After the sold-out success of the “Vinegar Tom” production a year ago, KOLT Run Creations co-founders Kelley Ogden and Lisa Thew weren’t looking for a new project. For the adventurous site-specific production of Caryl Churchill’s meditation on gender and power relationships in 17th century English witchcraft trials, KOLT transformed the long-empty basement swimming pool of the Elks Building into a theatrical performance space. The production, which included live music, taxed Ogden and Thew’s limits as actor, director and producers.
“It was this huge monster of a show. We were exhausted,” Ogden said. “We said: Let’s not focus on getting the next idea and just churn something out. Let’s wait for something to come to us.”
Something did in the form of a call from writer Marilyn Campbell, who had co-adapted “Crime and Punishment” with Curt Columbus, which KOLT had produced in 2010. Campbell wanted KOLT to look at another one of her scripts: “My Own Stranger,” a dramatic compilation of writings by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton, who committed suicide in 1974.
KOLT will perform the piece at a series of art galleries around Sacramento, beginning today at Alex Bult Gallery and culminating at the Crocker Art Museum on Oct. 24.
Sexton (Nov. 9, 1928-Oct. 4, 1974) was an American poet who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1967 for her book “Live or Die.” Sexton lived in Massachusetts, where she wrote about her struggles with depression, suicidal fantasies and her intimate life with her husband and children.
Campbell had co-adapted the work with writer Linda Laundra using Sexton’s words from the writer’s poems, letters and interviews. The play was first performed in 1981 and has had scattered, infrequent productions since.
Ogden said the piece felt very much “right up our alley,” and it also seemed to build on the last show they produced, Ben Morowski’s “This Vicious Minute,” which also dealt with mental illness and strongly resonated with audiences, resulting in several sold-out houses.
“Hearing the words of someone going through mental health issues in a real, accessible, visceral way appealed to us, and we knew it appealed to our audiences,” Ogden said.
“In the reading of it, I found it a very inspired adaptation,” Ogden said. “I was not very familiar with Anne Sexton, and to be honest, I’m not a big poetry person. I’m more of prose person, but it’s all her words, and they’ve pieced together this story of her life.” Though Ogden usually performs in KOLT’s productions with Thew directing, the two changed roles for this show.
“I did not see myself going on stage with it, but I could see it from a bigger picture perspective,” Ogden said. “Lisa, who is a poetry person, thought it was something she wanted to step back on stage with.” Actors Ruby Sketchley and Kellie Yvonne Raines perform along with Thew playing Sexton’s different sides as they emerge in the piece.
Ogden feels there’s much more to Sexton than just the obviousness of the depression and suicide.
“This was a woman who really was a genius in a lot of ways,” Ogden said.
“Within 12 years of writing her first sonnet, she had won a Pulitzer Prize. We see that a lot in art – somebody who can fly that high but their wings are going to get burned. She was a woman repressed, a suburban housewife, and she had severe anxiety and depression after her children were born. I really appreciate the goal of her poetry, which, as she put it, was to ‘use language to lift the invisible veil between us all.’”
After the success of the unique staging of “Vinegar Tom,” Ogden said she and Thew felt they could up the ante by taking “My Own Stranger” to a number of non-theater venues.
“We’re intrigued by the idea of taking theater outside of the traditional space,” Ogden said. “We found that audiences respond to it, and we like pushing the boundaries in that way.”
Besides performing in different galleries, KOLT found a sympathetic partner in Rika Nelson, who manages the public programs department at the Crocker Museum. Nelson felt the production worked well with other programming at the museum, so she offered a performance there. With contemporary artists Kara Walker and Julie Heffernan both having solo shows at the museum, Nelson said it feels like “Ladies’ Fall” at the museum.
“There’s a lot of messages here about how women are perceived, how we can fight that, how we lose to it and what’s at stake,” Nelson said.
“There are strong messages, and if people think about them and talk about them, then we’ve achieved what we set out to do,” Nelson said.
Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder