A life lived amid pen and ink

Taos Onstage revives the lost art of letter writing in 'Dear Elizabeth'

By Laura Bulkin
Posted 7/24/18

In 1947, two poets met at a New York dinner party. Elizabeth Bishop, then 35 years old, was introverted and deeply private, loathe to divulge personal …

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A life lived amid pen and ink

Taos Onstage revives the lost art of letter writing in 'Dear Elizabeth'

Posted

In 1947, two poets met at a New York dinner party. Elizabeth Bishop, then 35 years old, was introverted and deeply private, loathe to divulge personal details even in her poetry. Robert Lowell, five years younger than Bishop, was prone to manic bouts of what used to be called "enthusiasms" and had earned the nickname "Cal" for his resemblance to both the notorious Roman emperor Caligula and the monstrous Caliban in Shakespeare's "The Tempest."

Despite their outward differences, Bishop and Lowell formed an intense bond of friendship and mutual admiration and began a written correspondence that continued uninterrupted until Lowell's death 30 years later. In their letters, they shared their triumphs, illnesses, heartbreaks and above all their work.

"Dear Elizabeth," a 2014 play by Sarah Ruhl, is a distillation of the poets' hundreds of letters. This week, community theater troupe Taos Onstage will give three performances of the play, directed by Karla Eoff with assistant direction and sound design by Helen Rynaski. The show will run today through Saturday (July 26-28), with 7 p.m. performances at Society of the Muse of the Southwest (SOMOS), 108 Civic Plaza Drive.

Aside from a few of the poets' best-known poems, the play consists entirely of readings from the letters. The production features veteran local actors Jim Kristofic as Robert Lowell and Renea Been as Elizabeth Bishop.

Taos Onstage's publicist Blair Jackson told Tempo that Kristofic grew up on the Navajo Reservation in northeastern Arizona, and worked as a river guide, journalist, ranch hand, National Park ranger and oral historian. The actor-writer currently lives in Taos, but says that he considers Diné Bikéyah -- the Navajo Nation -- his true home.

Kristofic's memoir, "Navajos Wear Nikes: A Reservation Life," was published in 2011. He has appeared in many community theater productions, including Teatro Serpiente's 2014 production of Ken Ludwig's "Moon Over Buffalo."

Renea Been has done years of community theater in Texas and New Mexico, most recently in Taos Onstage's production of "The Language Archive" earlier this year. She has lived in Abiquiú for the past five years.

"I was very interested in the play because it is different," Been said. "The form is constructed from the actual letters, which appealed to me deeply as a writer and former English teacher. Elizabeth Bishop is a fascinating and complex woman, and the letters provide insights to this famously private person. The audience will experience her wit, intelligence and her darkness. I hope to bring the complexity of her experience to this role."

For director Karla Eoff, the play's subject matter is close to home. "I have a very strong connection to it," she said. "When the book version of the correspondence, 'Words into Air,' was being published, I was the copy editor. Then a few years later the playwright Sarah Ruhl read the volume of letters and was moved to make a play from them. The same company I worked for published the play, and I was asked to copy edit the play script as well. Taos Onstage has not previously done a summer production, but this year they wanted to try one. 'Dear Elizabeth' seemed to be the perfect play for a summer show."

Eoff already had her cast in mind when she began work on the production. "I knew who I wanted. Renea Been and Jim Kristofic are writers, and both are deeply familiar with the poems of Bishop and Lowell. They also understood from the beginning that this was not creating characters whole cloth, but it's also not doing an impression. The actors in a show of this type, where the characters are real people, need to find the essence of the people they are portraying, and then present them honestly, yet still give a dramatic performance, which these two actors do."

Eoff spoke about the play's unconventional format. "Usually actors have to memorize the entire script, but in this case they are reading from these poets' letters to each other, with only a few exchanges that we all felt they needed to memorize. It creates a different way of working and a different set of problems. For instance, Renea and Jim have had to find the best way to read from a letter while incorporating movement and handling props, all the while being aware of not becoming closed off from the audience. Different challenges for them and for me, but fun to address. It brought out a different level of creativity in all of us. I thank my lucky stars to have Helen Rynaski working as my right hand and third eye. The show is richer for having her on board."

The SOMOS space is more intimate than the venues Taos Onstage uses during its regular season. "I like that the audience will be very close to the performers, almost like being in the characters' work spaces," Eoff said. "And I would be remiss if I didn't give high praise to SOMOS for how welcoming they have been and the support we have received from them. This is the perfect project to be performing there."

"These are two of the most important poets of the 20th century, and most of their discourse -- not only about their work but also about the joys and sorrows of their lives -- is shared in letters. I think we have lost something important as we have lost the art of letter writing. What is thoughtfully recorded in a letter to a dear friend is precious. It can be savored, taken in slowly, then reread, revisited for many years. As long as that letter exists, the person who wrote it is close and dear and alive."

Tickets are $12.

For information or advance ticket purchase, visit taosonstage.com, call (575) 224-4587 or email taosonstage@gmail.com.

FYI BOX

Taos Onstage

Today-Saturday (July 26-28), 7 p.m.

SOMOS, 108 Civic Plaza Drive

Tickets $12

(575) 224-4587

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