We recently had the opportunity to interview two women from Legacy of Light, now onstage at Arena Stage Crystal City: its creator, the award winning Washington playwright Karen Zacarías and Lindsey Kyler, the young actress making her debut here playing Millie and Pauline.
We see that this project began 3 years ago as a commission from Arena Stage. Do you remember what you set out to write back then?
Karen: I always wanted to write it from the perspective of two women struggling with the challenges surrounding child bearing… Émilie du Châtelet and a current day scientist on the brink of something big. I started with Émilie and Voltaire’s story first…since it was rooted in research with creative energy in trying to capture their personalities. Olivia, Peter, and Millie’s story took a lot longer to create.
For many of us in the audience, this was our first awareness of 18th century scientist Émilie du Châtelet. When did you first come across her?
Karen: In 2005, I was writing a children’s play about Einstein, and she was a small footnote in the book I was reading that mentioned her as one of the “forefathers” of E=MC2 and Voltaire’s lover (and true love) for fifteen years. She is finally starting to get the recognition she deserves: there are two large books about her that just came out, and several websites. One of the big motivations for writing LEGACY OF LIGHT was to shine light on Émilie’s brilliant scientific thinking and complex domestic life. Émilie was also one of the first people in history to describe herself as an “optimist”; in contrast to Voltaire, Émilie chose to see the world in a positive light.
You are known as a playwright who works in close collaboration with directors and actors on your final script. Tell us about how that process works for you.
Karen: Molly Smith was a collaborator from the beginning. And she was so encouraging; so adventurous … that the script was allowed to grow. And as the play moved forward, all the actors and designers had inspiration to add to the script. I wrote 17 versions of the script, each time focusing on one component: the past, the science, the present, the doubling. It was a very fun and exhausting process.
Are there specific moments in this final version of Legacy of Light where insights from performers changed the course of the scene or the nature of the character?
Karen: Lewis used to be Millie’s rock and roll boyfriend instead of her brother; but there was more at stake in a brother/sister relationship than a dating one. Without revealing too much, Peter’s character used to suffer a very different fate but the actors and others thought it was devastating to have Olivia waiting for him at the hospital. So I came up with the scene that is there now…which encompasses Émilie’s optimism and love of science and shines a different light on the entire play’s ending.
One of the delights of the play for me was the clarity and excitement you brought to such otherwise difficult scientific theories as dark matter. Your play could very well inspire young women to take up physics. Do you have a background in science? Or did you have a consultant?
Karen: My family is mostly comprised of artists and scientists: My two twin aunts were first in their university class (the UNAM in Mexico) in Mathematics and Physics respectively; my uncle is a visiting biologist at the Pasteur Institute in France; my father is an epidemiologist. My other aunt is a renowned Mexican poet, my uncle a filmmaker, my other aunt a painter. Both science and arts were normal conversations at the dinner table; both were accessible and fun topics (salad dressing can teach a lot about science and the spice of art). I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was six years old, but I always loved my science classes. When I got to college, science became A LOT more intimidating and discouraging (you had to be pre-med to take certain classes) so I stopped. But the first play I ever wrote at the age of 20 was BLUE BUICK IN MY DRIVEWAY (It was at the Source Festival in 1994); it had physics in it. My children’s musical EINSTEIN IS A DUMMY is about a day in the life of 12 year old Albert and his forethoughts to E=MC2…and that led to Émilie.
For LEGACY, I did a lot of scientific research … to try to understand the concepts myself and find metaphors to make the science tangible. Then I discovered that the scientist that had proposed the existence of dark matter, Dr. Vera Rubin, lived here in DC. I worked with her and various other scientists, Jaylee Mead (most people know her as a very generous donor, but she is also a world renowned astronomer!), John Layman, John Stith, and Jack Hehn to make sure it was right. Scientists are very precise in their wording…so the tension with poetic license and precision was very interesting. In the past, I had always used universe, galaxy, cosmos somewhat poetically and interchangeably … but that it s BIG NO-NO in the astronomy world, since they are very distinct and different entities. Also at one point I had written “A ball that falls in the mud at 3 times the speed makes a whole that is 9 times as big.” That, according to my scientist was very wrong; the correct term is “9 times as deep.” Changing one word in the monologue made a world of difference in making the language both accessible and correct.
One of the aspects of this production which truly suspends belief are those fast costume changes. Are there a legion of dressers back there? Did anyone say at some point: “We need more dialogue — we can’t change that fast!”?
Karen: The costumes are gorgeous. Designer Linda Cho and Costume Shop Director Joe Salasovich and his amazing costume department at Arena were meticulous in every detail. All the clothing has aspects that reflect light. All the doubled characters were the same hue of color in the past and present. The pieces were all constructed from scratch. The undergarments are all period. Every button and fold was researched to make sure they corresponded to the very year; one collar was dismissed because it was fashionable in 1765 and thus, out of time for our play. And yet, they were built for incredibly fast changes…and some of the scenes are placed where they are to allow for the changes to happen. But it’s true, the speed and completeness of the changes defies physics!
Legacy of Light shows us three women dealing with motherhood and professional careers. You and your husband Rett have three children. Do you see signs of artistic or scientific inclinations from them?
Karen: I think ALL kids are both artists and scientists. A baby is playing with physics and gravity when she repeatedly throws grapes off her high chair; the other day my four-year-old daughter asked me if imagination is “dreaming with your eyes open.” My son loves banging a drum to a beat and drawing; my other daughter spent a lot of time testing cause and effect by flushing the toilet until it flooded. In fact, I think ALL adults are latent artists and scientists, but we’ve just buried it too deep down … for fear of falling, I guess. I wrote LEGACY OF LIGHT in a playful manner for a reason.
If any of your children told you she wanted to dedicate her life to being a playwright or performer, what would you say?
Karen: Oh, I would encourage them to follow their passion and urge them to keep other interests alive (Teaching? Scuba Diving? Law? Science? anything?) and buy tickets to every show they were involved in. And then I would pray that I have brought them up to be happy, kind, and resilient individuals…because the rejection and criticism in the business can be quite painful…and the joy and team building quite exuberant.
Lindsey Kyler, a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon, makes her debut here playing Millie/Pauline.What can you tell us about her performance and interpretation of your characters?
Karen: Lindsey Kyler is an amazingly amazing actor. We must have auditioned over 40 young women for the role. We needed someone who was classically trained and could handle the contemporary quirkiness of the script. We needed someone who was very bright, with a natural “joie de vivre” yet a solidness that would inspire a rational and brilliant couple to fall in love with the idea of Millie being the biological mother of their child.
Lindsey’s performance as Millie and Pauline is luminous, light, heartbreaking, grounded, and so present. She is fearless in her openness and her willingness to try new things (new lines, new direction…she was game to try everything). Lindsey plays every beat with a freshness and full commitment. We feel everything her character is feeling: the passion, the hope, the ambivalence and the despair. She is a generous actor and brings the audience along for every bump of her wild emotional journey.
She and our five other outstanding actors (Lise, Stephen, Carla, Michael, David) have become such a loving and tight ensemble…and all their performances just continue to grow and glow. I think this is a start a brilliant, long, luminous career for Lindsey. We are lucky to have her!
This is our first chance to see your work. Tell us a little about yourself.
Lindsey: I was actually born in Alexandria, Virginia and moved to South Carolina with my family when I was nine years old. Interestingly enough, the first professional theatrical production I ever saw was at Arena Stage. I graduated from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama in May of 2008 and I have since taken up residence in New York City.
How do you connect to the characters of Millie and Pauline?
Lindsey: These two characters are very similar in that they are strong, smart, young women fighting unapologetically to pursue their dreams. They are highly motivated, and incredibly impassioned with a desire to excel in areas of interest that are thought of by others to be, perhaps, a little unconventional. I was instantly drawn to these two characters when I first read Karen’s play; they are filled with a wild spirit, and yet their young innocence enables them to be completely endearing to a modern audience. Karen has filled them with humanity, and we can all connect to the characteristics and desires of the human condition.
What is your favorite moment in the play?
Lindsey: It’s difficult to choose a favorite moment on-stage. I am lucky enough to be surrounded by a cast of remarkably talented actors, whose engagement and personal commitment to the play continually inspire me to be a better actor; to give more of myself to the role(s) and connect in an honest way with each and every one of them. They make every moment of the play buoyant with life and enjoyable. That said, there isn’t a performance that goes by where the white dress worn by Emilie du Chatelet in the second act fails to take my breath away. Lise in that dress is simply stunning!
Lindsey: I have loved every single second of it! Everyone I’ve had the opportunity to work with is remarkable not only in their profession, but in their personal character. I have been very lucky to be a part of this production and will be sad to see the show close in June.
What’s next for you?
Lindsey: My plans so far are to return to New York and get back on the audition trail! I have been having so much fun while here in Washington D.C. and would jump at the opportunity to work down here again. However, it will be back to New York City in June and it’s all a mystery after that!
Legacy of Light plays through June 14th at Arena Stage, Crystal City. More details here.