Over the past decade, actress Caroline Davis and director Melissa Carrelli have joined forces for some of the most enjoyable theatrical experiences seen in the Nashville theatre community. Their latest collaboration, “The Belle of Amherst”, onstage at The Filming Station (501 8th Ave. South, Nashville, TN 37203) now through October 22, is no exception. Written by William Luce, “The Belle Of Amherst” invites the audiences into the inner sanctum of eremitic poet Emily Dickinson’s beloved homestead. As the oft misunderstood poet, Davis is simply extraordinary, breathing new life into not only the literary legend, but the surprisingly outspoken women behind the myth as seen through a clever story from playwright Luce that weaves its tale using many of Dickinson’s own poems and letters.
As directed by Carrelli in The Filming Station’s intimate 35-seat theatre, these two theatrical geniuses present a tale that not only captures the essence of the poet, but also moves the audience to crave more information about the life of one of histories most enchanting writers. To that end, I knew Davis and Carrelli would be the perfect subjects for the latest entry of my recurring celebrity interview feature, Rapid Fire 20 Q, so I posed ten question each to the actress and her director.
Rapid Fire 20 Q with Caroline Davis and Melissa Carrelli, director and star of “The Belle Of Amherst”
JONATHAN PINKERTON: When I heard you were starring as Emily Dickinson in “The Belle of Amherst” by William Luce as directed by Melissa Carrelli at The Filming Station November 6-22, I was thrilled, as I’ve always been a bit obsessed with her. Over the years you and Carrelli have collaborated on a number of projects. How does “The Belle of Amherst” stack up against previous joint ventures?
CAROLINE DAVIS: Even with the serious shows we’ve done, Melissa and I laugh a lot — often howl — during rehearsal and we’ve found plenty of funny this time. But with only me saying all those words, she’s had to put in hard yards to get discoveries out of me — we’ve known each other so long that it’s productive if still painful at times. The first show we did together was “Lady Frederick”, in 2003 for ACT I, which was a gloriously enjoyable experience, and we are using the same desk in this show — it’s a safe, happy place for me, sitting at that little desk. And we’ve found several similarities to last November’s “Twain and Shaw Do Lunch”: there are moments of looking out windows and talking about genius, and letters. Lots of letters.
JP: Already a theatre dork as a child, I vaguely remember seeing Julie Harris in a televised adaptation of of her 1976 Tony-winning portrayal in “The Belle Of Amherst”. In preparing to chat with you, I found that very telecast on YouTube. What have you done to ready yourself to play Emily Dickinson?
CAROLINE DAVIS: It’s overwhelming how much has been written about her; it’s easy to disappear down a cyber rabbit hole of essays, articles, analysis, photos, and of course her poems and letters. And I totally get why there’s so much stuff: it’s fascinating. But it was becoming dangerous having so much factual knowledge in my head and trying to reconcile it with what was in the script. Cracking the structure and meaning of the poems was the most helpful in opening up her world, and I found a couple of essays and a podcast that ended up providing some guiding themes.
JP: The show is chocked full of famous quotes. Among the ones featured in the show, do you have a couple of favorites?
CAROLINE DAVIS: Her declaration “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant” is an accurate description of her work and good advice…”Success in Circuit lies.”
JP: It’s funny, my favorite Dickinson quote isn’t a line from her poetry, but rather from a letter to Samuel Bowles, later published in a collection of her letters. It reads, “My friends are my ‘estate’. Forgive me the the avarice to hoard them.” I like it because I can relate, and I love the word ‘avarice’. O the flip-side of my previous question, do you have a favorite quote that isn’t featured in the show?
CAROLINE DAVIS: “The Dog is the noblest work of Art, sir.” I believe the relationship with her Newfoundland, Carlo, was hugely important. (Fortunately, “Belle” doesn’t talk about him excessively because I would be a puddle.)
JP: Early on in the play Dickinson, by way of playwright Luce’s creative license, addresses the rumor that she only wore white in later years. Within Luce’s monologue, I love what Dickinson says about her brother’s explanation. If you were to chose a color to wear the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
CAROLINE DAVIS: I could easily wear black the rest of my life, but not sure that would be healthy. Once you get into colors, you have to worry about shades. Emily actually went a practical, comfortable and convenient route (if you wore white, you could bleach the fabric and tell how clean it was, and she didn’t wear a confining style). I’m all for freeing up the mind for more interesting ruminations and decision-making than what to wear.
JP: The Filming Station is one of Nashville’s smaller venues. What’s the advantage of mounting a show like “The Belle of Amherst” in such an intimate setting?
CAROLINE DAVIS: From the second sentence of the play, Emily is talking directly to the audience, so a cozy space like the Filming Station is perfect for offering audience members a different kind of experience. Not everyone may feel comfortable being so close to “the action,” but there’s no audience participation…just no hiding in the dark in a space that small!
JP: Within the context of the play, you, as Emily Dickinson, share stories about friends, neighbors and acquaintances. Is there a particular character you’d like to know more about?
CAROLINE DAVIS: I’d like to know what Ellen Mary Kingman looks like — she is the first in a list of childhood friends she mentions.
JP: The mystique of Dickinson seems to be that she was a bit of a recluse in her later years. The irony, at least in Luce’s presentation of her, is that she may very well have been, as the show’s title infers, quite the social butterfly in her youth. Which version of Emily do you think is more true to who she was?
CAROLINE DAVIS: As the elder daughter of a prominent family, she had many occasions in her youth to go to parties and dances, and she had a lot of friends. As a young woman, she would have been expected to keep house, go visiting or host teas, take care of a husband and children — certainly not write or devote time to expressing herself creatively. At home she wrote poems and letters, was an accomplished gardener, a devoted aunt to her niece and nephews. Living within a small radius she could control her life and continue her writing. Perhaps staying at home was the only way she felt she could lead an unconventional existence — it would have been scary, and shameful to her family, to share such rebellion with the world. She knew what she was giving up, and I think she was wise, and brave, not to conform to expectations. With a party like that going on in her head, what real world could compete?
JP: Right from the beginning, the show features some genuinely humorous moments. My favorite has to be when Dickinson shares her ‘Black Cake’ recipe. Gotta love that more than one hundred years after her death, the internet is full of versions of her recipe. Since we’re nearing the end of our time together, this one’s a two-part question. 1) Have you tried baking her Black Cake yourself? 2) How long into the run of the show do you anticipate growing tired of sampling Black Cake each night on stage?
CAROLINE DAVIS: Stage manager extraordinaire Daryl Pike and I had fun searching for recipes and reading about Emily’s kitchen accomplishments. One baker noted that the black cake batter is so dense, she broke a wooden spoon while stirring it. Daryl made a delicious black cake [and reported how in detail, so i feel as if i baked one!] and even halving the recipe it was a monster. Emily baked hers in a milk pan — talk about heavy lifting! During the show, I only take a nibble, so I’ll enjoy a little sugar jolt each night.
JP: Alright. One last question before I chat with your director. Is there something unexpected you discovered within the words of “The Belle of Amherst” that you hope your audiences take note of about Emily Dickinson?
CAROLINE DAVIS: There is poetry all around us — we can find it anywhere, and we should!
With that, it was time to chat with director Melissa Carrelli
JP: What is it about “The Belle of Amherst” that attracted you to the idea of directing the project?
MELISSA CARRELLI: I love Emily! It is full of surprises.
JP: As I noted when I spoke with Caroline Davis earlier, the two of you have teamed for a number of productions throughout the years. Aside from “The Belle of Amherst”, what has been your favorite collaboration?
MELISSA CARRELLI: “Lady Frederick”. A play written for both of us. It brought us together.
JP: Just last year, you directed Davis, Brian Hill and Michael Roark in “Twain and Shaw Do Lunch”. Can you speak about the challenges of directing an ensemble show versus a one-person show like “The Belle of Amherst”?
MELISSA CARRELLI: I am truly in my comfort zone with Ensemble shows. I love directing quick back and forth dialogue that is full of intention/conflict. I have only directed a couple of one woman shows. These plays challenge me as a director to find the conflict without the other characters present. It is an actor presenting a character in their most vulnerable state. I have to be on my game and create an extremely safe work environment for the actor to blossom.
JP: Speaking of “Twain and Shaw Do Lunch”, like “The Belle of Amherst”, you mounted it at The Filming Station. What’s the advantage of presenting a show like this in such an intimate space?
MELISSA CARRELLI: Setting Twain and Shaw in the black box came with a learning curve. We had some things to learn about fitting people into such a small space and it was a bit crowded; however, once the audience was seated, they were transported into the Shaw’s parlor. The feedback from those who came to see it was very positive.
We are using the actual small theater space for “Belle”. It seats only about 35. Once again, the audience gets to spend time with a famous figure as if they were invited for afternoon tea. It is my favorite kind of theater space…Intimate.
JP: I also mentioned to Caroline that my first memory of this particular play was the TV adaptation back in the mid-70s starring Julie Harris. When did you first become aware of Luce’s beautiful glimpse into the life of the reclusive poet?
MELISSA CARRELLI: Well, I first fell in love with Emily Dickinson in an Oral Interpretation class at WKU. Cynthia Tucker, a local actor/director, was in that class with me. She recited the poem AFTER GREAT PAIN. I fell in love with the poem, and Cynthia’s interpretation was exquisite. After that, a few years later, I found the play. Since then, it’s been on my theater dream list waiting for the perfect opportunity.
JP: The play is set entirely in Dickinson’s Amherst home, but on occasion, the audience is transported to a different place and time by way of her recalling events of her younger life. As director, can you address the challenges of conveying these flashbacks without the benefit of set changes?
MELISSA CARRELLI: The 4th wall closes when she is in the past and it opens when she addresses the audience. This simple mechanism is akin to a special light coming up on her for her past scenes and fading out when she reunites with the audience.
JP: Dickinson quotes fill the show. Is there a Dickinson line in the show that simply thrills you whenever you hear it?
MELISSA CARRELLI: “It’s easier to look behind at a pain than to see it coming.”
JP: Early in the show, Dickinson indicates she simply has a love of words, even taking notes when she says particularly interesting words like ‘phosphorescence’. What’s your favorite word?
MELISSA CARRELLI: I have many, one is the word Plethora. I like the wispy way it rolls off the tongue.
JP: Over the years, how has your friendship with Davis affected your relationship as director and actor?
MELISSA CARRELLI: Comfortable. A short hand style of communication. A safe atmosphere in which to work. I’ve reached a place as a director where I just want to be comfortable and enjoy the craft… I do that with Caroline. I admire her. (she is also a wonderful friend.)
JP: Alright, last question…Even though we’re right smack in the middle of “The Belle of Amherst”‘s run, I’ve got to ask…..What’s next?
MELISSA CARRELLI: Lots of things on the Dream List still to do….we’ll have to see what opportunities present themselves.
With that my chat with these two great ladies of the Nashville theatre scene came to an end. Trust me when I say this, with only two weekends left till “The Belle of Amherst” once again closes her homestead to her curious public, this is one show you don’t want to miss.
“The Belle of Amherst” continues it’s run with 7:30 p.m. performances Friday and Saturday, November 13-14 and Friday and Saturday, November 20-21 with Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, November 15 and Sunday, November, 22. Tickets are $25 (parking included) and are available by calling 615.734.9932 or online. Click Here to purchase tickets. For more information about “The Belle of Amherst”, Click Here. If you’ve enjoyed this latest installment of Rapid Fire 20 Q, be sure and click the ‘subscribe’ tab located near the close of this article to sign up for FREE email alerts whenever new Nashville Entertainment content is published.