As an actor, Caroline Stefanie Clay seeks out opportunities to tackle challenging roles in complex plays and she found a big one playing Corryn Fell.
In Gidion’s Knot, now onstage at NextStopTheatre, Corryn Fell insists on keeping an appointment with her son’s teacher for a conference. This fact surprises the teacher since young Gidion has died. As Johnna Adams’ drama unfolds in real time, the layers of conflict peel away as a mother confronts the teacher with harsh reality and strong opinion.
“It just so happens, I received some of the best reviews of my career from the show at Forum.”
To wit, in the review on DC Theatre Scene, Tim Treanor offered, “Clay’s Corryn is a woman who is absolutely sure of herself, until she is not; she is full of fire-hose fury, kept in restraint until she reaches the point of attack. It is a memorably incendiary performance, full of sudden stops and mood swings.”
Clay said she has unfinished business with Corryn and her journey. “I am still doing this play because I am still not sure about it and I am still wrestling with the character.”
“Corryn has fierce intelligence, has no “b.s.” and is not particularly likable,” said Clay describing her role. “The more and more I play her, I find I am slowly falling in love with her.”
The good news for Clay is she did not have to leave Corryn behind when the Forum Theatre production of Gidion’s Knot ended in early August. A co-production arrangement with NextStop Theatre brings the play from Silver Spring to the Industrial Strength Theatre in Herndon , VA where it will run until September 14.
Clay is relishing the chance to live with Gidion’s Knot a little longer, just as she enjoyed getting back to basics when rehearsals began. “We focused on allowing the work to reveal itself,” Clay recalled.
“For 90 minutes, my character is direct with what she wants, in real time, as she reveals her own demons. That being said, I also have to believe that there will be an equitable outcome.”
Early on, Clay said the director offered a simple piece of advice. “I took this play and this part very seriously. One day, Cristina said, ‘As far as the audience knows, this play is lights up and this could be a comedy.’ That was a critical piece of direction.”
Establishing a strong working relationship with the other actor in Gidion’s Knot was also a key factor, Clay continued. Katy Carkuff, who plays the teacher, Ms. Clark, “is an extraordinary and instinctive young actress. She is into her craft and the table work.”
“This play is like doing a high wire act every night and Katy and I are on it.”
Clay revealed the dialogue leans heavily towards her character and as they rehearsed she worried if she could get all of the lines down. “One day in the dressing room, Katy made a pact with me. She said, ‘Don’t worry about it, Caroline. Say something. Whatever you say, I will answer you.’ With that, that trust, we are able to truly play the show moment to moment.”
Playing a mother struggling with their son’s troubled time in school is not a new experience for Clay. During her years in New York, she was a cast member for John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. Starting Off-Broadway and continuing when the show moved to Broadway, Clay understudied the role of Mrs. Muller. She eventually played the role on the main stem and on the national tour.
The parallels between the characters in Doubt and Gidion’s Knot are palpable, according to Clay. “Mrs. Muller and Corryn are both grieving mothers, in their own way, and both their sons have suffered some violation. They both did the best she knew how to do.”
The son in Doubt is allegedly molested by a priest. The son in Gidion’s Knot commits suicide after being suspended from school. In both cases, “these are mothers of young male children who are grasping at straws trying to make sense of it all.”
Race plays a factor in both Doubt and Gidion’s Knot, albeit inadvertently. In Shanley’s play, Mrs. Muller’s son Donald is the only black student in a Bronx catholic school in 1964. Corryn and Gidion, on the other hand were not written with a prescribed racial background.
“Even though the play is not written that way, I am a woman of color, cast in this role,” Clay explained. “Because I am a black woman, the conflict and dialogue in the play are informed by these cultural assumptions. It deepens the discourse, I feel, and these are all conversations I like to have as an artist.”
Being a theatre artist and needing to branch out is what brought Clay back to the Washington area. “I spent those 20 years in New York, working on my acting career, but I felt there was something missing and I wanted more. When I grew up as a native here in Washington, DC, I had a lot of great mentorship and teachers, since the time I was 13, 14 years old.”
“I decided to come back and begin my MFA in performance at the University of Maryland.”
Co-produced by Forum Theatre and NextStop Theatre
Closes Sept 14
Industrial Strength Theatre
269 Sunset Business Park
Herndon, VA 20170
1 hour, 10 minutes, no intermission
Fridays thru Sundays
Out of her MFA program, Clay has created a one-woman show based on 1960s agitator and activist Flo Kennedy, Let It Flo!: Radicalism’s Rudest Mouth, as well as other pieces. After finishing at U of M, Clay reentered the DC area as an actress in the Forum Theatre production of Clementine in the Lower 9.
“It is such a gift to come back to this vital and vibrant theatre scene.”
But Clay is not satisfied to be just a performer. “I am first and foremost a teacher. And I have always been interested in voice and dialect and my love for them blossomed at the University of Maryland.” Clay has begun dialect coaching and serving as a visiting professor at the university.
For now, however she is focusing on her continuing work in Gidion’s Knot, thanks to the partnership between Forum and NextStop. “I applaud the brazenness and audacity of Michael Dove at Forum and Evan Hoffman at NextStop for joining together and creating intersections for artists and the audiences.”
That partnership between two theaters allows something else to thrive: the thought-provoking and intense drama, Gidion’s Knot. “Continuing all that we established at Forum now at NextStop, this piece comes as a true gift.”
Gidion’s Knot by Johnna Adams, directed by Cristina Alicea . Featuring Katy Carkuff and Caroline Steganie Clay . Scenic design by Scott Hengen . Lighting design by Paul Frydrychowski and Annmarie Castringo . Costume design by Brittany Graham . Sound design by Michael Dove . Properties design by Deb Crerie. Stage management: Keta Newborn, assisted by Brittany Truske . Technical director: Jon Harvey . Produced by Forum Theatre and NextStop Theatre .