Louisville is blessed with a rich and vibrant theater community. We have everything from the world-class Actor’s Theatre of Louisville to Theatre (502) to the original plays of The Bards Town. There are also theatre companies with specific themes from Kentucky Shakespeare to Pandora Productions (LGBTQ) to Center Stage (musicals). Looking For Lilith fits into this latter category with their feminist themed productions, one of which is going to be produced in New York City August 3 – August 14, 2016, called “Alice in Black and White” by Robin Rice. The play fits into Looking For Lilith’s mission that “creates productions and programming through re-examining history and questioning today from women’s perspectives”. Kathi E.B. Ellis is one of the artistic directors of the company and answered a few questions about this production.
Laura Shine: Please tell us what “Alice in Black and White” is about and why you chose to produce this particular play?
Kathi Ellis: During our original run of “Fabric, Flames, and Fervor: The Girls of the Triangle” (co-incidentally the last show we took to NYC) a playwright colleague of mine and Nancy Gall-Clayton (a locally based playwright) was in town for the Humana Festival at ATL; Nancy brought Robin Rice to Triangle, and she fell in love with our aesthetic. Robin sent us her script and we fell in love with it. We produced it as our women’s history month production in March 2013. It marked a first for us, as hitherto Lilith actresses had always played all the roles regardless of gender, and Robin specifies in her script that the male roles should be played by men. Because we loved the script so much, the whole company voted to produce the play, adding males to the acting company (we have worked with male designers, directors, and stage managers since the company’s beginnings.) Attached is the Theatre Louisville review of our original production.
The play tells the story of Staten Island photographer Alice Austen. Born in 1866 she became what today would be identified as a photojournalist (but the term hadn’t yet been invented!) Some of her photographs are in the Library of Congress, she was included in the Chicago World’s Fair of 1904; she actually sold a booklet of photos – once, she didn’t like being commercial. She grew up with her Mother, aunt (Mother’s sister) and Grandfather at Clear Comfort on Staten Island. She was active in civic affairs on Staten Island well into her adult, still single, years. Apparently she was viewed as ‘a catch’ but none of the young men was successful in moving beyond friendship. She met Gertrude, then a dance teacher, when they were both in their thirties. After Alice’s family died, Gertrude moved into Clear Comfort. The Crash of 1929 wiped out the family money and the two women were ignored by the extended Austen family and ended up in dire financial straits. Alice eventually declared that she had no possessions of any value, and was assigned to the poor house; Gertrude returned to her family.
And their story would have ended, there, untold, lost. But a journalist, Oliver Jensen, was working on a book, “The Revolt of the American Woman” and (long story short) discovered some of Alice’s glass negatives; then he became convinced she must still be alive. He found her in 1951 in the poor house comatose. Showing her one of her pictures revived her, and he was able to get her moved into a senior center where she lived for the last eight months of her life. Not a movie-of-the-week, but real life! If you’re interested go to Google Books, Life Magazine articles and search Oliver Jensen in 1951 and you’ll find his 8-page story and lots of Alice’s photos.
LS: I heard Lilith is taking the play to New York. How’d that happen, where will you be playing, and will the playwright be there too?
KE: Preparing for the 2013 world premiere, we were aware that 2016 would be the 150th anniversary of Alice’s birth, and knew that we wanted to take Alice to NY. We asked the playwright to commit to us finding a production venue for 2016 before she sent the script to other companies; Robin agreed – a huge deal and commitment to us – for which we are so grateful.
We also reached out, again, to the Alice Austen House Museum to figure out a way to partner with them during this very busy anniversary year for them. Janice Monger, their executive director, their board and staff have been wonderful to work with and are partnering with us on several events while we’re in the city. We had worked with them in 2013 to secure permission to use Alice’s images in the show. Sidebar – one of our 2013 partners was the Paul Paletti Gallery (black and white photographs) and he secured the rights to 6 of the digital versions of Alice’s photos which he displayed in the gallery during the run of the show.
We will be at 59e59 Theaters August 3-14. 59e59 curates their seasons, so both Lilith and the script was approved by their president before the booking was solidified. Their summer season press release was carried in the New York Times.
Playwright Robin Rice has been actively involved in promoting this iteration of the play and she will participate in a post-show talkback on Tuesday, August 9.
LS: Are there any fundraising efforts underway to help get you all to New York?
KE: Yes! We have received a grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and a generous anonymous donation of $5000. Ticket sales are going briskly. However, our hopes of raising a further $10,000 to help offset travel, accommodations, and artist fees for the tour through Power2Give were impacted by the matching funds that the Fund for the Arts solicits for Power2Give campaigns running out at the end of June – before we reached our goal. Thus we are actively seeking individual gifts to help make up that difference. Donations can be made here.
LS: Where can people find out more about this production and about Looking for Lilith?
KE: Our website, 59e59’s website carries ticket information, and the Alice Austen House Museum website carries information about the opening night reception in the rooftop garden of Central Park’s Armory and other related events.
LS: Finally, do you know if Alice Austen and Gertrude Tate knew Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein? (I had to ask!)
KE: It’s a great question! There are lots of online articles that tie these two Alice & Gertrude stories together. But while Stein and Toklas were ‘out’ (as it were) it has become clear as we’ve worked on our Alice and Gertrude that these two were much more private. There’s evidence that the families didn’t support their relationship, and the stories of their later life poverty are heartbreaking. Our couple are the ‘other’ or lesser known Alice and Gertrude… Although they did travel in Europe, it’s very evident that Alice’s world was absolutely centered on Clear Comfort Farm (the current Alice Austen House Museum.) And if you ever get to go there (I highly recommend a pilgrimage!) you’ll understand why…even less than a block from a contemporary main street, the peace and the beauty of this waterside cottage is absolutely present; Alice’s spirit is still present!