5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Elizabeth A. Davis


Production ShotThere have been theatrical works about Emily Dickinson before — famously, in William Luce’s The Belle of Amherst, which earned Julie Harris an precedented fifth Tony for her Broadway work; more recently in William Roetzheim’s Dickinson: The Story of Emily Dickinson, which played Off-Off-Broadway earlier this summer. But the riddle that was Dickinson, and what induced her to become such a shut-in, such an elusive, slippery figure, remains a fascinating topic for dramatic writers, which is perhaps why Chris Cragin has penned a new work with the appropriate title Emily: An Amethyst Remembrance, being presented by the Firebone Theatre at the Kirk Theatre on Theatre Row, Sept. 16-27.
Elizabeth A. Davis and
Christopher Bonewitz in
Emily: An Amethyst

Elizabeth A. Davis, an actor with an extensive resume in the contemporary classics and a great deal of regional work, plays a haunted looking Emily Dickinson.

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For more information, including the performance schedule and tickets, visit www.ticketcentral.com or call 212-279-4200.

And now, 5 questions Elizabeth A. Davis has never been asked.

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
I had a Colombian Grotowski teacher named Jairo who actually studied with Grotowski for years. I traveled to Coloforte in Italy to study with him and other Italians. We were in the pine forests and hadn’t showered in days, roughing it completely, and each of us was asked to create what was called a “memory play.”

I created a wordless story, through movement and the like, about my cousin Keitha who had passed away two years before.

After I finished, Jairo said, “Do you understand? Or do you believe? Or do you understand and believe?”

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The profundity still amazes me and translates to all my other work: There may be things that don’t make sense to me about a character, but if I believe what I am telling is truthful, then I can trust an audience will receive it as truthful as well. Of course, I hope to believe and understand most of the time, but it is not always necessary. We can believe things we do not understand. That is freeing as an artist, as a human.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
I’ve received several emails in the past where men have confronted me about my choices in the theater. The first one was from a guy I sort of knew who responded to a mass email I sent out about a show opening. He said, “Are you still prostituting yourself in your self-serving theatre career?” Another perfect stranger sent me an email that said, “How can you call yourself an artist while you involve yourself in prostituting organizations like the Miss America system?” The email ranted and raved for paragraphs.

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I never knew being an artist would draw so many illusions to prostitution.

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
In keeping with variations on a theme, in a talk back for Bill Mastrosimone’s world premiere, Dirty Business, at Florida Stage, I was playing Judith Campbell Exner of J.F.K. and Sam Giancana fame. A snowbird from Long Island with hearing devices intact raised their hand and said, “Were you really a whore?”

I get very protective of my characters’ journey and got quite defensive. In talkbacks, people seem to forget that there is a sensitive, feeling person behind the character they just saw portrayed.

Headshot4) In Emily: An Amethyst Remembrance, the idea is to present the various explanations for Emily Dickinson’s hyper-isolated lifestyle using, among others, her poetry. So if a person cornered you and said that you absolutely had to choose the single most likely reason why Dickinson was such a shut-in, which explanation would you choose?

Enlightened Pain — there was a piece of her brain that was alive that so many others had let deaden. Even though she endured recurring loss and suffering, she was able to channel it into her exquisite expression. Rejection and loss undoubtedly played a role in her seclusion, but they did not destroy her like it does to many. The poetry we see in the production leads us to believe that her understanding of a loving God helped her know that where she was going after death would wrong the rights. Her seclusion was a statement of “patience till Paradise.”

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5) How familiar with you with Emily Dickinson’s poetry before being cast in your role? Whether you were familiar with her work or not, how has the process of working on your character illuminated or deepened your understanding of Dickinson’s work? Just what is it about Dickinson’s poetry that has stood the test of time?
I was moderately familiar with her. I was slightly familiar with her poetry other than, “Because I could not stop for death…”

There is such vulnerability in her poetry it makes it hard to turn away. It’s like watching an actor drop lines on stage and then seeing the terrifying honesty that inevitably follows. I think this is why she let so very few people read her work, because it was her soul incarnate: to reject her work was to reject her in totality. So, it is this vulnerability and veracity that has stood the test of time, I believe.

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6) Have you visited the Dickinson homestead in Amherst, Mass.? Also, what is your favorite Dickinson poem?
I have not visited the homestead. I had planned a trip during the rehearsal process, but a survival job or something of the sort attacked and thwarted the plan. Soon…

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My favorite poem? I think it is going to have to be “I measure every grief I meet with narrow, probing eyes…” (I wish she would have named them sometimes.) She personifies pain and then finds solace or “a piercing comfort” in knowing others and the Divine have gone through similar pain.