Sometimes in all of the crazy coming and going of artists at ArtsEmerson we find themes that crossover multiple productions. This spring we have two one-woman shows that lend themselves to an interesting conversation. The day after The Wholehearted closed as Sontag: Reborn appeared on the horizon, Polly Carl, Director/Editor of HowlRound, held a conversation between Suli Holum (The Wholehearted) and Moe Angelos (Sontag: Reborn) about finding their characters and creating worlds around them.
Polly: Suli, you just closed a show for ArtsEmerson, The Wholehearted, in which you play a working class female who has risen to acquire some fame and at the height of her career is stabbed and shot by her husband who is also her trainer, and Moe you’re about to bring The Builders Association show Sontag: Reborn to ArtsEmerson to open next week where you play Susan Sontag. Both shows are solo shows. I wonder if you could start our conversation perhaps talking about the demands of the solo show as a performer, and then talk a little bit about your preparation for these different parts.
Suli: The way that our process works is that the role doesn’t exist until the end, so rather than an idea of something I was trying to prepare for, I sort of dove into a bunch of research and then the character emerged over a course of a two-year process. The research and training were mostly centered around boxing because we knew that this woman was a boxer. So there’s the rigor of that physical training. We also knew that there was singing, so I did some Fitzmaurice voice training and some work to free my voice and get unafraid and a little messy with my sound. And then my other preparation was in meeting the world of boxing, the people in boxing, and then a bunch of other varied resources like author Cheryl Strayed was a big influence and Nicholas Cage. It’s a funny combination of things.
Moe: So Suli, you have a deeply physical part and I have a deeply intellectual part. To even consider playing Susan Sontag, who was of course a real person who is within living memory of many, many people especially in New York, that’s a daunting task. I feel kind of lucky that I did not know her personally because it’s very freeing when there isn’t a person or the person doesn’t exist now. Of course I can look at films of her, but what I did was read a lot. Really a lot. She was a writer, of course. I can’t say I read everything she wrote. That would take a very long time, but I certainly read everything from the period of the play, which is the early sixties into about 1965 and that’s a lot. And her journals. The show is based on her journals. I really combed those over as well as going to her archives at UCLA and looking over the notebooks themselves and the masses of ephemera and correspondences and juvenillia. That was really a wonderful experience. And in terms of actually performing the part, my huge task is memorization, you know? It’s a lot of text and it’s not spoken language. So first, how to memorize it and be able to say it all reliably, and then how and what do I say—do I speak text that is not supposed to be spoken language? There’s a lot going on there.
Polly: There is a lot. Moe you just alluded to this, but these two women couldn’t have more different makeups. Dee Crosby is a fighter. She’s all physicality and emotion and Sontag is all intellect. And I just wonder, maybe Moe you could start here, what parts of yourself as a performer and a person did you discover becoming Sontag?
Moe: It’s a curious puzzle and question for performance, because I don’t think about it like I am becoming Sontag, but I do think about becoming her journals, which is slightly different. I’m playing the Journal and not necessarily her, and that is because of the language structure of the text—it’s nothing close to my speech right now, our speech together, or dramatic speech. She’s very dramatic, don’t get me wrong, you know she’s a tortured teenager at the beginning of the show with big emotions, but I have to hit this tone—tone isn’t the right word—but this place in my speech which is alive, animated, but it is also delivering a lot of intellectual information, which is often pretty tough to read on the page. So for an audience listening to that text, it’s really different and it’s challenging.
Polly: The challenge of the language itself is a fascinating way to describe it, becoming the Journal versus becoming Sontag. How about for you Suli, what things did you uncover as a performer and as a person as you entered Dee Crosby? Certainly you weren’t a boxer before you started this process, so that’s one thing.
Suli: I can’t separate the work from the way of working, because I’m really fascinated by how things get made and who is in the room and how that affects what the audience ends up seeing in the end. This was a really interesting process for me and Deborah [Stein] because in order for me to become this person I had to enter into quite a bit of chaos, but I’m also co-directing the piece. So the process of how to structure a rehearsal process that allows me to go deep into that exploration and be in that place and then be able to step out and dig and sift through what we were making and mine it and carve it and shape it and extend that to the rest of the creative team was a big challenge and a huge growth experience for me. It really can be summed up with me getting better at asking people for help. I didn’t understand going into it that this process of becoming really tough, this idea of this woman, this boxer, this fighter that she is way, way tougher than me, and that in order to bring her to life, I had to become much more vulnerable as a person, as an artist, as a creator, and it’s been great. It’s been epic.
Moe: Can I just say something about toughness?
Polly: Yes, please!