Tackling the realities of socio-economic struggles in rural Kentucky through a modern adaptation of the myth of Philomela, recent Georgetown graduate Olivia Duff’s (COL ’16) play “Appalachian Nightingale” captivated audiences at the Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage Festival this past weekend. The performance’s cast included current Georgetown students Mollie Rodgers (COL ’17), Kate Ginna (COL ’18) and Ali Coopersmith (COL ’17),
The annual Page-to-Stage Festival gives both professional and amateur writers the opportunity to hold readings of their new pieces, which are free to the public. “Appalachian Nightingale” was produced by the Georgetown department of performing arts and was directed by Anita Maynard-Losh, director of community engagement at Arena Stage. Duff and Georgetown are in good company – other participating theatres include Mosaic Theatre Company, Synetic Theatre Company and First Stage.
“Appalachian Nightingale” tells the story of two sisters, Phyllis and Polly Mae, along with Polly’s husband, Thad — all of whom are struggling to make ends meet. Thad’s insecurities and fragile masculinity are the catalysts for the downfall of his female counterparts. Filled with heavy commentary on the normalization of a physically and emotionally abusive relationship, the play effectively and engagingly tells the story of people who deserve better; people who seek to escape their environment but also exist as a result of it; and people who don’t have the privilege of mobility, whether it be social, economic, temporal or locational.
Duff said that these themes were always intended to be at the heart of the play.
“Philomela’s story is especially poignant today — when victims of sexual assault are often silenced,” Duff said.
Duff began writing the play the summer before her senior year as part of her thesis and then went on to complete it during her class, “Writing Stage Adaptations,” taught by department of performing arts associate professor Christine Evans, who was also her thesis adviser. Duff, who is from Kentucky, was inspired during a trip home to write these characters not as the royals they are in the original myth but rather as some of the thousands who have fallen into inescapable poverty as a result of the dying coal industry. Making the characters deal with the hardships of poverty certainly sharpens the story and makes Philomela’s rape more dynamic.
“In close-knit rural communities where victims are often close to their attackers, societal pressures lead to a gross underreporting of sexual assaults,” Duff said.
The language of the play oscillates between colloquial and poetic, and is often accompanied by eerie, unsettling folk music, which helps to set not only the scene but also the tone of the play. In the performance, the words and songs were enlivened to the point at which one was able to imagine the direction of the production in future-staged versions of the play. Duff’s unique creative vision permeates all aspects of the production, even down to the purely functional aspect of stage direction.
“Her stage directions are lyrical and are worth reading in and of themselves,” Rodgers wrote in an email to the hoya. She continued, “It was such an honor to perform Olivia’s work, because she is incredibly talented and someday soon I will be able to say ‘I knew her when …’”
Duff’s senior thesis advisor Christine Evans recognizes Duff’s innate talent as well, praising her vision, attention to detail and ability to enliven a dark narrative within a modern context.
“Olivia’s prodigious imagination, empathy and fine-grained sense of language … transformed this bloody myth into a riveting, taut portrait of an impoverished Appalachian family,” Evans wrote in an email to the hoya.
She went on to praise the powerful manner in which Duff presented her take on an age-old myth, and the potential for her work to resonate beyond the confines of the theater.
“I believe that talent is singular; it’s a person’s unique way of seeing the world, which, if fierce, clear and well-honed enough, will echo in the minds of others,” Evans said.
Duff said the original myth of Philomela’s connection with song opened the door for her to incorporate traditional Appalachian music into the piece. While uncommon in the vernacular of mainstream music culture, the musical arrangements figure prominently in setting a tone for the production.
“My friends now make fun of me, because my Spotify Weekly Discover is filled with scary traditional Appalachian folk music,” Duff said.
Duff was notified that her play had been selected for Page-to-Stage just before she graduated and was supported by the department throughout the summer in getting the play off the ground. She explained that the reading has been very helpful in the development process.
“It helped me to see the gaps and inconsistencies in what I’ve created. For the first time, I was also able to see my play as a work that existed outside of myself. It felt very personal, and sharing it made me feel very vulnerable, like I was sharing a part of myself. Going forward, my process will be more about being a detective of my own work,” Duff said.
She added that working with a professional director like Maynard-Losh was incredibly helpful to this process: “She invested in diving into the text, exploring its nuances and bringing the characters to life. She asked the best questions and forced me to really examine my own writing.”
Moving forward, Duff says that she’s looking forward to polishing “Appalachian Nightingale”, based on the feedback from the talk-back held after the show and her own response from hearing the reading. She is planning on submitting the play to playwriting conferences and workshops, and, if all goes to plan, the play will return to the Kennedy Center in the near future.
“I’d love to see it performed in Kentucky where can share it with my family who couldn’t make it to the Kennedy Center,” Duff said.
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