Malaga Island: The Setting of Our Play

By Sarah Erkhart

This blog post was cross-posted from the Lizzie Bright Dramaturgical Blog.


Hello and welcome to the dramaturgical blog for Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, the third show in Emerson Stage’s 2013-2014 season! I’m Sarah Erkert, the production dramaturg for this show, and I will be your guide to the history, social context and relevance of the play. But before we can dive into some of the larger social issues and understand why the story of Malaga is an important one to tell, it will help to understand more about the setting of the story.

The Founding of the Malaga Island Community

Malaga Island is located just off the coast of Phippsburg, a small fishing town 20 miles north of Portland, Maine. Though Native Americans inhabited the island for thousands of years prior to European settlers, the first modern settler of the island was Benjamin Darling. Rumored to be a freed slave after heroically saving the captain of a shipwreck, Darling bought the neighboring Bear Island in 1794. His son, Issac, later sold the island and moved to the unoccupied Malaga.

The Rooted Community of Malaga

By the early 1860s, the island began seeing permanent residents, with Henry Griffin settling on the east side of the island. In the next few years, other small families began moving to the welcoming sanctuary, including the Murphys, Dunnings, Johnsons, Easons, Marks, McKenneys and Tripps. By 1900, the island was called home by more than forty people, many of whom by virtue of race or poverty would have found it difficult to find community in the small fishing towns of mid-coast Maine. The Malaga community included African Americans, whites and several mixed race families, most of whom struggled with poverty.  They survived off the land, despite its thin soil, and by fishing and harvesting marine life to sell and eat. Many also worked odd jobs, including carpentry and laundry services, for those on the mainland, but in spite of their efforts, many were also recipients of Phippsburg’s pauper’s relief fund.

Tensions with the Mainland Community of Phippsburg

As the people of Phippsburg themselves were mired in economic difficulties caused in part by declines in fishing and shipbuilding at the turn of the 20th century, many began to resent the proportion of welfare relief that went to Malaga Island.  Some in the community proposed that Phippsburg should try to attract wealthy summer vacationers to the area by building a resort on the mainland near Malaga.  For that to be successful, they argued, the people and their shanties on Malaga Island would have to be removed.  The yellow journalism of the day and the rise of the eugenics movement fanned the flames of prejudice against the Malaga Islanders.

To decrease the impact on Phippsburg’s welfare funds, the town argued in court that the island actually belonged to the neighboring town of Harpswell.  But when their suit was unsuccessful, the State of Maine stepped in and declared the island to be under the control of the governor and its people “wards of the state.” On July 11, 1911 Governor Plaisted and other state representatives visited the island to assess the conditions of its people and their homes.  After the visit, the State declared Eli Perry, a resident of Phippsburg, the legal owner of Malaga, even though some of the residents of Malaga offered to buy the island and no deed was ever discovered under Perry’s name. Just three weeks after the Governor’s visit to Malaga, Perry ordered the people of Malaga evicted and demanded they vacate the property by July 1, 1912.

The End of the Malaga Community

After the Governor’s visit, the mental and physical health of the people of Malaga were assessed by the State of Maine to determine if they could care for themselves. The state declared eight of Malaga’s residents to be “feeble minded,” and they were placed in the residential School for the Feeble-Minded in New Gloucester. The remaining families were paid a small sum, and some moved to the mainland or other islands, though many of these families could never forget Malaga as their home. The State then purchased the island from Eli Perry to keep people from resettling Malaga after the eviction.

By July of 1912, the island was abandoned, and the remaining structures were razed, except for the newly built school, which was relocated to Louds Island in Muscongus Bay. The bodies buried in its cemetery were exhumed and moved to the cemetery behind the School for the Feeble-Minded. For many years, the history of the island was then forgotten.  One hundred years later, the Maine State Museum won several prestigious awards for its exhibit that brought this story back into the spotlight.  In 2001 the Maine Coast Heritage Trust purchased the island to keep the land as a preserve and to protect its history. Descendants of Malaga residents have come forward and shared the stories they were told of the island. These stories will help keep the lessons of the island alive for future generations.


– Sarah Erkert
Production Dramaturg



Works Cited

“Fragmented Lives.” The Maine State Museum. Web. 16 Sep 2013.

“Malaga Island – Preserves.” Maine Coast Heritage Trust. MCHT, n.d. Web. 16 Sep 2013. <>.

Rosenthal, Rob, and Kate Philibrick. “Malaga Island – A Story Best Left Untold.” The Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, n.d. Web. 13 Sep 2013. <>.


Bloody Love

By Robert Onorato


Big Love is violent. There’s no way around it. You probably know this. You’ve read it, or heard about our production from an actor or production team member, or if nothing else have seen our poster, which makes it clear in no uncertain terms that blood gets spilled. In deference to the wishes of those involved, I’ll refrain from divulging too much about the specific mechanics of the plot which necessitated the creation of so many blood packs by our intrepid Props Master, Katharine Burkhart. Suffice it to say that Big Love is the closest Emerson Stage has yet come to a Tarantino film.

Violence onstage is a significant disturbance to an audience. Unlike in film, the stage magic required to execute an act of violence is complex, more dangerous, and cannot be manipulated through post-production, stunt doubles, or retakes. On film, an act of violence can be executed with stomach-turning realism. This is less often the case with stage violence. A punch or a slap is choreographed, and like any bit of stage business, relies upon a deception of the audience and a consequent understanding on the audience’s part that the violence is staged, and so the windup or recoil or sound effect might be faked. Sometimes this works, and sometimes this can take the audience out of the scene.

Occasionally, of course, an act of violence is accorded the full attention of multiple members of the production team, and some truly stunning stagecraft is employed towards the end of convincing the audience that an act of violence was wrought, irreparably, against the very living, breathing people we’ve been watching onstage for some-odd hours. This is the case with Big Love. Every design department had to collaborate to create the violent affects to go down late in the show. The scene is upsetting. The bodies remain onstage. Blood flies. The stagecraft pays off, in that we as the audience know that the actors aren’t dead…but the evidence before our eyes and the twisted excitement of the past five minutes discomfit us.

The sort of violence Big Love calls for has become more commonplace over the past few decades of Anglo-American playwriting. Sarah Kane’s plays are infamous for their shocking acts of violence, including the cannibalism of a baby in Blasted. Martin McDonagh has a reputation for shock-violence in his plays. His Lieutenant of Inishmore opens with a stage direction indicating that a character holds the corpse of a dead cat and bits of brain plop out onto the floor. Later in the play a scene starts with a tableau of a character pinioned to the floor via a crucifix stabbed in the back of his throat, and more cats meet their grisly ends. Kane and McDonagh, as well as writers such as Mark Ravenhill and Anthony Neilson, are part of an informal movement of British playwriting called “in-yer-face theatre,” wherein disturbing acts of sex and violence demonstrate troubling truths about the characters and, more largely, the society that commits them.

Acts of violence also bring the audience in proximity to disturbing sights and sounds in a ritualized way which allows a safe though nervy encounter with the mechanics and results of violence. I remember seeing Lynn Nottage’s Ruined at the Huntington several years ago. On several occasions actors pointed guns and waggled spears in the direction of the audience. The verisimilitude got me almost as terrified as the characters would have been. In this way, live theatre is different from film.

The presentation of violence onstage is in fact a recent phenomenon in drama history. Traditionally, violent acts in the ancient Greek plays – Oedipus’s blinding, Medea’s murder of her children – occurred offstage. The consequences were portrayed, not the acts themselves. In fact, the English word “obscene” has roots in the Greek word for “offstage.”

Big Love is, of course, a contemporary retelling of an ancient Greek myth, and so splits the difference between the ancient and contemporary laws of stagecraft. When you see our production, think about the benefits and risks, the power and the effect, of acts of realistic stage violence. How, when it comes right down to it, does it make you feel, as a member of the audience?


Big Love plays in the Greene Theater Oct 3-6. Learn more.

EC + CM = <3

Written by Robert Onorato, Assistant Dramaturg

Emerson College loves Charles Mee.

Emerson Stage’s production of Big Love is only the latest bit of Mee-love the students and faculty of Emerson have lavished upon and cult playwright in recent years. Big Love has been taught in the core curriculum of the Performing Arts department’s “Language of the Stage” course for three years now. RareWorks, an on-campus student-run theatre company, produced another of Mee’s more famous plays, bobrauschenbergamerica, last December. And of course, Emerson was so grateful to work with the legendary Anne Bogart and SITI Company on their world premiere of Cafe Variations, which featured a book cobbled together from fragments of Mee’s plays, in the Spring of 2012.

Who is this Charles Mee character, and why does Emerson have such a — pardon me  —  big love affair with him? Simply put, there is no other active American playwright like him. Mee is the author of over 40 plays, all of which are available on his website, He was one of the first artists to upload his work for free on the internet, and this program of free access continues to this day. The website just got a delightful upgrade earlier this year, which included PDF downloads of each play (replacing the equally-as-cool iPhone app).

Mee argues that “there is no such thing as an original play.” Shakespeare adapted his plots; the Greek plays are dramatizations of long-existing myths. Brecht borrowed. Stoppard stole. Letts lifted. The culture we live alongside and perpetuate is permeable, and we utilize its ingredients to further it. Originality is a fantasy. Says Mee, on his method of composition:

The plays on this website were mostly composed in the way that Max Ernst made his Fatagaga pieces toward the end of World War I: texts have often been taken from, or inspired by, other texts. Among the sources for these pieces are the classical plays of Euripides as well as texts from the contemporary world.

I think of these appropriated texts as historical documents—as evidence of who and how we are and what we do. And I think of the characters who speak these texts as characters like the rest of us: people through whom the culture speaks, often without the speakers knowing it.

Big Love, for example, is a riff on the old Aeschylus play, The Suppliant Women, itself inspired by the myth of the Danaids. A note at the end of the play’s text reads: Big Love is also inspired by, or takes texts from, Klaus Theweleit, Leo Buscaglia, Gerald G. Jampolsky, Valerie Solanus, Maureen Stanton, Lisa St Aubin de Teran, Sei Shonagon, Eleanor Clark, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, Kate Simon, and Laurie Williams, among others.

Mee is also the author of True Love and First Love, which complete a loose trilogy; another trilogy, which Mee calls “Imperial Dreams,” Iphigenia 2.0, Trojan Women: After Euripedes, and Orestes 2.0; The Bacchae 2.1; Utopia Parkway, inspired by the life of Joseph Cornell; and his early success, Vienna: Lusthaus, which was a collaboration with choreographer-director Martha Clarke.

Mee was a historian for many years before Vienna: Lusthaus, itself a work rooted in European history, made a name for him among the off-Broadway theatre scene of the 1980s. Many of his works have been produced with Bogart’s SITI Company, and he currently teaches, as he has for some years now, in the graduate theatre program at Columbia, alongside Bogart in the Directing program.

To get a firsthand look at Mee’s strange and beautiful plays, be sure to reserve your tickets now to Emerson Stage’s production of Big Love, directed by Courtney O’Connor, playing in the Greene Theatre Oct 3-6.

THE LOVE OF THE NIGHTINGALE: speechlessness in the literal, figurative, and historical sense

By Jamie Hovis


Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Love of the Nightingale is a modern adaptation of the Greek myth of Philomele as told in Sophocles’ Tereus and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The story follows two sisters, Athenian princesses, Procne and Philomele. Years after Procne is married to Tereus, the king of the faraway country of Thrace, she finds herself missing her sister and sends Tereus to retrieve her from Athens. What follows is a story that is all too familiar. It is a story of femininity versus masculinity, the logical versus the visceral and, most importantly, the oppression of silence versus the freedom of expression.

Timberlake Wertenbaker was raised in Basque, France. She graduated from Saint John’s College in 1966 and shortly thereafter spent a year in Greece as a young woman to teach language. It is there that she began forming her voice as a writer. Growing up in an area where the local language had been completely obliterated, it is understandable that Wertenbaker’s work focuses heavily on language and its political importance. This play then, in particular, can be seen as very personal to Wertenbaker. She has seen firsthand the results of a silenced culture and she has been profoundly moved by this sight. She lists as her top influences Eugene O’Neil, Jean-Paul Satre, Howard Brenton, and Howard Barker.

Wertenbaker has been labeled a radical feminist writer and The Love of the Nightingale does indeed concern itself very much with the oppression of women and the role of women in society. This season’s production pays very careful attention to these themes of masculinity and femininity and uses them to explore the broader context of silence and oppression. Director Sarah Hickler has chosen as the thematic cornerstone of this production how speechlessness and silencing on a smaller scale are affected by and representative of cultural silence on a macro scale. This is a play about what men are capable of doing to women and it is also about what oppressors are capable of doing to their victims. In this production we are very concerned with approaching rape culture and the mistreatment of women not as an isolated problem but as a symptom of a larger culture of violence. In the words of the playwright, “if you silence a people, if a culture loses its language, it loses its tenderness. You lose your countryside, your parent, and because culture is essentially verbal, you lose your history. I have a fear of enforced silence. Silence leads to violence.” Whether the silencing is literal or figurative, whether it extends to individuals or whole nations, the effect, in all cases, is loss.

BIG LOVE: an update of a classic myth with a timeless theme

By Robin Goldberg



The central storyline of Big Love is based on a classic Greek myth, The DanaidsThe writer, Aeschylus, drew his inspiration from Danais, a Greek epic poem written by a “cyclic poet” (one of Homer’s contemporaries). The poem existed mostly in fragments and has been largely lost to time.

The Greek noble Danaus had fifty daughters, referred to as the Danaids. His twin brother, Aegyptus, wanted to marry the girls off to his fifty sons. Danaus didn’t approve of his wild, aggressive nephews, so father and daughters fled to the Greek island of Argos to escape Aegyptus’ marriage proposition. When Aegyptus and his sons followed them to the island, Danaus agreed to the marriages only to spare the Argive people from violence. To get them out of the deal, he convinced his daughters to conceal daggers in their bodices and kill their husbands on their wedding nights. Forty-nine of the Danaids complied. Only Hypermnestra refused. After falling in love with her husband, Lynceus, the two fled. Furious with his daughter for disobeying him, Danaus wanted her tried in court. Aphrodite herself then stepped in to argue for Hypermnestra’s innocence. Lynceus later killed Danaus to avenge his brothers’ murders. He and Hypermnestra stayed on in Argos and began a lineage of great kings heroes, including Perseus and Heracles.

There is no singular consensus concerning the fates of the other Danaids. One version of the story stated that the sisters buried their husbands, and were “purified from their crime by Hermes and Athena, at the command of Zeus.” (Greek Myth Index) Afterwards, Danus had a terribly difficult time finding them suitable husbands, and eventually had to hand them off as prizes to victors of competitions and foot races. According to a version by Euripides, the remaining sisters were killed by Lycenus alongside their father. The more common version states that, upon their deaths, the other Danaids were sent to Hades and sentenced to an eternity of trying to fill a bathtub with sieves. Only when and if they were ever able to fill the tub would they be able to cleanse themselves of their sins.

The iconic Greek playwright Aeschylus (524-455 BC) was inspired by the story of these women. Aeschylus was the author of over 80 plays, only seven of which have survived in their original, full form. Best known for The Oresteia trilogy and Persians, Aeschylus is considered the father of Greek tragedy. Aeschylus crafted a series of four plays documenting the Danaids’ struggle: the Danaid Tetralogy. The first of the plays, The Suppliant Women, served as one of the main sources of inspiration for Big Love. Aeschylus’ play covers the very beginning stages of the Danaids’ story: the discovery of the marriage plot and the escape to Argos. The other three plays suffered the same fate as most of Aeschylus’ other works.

Regardless of historical context, each variation of the Danaids’ legacy highlights the shortcomings of our society. With the contemporary stage adaptation, the roles of many characters have changed significantly. The girls’ father is no longer the driving force of the central action, but rather a nameless, offstage character with more traditional leanings. He refuses to defend his daughters’ wishes, preferring instead that they follow through with their promise. More importantly: the daughters themselves are no longer portrayed as merely passive and obedient, but rather as capable, independent women, ready to defend their basic human rights. These character updates clearly reflect the evolving issues of the time. Despite other cultural advancements, women are still treated like second-class citizens on a global scale. The story of Thyona, Lydia, and Olympia strikes such a chord with audiences because it is still so relatable. Perhaps someday soon the need to treat women as equal partners will finally be fully accepted, and Big Love will be the last update of the story.

Big Love runs October 3-6 in the Greene Theatre. For tickets, click here or visit the Paramount Theater or Cutler Majestic Box Offices.

Auditioning…thousands of miles away


Later today, Emerson Stage will send out audition announcements for two upcoming shows to eligible members of the Emerson community. That’s why, today, we’re going to talk about the most frequently asked question we receive when we send these casting calls out:

I’m studying abroad right now, but I’ll be home before rehearsals start. Is there still a way for me to audition?

And the answer is: Yes! Absolutely. You can do a video audition.  

Video auditions are the wave of the not-so-much-future-anymore: you’re basically doing the audition in your own space, taping it, and sending it to the casting team for consideration. The ubiquity of video cameras these days and a magical thing called the internet make it easier than ever to participate in a New York theater audition while doing regional work thousands of miles away, but actors have been putting themselves on tape since the days when there actually was tape involved.

Generally, going on tape remains something that’s done by invite only, but — especially for high-stakes projects with many submissions — casting directors are turning to audition reels more and more frequently to determine who gets called for a first round of auditions.

More importantly – for the moment, at least – Emerson Stage regularly offers roles to actors who submitted auditions via video rather than in person. So you should totally take advantage of the opportunity to study abroad while you can – because, truth be told, you’re going to have to do a video audition sooner or later, so you might as well learn how to rock one now.

What do I need?

  • Camera
  • Mic
  • Lights
  • Empty room
  • Friend

About your camera:

Phone video cameras are getting better and better these days, and I actually know someone who booked a professional leading role directly from a video audition filmed with one…but if you have another option, use it. Renting a camera for a few hours is a worthwhile investment. Nothing fancy – just an inexpensive handheld with only one technological responsibility: making the best video possible.  If you must use a phone camera, this should go without saying: turn it to airplane mode.

About your mic:

One of the biggest arguments for renting a handheld camera is that any camera, no matter how simple, comes with a few gadgets: a tripod, for one (very important), but probably also a basic external mic.


Making sure your voice can be heard is one of the most important elements of an audition. Blurred, choppy, or garbled audio is unprofessional, unhelpful, and just a general a no-no. (If you must use your camera phone, borrow an external mic from a friend who is into audio production. Ask to borrow a “lavaliere” mic, and they’ll think you’re fancy.)

About your empty room:

Doesn’t have to actually be empty – it just needs to look that way. You’ll want to stand in front of a blank wall – no pictures, no books, no TV.

You’ll also want to make sure your room is quiet – video mics don’t minimize ambient noise the way the human ear does, so while a casting director in the room with you might not notice the hum of your refrigerator, a person watching the video probably will! (This is another argument for a directional mic – it allows you to at least focus the mic towards your voice, rather than an ambient mic, which will pick up everything.) Stick a piece of tape on the floor to use as your mark; use this mark to set your camera position and lighting.

(Note: most articles suggest that you perform your audition seated – you’ll be more stable, which will allow the director to focus on your chosen actions…rather than your inadvertent ones)

About the lights:

If being heard by the director is one of the most important elements of an audition, being seen is the most important. And you want to look good – overhead lighting does no one any favors.

Right about here is where that good friend starts to come in really handy – get some lamps, get some bulbs, hit your mark, and ask them to start experimenting with judicious placement of your collective desk lamps. (See? Keep it simple – a little creativity goes a long way…so there’s no excuse for not trying).

Choose bulbs that cast a soft light. You’ll need to make sure that the lamps are placed in such a way that your face is clearly visible, and there aren’t any weird shadows around you. This article includes a good set-up for fill and main lights.

I know, this is a long list of technicalities. It might seem overwhelming. Take heart – a poorly produced video with a well-prepared actor who makes strong choices will generally win out over a professionally filmed video with an actor who makes weak or inconsistent choices – or is not fully prepared. These tips are just ways to make your performance look that much more polished and professional.

Now for the the part that really matters – the actual audition:

The moment of truth.


When you walk into an audition, you always acknowledge the people at the table, right? You say hello, introduce yourself, and tell them what you’re going to do for them today. The same applies when you’re on video.
Create an establishing, wide-frame shot, and walk into it. Say hello. Introduce yourself. Only THEN do you sit down, tighten the frame to focus on your face, and start your monologue.

This is another place where that good friend comes in really handy – by this point, your focus should be on doing a professional audition, rather than the minutia of producing a professional-looking video. Ask your friend to operate the camera: they just need to press record, zoom appropriately, and stop when indicated. In this context, your friend also serves a useful second purpose – they are the person you act your monologue towards. (Have them stand slightly to one side of the camera, rather than behind.)

If you take nothing else away from this article, please please take this: Do NOT use the camera as the subject of your monologue. Don’t act into the camera. Just…no. Use your person.

And maybe take this, too: Acting for the camera and acting for the stage are two different things. The director knows that, and they’re not expecting to see a reel-perfect audition. What they are expecting to see is strong, clear, confident choices.  And that’s what you’ve been training to do (right?). So, do that. You’ll be fine.


Honestly, there shouldn’t be too much of this – pick the take that shows your best work, attach it to your introduction, and insert a title card at the end that provides your contact information. That’s really about it as far as video-editing goes.

BUT: you do need to compress your file once it’s finished. Compression reduces your video size, allowing the viewer to download it quickly and easily. Trust us — this is important. Wikihow has a step-by-step guide on how to do this with several different video formats. You’ll find that here. Please follow it. YouTube and Vimeo also have suggestions on how to compress for their specific websites.

After that, submit your video as requested in the audition submission guidelines. And really, that’s it. Congratulations! You have another tool in your toolbox for “the biz.”


Other resources:

  • How to Tape Play Auditions: Casting directors from theaters in the San Francisco Bay Area weigh in on good video audition tips.
  • Filming video auditions: These suggestions assume that you’re taping on the quick-and-dirty (it includes suggestions for how to film a video audition with an iPhone). Obviously, we suggest using the above as a starting point, but if you’re in a pinch, this gives you a sense of what items are absolute “must-hits.”
  • How to Video Your Audition for TV or Film: technical tips to look your best on tape.
  • Agents give feedback about best virtual auditions: This document is clearly directed at clients of this particular talent agency, and their policies. However, the agency has good reason for setting these rules as their standard, so take a look and see if they work for you.
  • 8 Tips for Self-Taping: Yeah, that friend being a second pair of hands and eyes is great. But if you have to fly solo, here are the best ways to make it happen.

…And don’t do these: 5 traps to avoid when submitting video auditions


Have you gone “on tape” before? What worked for you? Feel free to share your “pro tips” in the comments!