By MARK BLANKENSHIP
You can't expect to know everything about a play, even if you're the writer and star. Just ask Dulcy Rogers, whose solo show I Am A Tree begins performances this Friday at the Theatre at St. Clement's. After two years and multiple productions, the work is still startling her.
"I wrote it, so you'd think I'd know it," she says. "But there are so many things about it I didn't realize."
For instance, when Rogers started writing I Am a Tree, she thought it would be performed by multiple actors. The play follows Claire, a thirtysomething who's trying to learn about her mother's history by tracking down three aunts she's never met. It makes sense that each aunt would be played a different performer.
But when Rogers had her first workshop reading of the play, the cast had to cancel for various reasons. ("Actors can't get it together in L.A.," she jokes.) That left Rogers playing every part, and the audience liked the solo approach, so… surprise… I Am a Tree became a different show.
It officially premiered in Los Angeles in 2010, and refining the script clarified Rogers' choices as a writer. It matters, for instance, that Claire talks to the audience, describing what rooms and characters look like and explaining her own private fears.
"I know I have a penchant for supporting characters," Rogers says. "I love wild characters. I love to fill them out, and I knew that if I didn't give Claire her voice at the beginning, that she'd probably get drowned out by everybody else along the way. So [the direct address monologues] were both for me, as an acting crutch, and also for the piece, because you need to know a little bit about who she is and where she's going before she launches into these women."
But even though she understands her playwriting choices, Rogers is still making discoveries as an actor. For the New York production, she's been learning more about Claire's aunts, including a gruff, hesitant woman named Lou. "She's so factual and cold and matter-of-fact, but then I started to figure out that she's clinging to that," Rogers says. "It's not just 'the way she is.' There's an undercurrent of stuff in her that, in going over it this time, made me realize, 'Oh my God. She's far more broken than I ever thought.' I've thought of each of these women as guides and beacons, but what I've realized in this go-round is that each of these women has things they've buried."
Rogers, who has written other plays and acted for companies like the Berkshire Theatre Festival and Seattle Rep, says these ongoing discoveries wouldn't be possible without her director, Allan Miller. He keeps pushing her to think more deeply about her acting choices and how they relate to her script. "He uses my own text against me!" she says.
Her relationship with Miller underlines why plays can surprise the people who create them. Eventually, someone else---an audience member, a collaborator---comes in the room, bringing their own responses to what's on stage. If an artist is receptive, those responses can inspire a new way of seeing what they've been working on. They can make a familiar play seem new again.
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor