on a pink cloud.” Personal anecdotes such as these encourage audience members to empathize with each of the women’s struggles to succeed thereby engaging them to relate to and realize their valor. Historical sources leap from the pages of a textbook and make it come alive on the stage.
Who could deny being horrified when Alla Nazimova’s (1879-1945) father forbade her to use the family name, fearing that she would embarrass him? Despite making her debut playing the violin to enthusiastic applause, he took her home and caned her so severely that he broke her arm and said, “Just because a few provincial fools applaud you, don’t imagine you’re Paganini.” Romy Nordlinger’s performance as the Russian born Nazimova in her dressing room at Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theatre before she appears as Madame Ravenskaya in The Cherry Orchard, keeps the audience spellbound with an authentic story about this “soul harassed woman.” Each of the actresses researched, wrote, and devised a richly detailed perspective of the five personas: Frances “Fanny” Kemble (Karen Eterovich); Clara Morris (Mari Lyn Henry); Minnie Maddern Fiske (Meghan Duffy); Alla Nazimova (Romy Nordlinger); Katherine Hepburn (Paula Ewin). The inter-locking dialogues moderated by its director, Melody Brooks, set the tone of the performance and allow its audience to settle in for a series of stories about real women, making real history so that “people who have never had any knowledge of theater history at least get a capsulized view of what was going on.”
Ultimately, Stage Struck: from Kemble to Kate raises awareness of how these brave women forged a footprint to set the stage for all talents — both men and women and that “attention is made” to their remarkable accomplishments.
The program was presented on Thursday, December 12, 2013 from 7:30 PM to 9:30PM with post program discussion at The Anne L. Bernstein Theater, Snapple Theater Center to rave reviews. . .
“I enjoyed the program and the Study Guide was very nicely done.” Sherry Engle, Associate Professor, Speech, Communications and Theatre Arts Department, Borough of Manhattan Community College. Author, “New Women Dramatists in America 1890-1920″
“What an immense amount of information I’ve learned after tonight’s performance! I love how each actor’s story was personalized! And the Study Guide–wow! What an incredible gift that is! Congratulations and thank you for taking the time to create such a thorough and thoughtful tribute! Emily Moulton, Executive Director, Tom Todoroff Studio and Conservatory
“Really fine work ladies putting together a very illuminating and fascinating presentation.” Shellen Lubin, co-secretary League of Professional Theatre Women, co-president, Coalition of Women in the Arts and Media
“Lovely education in theatrical women’s history and the cast was quite awesome to hold the stage like they did solo.” Denise Pence Boockvor Public Relations Director, History Alive! Vice Chair, Rehearsal Club
“Congrats to those amazingly talented women: Meghan Duffy, Karen Eterovich, Romy Nordlinger, Paula Ewin, Melody Brooks and Mari Lyn Henry. Stage Struck From Kemble to Kate was fabulous!” Joan Kane, Director
“It was a terrific evening.” Joan Kendall, actor