We like to pretend that the rise of social media has forever changed America’s relationship to celebrity culture. That somehow Facebook and Twitter have ripped our Hollywood icons from their private lives and subjected them to unprecedented public scrutiny.
I say, come meet my friend Clara Bow.
Long before Lindsay Lohan or the Olsen twins saw their names splashed across tabloids around the country, Clara Bow was the celebrity’s celebrity. And she paid for it.
In 1921, at just 16 years old, Clara Bow won Motion Picture Magazine’s “Fame and Fortune” competition. The contest proved a launching pad for the young starlet, who became a symbol of the roaring 20s both in silent films and later after an uncomfortable transition to the “talkies.”
Our play isn’t a reproduction of Clara’s works, however. Instead, we decided to dig into the darker side of what becoming the “it girl” of Tinseltown meant.
Clara Bow’s rise is a quintessential rags-to-riches story. Born in the tenements of Brooklyn, the “Fame and Fortune” competition offered a meteoric rise out of poverty. But fame meant more than a comfortable life in Hollywood, and this is where we get back to that scrutiny thing I mentioned earlier.
Becoming the “it” girl of Hollywood meant attention from men. It meant fending off fraudsters who would otherwise rob her of her newly-gotten fortune, long before Macauley Culkin or Shirley Temple’s parents made stealing cool. Add on top of that a mother with a serious mental illness, and suddenly you have a recipe for a spectacular public meltdown.
Public interest in Clara was high through the 20’s, and Facebook or Twitter weren’t required for news of her every move to spread like wildfire. The news media was voracious for details of her life, and where they couldn’t get a scoop that would sell newspapers they proved more than willing to build stories on rumor and innuendo.
The result wasn’t pretty, and if anything our play asks the question, ‘is fame really worth it?’
Putting this play forward at Fringe means a lot to me and comes with a solid mix of pride and relief. Pride because the play is damn good, and I don’t mind saying it. But relief because, if you can believe it, LiveArtDC and our wonderful company members spent over 5 years writing this thing and putting it all together. Yes, 5.
I’d say it was worth it. “Becoming ‘it’” is a devised work that came together through broad input and some painstaking research. It isn’t a true biography, but more what I’d call a “magical biography” as we hop back and forth through some of the big moments in her rise to fame. Think of us as your time lord for the evening, but in flapper dresses and suspenders.
There is a guilty side to me that wonders if we’re just the latest voyeur of Clara Bow’s life, but I hope the audience walks away with sympathy for the object of our attention.
And bringing Clara Bow to Fringe is something of an experiment, too. Capital Fringe is a denizen of theater-types who might be familiar with Clara Bow already, but there are plenty of non-artists who come to enjoy the shows as well.
As often as not, when I’ve talked to people about this play while it was coming together, the response I got to the name Clara Bow was, “who?”
It’s an ironic response to a name that gripped the country just 100 years ago, and maybe something of a warning to the Britney Spearses and Miley Cyruses who entertain us today.
Starlight fades, and even after all she sacrificed to achieve celebrity status, I’m continually amazed that a name as big as Clara Bow’s can simply disappear from our collective conscience.
It’s more than a little tragic, and so our job as we spread the word about Clara Bow: Becoming ‘It’ is to convince people that this is a story that needs to be told.
We’re sure that when they see it for themselves, they’ll agree Clara Bow is a name to remember.
Heather Whitpan (Director/Producer) – is the Producing Artistic Director of LiveArtDC and has been working in the DC theater scene for about 14 years. Heather wrote and starred in LiveArtDC’s first play I <3 Hummels which opened to stellar reviews in the 2012 Capital Fringe Festival. Heather and LiveArtDC brought NYC’s Three day Hangover’s hits R+J: Star-Cross’d Death Match and Drunkle Vanya to DC in 2014 and 2015. Heather is also a local costume designer and has designed for the Source Festival, Signature Theatre, Pinky Swear Productions, Brave Spirits Theatre and Federal Theatre Project.