Alumnae Return to Stage Self-Written Play

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Photos Courtesy of Steven Schreiber

The setting is sterile yet familiar. The dilemma is unreal and chilling. The questions it poses are vital but perhaps unanswerable: what is reality? What is identity? And most importantly, what is a person? Against the backdrop of kitchen/laboratory, one woman comes to terms with the fact that two sets of DNA reside in her one body.

In this staggering intellectual feat, co-creator and performer Suli Holum ’97, co-creator and playwright Deborah Stein ’99, and costume designer Tara Webb ’94 have come together to create Chimera. The show tackles issues of science and ethics, identity, femininity, and what it means to be a person.

Beginnings at Swarthmore

The show has deep roots in the Swarthmore theater department and community.

According to Stein, because the three alumnae “came out of the same department, with a rigorous and idiosyncratic approach to theater,” they share a common “set of values and way of talking about theater.”

Working together was an important aspect of creating the show. “We’re all Swarthmore students,” Webb said. “There’s an understanding we went to school here and have that background; there’s an intellectual conversation that happens when we work together that I don’t know I’ve experienced anywhere else. It’s a totally collaborative process, how we share information.”

After graduating from Swarthmore, Stein went on to work for Pig Iron Theater Company, which Holum co-founded after her sophomore year. Webb designed Pig Iron’s first show. “Pig Iron came directly out of the program at Swarthmore,” Holum said. “Swarthmore’s where it all started.”

The creative process

After working together at Pig Iron, Stein and Holum went their separate ways until reunited by coincidence. “We ran into each other at a dinner. We had hit walls in our independent careers, and we realized that what was missing was the collaborative aspect that we’d shared. [Webb] came on board shortly thereafter,” Stein said. Webb, who had been friends with Holum at Swarthmore and in Pig Iron, had never designed anything for her before.

Chimera is based on a real medical condition, where Jennifer Samuels (played by Holum) is her own twin. “It’s really a common thing, and there’s no way to know you have it,” Stein said. She said that medical chimerism could be an explanation for what doctors previously believed to be “vanishing twin syndrome”—where one ultrasound reveals two embryos, and another shows only one.

Holum first got the idea for the show when listening to a RadioLab episode on NPR about medical chimerism. “We’d been looking for a project for her to perform that I’d write,” Stein said.

“The way I get ideas for pieces I wait for a story to hit me; [it’s a] visceral response,” Holum said. “I don’t know right away how or when I would turn into a theater piece. I just let them sit for a while.”

Holum had thought of three different stories based on the intriguing medical dilemma. Of those ideas, “this one seemed least obviously theatrical,” she said. “The reason we started turning it into a play was because we couldn’t figure out how to.”

They then began to improvise and “experiment collaboratively.” Stein, Holum and the designers all played a part. “It was created and directed together,” Stein said. “The script is a record of a collaboration.”

The show saw several permutations between the initial idea to collaborate in August 2009, the first workshopped version in April 2010, and the show’s debut at New York’s HERE performance space in January 2012.

The reason for so many revisions, Holum said, is the nature of the piece itself: “The driving force of the shift was the process of turning it into a theater piece, the conversation about style and form and how content meets form… The elements of the theatrical experience take over and start driving the creation of thing, not the story we heard on the radio.”

In fact, according to Stein, parts of the script were based off design elements already in place. “Things come in an unconventional order,” she said.

The interplay between the script and the design can best be seen in the show’s use of video. “The video content and live content of show came into being simultaneously,” Holum said. “[It was] just as much integrating live into video as video into live, which is why I think it’s as successful as it is.”

According to Stein, the use of video resonates with the theme of technology in the play. “We’re making a play about one person reckoning with the impact of technology on our lives, so we should use technology in the theater, make it a total theater event,” she said.

Webb, who also has extensive experience with video, emphasized the necessity of complete integration with video, saying that “it has an ebb and flow” of its own, interacting with the storyline and the costumes.

Webb used the solo performance nature of the piece and a neutral base costume as a starting point: “Because it’s a solo performance, I wanted the audience to be able to project their own ideas onto the character,” she said. “Because it’s such an intellectual idea, it was more interesting for me to do something that was a little more abstract.”

One idea Webb worked with was femininity. The show features classically “feminine” costumes from all eras, including 1950’s housewives’ aprons and 19th century Victorian bustles. The creators were so partial to the idea of femininity embodied by the image of the bustle that they rewrote some of the text in order to keep it, according to Webb.

To work with the solo performance aspect, Webb used shape (such as the bustle) and color to help Holum shift between characters onstage. During one rehearsal, a broken projector cast a green light on Holum’s sterile white lab coat; “so I said why don’t we keep it very clinical, because it’s a fantasy in this woman’s mind, and we’ll add some elements of green into it, because it brings in some of the organic idea, and it creates this alien, sci-fi effect,” Webb said.

“Who am I?” : The big ideas behind Chimera

The show begins with Holum as “a manifestation of the other twin who doesn’t exist. Then we see her change into her son, talking about his relationship with his mother who left him. Then we see her merge from that into the real person who’s dealing with all these issues,” Webb said.

One theme the play tackles is that of motherhood. The real-life basis for the play is that of a mother: in a custody battle, a woman finds out that her DNA is different from that of her children. For Webb, the play poses the question: “What happens when you’re in that situation? What do you do? That’s what the play is mostly about: who am I, where am I, what happened to this other woman, this other person?”

For Stein, the key to the piece is the interaction between science, technology and modern-day ethics. Samuels, the mother, has “always been uncomfortable with motherhood, and sees [her medical condition] as why,” Stein said.

Holum brought her own experience as a mother to the table. “I wasn’t interested in making a typical show,” she said. “That impulse exploded and distorted and turned into the play. At the heart of it is a deeply personal experience of becoming a mom.”

The question of identity is also deeply salient throughout the piece. As Holum’s character grapples with the notion that she is not her son’s mother, she wonders who she is—and what it even means to “be someone.” For Stein, the question is: “How did we think of DNA as being so determinate? Does DNA make a person a person?”

At issue in the play is what we do when our technology has outstripped our capacity to fathom its moral implications.  “We are not equipped— our laws religion, ethics, and philosophy are generations behind our technology,” Stein said.

“It sends a shiver up your spine, that there are things inside us we have no way of navigating morally or philosophically,” Holum said.

Chimera is situated at the intersection of science and theater. “[I’ve] loved getting to the audience’s heart through the brain,” Stein said.

“One thing I take from it is that there’s all this amazing, wonderful science out there that makes good theater,” Webb said.

Panel discussion

Theater Department Chair Allen Kuharski will accompany Holum, Stein and Webb after Saturday’s matinee for a panel discussion of the three alumnae’s journey from Swarthmore to Chimera, and a question-answer session.

One main point to be discussed at the panel, according to Kuharski, is the Swarthmore Project in Theater that helped the creators produce Chimera. The program was created in 1995 as an artists-in-residence program to help alumni over the summers by providing a free rehearsal space (the Frear) and free on-campus housing (which the Project provided for the first 13 years of its existence).  Shows go on to perform at the Live Arts Fringe Festival at the end of the summer.

After their summer of work, alumni are encouraged to bring their shows back to Swarthmore, to “show the work we helped make possible,” Kuharski said. In exchange for the grant-in-kind, Swarthmore receives “acknowledgment in all publicity and programs, wherever the shows we support are performed thereafter.”

The Project’s first work was Pig Iron Theater Company, which utilized the program for its first four to five years, according to Kuharski.

The panel will talk about “how [the creators of Chimera] got started and are still able to benefit” through the Swarthmore Project in Theater, Kuharski said.

According to Kuharski, it represents “a mature example of the process of making work and collaboration our curriculum has been emphasizing for the past 20 years,” including “making original work, collective creation,” and a “Quaker model [that is] non-hierarchical and group/ensemble-based.”

Kuharski advised Holum, Stein and Webb during their time at Swarthmore.

The creators hope to take Chimera to the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts next winter, and are currently putting together a tour.

Performances will take place in the Frear Theater on Saturday at 3 p.m. at 7 p.m., with the panel discussion at 4:15 p.m. Those presently without reservations are invited to attend Friday’s dress rehearsal at 8 p.m., or to attend Saturday’s shows in case of cancellations.

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