“I always get this sense that there’s always further to go with performance work. Once you do it, you have to just leave it. It’s happened, and you have no way to change it. You can only do it again.”
Dancer, choreographer and actress Stephanie Lane recently talked to MasterDabblers about her process creating her first full-length performance Lighthouse Triptych, based on Virginia Woolf’s 1927 novel To the Lighthouse. Lighthouse Triptych started as a solo piece entitled “The Dinner Scene” in 2009 and was extended with two additional pieces in late 2012 in collaboration with Devon Werden, Kyle Gerry and Mark Van Hare. Stephanie’s work rests at the intersection of literature, dance and theatre.
How did you begin creating “The Dinner Scene”, your original solo?
I loved To the Lighthouse, and I remembered thinking that I would love to do that scene, which is around the dinner table, onstage.
I started in a class for performance. The teacher, Kyle deCamp, was great. She made these very specific requirements for us to have three materials – very different from each other – and to have them weave together somehow. I kind of cheated by making one material the book, as my script, and one material the table, and then the third material a movement which was more or less how I saw the book and the table relating to each other. That class was really important in me developing the first part of Lighthouse Triptych because it set out clear guidelines for making the work. Having specific rules can create so many more inspiring ideas. The more limitations you have, the more freedom you have within those limitations, because the whole world isn’t available to you.
Stephanie Lane performing “The Dinner Scene” in Lighthouse Triptych. Photo credit: Carly Hoogendyk.
How long did you perform “The Dinner Scene” before deciding to expand it to a triptych and inviting other performers?
After it was created, it became a vehicle for me to perform, so I would perform it any way that I could. Every single time, it got richer and richer and richer. This last time [at Dixon Place], I connected with it more honestly than I ever have, and I think that’s absolutely a product of what’s passed in my life in the past two years. Somehow my life experience has allowed me to meet the words in a new way. And to just say them more simply.
So it’s always a work-in-progress, even when you think it’s done.
I always get this sense that there’s always further to go with performance work. Once you do it, you have to just leave it. It’s happened, and you have no way to change it. You can only do it again. And the time that you did it before, you really may not have gotten it. But it’s out there and people saw it.
Why and how did you expand “The Dinner Scene” to a full-length performance?
I wanted to be performing things that showcased what I knew to be my specific personal talents. So I got together with Devon, who’s an old friend of mine and the other actress in the show. We started talking about what we wanted to do, and I think my original idea was: ‘I already have this piece. I love it. I would love to perform it again, so I’d like to build two other parts to make it an hour.’
Devon and I started brainstorming about the things that are occurring in our lives right now and what’s important to us. We made a list of poems that have meant a lot to us. We brought in photos to show each other, things of relevance and deep meaning in our lives. Then we crafted these two different ideas for part two and part three. The more we honed those ideas, the more I realized that they were really prevalent in part two and three of To the Lighthouse, so in an effort to keep things unified, I suggested to Devon that we go back to the book and work within it. I gave her a copy of it, she read it, and she was on board.
Stephanie and Devon practicing in the studio. Photo credit: Carly Hoogendyk.
How was the process of integrating others into your original work?
It was great! I don’t want to work in isolation. We’ve been on stage together before and when she speaks what she knows to be true, I understand it. I think that there are several different forms of truth and different people speak different forms of them, but she and I – we just get each other at the very basic level. So she, I knew, was someone that I could trust.
Thank God Devon and I are really close. Trying to figure out my role was okay to do around her. In my experience, [when] coming into new artistic situations with new collaborators, it’s always good to have clear, defined roles for who’s doing what. Over the course of making this, those roles shifted a bit, and it was good that I was with good friends doing it. By the time Kyle joined I felt very much like a director. He came in and did what I asked him to do, and that was fine.
And somewhere along the way in the creative process, Mark Van Hare came on board in this really incredible way as the sound designer. Having him give his perspective was incredible because he’s very intelligent, he’s really artistic, and he just had such a vision for what he wanted to make. He was so genuinely excited about the work that it lent a lot of legitimacy to my own artistic efforts. I think that having Mark on board made me feel more legitimate as a creative artist because he’s a pro, and he was really happy to collaborate with me. Having really talented collaborators just makes your whole experience really rich.
How was the transition from the book to the medium of dance and theatre?
There’s just so many stages between reading it and the final performance. And when I think back on all of them, a lot of it seems very arbitrary, the way that it ends up. Why did I decide that those words, that everyone saw and heard, would be in the script? It was because one night–coming home from the city at 10:30 on the subway or something–I happened to read this particular page and thought it was really meaningful at that particular moment. But if I had been reading a different couple of pages, it might have been a really different show.
We started with the idea. Then we went to the book, found passages that related to those ideas, and they had to be in some way stageable. And then, getting [the script] to move around.
This is actually one area where Devon was absolutely essential as a collaborator. I think that as a modern dance viewer and as a modern dancer, you learn not to question things too much. Devon was really good at reminding me that she’s an actor. Yes, she’ll do the movement I tell her, but things need to work in a basic storyline way and a very basic emotional truth way. And most of the time when she would bring it up, it was also a movement I was tripping over, but as a modern dance head, I was just like, ‘Whatever, we’ll just leave it. It is what it is.’ She was really good for us getting down to the necessary things.
What does your work add to the story – to that initial inspiration or feeling you had when you read To the Lighthouse?
I wouldn’t venture to say that it adds to it. I think that the book gave me a lot. Every time I’ve read it or gone back to it, I have this sense that Virginia Woolf just knows what’s true. I’m really inspired by that. She articulates things that – when I read them – I’m like ‘Oh, I know that’s true, but I never would have been able to articulate it.’ But I know that I’ve felt it. That’s reason enough for me to work with any material.
The book exists on its own, and I’m taking it and using it for my own art. I love getting to give it visuals. I relish all of the ideas that we started having, all the possibilities of creating images onstage and painting onstage when [Devon’s character] Lily makes the painting. I want to see where we go with that.
Is it your hope that the feeling of trueness comes through?
Absolutely. Yes.YES. Yes.
Stephanie Lane performing “The Dinner Scene”. Photo credit: Carly Hoogendyk.
Has Lightouse Triptych affected your next steps? What’s next for you?
It’s actually very important for me because it was the first time that I made a show, and it gave me a real sense of myself as someone who can create things. It filled the space that I hadn’t been filling, that I realize now I want to keep filling. That place where I’m the person that makes things that don’t exist before. That feels awesome. I want to keep doing that.
I also just really want to work. I don’t want to have to do all these other jobs that I’ve been doing. I want to work as a performer and navigate dance and theatre together. I’m continually trying to become more of an expert in the realm of both dance and theatre and work alongside people who are doing [it] at a really expert level.