The life and writings of Emily Dickinson, one of America’s most treasured poets, comes vividly to life in the Elite Theatre Company’s production of The Belle of Amherst by William Luce, which plays at the theatre’s Oxnard location from March 3-13. The play stars actor and choreographer Anna Kotula under the direction of Steve Grumette.
We’ve seen and marveled at Kotula’s performance as Dickinson before, most recently in 2019. Prior to that, she did an outrageous impression of Harpo Marx in the Ojai Art Center’s production of Animal Crackers, earning a Vee-Cee award in the process, and also was hilarious as Agnes Gooch, the frumpy, anxious secretary in Mame, also at OAC.
Playing Dickinson is a serious challenge, and Kotula dived into the part by examining personal letters sent by Dickinson during her lifetime, which helped to reveal her complex personality and character. We visited with Kotula in a FaceTime interview, in which she talked about the play.
VCOS: Tell me how you first encountered the Emily Dickinson project.
ANNA: I came up with a list of plays but was particularly interested in the work by William Luce who also wrote a one-woman play about Emily Bronte but Steve Grumette, who is my director, and I both agreed that Emily Dickinson was the one. When I saw the play, it sparked childhood memories of learning some of her poems. My grandfather was very interested in poetry and he would memorize poems. All of his nine granddaughters at one time or another all enjoyed taking walks with him to discuss philosophy and memorize poems. He really drummed the idea into us that learning language, understanding and reveling in the written word is worthwhile.
VCOS: So you knew Emily Dickinson’s works but you didn’t know the person yet.
VCOS: So how did you go about learning about who she was and were you surprised by what you found?
ANNA: There were many surprises. We didn’t know what a mysterious character she was. She spent the last years of her life as a recluse and one of the stories told was how when she was about to die she asked her maid to burn all of her letters, which was customary back then. But the poems survived. Then there’s also Mabel Todd, who was her brother’s mistress. She was the one who was instrumental in getting out the first publication of the poems. Emily Dickinson’s few fans, during her life, were the recipients of her letters. We don’t have letters that she received because those were actually burned, but we have her letters that other people saved and shared after her death, and this play includes excerpts from a number of those letters.
VCOS: Do the letters reveal much about her personality that you don’t get from her poems?
ANNA: That’s controversial. Some people think they can see her personality and understand her, but there are also experts who argue vehemently about the details.
VCOS: Does the play reveal anything about her?
ANNA: One theme the play explores is a deep desire to be published and how she overcomes some failures around this. The play also delves into the major relationships in her life; her father, brother, sister, lovers, girlfriends, nephew, and others. There is one character who is considered by many to be one of the people she was romantically in love with but they’re not 100% sure.
VCOS: Was there a traumatic event in her life that caused her to become reclusive and withdrawn?
ANNA: She lived in two houses during her life. One is now the Emily Dickinson Homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts, and I have been there. But there was a period where she moved out of that house and lived in a house in Amherst that across the way from a cemetery, and her bedroom window overlooked that cemetery. And there are poems where she writes about watching funerals or wondering what happens after death. In that time period during the late 1800s, when you fell ill, oftentimes you died. There was typhoid and other maladies that you couldn’t recover from because they didn’t have modern day medicines. One particular death that was a major turning point for her entire family was her brother’s youngest son Gilbert, who died of typhoid at eight years old. When you go to the Homestead Museum, they have his original clothes laid out neatly on his bed. She kept a picture of him on her bedside until she died. Also, it was after her father’s death, approximately 12 years before she died, where she began to wear only white.
VCOS: Is there anything about Dickinson that you can relate to personally?
ANNA: Whoo! That is a great question. She has so many great one line quotes and here is one I love, “I took my power in my hand and went against the world.” She was someone who stayed in tune with and true to herself. For example, her whole family was deeply religious following the strict customs of the church but she chose herself not to attend church. I love the poem that start out “Some keep the sabbath going to church, I keep it staying at home.” Oh and none of her poems have titles. They are often identified by the first line. Overall, there is a lot of self-confidence in her work. She was able to build herself up and find joy within a realm of solitude. What is inspiring is this concept that your paradise is accessed by going within. Her work and the letters she leaves behind seem that way to me.
VCOS: How old is she in the play?
ANNA: She’s all different ages. At the beginning of the play, she says she is 53. She lived to be 55. So she opens up the play toward the end of her life and the play itself goes through the seasons and when the entire cycle of seasons ends, you see that she has come to the end of her life. There are also about 15 characters in the play, which I become or ones in which she has conversations with. Playing these different parts is a great deal of fun for me.
The Belle of Amherst plays from March 3- 13 at the Elite Theatre Company. For tickets, visit www.theelite.org
The Belle of Amherst plays for one night only, Saturday, August 31, at the Rubicon Theatre Company. For tickets, visit www.rubicontheatre.org