By Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
The Hystericals, a new play in progress by current Tennessee Williams Fellow in Residence Edith Freni, recently staged a reading in the Studio Theatre at the Tennessee Williams Center. Directed by Jessica Holt, the reading featured the talents of actors Mary Lynn Owen, Cara Mantella, Diany Rodriguez, Olivia Dawson, and Professor Elyzabeth Wilder.
The play, which ran for little over an hour, centered on the relationships and struggles of five women in a support group for autoimmune diseases. Honest, funny, and biting simultaneously, Freni’s writing came to life in the small theatre in the hands of the all-female cast.
The Hystericals began as a response to a prompt from the New York City-based theatre company Clubbed Thumb, which regularly commissions a biennial project. Every year, they ask applicants to consider a specific playwright, Caryl Churchill this year, when putting together their application. Freni did not receive the commission, but she knew she wanted to continue working on the play she had started writing.
Prior to the staged reading, Freni worked extensively with Holt and the five actors to learn more about her characters and their story arcs.
“We started with about 80 pages of text, fragments of scenes that didn’t go anywhere or have any events,” recalled Freni. “I asked the actors to tell me what was grabbing their attention, what story threads they found intriguing, stuff like that.”
What followed were structured improvisations with the actors and then character interviews. Owen, who played Claire, remembered the process as an opportunity to “cement the characters” for everyone involved.
“In my character interview, I discovered that my character had a crush on a fellow choir member, Charles,” Owen said. “I discovered that my grown daughter was a handful. These were small grace notes, but they helped me to know the character on a deeper level.”
Dawson, who played Regina, agreed and commented on the changes that occurred to the script throughout the workshop process.
“Things that we brought to the table about our characters would open things up for Edith and she would write and explore those things,” she said. “We read through those changes, discussed and tossed ideas around – more writing from Edith – until we got to the reading on Sunday.”
The directors and the actors received a brand new draft on the day of the staged reading, after Freni spent most of the weekend writing and working through issues in the play. The actors received two new drafts in two days.
“They really rolled with it, and I ended up with something that actually resembles a play,” said Freni.
However, Freni believes that there is still work to be done to get the play to where it needs to be.
“I think I have a beginning and an end, which is great,” she told The Purple. “The work now is about writing more of the middle. But I know where that writing needs to be so I’m in a good place.”
“I think the critical project of this play has to do with belief, specifically, our cultural predisposition to not believe women and other marginalized groups or to write them off as being ‘crazy’ or ‘unstable’ when they complain about basically anything,” she continued.
“All of the women in the group are struggling with health issues that are very difficult to diagnose. They have gone through long periods where doctors and family members have questioned their subjective experiences. What happens when we’re not believed or we’re told that what we’re experiencing (or have experienced) is not real? We internalize that lack of belief. We begin to doubt ourselves and our own experiences, we decide to stay quiet, we get small. It can take a long time to work through that internalized suspicion and until we do, we’re doomed to project it onto other people,” Freni said.