I had a great time this semester, directing On the Verge, or: The Geography of Yearning, by Eric Overmeyer, for York College Theater. The story is about three Victorian “lady explorers” who go on a trek together into “Terra Incognita,” and are surprised to discover that they are adventuring through time, as well as space. They wind up in 1955, where most of them get their wishes fulfilled, except for Mary, who ventures onward, alone, into the unknown. It’s an absurdist play, written in the 1980s.
I hadn’t worked at York before; getting to meet a new department was fun. I love working as a guest artist, and the department, led by Suzanne Delle, did a great job of managing the details of that, from finding a way to work with my schedule to helping me figure out parking. I felt very welcomed and included in the department.
I often describe my directing process as being nothing more than a series of questions. This play was even more question-driven than most, or maybe I’m just finally leaning into questions and exploration as the driving force of my work.
At the beginning of the process, I asked each of the women to think about the play’s subtitle, “The Geography of Yearning.” What is each character yearning for? Does she find it? Melanie McGeary, who played Fanny, decided that Fanny’s yearning related to her marriage to Grover. Her marriage was fine, but not passionate. When she falls in love with Nicky, it’s very different from what she had with Grover. Her clarity around this helped tell the story, particularly as one actor played both Nicky and Grover. The sharp difference in their relationship clarified that doubling.
Kelsey Snively, who played Alex, landed on Alex’s need to be taken seriously for her art. What she finds is that she has a talent for lyrics, and 1955 is a time, unlike her own, where she can find employment and encouragement for her talents.
Mary doesn’t find what she’s looking for in 1955. She decides to go on. I circled a lot with Charity Stump, who played Mary, on the question of what she is seeking. We finally found our answer in a book called Victorian Lady Travellers, by Dorothy Middleton, which was clearly a source for Overmeyer. Middleton describes Mary Kingsley, on whom this Mary was very clearly based, as someone who was addicted to travel, to adventure, to the next thing. That’s what she’s yearning for–the next horizon.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of yearning–that empty spot that needs to be filled, that driven seeking. Where is my yearning leading me? Where is yours?
The actors worked on this project. We had a short rehearsal period, and I was nervous about that, but they came into every rehearsal with their homework done, ready to focus. The text is dense and full of unusual and obscure words and references. I asked the actors to do paraphrases, just like for a Shakespeare play, and they came ready to use those in rehearsal (they helped a great deal, too–I wouldn’t do that for every modern play, but for this one, I’m glad I did). James Harrison, who played all of the subsidiary roles, had to come up with a lot of the physical and vocal differences between characters on his own, because there wasn’t time for us to do that development together. I would give him assignments, and then in rehearsal we’d adjust what he brought back. The women had to do most of their interpretive work in between rehearsals as well–I’d leave them with questions and they’d come back with ideas that we would shape into the story together. I appreciated the depth in which we were able to work.
This project was different from most of my recent work. We staged it in the proscenium, and we had lights and a set and recorded sounds (although I also managed to find some opportunities for live sounds, because I’m me). I’ve done mostly touring shows in the past couple of years, so this departure from the minimalist practicality of “What can we fit in the van?” was a welcome change for me. Having done so many shows with that limitation, though, has helped me be clearer about what we need (all the egg beaters) versus what we can act without adding tech on it (two minutes of “snow falling”). This experience and perspective lets me bring a satisfying freedom to work in other contexts.
Seth Werner designed the set and lights, and I loved how he gave me so much to work with. The set had lots of different spots to play, from a narrow wedge that looked like the characters were edging along a cliff face, to a swinging rope bridge, to ancient ruins. His lighting design transformed the set, as well, particularly in the early parts of the play, which are more dreamlike. He even brought in a fog machine, which made for some fascinating dimensions.
The costume designer was Priscilla Kaufhold. I loved that I was able to give her a few strong directions (the most important one was that I wanted the women to look like they were from the same world, but be easy to distinguish; I’ve seen a few productions of this play where I lost track of which character was which), and she created a cohesive design that helped tell the story. She was a delight to work with, particularly as the design requirements evolved.
My stage manager, Robert Coppersmith, was excellent. Sometimes student stage managers require a lot of guidance, but Robert had an experience level that let him work independently. I particularly admired how he managed to walk the tricky line of stage managing his peers–finding ways to be in charge of the room while still being friendly with them. Of all the things I learned in college, this was the one that took me the longest and has served me the best; I admire someone so young being able to do it so capably.
I did the sound design, which as those who know my work well will guess, was very exciting for me. Working on sound design in the 21st century is just straight up magical, because you can get anything. I found sounds recorded live in the Brazilian jungle and on glaciers. We’re all just one Google away from field recordings of Tibetan villages and chanting choirs and the hushed whispers of the Bodleian and literally anything you could ever want. I added instrumental underscoring to certain moments. At one point, when lots of “artifacts from the future” showed up, I said to Robert, “What I really want in this moment is Madonna’s ‘Material Girl,’ but played on like… a dulcimer or something.” Turns out, thanks to the internet, it is possible to buy a recording of this exact thing.
One problem with the play is that it is over thirty years old. At the end of the play, Mary gets visions of the future–but the things she describes only go up to the 1980s. I wanted to make this end feel more like “the future is now,” so I went to the Billboard Top 100 for that week and started listening. At number three, I found exactly what I was looking for: “Someone You Loved,” by Lewis Capaldi. I discovered an instrumental version of it by The Piano Guys, and that was the end of the show. I couldn’t have loved it more, and I think it helped complete the ending in the way that I needed to.
Taking a step away from early modern drama was refreshing, as was working with a group of people who were new to me. I hope to have more opportunities to work as a guest artist with other college theaters. Actors at this stage in their development are so fun to work with!