Amherst Magazine

Letters to a Stranger

By Katherine Jamieson

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At a highly competitive theater Off-Off Broadway, Marina Libel '01 starred in a one-woman show by an Amherst professor.

The inspiration for Wendy Woodson’s most recent play, She Turned On the Light, came from an unlikely source: a stranger on a train. Woodson, a professor of theater and dance at Amherst, used public transportation almost daily during her year as a Fulbright artist-in-residence in Melbourne, Australia, in 2007. “I’m an eavesdropper, and I always have my camera with me; I’m always getting bits and fragments of conversation,” she says. A man she saw regularly while traveling to the city center captured her imagination. “He always traveled alone, as did I, and usually appeared sad, isolated and somewhat disturbed. He looked as though he was from India or Pakistan, and I wondered about his story.” Incorporating stories gathered from other immigrants she had met in Australia, Woodson used the man as a reference figure for a series of “poetic letters” about memory, love and loss.

The file full of one-sided correspondence lay dormant until the next winter, in Amherst. Several years before, Woodson had written an ensemble piece called Veronica’s Fold and had recruited a former student, Marina Libel ’01, an actor in New York City, to be involved with the project. Impressed by her talent as a performer and intrigued by her family’s escape from Poland to Brazil during World War II, Woodson conceived of developing a one-woman show for Libel based on the letters.

When a good friend of Woodson’s, an elderly woman, died, she began to think of the play as a “generational dialogue,” she says. “I was curious about unfinished stories in her life.” Libel had similar unanswered questions about her own family. Working collaboratively, Woodson and Libel adapted the letters to be the voice of a younger woman speaking to an older woman.

The result is She Turned On the Light, a dialogue between Lila, a young, contemporary American woman who is drawn close to Noon, an “Old World” refugee. The play had a critically acclaimed run in November at the highly competitive La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club. Dubbed “the Capital of the Global East Village” by The New York Times, La MaMa has been producing Off-Off Broadway plays for almost half a century.

Over the course of the hour-long play, the two characters discover that their lives have much in common, and their shared memories defy the boundaries of space and time. Broken into 17 short scenes, the solo performance has Libel playing both Lila and Noon. Libel, who is pursuing a master’s in performance studies at New York University, differentiates the characters by changes in voice, subtle movements and gestures. “We’re trying to do a lot with the piece,” Libel says, “both with form and content.”

Woodson describes the play as a “total Amherst enterprise in a New York situation.” Kathy Couch ’95 designed the lighting and set. Professor of Theater and Dance Suzanne Dougan designed the costumes. Graphic designer Andrew Sloat ’99 created the promotional postcard for the play.

She Turned On the Light was originally performed as a workshop show at Amherst. In a New York Times review of the run at La MaMa, Roslyn Sulcas wrote that the piece “draws you toward something unassuming and real” and noted that Woodson’s varied career “helped her to weave speech and gestural patterns, narrative and abstraction, into a fluid whole that is unafraid of ambiguity or opaqueness.” Sulcas described Libel’s “remarkable” ability to assume the personae “with uncanny ease and fluency, offering characters who seem immediately both familiar and strange.”

If she can attract the funding, Woodson hopes to take the performance on the road. She’s also anxious to move on to other endeavors, including a new series of pieces exploring connections between body, memory and ecology. “After I complete a work I immediately want to start a new one,” she says. “I want to see what’s next.”

Jamieson is a freelance writer and professor of literature and communications at Westfield State College and Holyoke Community College.

Photo by Eric Poggenpohl