Supporting creative work by women
Julie Kline lives and breathes theater. She is an accomplished performer and director. She also is part of the literary team at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and a member of Rising Phoenix Rep. She teaches theatermaking to senior citizens.
Magdalen, Erin Layton’s powerful solo show, is at the United Solo Festival over the next couple of weeks. Julie brilliantly directed that piece.
Works by Women spoke with Julie about Magdalen, how to keep a piece fresh over many performances and festival showings and what it’s like working with the elderly.
WORKS BY WOMEN: Magdalen is a powerful, incisive piece of theatre about the Catholic laundries. What first drew you to this project?
JULIE KLINE: So many things attracted me to Magdalen. Foremost was playwright/producer/performer Erin Layton’s clear devotion to the piece and her commitment to telling the stories of the women of the Laundries. Erin’s heart and soul have always been in the right place when it comes to this work, and her passion to speak for those who have not had a voice has been the driving force of the project for these two plus years we’ve worked together. The fact that I knew nothing about the Laundries before Erin told me about them was incredible to me – it felt so meaningful to be able to unveil this shocking truth that so many people still don’t know about. And the religious archetypes of the Laundries were immediately fascinating to me – the nuns as the representations of the pure Mother Mary; the girls as the soiled Mary Magdalene, saved only through their penitence; the idea of physically washing away your sins by doing dirty laundry. The myths at work in these places were dynamic storylines within themselves! I loved the idea of both enacting and questioning those archetypes on stage.
WBW: The piece is at the United Solo Festival right now, enjoyed a critically acclaimed run at FringeNYC last year and has played in other cities. How has the piece changed since you began working on it? How, as a director, do you keep checking in with it?
JK: It has been a fascinating process to watch over the play’s development through the years. It’s been a learning curve for both Erin and me, and I think what’s worked is our trust of each other and our belief in the material. At first we knew we wanted to show how these institutions worked and to show what happened to these girls, but it’s been a long process to discover whose story it is exactly. Locating the character of Child of Mary at the center of the story – as the protagonist whose journey we really follow – was key. The story has become watching an innocent who deeply believes in the doctrine the Laundries taught gradually come to a place of questioning and a desire for freedom. We tried a lot of things before getting to that clarity! I think a joy for me has also been watching Erin’s portrayals of the characters getting deeper and deeper. As she’s gotten more intimate with the characters, that has informed her adjustments to the text and vice versa. For me, every audience has helped my understanding of the best way to tell the story. Santa Cruz audiences were different than NYC, who were different than at the Harry Warren Theater in Brooklyn. I think I’ve gotten more sensitive to the fact that while we’re telling a rather dark and tragic tale, we need to find times to give the audience a chance to breathe, relax, even laugh! That’s the only way we can ask them to then go in even deeper with us.
WBW: Tell me more about working with Erin Layton on this project.
JK: Not only is Erin a talented playwright and a dizzyingly gifted performer, she is an incredibly organized and considerate producer! All the roles she has to play in this process are pretty overwhelming, and she handles the pressure with grace and compassion. I feel really honored to be a part of her work. And as a performer, I just really can’t say enough good things. As many people will tell you, Erin has many people and voices inside of her, and can physically and vocally mimic just about anybody! In the show, she puts that craft to good use, and at the same time is able to follow the emotional journey of eight characters at the same time. It’s wonderful to get to watch every night!
WBW: I love the work you do with seniors and theater. How did this come about? What have you learned from this work?
JK: I find a lot of fulfillment and inspiration from my work making theater with seniors. It probably all stems from my relationship with my own grandparents growing up – I’ve always found connections across generations to be deeply meaningful. I love the stories and perspective older adults can share, as well as their strength and generally no-bull-sh**-ness. They provide incredible material from their own lives, and that has become my favorite content to translate to the stage. In my work with Roots&Branches Theater Company and St. Peter’s Church Senior Center through NYC’s SPARC program (Seniors Partnering with Artists Citywide), we’re using devised theater methods to develop work based on the seniors’ real-life stories. It’s distressing how often we ignore seniors, especially in the fast-paced culture of New York City, how they can often become invisible. Putting them onstage front and center is my personal challenge to stereotypes about the elderly. I also love sharing that special communal experience that only being in a play together can give you – for many of the seniors I work with this is the first time they get to experience what that feels like – I think it does a lot to reduce the isolation they can sometimes feel in their lives.
WBW: What’s next for you?
JK: I’m working on a couple different projects with Rising Phoenix Rep for our little backroom space at Jimmy’s No. 43. At Rattlestick, we’ll be setting up our reading series for the year. And I’m looking forward to doing a bunch more senior and inter-generational theater projects in the spring!
WBW: What are the challenges facing women in American theater?
JK: For me personally, it has been to fully accept and use my voice as a leader in any project I am a part of – whether as an actor, director, or producer – there is always an opportunity to voice your opinions and instincts on the direction a project should go. While theater is generally communal, at the same time – as my friends and I often say – “Theatre is not a democracy” – there can be a hierarchal arrangement to projects with the leader – the director or producer – alone at the top. I try to challenge myself to lend my voice to whatever work I am a part of and to value my perspective and experience as highly as I value others.
WBW: What gives you hope for women in American theater?
JK: I am so inspired by the amount of women producing their own work these days. When women grasp the ability to make their own work, that’s where the true revolution starts. I also love how many women are crossing definitions in the theater – we have so many more female actor-playwrights, director-producers, actor-directors than ever before, when I used to feel those hybrids were men only. I am inspired to be my own hybrid-self by the incredible work these women create!