Invigorating the Theater

Assistant Professor Laura Tesman, Visual and Performing Arts

Professor Tesman's first research efforts began in English and European Renaissance Drama and remained within the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But she became increasingly interested in female playwrights of the era. Elizabeth Cary and Aphra Behn were among the first women to pique her interest, and she did significant research on Cary's closet drama [Photo of play.] The Tragedie of Mariam, which she cut and adapted for a staged reading by students here at the University of Colorado - Colorado Springs (UCCS) in the spring of 2002. The students were so excited by the project that we expanded our rehearsal period from two to four weeks so they could memorize lines and actually stage some of the scenes.

This research led her to seek out the works of other neglected or lost female playwrights throughout history. Slowly her focus shifted to the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. Professor Tesman's dissertation examined the works and lives of four dramatists from different parts of the Western world writing between 1890 and 1920 who attempted to re-constitute gender ideologies by fashioning for the stage their vision of the modern woman. This period continues to constitute the focus of her research activities. In the spring of 2002, she received grants from the campus's Committee on Research and Creative Works and the Center for Women's Studies and the Women's Faculty Committee to develop her original theatre piece Petticoats & Pistols. Based on the journals and letters, personal accounts and poetry of women in the early American West (1850-1920), the production premiered at the campus theatrical venue TheatreWorks, with a primarily student cast, in February of this year.

Women made very real, if often unglamorous, contributions to westward expansion, and played a major role in shaping our national identity, yet their stories remain largely unknown. The mythology of the west is painted in black and white, and it remains resolutely masculine. She wanted to begin to realign this picture. After months of research, particular themes began to emerge. In the play she organized select poetry and adapted letters and diaries around these themes, recreated scenes they described, and pieced them together in a sort of Ã’crazy quilt." She did not create the stories but attempted to give them form, and in the form, meaning.

Professor Tesman also directed the Petticoats... production, which was very successful, playing to sold out houses for most of the run. Of the 20 member cast, 17 were students (or prior students), several of whom had never performed before. The reviews were exceedingly positive. Andrea Lucard at the Colorado Springs Independent writes: "This is a largely student-acted production, but you'd be hard pressed to tell if it weren't announced at the beginning. [...] What Tesman and her crew have done is to be evocative instead of comprehensive, to allow the small parts to represent the whole. With this synecdoche, they have begun to fill the huge hole left by our mythology of the West." And Mark Arnest at the Colorado Springs Gazette comments: "It makes for an unusual but compelling view of the West. There are no brawls in saloons, no chases on horseback, and no vigilante justice. The action is more internal; the characters struggle to come to terms with a harsh and wild land. But the emotions are conveyed with far more intensity than in many traditional Westerns." A director from OpenStage Theatre Company in Fort Collins is interested in doing a production of the piece, which would be the ideal opportunity to do revisions and seek outside funding for further development. With such large cast requirements, it would be difficult to get this piece produced at regional theatres, but once revisions are done, she plans to promote Petticoats & Pistols to colleges and universities nationally, as well as communities in this region.

One of the aspects of theatre that most excites her is that change and transformation are inherent. Each production creates a new set of challenges. In her three short years at UCCS, she has directed full productions of Italian American Reconciliation, The Dispute, Bloody Poetry, and Petticoats & Pistols, her own adaptations of Comedy of Errors and Midsummer Night's Dream for our Youth Summer Shakespeare Camp, and numerous staged readings (both on campus and at Denver's Curious Theatre Company, where she is a member of the Associate Company). She has also performed in productions of The Good Woman of Szechuan, The Cherry Orchard and Streetcar Named Desire. Each of these projects, which span a breadth of theatrical periods and styles, has required significant preparatory and developmental research. Next season she has chosen to direct a play that fuses beautifully her various research interests. Vinegar Tom -- written by Britain's foremost female playwright, Caryl Churchill -- explores the root causes of witchcraft accusations in 17th century England and their present-day corollaries.