Supporting creative work by women
Works by Women kicks off a series of profiles about women theatre artists involved in the 2012 New York International Fringe Festival, which takes hold of downtown New York City August 10 through 26 at various venues.
WORKS BY WOMEN: How did you first become interested in theater?
ERIN LAYTON: I got the acting bug in high school. My older sister and I went to the same school and she was always cast as the principal leads in the school musical whereas I, the quiet, reserved painter, stayed in the art studio, with a love for theatre but never feeling qualified or confident enough to perform in front of a live audience. In my junior year, the drama school teacher asked me to audition for Li’l Abner. I resisted at first because I couldn’t hit a musical note to save my life – still can’t – but I did an impersonation of an old Appalachian woman for the role of Mammy Yokum – Li’l Abner’s mother. My drama teacher, Mrs. Bolt, grabbed me with tears in her eyes and told me that I had to pursue theatre. I think she may have scolded me too for not having auditioned for anything earlier. From my junior to senior year I was cast in every single little play, children’s show, musical (always the lead non-signing parts). I really blossomed as a performer during that time. Her encouragement meant the world to me. After I graduated high school I was cast in my first professional theatre production for the St. Louis Shakespeare Company and I was hooked.
WBW: What inspired you to write Magdalen?
ERIN: I have always been fascinated with Irish culture. I really didn’t plan to write a one-woman play about the Magdalene Laundries when I first heard about them ages ago. I think my interest in the Laundries, an almost decade-long fascination now, was more about the fact that they happened in Ireland, a land that I have always deeply resonated with though only recently visited. Over time and over the course of writing the play, the inspiration for the play has become less about the Laundries and the workers being Irish and more about the desire to give a voice to the voiceless – to speak for generations of women who were subjected to every type of abuse, humiliation and hatred simply because the church deemed them the “fallen” class. The shroud of mystery and lack of historical information about the Laundries is inspiring to me as a playwright and performer. Not that I am interested in rewriting history but it is the lack of information available that allows the creative process of writing Magdalen to remain unhindered.
WBW: What are the challenges of bringing “real life” to the stage?
ERIN: The biggest challenge for me in writing Magdalen has been getting my facts straight. When I first started doing research on the Laundries, I was shocked at how very little historical information is available. I didn’t know how to prime the canvas for a world that existed in real time, was experienced by real women who are alive today to tell the stories about the atrocities they were subjected to. The Magdalene Laundries are also incredibly controversial for Ireland because it left a gaping, black hole in their soil. When I traveled to Ireland in 2010, almost every one I met had had some exposure to the Magdalene Laundries but they never knew what happened behind closed doors. I don’t want my play to drive shame further into their identity as a nation or to stoke the controversy that surrounds the Laundries but I don’t want to hide from the truth. And as a performer, I always strive to be as authentic as possible in my character work. The challenge with the acting end of solo show work is the same for every play I do. The question is, how do I assume a character that I cannot relate to culturally, physically, psychologically and yet play it with the same vulnerability and truth as if I have seen and experienced everything they have.
WBW: What has your collaboration with director Julie Kline been like?
ERIN: Wonderful. For over a year I had major trepidations about working with a collaborator on Magdalen. A solo show that you write and perform is fragile territory and you have to choose your collaborators carefully. The developmental process of art-making, especially when inviting other artists into the work, strikes a very delicate tension between control and release. It has been at times painful to hear and look at the script with another voice in the room and see, quite blatantly what is not working – which characters are hindering the story, moments that don’t land or move the play along. But the incredibly helpful and fulfilling end of it all is that Julie is fully invested in the truth and artistry and integrity of the story. She believes in the work. I can trust that no matter what we reshape or tweak or edit or add it will be to benefit the play and ultimately, the performance. It has been an immense and at times intimidating and bonding collaboration that Julie and I have formed in the development of Magdalen. I really can’t imagine working with a more supportive and grounded director/artist/partner.
WBW: What excites you about being part of FringeNYC?
ERIN: I am excited about presenting my play to the New York City audience. A couple of months ago I had the great fortune of performing my play for ten shows at Magdalen’s work lab home – The Harry Warren Theatre in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Audiences were sparse and generally not theatre-educated so it gave me the opportunity to make tweaks and adjustments to the performance night after night. The thrilling opportunity of performing in FringeNYC is that the houses are sure to be filled with people who are schooled in the ways of New York City theatre, especially audiences that appreciate and support emerging writers, performers and developmental/experimental theatre work. I’m also truly grateful to be involved in a prestigious theatre festival with like-minded artists. Being part of FringeNYC is a testament to the blood, sweat and tears spent on a new play. It’s the green light to the next major opportunity in a way.
WBW: What are the challenges facing women in American theater?
ERIN: I think it’s generally harder for a woman’s voice to be heard in American theatre because so little is actually produced by women. I decided to be the producer of Magdalen because I wanted to be in full control of every part of the process. Having given over so much of my play to a director I was fearful that bringing in a producer would force the developmental process in order to make the play “production-ready” not acknowledging the time needed to really craft the story which Julie and I have been able to do. The negative end of producing your own work is the constant fight to balance the creative end of the work with the “to dos” – the eternal task list that demand so much of your time. Ultimately, I think the producer end of American theater is still somewhat male-centric and the value on taking the time to craft and shape theatre work, especially a play about women, can easily get swept aside for the sake of showing off the product.
WBW: What gives you hope for women in American theater?
ERIN: Women can do it all. We can do the producing, the writing, the acting and still bring the truth of the story to the stage. Also, women naturally serve as a supportive network to each other and this helps to drive the work. As encouraging as it is to be involved in an incredible network of female theatre artists, almost everyone on the Magdalen production staff is female, it’s equally as encouraging to be in the presence of men who stand with us and push us to succeed. There are three men involved in Magdalen this year and every single one of them has labored hard to support the work.
Magdalen performs Sunday, August 12th at 9:30 pm; Saturday, August 18th at 1:45 pm; Tuesday, August 21st at 8:00 pm; Wednesday, August 22nd at 4:15 pm; and Friday, August 24th at 9:00 pm at the Gene Frankel Theatre (24 Bond Street).