A Play That Lets Us Stowaway
Playwright talks about dramatizing the life of Katherine Anne Porter
Though Katherine Anne Porter was once one of the most famous writers in America, few people today have heard of her. Passenger on the Ship of Fools, the Vortex’s latest production, aims to rectify that.
Written by Laura Furman and http://www.lynncmiller.com/lynncmiller/bio.htmlLynn C. Miller, Passenger looks at the life story of Porter, born Callie Russell Porter in Texas in 1890. This is no mean feat, as Porter’s life stretched for 90 years and involved four marriages, the first at age 16. Furman and Miller handled the challenge by focusing the action on one event: Porter’s struggle to complete her first novel. Even though she had been a celebrated short story writer and essayist for 40 years, Porter’s only novel, Ship of Fools, wouldn’t be published until she was in her 70s.
The play’s central moment occurs in 1961: Porter has locked herself in a motel room trying to finish the book. Miller (who lives in Albuquerque) says that as Porter does this, the play then flirts back into the past, with two younger versions of the author joining the action. “Here are three selves of Katherine Anne Porter on stage at different ages, and they act out scenes from her life and from her fiction,” Miller explains. “So it kind of all weaves together ... in the present where she has this make-or-break situation, and then she goes back into the past.” The do-or-die pressure comes from the fact that Porter had been taking advances for the novel from her publisher for 30 years, which many critics at the time said Porter needed to write in order to be considered great. Anchoring the play in this moment gave Miller and Furman “a situation of consequence ... and what we hope happens is that the audience shares in her desperation that she has to pull this off.”
Miller and Furman were drawn to the author’s story when they taught Porter’s work at the University of Texas. “This woman did everything," Miller says. "She was an actress, a journalist, a world traveler, she covered the Mexican Revolution, she covered the moon launch for Playboy in her 80s. She was an amazing person.” Their respect for Porter and her work transformed, over time, into Passenger. In fact, over a lot of time: The play being staged at the Vortex has been 11 years in the making.
Though crafting this work has been a major undertaking, Miller says collaborating with another writer was a joyful experience. "We never got stuck ... it really was a great idea generator." Furman has a background in biography, while Miller has worked in autobiography and performance. They say it was their different perspectives that made the process work.
The playwrights mined a wealth of source material. Biographies of Porter, reams of correspondence (there was so much, Miller says, because Porter would do "anything to procrastinate from writing") and cooperation from the writer's trustees and nephew, Paul, provided tremendous insight into this complicated and singular American writer.
Victoria Liberatori, the play's director, is also a member of the Vortex's Artistic Committee and Board of Directors, who chose Passenger on the Ship of Fools as its best New Mexican-penned play of 2009. She says a staged reading of it directed by Lee Kitts (who, along with Vivian Nesbitt and Bridget Kelly, plays Porter in this production) set it apart from the other entrants. Through e-mail, Liberatori says "the artistic and technical challenge of taking three very different women, three very different actors and creating an ensemble that spoke with one voice" has been daunting but ultimately rewarding.
Miller believes the audience will agree. "She grew up in this hardscrabble circumstance in Texas and went on to become one of America's most celebrated writers," she says. "It's about a woman's struggle against time and her own reliving of her life story."
Passenger on the Ship of Fools
Written by Laura Furman and Lynn C. Miller
Directed by Victoria Liberatori
The Vortex Theatre
2004 1/2 Central SE
Runs through Aug. 9
Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 6 p.m.
Panel discussion Saturday, Aug. 8, from 2 to 3 p.m.
Talkback after play on Sunday, Aug. 9