Home Historical art The play “Affecting Expressions” explores letting go and discovering identity

The play “Affecting Expressions” explores letting go and discovering identity


How do we find a balance between our relationship to art, to others and to ourselves? “Affecting Expressions” explores this question by presenting the history of queer experience for a modern audience.

The cast includes Magdalena Poost ’23 as Charlotte Cushman, Juliette Carbonnier ’24 as Hatty Hosmer, Sam Melton ’23 as Dramatis Personae and Rosemary Paulson ’23 as Matilda Hays for her dissertation thesis. ‘actor. The play, written by Eliana Cohen-Orth ’21 and directed by Eliyana Abraham ’23 for her directing thesis, was presented at the Wallace Theater from October 7-9. Inspired by a biography of Charlotte Cushman, “When Romeo was a Woman” by Lisa Merrill, the play frames ambition, love and loss through the lens of queer experience.

As soon as the lights went out, everything was quiet for a while, until Melton jumped out of a large chest placed in front of the front row, sending ripples of excited anticipation through the crowd. Thus began the journey into the history and world of Cushman, Hays and Hosmer, three queer women whose lives and artistic paths intersected while living together in Rome.

Throughout the play, the combination of historical facts and creative elements developed a theme of finding yourself in the art without letting it consume you. Where is the distinction? Where do the lines start to fade? The depiction of three art forms – Cushman’s acting, Hays’ writing and Hosmer’s sculpture – provides insight into the characters’ self-discovery as they search for meaning in their work.

Cushman’s acting career highlights the consequences of not maintaining a balance between his craft and his life. Through the inclusion of Dramatis Personae – the embodiment of Cushman’s relationship with acting – audiences were able to peer into her mind to understand her struggles with giving up her acting career for a life of simplicity.

Hays and Hosmer, meanwhile, face their own problems. Hays faces the challenge of loving someone else, while trying to love herself by investing time in her aspirations. Hosmer, who has been portrayed as confident from the start, wonders what to do when others rush to accredit her work with men.

At first, we are introduced to Cushman as a successful actress, Hays as her companion, and Hosmer as her student. Yet, as these characters come into their own, we see a new layer of their identity. When Cushman is absent from a scene, Hosmer asks Hays about Hays’ novel to learn more about how it reflects his identity. Hays claims the version of her who wrote the story was “filled with passion” and no longer represents her true self. However, during the fallout between Cushman and Hays at the end of the play, which results in an emotional outburst from Hays that seems almost unusual, the audience wonders if this is true. Scenes like this contribute to the underlying question the play poses – whether we really leave our past behind or, rather, whether our past shapes our identity even in the present.

Everything about the show, from the costumes to the set to Melton’s piano playing, immerses the audience in the emotions of the characters. More than the entanglement of the lives of the three characters on stage, through the fog that filled the air above our seats and the newspapers that fell from the ceiling, we were also intertwined in the story.

After the show ended, College Dean Jill Dolan and drama teacher Stacy Wolf hosted a discussion with Poost, Carbonnier, Melton, Paulson, Cohen-Orth, Abraham, and Merrill, the author of Cushman’s biography. As discussed in the conversation, an overarching theme of the show was community – not just the community created between the three women, but also the portrayal of the queer community as a whole. In relation to this conversation, Merill noted that despite the praise Cushman received during his career, homophobia led to his erasure from history.

Beyond the thematic elements of the play, the cast and crew also discussed the importance of having a rehearsal space where they could bring “their whole being.” Being gentle with yourself and others was an integral value of the production: the actors explained that it made the rehearsal process more rewarding and helped them to fit in with their characters. At the end of the discussion, Poost reflected on the lessons she learned in the process saying, “beyond even acting, but yeah, [also] in the theatre, there is always more room to be gentle with people.

The initial excitement I felt from that very first scene when I was drawn to Dramatis Personae continued throughout the play. Through the meta-theatrical elements and the emotional reach of the characters, I became invested in the stories of three women that, two hours before, I knew nothing about. Through Cohen-Orth’s writing, Abraham’s directing, and the performances of all four actors, stories that were previously written out of history came to life.

Regina Roberts is a writer for The Prospect and the Podcast section of the Prince. She can be reached at [email protected]or on Instagram @regina_r17.

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