Winner Takes All: An Actress Rides Shotgun on the Rough-and-Tumble Development of David Edgar's Epic Continental Divide
Holt, Lorri, American Theatre
THE FIRST TIME I MET DAVID EDGAR WAS IN 1980. I WAS A YOUNG actress; he was a young playwright from Birmingham, England; and the Eureka Theatre Company, where I worked in San Francisco, was about to present the U.S. premiere of his play Mary Barnes. I remember sitting cross-legged on the floor of my castmate Jean Afterman's basement apartment in Pacific Heights, listening to David talk about the genesis of the play. We were wreathed in cigarette smoke (Jean said it took days to get rid of the smell). We were rapt with attention. We had the feeling we were involved in something important.
We at the Eureka (which in those heady days was a progressive, semi-collective theatre group) were committed to plays of social conscience, theatre that challenged the status quo, and Mary Barnes is a raw, rambling, moving play about a radical approach to the experience of mental illness. I was excited by the challenge (and cathartic exercise) of playing the part of a young upper-class British woman whose mental illness ruptures her family's veneer of respectability. It didn't end well for my character.
Directed by Richard E.T. White (a grad student at U.C. Berkeley when I was an undergrad there) with great compassion and insight, Mary Barnes featured a large, talented cast, headed by Linda Hoy in the title role, in a fearless and warmhearted performance. The real-life Mary Barnes came from England for the opening; the audience and critics raved, and the production became a huge success for the Eureka. If this sounds like a love letter, it is: This production was a highlight of my early acting career. I remember thinking: If this is what live theatre is capable of accomplishing, give me a lifetime of it.
JUNE 2002, BERKELEY
Flash forward 22 years: Middle-aged now, I sit in a smoke-free rehearsal room at Berkeley Repertory Theatre around a rectangular configuration of tables large enough to accommodate 20-plus people: actors, dramaturgs, playwright David Edgar and director Tony Taccone (whom I've also known since our college days at Cal and with whom I've worked, in the intervening years, on numerous theatre projects that also classify, in my book, as important). We're here for the first workshop/read-through of David's new theatre piece, Continental Divide, a two-play cycle about a fictitious gubernatorial election in an unnamed Western state. One play, Mothers Against, is about the Republicans; the other, Daughters of the Revolution, is about the Democrats. This is to be a co-production between the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Rep.
There to give playwright and director a rough idea of how the scripts might play, all of us actors are reading multiple roles. We dive in. My sweetheart, actor Bill Geisslinger, is reading the part of the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Sheldon Vine, among others. I'm reading five different roles, including Sheldon's wife, Connie. But the role I'm most drawn to is one that Tony has talked to me about at various points over the past few years: that of a campaign speechwriter. But campaign strategies have changed, even in the last few years, and speechwriters are now supervised by creatures called political consultants, who morph into campaign managers when the time is right.
Roles in political campaigns are elastic, and in politics (just as in acting) it pays to be versatile. On-the-job training in action.
A two-day workshop reading turns out to be woefully inadequate, time-wise, for working through the mountainous early drafts of David's opus. Although we make a valiant effort, we never make it to the second act of Daughters of the Revolution. We have no idea how it will end.
JANUARY 2003, ASHLAND, ORE.
Tony and I are meeting in a cafe for breakfast just off the plaza in downtown Ashland to discuss C.D. It's cold and foggy outside, steamy and warm inside the restaurant. A few weeks after the Berkeley workshop reading, I got a call from Amy Potozkin, casting director at BRT, telling me that Tony wanted to offer me the role of Blair Lowe (the Democratic campaign consultant in Daughters) for the Berkeley Rep production. …