‘It had to be theater for me:’ Carbondale actor uses the stage to process, share experiences of loss | PostIndependent.com

‘It had to be theater for me:’ Carbondale actor uses the stage to process, share experiences of loss

Voices Program Director & Lead Teaching Artist Cassidy Willey and her three-year-old son Elliot hang out in Sopris Park in Carbondale.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Cassidy Willey exhaled deeply before taking center stage and guiding the audience back with her to one of the most challenging years of her life.

“I lost my mom in 2018, and after going through that year, there were so many moments where I felt like I had to tell this story. Some of this is so unbelievable and beautiful and devastating, and surprisingly funny in the midst of all of it,” Willey said.

Willey is used to juggling roles — as an actor, director, educator, writer and mother — but in her play “As Close As I Can,” she’s created a one-woman show based on the true experiences spotlighting different moments of vulnerability, grief and joy. The only other voice besides Willey’s heard in the 45-minute production is that of Missy Moore, who narrates the second half to several conversations while tucked backstage.

“New play development is a great passion of mine, because I find it to be the future of our craft. … The trust that (she’s) putting into us and the way in which we develop and create new pieces is just astounding. It’s not only (her) story, but to take (her) story and dramatize it to a place where it resonates is just an amazing journey,” Moore said.

Cassidy’s father, Bob Willey, passed away in 2014 from a stroke combined with his ongoing battle with lung cancer. Willey has a moment in the play where she’s 9 years old and acting alongside her father in a production of “Annie” before she moves into the next scene retelling the suddenness of his death.

Michele Willey, Cassidy’s mother, would work the sound booth or manage the stage for her husband and daughter, intertwining her passion for theater with her love of her family. Michele passed away from ovarian cancer in January 2018, which is the year that inspired Willey to share her experience in the first place.

Voices Program Director & Lead Teaching Artist Cassidy Willey and her three-year-old son Elliot hang out in Sopris Park in Carbondale.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

“It didn’t just fall out as a play. And now kind of coming back it feels much closer to what I wanted to write … it had to be theater for me, and I wanted the audience in on it,” Willey said.

Along with Moore, Renee Prince is directing the production, Brendan T. Cochran is stage manager and Kristin Carlson is a script consultant. All of them are helping Willey to refine her story as a play and really immerse her audience into these moments that contained laughter as well as pain.

“Theatermaking feels a lot like midwifery to me, … and this project in particular feels like so much of it is just being there to help guide. It’s fragile and delicate and gutsy and strong, it’s all those things,” Prince said. “Because it’s a group of women here, and it’s a play about being a mother, motherhood and being mothered and mothering. That’s all in the room with us. And we don’t get to be in those spaces all the time.”

Originally slated to premiere in the Denver Fringe Festival of 2020, Willey had to put her production back on the shelf for a long, unexpected year. But for this year’s Fringe Festival, she’ll be performing the world premiere of a play about her, in-person every night of the fest June 24-27.

“There’s an emotional journey here in this rehearsal room every night. I would say we cry most days, which is hard, but also … for me it’s been helpful to process my own grief through telling this story and through reliving it. Not to be in pain, but to find the love, find the acceptance within it is really important,” Willey said.

Carlson, Price and Moore all expressed how honored they were to be trusted with Willey’s story and helping her tell it. While coaching someone on lines in a scene that actually happened to her isn’t easy, Carlson said there’s trust in the process that if they give a note that Willey disagrees with, she’s the ultimate expert in how these experiences played out.

“Cassidy is one tough cookie. It is excruciatingly vulnerable to write, period. Let alone to write one’s own story as a play and to do it with such integrity, ferocity of spirit and generosity to include us,” Carlson said. “And to take to heart and believe that it’s all about shining up who she is. It is about making sure she feels good about this sharing. That she gets to the place and that it’s what she really envisions. And with theater we can’t do that alone, none of us.”

Because Willey grew up in the Roaring Fork Valley, and the theater community knew and embraced her and her parents, she said she hopes to bring the show back to the Western Slope after taking it to the Denver Fringe Festival. While she doesn’t know when that will be or what it will look like, Willey said her most important audience is the folks out here who watched her grow up and survive the loss of her parents yet continue their legacy through her own talent and affinity for the stage.

“That’s the only way with grief is through, you can’t just skip over it, you can’t put it away, you have to go through it, and every day the themes, the moments in here, are present with me. … It’s something that’s at the core of my center right now and will be for the rest of my life,” Willey said.

Reporter Jessica Peterson can be reached at 970-279-3462 or jpeterson@postindependent.com.

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