Elvira Parr explains the long road and loving history behind Dear Elizabeth, Pitch Productions’ upcoming show, tracking the beautiful relationship of two of America’s most beloved poets through letter-writing.
Like everything else these past 15 months, ‘Dear Elizabeth’ has been on quite a journey. Scrambling back through my emails, I can tell you very specifically that the first piece of the puzzle was put in place on 26th June 2020, so we are very satisfyingly almost bang on a year later. Funny how things work out.
Whilst it now feels like this project has been the definition of a slow-burner, it actually came to fruition in somewhat of a manic rush. With the application deadline for a Michaelmas slot in the Assembly Rooms looming, I was left frantically thinking of last-minute options. It doesn’t take much to realise why ‘Dear Elizabeth’ popped into my head as I sat at home for the 4567th day in a row, having not seen some of my closest friends in-person for months.
The play is a story of contact and communication, of a truly loving relationship between two close friends that was sustained almost entirely remotely. Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell met in-person only a handful of times, but they wrote over 800 pages of letters to each other throughout their decade-long friendship. The play is a compilation of these private letters, granting it a genuine authenticity and realness – these people lived and breathed and wrote and here are their words, carefully selected and reproduced to convey their lives and relationships in all their human complexity.
I realise that terms like ‘distance’ and ‘isolation’ are almost cringe-worthy now. I promise the show isn’t explicitly corona-y, but its relevance to our current situation (buzzwords again, sorry) is evident and, dare I say, hopeful. Our aim in directing this production has been to emphasise its simultaneous remoteness and intimacy. Whilst the two actors must remain physically apart for the entire show (which comes in at just over an hour), I can confidently say that their characters are far from distant with each other; in short, the dynamism of their relationship stands stark on stage in spite of – and sometimes because of – their physical detachment. The very point of the play is to show how both friendship and art in all its forms – poems, letters, theatre – can traverse many literal and figurative barriers.
As two of America’s most celebrated poets, it should come as no surprise that their letter-writing was also beautiful. There are moments of awkwardness and sweetness, anger and grief, things-half-said and things-not-said alongside flashes of stunning frankness – I personally think Lowell’s confession mid-way through the play is one of the most gorgeous love letters ever written. Both Bishop and Lowell’s lives were certainly rich in material ‘interesting enough’ for a play. Lowell’s letters track his journey in and out of marriages and mental hospitals alike, alongside quips about hotel fires or drunken evenings with Flannery O’Connor to show off or lighten the mood. Bishop’s letters reveal a characteristic matter-of-factness and eccentricity all at once; one minute she is profoundly reflecting on a recent poem, the next tending to a new-born calf and moving to Brazil with a pet toucan. They are fabulous characters with which to play.
As a first-time director, I am hugely grateful to my Co-Director, Hugo Millard, Assistant Director, Harrison Newsham, for keeping me in shape and, perhaps more crucially, supporting and sticking this out with me through thick and thin. Thank you as well to our outstanding Producer, Emily Nanovich-Walker, who has catered to our every need even when they pose major fire risks, which our endlessly talented Technical Director, Emily Rose Jupe, has also risen to with admirable can-do instead of total horror. Leading lady, Adela Hernandez-Derbyshire, is frankly nothing short of a superhero (five shows in two weeks? Surely a joke.) and I am so grateful for her tireless commitment to this project. At the other end of the scale, Tom Cain has stepped in just two weeks before opening night and yet has still nailed the few rehearsals we’ve had together, in part fuelled by the Tesco’s Finest range. They are both just brilliant.
I am so aware of and grateful for what everyone has sacrificed in order to make this production happen, whether they’ve been with me since June 2020 or June 2021. I hope you can join us on 23rd-25th June next week in The Assembly Rooms Theatre to celebrate this wonderful team and the beautiful show we have made.
Dear Elizabeth will be performed at The Assembly Rooms Theatre from 23rd to 25th June at 9pm. Tickets are available to purchase here.
Image credit to Pitch Productions.