In the one-woman theater piece The Belle of Amherst, actress Jennifer King really gets into character as poet Emily Dickinson. And if you arrive at Andrews Hall early, you can watch it happen.
Set in Dickinson’s Massachusetts home circa 1850, the play makes use of her poems, diaries, and letters as it recollects encounters with the significant people in her life. King portrays fourteen of them, though it all begins when she comes on stage for a “pre-show” – the 30-minute period before the actual curtain.
Director Sharon Winegar said she wanted to break with tradition and do something a bit more unconventional, even a bit “meta.” I’ve worked with several British directors who have staged a pre-show for their productions – a device to set the scene and to comment on the theatricality of the imminent play.
In this Sonoma Arts Live production, guests arriving early will see the actress come into the playing space and transform into the Dickinson character.
“She will be ‘herself,’ literally setting the stage, getting into costume, and then starting the show with Emily’s first line,” Winegar explains. “We are not trying to hide the transformation of actor into character; we are sharing the process with our audiences.”
“‘Meta’ is a term used to characterize something that is characteristically self-referential. Meta means about the thing itself. In other words, we are acknowledging the fact that this is a play, not reality.”
The script is based on works and letters discovered after the poet’s death. “Emily Dickinson was little known in her lifetime but has since become an iconic voice of her generation,” according to SAL Executive Artistic Director Jaime Love.
The show opens at Andrews Hall at the Sonoma Community Center on Thursday, May 23. Guests arriving by 6:45 will hear local poets reading from their works, followed by the pre-show at 7 p.m. The play runs for two weekends only, through June 2, Thursday and Friday evenings and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets available at sonomaartslive.org
Photos by Eric Cherzankin