Volume 15 Number 4
What's Emily to Us?
01 August 2002

What can a play about a reclusive American poet tell us about ourselves? Quite a lot, if the experience of its creators is anything to go by. Edie Campbell and Jack Lynch talk to Mary Lean.

People who talk to Edie Campbell after watching her one-woman show about Emily Dickinson, the 19th century American poet, often comment on how brave her portrayal is. They don't know the half of it.

The play tells the story of Campbell's 14-year struggle to portray Dickinson on stage 'without getting in her way'. This is a risky undertaking in itself - and one that Campbell rejected outright when her husband, collaborator and director, Jack Lynch, put it to her as an alternative to a straight dramatic biography of Dickinson.

'Edie wanted to make this play about Emily Dickinson, using only Emily's words,' says Lynch. 'She was getting frustrated because it wasn't working. I kept saying, "What I would like to put on stage is your passion about her." And she said, "No!"'

'I thought it would be boring and self-indulgent,' says Campbell.

She was wrong - though the apprehension has occurred to others. 'Yes, a one-woman show about creating a one-woman show does sound as if it might be inclined towards the navel,' wrote Time Out. 'But that's before you've witnessed Campbell's subtly charismatic performance, or taken into the account the fact that Emily Dickinson... is no ordinary subject matter.'

By telling the story of the reclusive Emily through her own eyes, and in the light of her own experiences, Campbell makes her more approachable. Which is no mean achievement given the elusiveness of her subject, many of whose poems are on the inaccessible side. And because this is so obviously 'her take' on Emily, there is no pretence that this is the only, definitive view of the poet.
The audience watches as Campbell's understanding of her own life grows alongside her understanding of Emily. En route, they learn not only about Emily's life, but also about Campbell's upbringing, divorce and second marriage, panic attacks and family crises, including her father's death from the Alzheimer-like Binswanger's Disease.

As a result, it's not only Dickinson enthusiasts who get something out of the play. People tell Campbell and Lynch about their own literary passions, or their relief in discovering they are not the only people to have spent years struggling to complete a project. Others confide in Campbell about their panic attacks - some saying they have never told anyone else before - or about their experiences caring for a relative with Alzheimers.

At one point in the play Campbell describes getting the phone call from her mother to say that her father has died. She goes straight from that into reading Emily Dickinson's letter about her own father's death. It is always an electric moment, says Lynch.

'It takes a very personal thing of Edie's father dying and Emily's father dying and it becomes universal, because the 19th century poet and this actress have a common experience with all of us,' continues Lynch. 'That's the trick - finding the way to make a personal statement that opens up others.'

Another such moment is when Campbell speaks about her fears, after her father's death, that she is letting him down. He had been one of the pioneers of MRA/Initiatives of Change and for some time she wondered if she should follow him into full-time work for the organization. 'I had this dream - which I tell about in the play - of visiting him in the nursing home, and him floating in and out of lucidity and asking me, "What do you want to do with your life?" When I replied "acting", he said, "Then do it with your whole heart."'

People respond, because, as Lynch says, whatever our experience with our parents, we all, in some way, crave their blessing.

It must take courage to expose such moments to the public? 'I think what makes it possible is that I'm not using the stage to say anything that I haven't said to the people concerned,' Campbell says. 'I'm not using it as a platform to vent, accuse, point fingers....'

But it's not only her performance that's brave. The story of how the play finally saw the light of day also has its scary side.

Campbell and Lynch met on stage in Iowa in 1994 when they were both acting in Dancing at Lughnasa. Lynch, who had been married before, was just coming to the end of 10 years as a mature student; Campbell was going through a divorce and travelling back and forth to England, where her father was dying and her mother had breast cancer. As she lived on Lynch's route home, he started giving her a lift after rehearsals.

By 1997, when they moved to Britain, they had decided that they wanted out of the rat race of agents and auditions, constantly looking for parts that might get them noticed. For Campbell it was a practical issue: her panic attacks made travelling to London for auditions an almost insuperable problem. And she was discouraged by the number of people looking for parts - and the fact that while some who succeeded were brilliant, a 'dispiriting number' were not.

They were left with two options - give up theatre altogether, or find a new way of doing it. Perhaps this was the moment to write the Emily play? If so, they would need somewhere to put it on. Campbell found a slot - six months away - at the Mill Studio connected to the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in their home town of Guildford. 'They said they'd need the title of the show and the description in three weeks time. Jack went straight to the computer and designed the flyer.'

Campbell spent the summer re-reading everything she could find on Emily. Lynch gave her some exercises to start her writing - 'but they all came out sounding awfully academic'. Finally they cleared the furniture off their little raised dining area and Lynch told her to stand up there and tell him the story. 'It was absolutely terrifying,' she says. 'I hate improvisation.'

By then they had decided that the play had to be about Edie as well as Emily. 'Where Edie knew Emily, I knew Edie,' says Lynch. 'So I'd say, "What about that time when this happened?" And she'd tell this very awkward story. So I would throw in something else and she would try that and it kept getting harder and harder and suddenly she would burst out, "That isn't the way it happened!" And she'd blurt out the story and then run off to the computer and write it down.'

It sounds like a slow process, but they had the play finished in time. 'She was very nervous, she didn't trust we had anything,' says Lynch. The first 'outsider' to see the play was the photographer they had asked to take pictures at the dress rehearsal. When he stopped snapping and sat down, Lynch realized he was enjoying the play. Afterwards he said, 'What are you going to do with this? This is really good.'

Lynch's unconventional approach to playwriting stems from his years at the Buddhist-inspired Naropa Institute (now University) in Boulder, Colorado. 'The whole concept there was that once you had conceived the idea, you had to learn to listen to the entity that was starting to appear and let it guide you, rather than having any agenda.' If they had arguments while working on the play, they were usually around trusting this process.

It's an argument they have in daily life as well. 'Because of the panic, Edie needs to feel in control,' says Lynch. 'But a lot of the Buddhist training at Naropa was about letting go.'

This was put to the test in their first four years in Britain, when Lynch was searching for a steady job. 'I was desperate after a while for him to get any job, so we could pay the bills,' says Campbell. 'And he was determined - though he got quite depressed about it - to be free when the right job came along. It was very difficult for us to support each other - we could understand what the other felt, but we both felt the other should be more ready to give way or to be more supportive.' To their relief and delight, Lynch is now teaching at the Guildford School of Acting, where Campbell trained as an actress.

The play has clearly been a success, both from its reviews - 'electric', Time Out; 'absolutely compelling', The List; 'a production of rare integrity', The Scotsman; 'captivating', Margaret Drabble in Hot tickets - and from the response of its audience. Campbell and Lynch are astonished by the conversations they have had after the shows. 'If we had tried to create a play that had this type of effect we would have got in a terrible mess,' she says.

And now they are starting again, this time with Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein and subject of Campbell's Masters' dissertation. Once again they are up against a deadline: after last year's successful performance the Cheltenham Festival of Literature has invited them back. The only snag is that they want a new play.

Can they do it? Is it possible to repeat the process, to draw on the personal journey approach without being formulaic or repetitive? They don't know, but they're going to try.

'It's something every artist faces when they start their second project, particularly if the first one has been successful,' says Campbell. 'But at least I trust the process more this time. I feel more relaxed about the understanding that it may not work.' She is already deep into the research process when I interview them in June: the Festival, alarmingly, is in October. Brave? Yes, definitely!

For details of performances of 'Emily Dickinson and I: the journey of a portrayal' visit www.lynchpin.itgo.com
Mary Lean