New York playwright Robin Rice Lichtig is in town, as her new play Alice in Black and Whiteis set to have its world premiere at Louisville’s Looking for Lilith Theatre Company. The play is about 19th century photographer Alice Austen. I sat down with Robin and Lilith’s artistic director Shannon Woolley to talk about the play and its inspiration.
Arts Louisville: Your new play Alice in Black and White is premiering at Looking for Lilith. Where did you get the idea for this play?
Robin Rice Lichtig: I live in New York City and I was on a hike in Staten Island and I discovered this Alice Austen Historic House. It turns out that it was the house of a woman who became a photographer back in the late 1800s. This was before photography was easy. It wasn’t digital ,and women definitely didn’t do it because it was a tremendous amount of equipment. Alice, at age ten, became fascinated by photography. Her photos are in the house.
AL:What drew you to her?
RRL: I became fascinated with her not only because she was obviously an extremely strong woman to have taken up photography, but she also lived her life the way women weren’t supposed to then. She didn’t get married, which meant that she didn’t have the financial security. She lived her life on her own terms and it wasn’t easy. If the story weren’t true, it would be like a melodrama. The fact is, it’s true and so, it’s quite amazing!
RW: Do you focus on her entire life, or just a part of it?
RRL: It’s about her life starting at age ten, right up almost until the end. There is a parallel story that takes place in 1952 of a gentleman who edited a book in 1952 with Alice Austen photos in it. So his story, and it’s kind of a love story, is paralleling Alice’s. They see each other across time because they both have this intense interest in common. Eventually her story moves forward in time and his does not. Eventually the stories meet.
Shannon Woolley: The structure of the play operates like turning the pages of a photo album, the way it moves slowly toward the climax.
RRL: The scenes are definitely lifted from the photographs.
RW: How did you, Robin, become acquainted with Looking for Lilith?
RRL: As a playwright, I’ve come down to Humana five or six times. I know Louisville and I know a couple of people who are playwrights. Kathi Ellis, the director, is a friend of one of those people. Kathi and I have known each other for a few years.
SW: About four or five years ago, Kathi was directing a show for Looking for Lilith called Fabric Flames and Fervor: Girls of the Triangle. Robin was in town for the Humana Festival and came to see the show. She thought Looking for Lilith’s style of working really works with the way that she writes. Robin said, “I’ve got this great script, let’s look at it.”
RW:You must have responded well to her work then?
SW: When we read Alice in Black and White, it was like, “Oh, this is a Lilith story.” The woman speaking to us from history and the fact that two of the characters literally speak to each other across the time and space continuum was something that interested us. There’s also a lot about Robin’s writing that lends itself to movement and physical representation, which is something that Looking for Lilith does a lot of.It just turned out to be a great partnership.
RRL: The first rehearsal I went to, the actors started doing the very Lilith stylized movement and a chill went up my spine. I just loved it. I mean this is totally what I want and it completes the action – it belongs there.
SW:We’re also using period cameras and they are a character in the play. The first rehearsal that Robin came to was also when we were first putting the cameras together with the talking and the moving.
RRL:I mean it’s very physically demanding to put the cameras together. The actors are doing an amazing job. I didn’t realize what a difficult job I gave them.
SW: And they’re so beautiful, the cameras: brass, wood, and building materials that we don’t see all the time.
RRL: I can see where Alice would have not only been in love with taking photographs, but with that equipment. I was an artist before I started writing plays. I built my own silk screen, and I loved that screen. It was almost like a child. I took it everywhere with me. She felt the same about her cameras.
SW: It’s a tactile physical relationship that she’s got with them.
RW: Did you both do a lot of research to get this going?
RRL: The actors did, one of the men, and we should say we have two men in this play.Lilith has never had men on stage before; I’m honored.
SW: We never had adult men. This is the first time we’ve had grown men, and it’s really wonderful.
RRL: I didn’t want to do too much research, though. There is a danger when you’re writing a play of over-researching. You’ll see plays where you can tell the writer did a lot of research and then couldn’t put it aside to make the play dramatic. What you also have to watch out for is if there are still living relatives who might have trouble. I’m okay with Alice Austen. I was a little iffy about the 1952 guy.
SW: This is a somewhat new experience for Lilith because a lot of the plays that we create with the company are based on oral history. You always have the experience at some point during the run of the play where you look out in the audience and the person whose words you’re saying is sitting out there. It’s a jolting moment.
RW: Do you work really closely together on this project?
RRL: I just came to two run-throughs. At this point, I’m just sitting back because it’s way past me having anything to say about it. We made a couple of little tweaks. That’s really it.
SW:It seems to me like our vision for realizing the story meshes pretty well with the words.
RW: Is this different from your other work, Robin?
RRL: I would say the sensibility is not different. They all have a musicality. Some are much less realistic. This is fairly realistic for me. Not like my play Frontier where the main character is an Alaskan wolf. I choose subjects that that I want to know more about.
RW: Do you relate deeply to Alice’s character?
RRL: Oh, yeah. I relate to her artistic passion and her stubbornness.
RW: Would you work together again on another piece?
RRL: I have some plays that I think would work for Lilith.
SW: This has been a really great process.
RRL:I would love to workshop a piece at Looking for Lilith and be there when the actors came up with the movement. I just love that. I eat it up!
Alice in Black and White
by Robin Rice Lichtig
Directed by Kathi E.B. Ellis
7:30 p.m. on February 28, March 1, 2, 7, 8 and 9, with a 2 p.m. matinee on March 9 as well.
For reservations, call The Kentucky Center for the Arts Box Office at 502-584-7777 or 1-800-775-7777 or go to www.kentuckycenter.org.
Adult tickets will be $18. Student and senior tickets will be $15. LFL continues their new community night initiative on Monday, March 4, with ticket prices of $10.
Tim & Dair Mathistad
Katie & Chris Haulter
Kathy Todd Chaney
Angie Reed Garner