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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Theatre for Thought, May 31, 2011

joel fishbane

There’s never a lack of solo shows at the Fringe; indeed, they’re so ubiquitous that I suspect one couldn’t survive without the other. When performed by a T.J. Dawe or Nicola Gunn, the solo show is a theatrical gem. Done poorly – insert eighty percent of all solo shows here – then the solo show becomes little more then a performer using the stage to exorcise their demons. 

Predicting where a particular solo show will fall is a tough task for any Fringer - fortunately, performer Veronica Russell, who will be presenting her solo piece A Different Woman at this year’s Fringe, has given us all a heads up: the last thing she ever wanted to write was your typical one woman show. 

"Thirty years ago, I lay in the womb of a woman, conceived in a sexual 
act of rape..."

“I find [solo shows] can too often be vanity projects,” she told me. “The writer is either trying to ‘work something out’ at the expense of the audience or the actor is just using it as a showcase for all his or her Wacky Voices.” 

If this was all I knew about Veronica Russell, it would probably be enough to get me into the theatre. But for those of you who want more, let me add that Ms. Russell also has one of the most intriguing shows of the year. A Different Woman is based on an obscure memoir My First Thirty Years by Texas schoolteacher Gertrude Beasley. Shortly after being published in 1925, the book was immediately banned across the world and its author went missing. Today, less then 1000 copies of the book still exist. 

Why all the fuss over a little book? Here’s the first paragraph:
“Thirty years ago, I lay in the womb of a woman, conceived in a sexual 
act of rape, being carried during the prenatal period by an unwilling and 
rebellious mother, finally bursting from the womb only to be tormented 
in a family whose members I despised or pitied.” 

From here, Beasley went on to discuss a life touched by incest, cruelty and bestiality. “She has a take-no-prisoners mode of storytelling,” Ms. Russell said. “I'm pretty sure it was as much HOW she said things as what she said that got her into trouble to begin with!” 

It also sparked interest in Edna Beasley, which may have contributed to new scholarship that eventually uncovered her fate.

Ms. Russell first became interested in Gertrude Beasley while growing up in Texas, where she developed an affinity for books that should not be named. “The challenge,” she said, “mostly revolved around making a single cohesive one-sitting narrative out of it. [Edna Beasley] went to graduate school at the University of Chicago, and their modernist influence is apparent in her book through her sort of non-chronological free-association narration.”

A Different Woman has been touring the theatre circuit for several years, most notably in New York and New Orleans, where it received stellar reviews. It also sparked interest in Edna Beasley, which may have contributed to new scholarship that eventually uncovered her fate. In 2009, it was revealed that Beasley was institutionalized by the US government and remained in an asylum until her death in 1955. 

Although this news hasn’t changed the play – it’s based on the memoir itself – Ms. Russell believes it has changed our reaction to the story. “I'm sure there are nuances that bleed through based on my knowledge or the perception of the audience,” she said. “For me, it was so amazing to be a party to this discovery- I can't imagine this happens to people every day.”

As is always the case in these sorts of shows, it’s entirely possible that the story behind Edna Beasley’s book is more interesting then the book itself. But given Ms. Russell’s pedigree – she’s an award winning designer and actress – and her own anathema to vanity projects, I’m going to remain hopeful that A Different Woman proves to be a very different sort of show. Which, depending on the day, may prove to be just what the Fringe doctor ordered.

A Different Woman runs from June 10 – 19 at Venue 3 (Geordie Space, 4001 Berri). For information, visit the CharPo EVENT listing or Veronica Russell’s website.

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