Bringing Emily to life in Carbondale |

Bringing Emily to life in Carbondale

Stina Sieg
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Kelley Cox Post Independent

CARBONDALE, Colorado ” When alive, Emily Dickinson was seen as an eccentric. She shrouded herself in white. She never married. She furiously wrote more than 1,700 poems, but kept them hidden. She never left home, living at her father’s house all her 55 years.

And as Lon Winston and Valerie Haugen spoke of her, they did so with love.

“Actually, I’ve fallen hard for her,” said Haugen.

They both sounded confident you might feel the same ” after seeing “The Belle of Amherst,” that is. Starting tonight, William Luce’s one-woman play delves into Dickinson’s heart. Starring Haugen and directed and designed by Winston, this is no “chick” show. It just tells the story of one ” a mysterious woman who found answers not by adventure but by retreating into herself.

“If you take this whole world of hers and put in a Cuisinart and go ‘bzzz,'” said Winston, mimicking a food processor, “you get this play.”

The stage helps set this whimsical reality. On one level, it’s a simple parlor scene, with a writing desk, table and chairs. At the same time, it’s distorted, covered in ghostly white gauze, the stage slanted, tall aspen trees sprouting from it. Most of these elements relate back to Dickinson poems (20 of which are recited during the show). It’s like you’re sitting in her mind with her.

Haugen described the beginning of the play, when she arrives carrying tea and cake. She greets the audience as if they’ve simply come for a chat. What follows is 90 minutes of Haugen, on stage alone, going through all of Dickinson’s joys and sadness.

“To have been made alive is so chief a thing, all else inevitably adds,” said Haugen, quoting Dickinson with reverence.

“She found enlightenment all by herself, and expressed it in her poetry,” she added. “She had to suffer the way she suffered to make the art she made.”

Like so many, Haugen and Winston knew of Dickinson before they made the play, but knew nothing like they do now. They found out the basic things, about her unrequited love and her lack of publishing during her lifetime. What most people don’t know, though, is that she wasn’t a household name until 100 years after her death.

For the last seven weeks, they’ve been working on the play little by little, trying to make it into this intimate, fresh thing ” starring only one person.

“Boy, it’s really a piece of work to have an hour-and-a-half and keep it moving and keep it interesting and kept it alive and rich,” said Winston.

But he sounded up to the task. After all, this is his 37th collaboration with Haugen. He’s always been wanting to make this play with her, but before, she was always too young. Then, recently, after TRTC’s production of “American Buffalo” was shut down twice due to casting issues, they both realized it was time for “Amherst.”

“She was born to play Emily Dickinson,” Winston said. “I believe that.”

Haugen was humble about this, talking with her hands about Dickinson as if she was still living and breathing. Her caring about Dickinson was so real that it was disarming to listen to.

“It definitely makes me feel richer, having met Emily, and being able to lend myself over to her and my character and the experience,” she said.

This doesn’t mean, however, that either she or Winston really, truly understands Dickinson, even now. But concrete answers aren’t the point. No, in Winston’s words, this about preserving this mystery, “this miracle of American literature.”

“Doing this play, in a way, is being able to say, go read this person,” he said, probably not hearing his own, poetic rhyme.

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