Emily K. Harrison and The Revolutionists

Anna Cook   
Junior Editor
Photo by Buck Butler

Emily K. Harrison is a visiting professor of theater, based in Boulder, Colorado, who recently directed Sewanee’s production of The Revolutionists by Lauren Gunderson. Given that she chose the contemporary play herself, and, as a trained actor, has a unique directorial approach, I discussed with her both the importance of the work along with her philosophy of directing student actors. 

The Revolutionists is a comedic work of historical fiction. Set during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, the entire cast of The Revolutionists consists of four women: former queen Marie Antoinette, assassin Charlotte Corday, playwright Olympe de Gouges, and Haitian rebel Marianne Angelle. The play documents the fictional intersection and bond struck between the four, and the ways they cope-with and push back against political extremism of the time. The Dramatists Play Service summarazies: “This grand and dream-tweaked comedy is about violence and legacy, art and activism, feminism and terrorism, compatriots and chosen sisters, and how we actually go about changing the world.” Broadly, Harrison says,“It’s about the role that artists play, at all times, but especially during times of upheaval, and the way that art can document history in a way that’s just as, if not more compelling than the way historians document history.”

When asked about the reasoning behind her selection, she said “I chose [this play] because it provides great opportunities for women onstage.” A small cast of such dynamic and bold female personalities can showcase young female acting talent in a potent way. 

Harrison is the founder and producing artistic director of the Square Product Theater in Boulder, and has acted in many productions, both in original ensemble works from her company and other acclaimed plays. Partly due to this, her work as a director “is much less hierarchical than the traditional production style in the U.S.” Harrison says she’s not a director who tells actors the way their character should be, the two let the portrayal come to life organically. She expressed how little acting should be about manufacturing false emotions or identities. “It’s about tapping into potentially unexplored parts of yourself,” she says. This can be especially difficult for young people, she explained, because they simply haven’t been on this earth for very long, and there is a smaller pool of experience to draw from. However, this only furthers Harrison’s point that the core emotion behind the performance is the most central to unveiling characters effectively, not putting on a mask of insincerity. 

Because of this personal interlacing between the character and the self that Harrison encourages, the same script can translate to a drastically different viewing experience depending on the distinct identities of the actors involved. Harrison explains that for a story to be memorable, it cannot be tied down by strict stage direction and adherence replication, it must be malleable and form to the shape of the people bringing it to light. While the four college students cast as rebellious historical figures may be vastly estranged from their life experiences, the irreverence, hilarity, and tragedy of being a woman subjected to a bitter existence is timeless.