Extraordinary Women Telling an Extraordinary Story: SHADOWS ROUND THE MOON

“This is a story of incredible love and extraordinary loss. The play is a chance to introduce an amazing woman to the world since Mary Shelley has not received the attention she deserves. People will be astounded to learn about the many tragedies she suffered. And yet, she survived. This play allows her to talk about how she did that, in her own words, her own voice.” ~ Kate Burton

“Many people know Mary Shelley as the writer of Frankenstein, but they don’t know what an extraordinary person she was,” says actress Kate Burton. “I didn’t know until I read Janice’s play.”

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Mary Shelley, author FRANKENSTEIN

Shadows Round the Moon came to Kate after playwright Janice Kennedy presented an excerpt at the Santa Monica Library and an actor in the audience asked her for a copy of the script. “He contacted me later and said he knew someone who would be a great match for the material, ” remembers Janice. “I didn’t know it was Kate, but he was absolutely right. Kate is perfect.”

Janice had a chance to see Kate as Mary Shelley when Kate did a reading of Shadows Round the Moon at a Women in Film benefit in Los Angeles. “It was extraordinary to watch her,” says Janice. “Even with no movement or staging, Kate transformed herself into Mary Shelley and the audience was mesmerized. They gave her a well-deserved standing ovation.”

Flash forward to Spring 2017 with Kate in a critically acclaimed revival of Present Laughter on Broadway. Kate and Janice decided this would be a good time to introduce Shadows Round the Moon to New York people. They set up an informal presentation at the Dramatists Guild and invited several Broadway producers and a rep from the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Janice gave an overview of the play and Kate read a couple of excerpts. The May presentation was so successful that a full reading of the play took place this past Wednesday, July 12th at the Dramatists Guild.

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Janice Kennedy and Kate Burton   Photo Credit Ellis Gaskell 

 

“This is a story of incredible love and extraordinary loss,” says Kate. “The play is a chance to introduce an amazing woman to the world since Mary Shelley has not received the attention she deserves. People will be astounded to learn about the many tragedies she suffered. And yet, she survived. This play allows her to talk about how she did that, in her own words, her own voice.”

 

To find that voice, Janice read Mary’s letters and journals as well as biographies of Mary and her husband, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Janice found that even though Frankenstein was a publishing sensation, Mary did not receive much money for it. Copyright laws at the time she wrote the book did not favor the “creators” of literary works and music.

After Percy Shelley died, Mary was dependent on her father-in-law for money and forbidden by him to write Percy’s biography, even though she was constantly asked to do so by publishers. “This became the catalyst for the play,” says Janice. “What if Mary, as a way to write about Percy, wrote the story of her own life?”

This story begins with the death of Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, when she was but a few days old. In the play, Mary Shelley talks about this being her introduction to “Mr. Bones,” her personification of Death.

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Kate Burton Photo Credit Ellis Gaskell 

The death of Mary Wollstonecraft reverberated throughout England because she was both revered and reviled as the founder of modern feminism with her book, A Vindication of the Rights of Women. After Wollstonecraft’s death,  Mary was raised by her father, William Godwin, a radical philosopher whose house was often visited by other philosophers and poets of the day, including Percy Shelley. As Mary grew up, she often hid on the stairs to listen to the talk of these men.

Kate Burton says she can relate to this experience of Mary’s. Recently, an old friend of her father’s came to see Kate in Present Laughter. He told her of sitting on the stairs as a child and listening in on the gatherings his father would have with people like Noel Coward, John Gielgud, Terrence Rattigan and Somerset Maugham.

At sixteen, Mary meets and falls in love with Percy Shelley at her father’s house. Janice’s research told her that the relationship that developed was not typical of the times. “Percy was devoted to the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft and truly believed the younger Mary was his equal — that she was as smart as or smarter than him,” says Janice. “Percy and Mary fell deeply in love and established an extraordinary partnership where they fueled each other’s ideas. Unfortunately, their life together was marked by tragedy after tragedy that began with the death of their first child when she was but a few days old.”

A few days after their baby’s death, Mary woke to tell Percy that she dreamed their little girl was “only cold and that we rubbed her by the fire, and she lived.” This dream of “reanimation,” Mary would say later, provided the seed for Frankenstein.

Two more of Mary and Percy’s children would die as small children and Mary suffered a miscarriage while in Italy that almost took her life as well. It was in Italy that Mary and the world suffered the loss of Percy Bysshe Shelley when he drowned at age 29 while sailing in the Mediterranean. Mary was only 25.

“These are things I do not want to remember,” Mary says in the play. “But remember I must, as we all must. What we have known, we cannot cease to know.”

Janice says she titled her play “Shadows Round the Moon” because Percy Shelley used the moon as his symbol for Mary in his poetry. And as Mary recounts her life in the play, all of the deaths she endured are like shadows surrounding and haunting her. “I made it a one-woman drama so that Mary is finally the focus of the story,” says Janice. “While Mary was alive, no one but Percy seemed to realize her brilliance. The irony is that he was largely credited with writing Frankenstein, something he consistently denied.”

Critics especially had a hard time believing that a young woman, only 17 at the time, could have written such a tale. One reviewer of Frankenstein exclaimed that “this is the foulest toadstool that has sprung up on the dung heap of mankind.”

“But what do critics, know?” counters Kate, who seems to intuitively understand Mary Shelley since Mary was raised in a “British culture” as she was. And Kate grew up in an artistic and literary family as well. Her father, Richard Burton, was an actor as was her mother Sybil, who became a literary agent and then a theatre manager. Sybil, in fact, founded The Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, NY. But Kate says she didn’t know she was going to pursue the arts until her senior year of college:

I was going to be a diplomat but in my senior year at Brown, I decided to apply to drama schools. I knew that as the daughter of a famous actor, I would need all the proper  training. The basic decision became whether I would go to graduate school in England or  America because I am a British National. So, that was the only big fight in the family. Not with my mom, but with my dad. He wanted me to go to Britain and I said no, I was an American. So I went to Yale. I had a very interesting, good, and hard time while I was there. My first big job after graduate school was playing the ingénue in Present Laughter directed by George C. Scott, which was crazy.

For nearly 17 years, Kate was a working actress and then in her 40s, Hedda Gabler and The Elephant Man came along and “that changed my life as an actress because suddenly I was being moved into a different pantheon: I was no longer an ingénue and I was no longer a character actress. I could do more. That was 16 years ago. Then I went through a fallow period and I auditioned for this television show about doctors called Grey’s Anatomy. I was to be the mom of the leading lady, a mom who had early onset Alzheimer’s. I thought , ‘Oh my God, what a horrible thing.’ And I ended up [with] THAT [changing] my life and that was great.”

What does Kate think about the challenge of doing a one-woman show like Shadows Round the Moon?  “It’s very hard learning an hour-and-twenty-minute monologue and then, of course, I love being on stage with my fellow actors. But it has to be Mary’s story. It has to be her voice.”

Realizing the significance of providing role models, Kate values women writers like Mary Shelley and playwright Janice Kennedy.  “We’re in a time when women are being heralded in a way they haven’t been before . . . I am glad that women are being rewarded not because they’re women but because they’ve done a fantastic job.  We have two plays on Broadway right now written by women and that’s exciting.  They’re both Pulitzer Prize winners from before. They have stayed the course.”

Kate’s career arc is one built over the years:  “I came into my own in my 40s,” she says. “For me, now it’s about focusing in on what I really want to do for the rest of my time.”

After taking five years off from being active in the Union, Kate is running for the Council at Actor’s Equity  “because I know that I’m good at that, I know that I’m good at being a Union person. That’s a place that I can be helpful.” She is on the board of Broadway Cares and works with the AIDS Foundation in AIDS education. Her life is good, says Kate, and she wants to give back.

“I am very lucky to be in this amazing Broadway production right now that is going incredibly well critically and financially,” she says. “It’s so thrilling. Now, I’m about to become a “Professor of Practice” at the University of Southern California in August.” Kate’s husband, Michael Ritchie, is the artistic director of the Center Theatre Group (CTG) in LA so she’s happy she’ll be living on the West Coast again. The CTG includes the Taper Forum, the Ahmanson and the Kirk Douglas theatres.

And the best is yet to come with the possibility of her own one-woman show about Mary Shelley. Helen Mirren once said, “Your 40s are good. Your 50s are great. Your 60s are fab.  And 70 is fucking awesome.“ Kate would probably agree with that as she looks forward to more incredible opportunities coming her way.

For more information about the play contact Janice Kennedy

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