ON THE PSYCH WARD
Written by Emma K. Harr, MFA
I have always been fascinated by solo performance. When I first learned of the concept, it seemed difficult to grasp—where are the other characters, where’s the intrigue, the conflict, the comedic relief? But one-person shows are just like ordinary conversations with two people, one of whom is doing the majority of the listening; if you talk to one person for long enough, you will eventually see beneath the surface of whatever makes up the mask, and you start to get to the “good stuff,” the authentic details and the dirt of whatever lies underneath. Solo performance can be this way as well; a single actor may be capable of portraying twenty different characters, or weaving a storyline so riveting that just the one persona is enough. Regardless of how it is done, the communion between single performer and an entire audience is sacred. And therein, a difficult artistry to master and refine. It is not an easy task to keep several hundred people riveted to their seats for an hour or more with just you at the stage’s center.
So obviously, I wanted to try it myself.
I took an Advanced Poetry course in college as part of my Creative Writing minor, and one benefit of the upper level writing courses that I cherished was the opportunity to visit with the writers of the works we were reading. Kelly Cherry, a brilliant and eccentric poet, came to my university to do a poetry reading in the fall of 2008. Those of us in the advanced class had the wonderful honor of escorting her to dinner first, where we got to talk about anything and everything, and where afterwards she signed all of our copies of her book, and gave us insight into being a professional writer—all this in addition to the actual public reading she was there for.
The collection of hers we were studying that semester was Hazard and Prospect, which includes some of my favorite poems to date.
I remember that she was small in stature, and I sat much taller than she at the dinner table, where I ended up on her left. Because of this, we spent much of the dinner talking and laughing, and when she took her leave of us after the reading later that night, she left with me the distinct impression of having been noticed. Here was this grown person, with acclaim in her profession, with much better things going on in her life than one night of mingling with college students; and yet she saw me.
I will always appreciate the way she signed my book—“smart Emma,” underlined for emphasis. It felt personal, and also rebellious in some small way—I recognized later that I craved that kind of noticing, to be seen and heard for my intelligence, rather than my appearance or anything else.
Cut to six years later, when I am in my second year of graduate school, to a large and empty rehearsal studio, where I am on my back on the floor, tapping out a restless rhythm with my fingertips as my mind strains to answer a question I haven’t yet heard. It was decided, I was creating a one-woman show, I had signed out the studio space for rehearsals, and was alone with my paperwork, craning my brain to figure out exactly what it was I wanted to create. I genuinely had no clue—only a whisper of an image that I kept coming back to, but no real content to support it. At the time, these are the things that I knew: I wanted to explore solo storytelling; I wanted to do something related to mental health; I was immersed in Shakespeare, as I’d spent the majority of that year working on several projects with his characters already, so my instinct went to classical texts; and I wanted the poster to be a picture of my face with black tape over my mouth.
And that was it.
The only idea for performance I had so far was of this character who would start the show lying motionless center stage, face down on the floor, body splayed as if having been dropped from a great height. Lights up on the immobile form of this broken, possibly dead, woman. The image was striking: I imagined myself barefoot, perhaps in a dull dress or tunic, something that would let my arms and legs be free, my long hair all around, obscuring my head and face. The audience would not be able to tell yet, but my mouth would be shut with black tape.
And then suddenly, after a considerable beat of stillness, the right hand would perk up and animate, crawling around on fingertips to inspect the scene and the body, very akin to Thing from the Addams Family. Thing would grab hold of the head of hair, lift the head, let go, the head would thud back to the floor, and Thing would assume a “thinking” pose, tapping the floor as if pondering what to do next (two months later in performance, this moment got huge laughs from the audience that I had not expected, but loved).
My notes for this first session describe these several minutes of action in great detail. I liked the idea that this body, this person, was at literal rock bottom, perhaps in a mental institution, a psych ward, perhaps even a prison, but certainly in some kind of confinement cell where she was left utterly alone for an indeterminate amount of time.
There wouldn’t even be spoken dialogue until the body was fully woken up, which would happen piece by piece, begun by the right-handed Thing, as if reanimating a corpse one system at a time, where once woken up, Thing would remove the tape from the mouth, and she would be able to speak.
And that was all I had to go on—this idea of a kind of purgatory where this body that has been through god-knows-what comes to, and has to confront what she is.
And yet, I had no text. I needed words, I needed the story, I needed a script.
And this is the beautiful moment when the memory of Kelly Cherry’s poetry came back to me, and hit me like a brick wall.
Section IV of Hazard and Prospect is entitled “Lady Macbeth on the Psych Ward,” and includes a poem of the same name. As I rifled through the pages of the book, I saw patterns that linked my unnamed character with Cherry’s poems—and so began my creation of the perfect script, comprised entirely of Cherry’s words.
The end product was wrought through many studio rehearsal sessions over the next two-month period, with feedback from trusted friends and professors alike. Once I had Cherry’s poetry in front of me, the story felt like it developed itself, pulling pieces from different sections of the book, and weaving together with this character, who took liberties with the use of sound and movement to convey the words and their meanings.
I now knew that I wasn’t just a body in a psych ward—I was indeed Lady Macbeth herself, as well as a kind of Everywoman, fighting through her own madness to clarity and forgiveness for how the world has wronged her.
I used physical improvisation with elements of dance, as well as a capella singing, beating my fists on the proscenium wall for backing, to go along with the poetry. In all, I used ten of Cherry’s poems, with one repeated, to create the script for a 45 minute solo show.
I found my costume on a complete whim, at the clearance rack in Target, of all places. A sleeveless ivory satin wedding gown that had been returned (and yes, Target sells basic wedding gowns online, and apparently this one had been returned in-store). It was less than fifteen bucks (huzzah for clearance), fit perfectly, and became the brilliant finishing touch. I took scissors to the neckline and the hem, slashing it across the middle, and dragged the gown across the black studio floor to rough and dirty it up.
Imagine: a deranged Lady Macbeth, in a torn wedding gown, lost in the purgatory of a madhouse; I could not have asked for a better subject.
I ended the show the same way it began. Lady Macbeth, after having espoused everything within her, would claim forgiveness not from those who have wronged her, but from herself, and in so doing would choose to replace the black tape over her mouth, and return to her position on the floor, again face down, this time not as a vision of brokenness,
but a laying to rest, the ultimate relief.
Several friends and colleagues helped make the show a reality, and I am so thankful for their talents and collaboration. Adam Sullivan, a fellow MFA and Directing grad, took the photos I used for my poster, as well as the one above and on the banner of this page. Matthew "Mateo" Morris, an MFA Design candidate, designed and ran my lighting, for which I am ever grateful. Moriah Whiteman, fellow MFA Actor, acted as my house manager and passed out programs to the nearly packed house of the Woods Theatre.
The culminating performance of Lady Macbeth on the Psych Ward was eventually postponed a week from its original date, due to the death of a dear friend of mine. He had battled for several years with brain cancer, a battle he finished at the end of April in 2014. And so during the first week of May, I dedicated this show to Jordan, as I knew he would have enjoyed it.
I included a written dedication to Jordan in my program, and Moriah read the dedication aloud to the audience
before the lights went down. I chose last minute not to record this show. It needed to be ephemeral, fleeting, a burst of passion and then gone. My grief certainly informed my performance, and as such,
I wanted it to exist that way only in that moment. The acute and piercing poignancy of losing a friend to death, and the subject matter of the character and story I had created was indeed not lost on me.
That performance was for Jordan, and it will always be just for him.
Now that I am several years removed from this challenging and transformative project, my respect for and appreciation
of solo performance has grown, and my fire to create in that mould again stoked. I am currently working on reviving
Lady M., this time the goal being to create a more in-depth and nuanced version of this show that can truly stand
on its own. I seek to extend its run time, so it is truly a one-woman, one-act play, and to incorporate other texts
in with Cherry's, even Macbeth's own Shakespearean language itself.
This first iteration of Lady Macbeth on the Psych Ward started as a graduate school project, for which I earned no money, only a top grade in my studio class. With this next version, I will be seeking the blessing of the inspirational and esteemed Ms. Cherry herself, with the hope that she might remember one "smart Emma" from a decade ago, and send a little of her magic this way.
Thank you to those of you who helped this project come to fruition, and those more of you who will continue to be inspirations and bastions of support as I sail further down this river of discovery.