Polarity Artistic Director Richard Engling joins the 2013 Dionysos Cup playwrights with a bonus reading of his play, Anna in the Afterlife, companion play to his novel,
Visions of Anna. Anna enters the festival not as part of the competition, but as a work Polarity has had in development for a number of years, going through a series of revisions aided by Engling’s long-time collaborator and Polarity co-founder Ann Keen and appearing in the 2011 Dionysos Cup under the title of Absolution.
“Anna has gone through enormous changes in the process of development,” Engling reports. “Absolution had a heavy streak of meta-fiction running through it. Now that the play is set entirely in the afterlife, it’s actually more ‘realistic’ than before. It’s been getting the full Polarity treatment. Ann Keen, Susan Padveen, Darren Callahan, Sarah Grant, Richard Shavzin, Beth Wolf, Maggie Speer, all have spent considerable time working on various stages of this script with me, reading and critiquing or directing staged readings, doing an amazing amount of service. Plus there are about 20 actors, many audience members and others who have played roles, weighed in and helped out. I’m very grateful for all the assistance.”
“The journey has been fascinating for me, exploring and imagining the world of the afterlife–and especially imagining what would continue to motivate the souls there in the spirit world. Every time I sit down to another round of revisions, it’s a process of exploration and invention. I have some ideas about what I want to achieve, but how I’m going to do it, what characters are going to say or do–I often have no idea until it hits the page. Like Dipoko says, I’m listening to the voices. And they often surprise me.”
Behind the scenes Polarity has been soliciting development help with two novels, as well, in preparation for launching The Afterlife Trilogy: A Live/Lit Collection next season. This interconnected 3-part project is an ambitious and exciting one, especially for a not-for-profit theater. The works span 40 years of creation and offer a unique, multi-sensory experience when taken as a whole.
She Plays in Darkness is the earliest of the works, written by Fern Chertkow in the 1980’s, a few years before her death by suicide in 1988.
The character of Anna in Engling’s Visions of Anna, conceived in the 1990’s, and his just-completed Anna in the Afterlife were inspired by Fern Chertkow.She Plays in Darkness becomes more revealing when read in the context of the other works. Chertkow used much of herself in characters of the twins, Rosemary and Cynthia, slowly revealing a self-destructiveness that echoes the mystery of her suicide explored in The American Book of the Dead and Anna in the Afterlife.
“This project has a lot of history in it,” Engling admits. “Fern Chertkow and I became close friends in graduate school studying fiction writing. We’d each come from other disciplines: music for Fern and theatre for me. We spent a year in Europe after graduate school and experienced a particularly magical time living as novelists in Paris.
“After her death, I was moved to write a novel that became
Visions of Anna in the 1990’s. Because we were both fiction writers, I felt only a work of fiction would be a proper tribute to my old friend, so the character Anna does not equal the real person Fern. Many scenes and characters in both the novel and the play are totally invented. In fact, the first version of Absolution, the play, was driven by the character Anna complaining that
Visions of Anna was not an honest depiction. All that meta-fiction was cut away as the play evolved into Anna in the Afterlife.”
Polarity has described Engling’s play in this way:
Novelist Matthew Harken finds himself in a world where he’s not quite alive and not quite dead. His dear friends who have died before him take Matthew back into the past to find the truth about their lives and his. Anna in the Afterlife is a play about choices, life, death and life after death.
Visions of Anna is the story of a man who, with the aid of a shaman and a beautiful artist he had loved and lost, cures his terminal cancer and puts to rest the ghost of a friend who committed suicide. While it shares some characters and scenes with the play, Anna in the Afterlife, it is a quite different story.
Fern Chertkow’s She Plays in Darkness is a novel about a pair of identical twins who decide to live separately for the first time. Without each other’s presence and support, they veer into disastrous relationships and self-destructive behavior. The twins could almost be seen as yet another, earlier, version of Anna.
Richard Engling’s novel, Visions of Anna can be purchased at