Just 100 Years

When I read Kate Chopin, I always think to myself that the only thing separating us is time – just 100 years. The experience, the challenge of being female is the same. Connecting to a woman of the past is a powerful and inspiring thing, a reminder that I’m not alone, a reminder that as women, we’re part of a vast kinship of shared challenges, experiences, successes and failures. So, when I heard that Michele LaRue was using one of Chopin’s short stories in her Tales Well Told stage performance, I knew I had to talk to her.

Tell me a little about your background. Where did you study acting?

University of Kansas (Lawrence). My high school boasted a very strong theatre department, thanks to my first mentor: Richard C. Johnson. In my junior year, “Mr. J.” suggested KU, which circuitously led me to summer stock in Eagles Mere, Pennsylvania, where I met my late husband, Warren Kliewer … who introduced me to earlier American theatre and short stories.

I see several performances representing women of the nineteenth century on your website. What attracts you to these stories?

Oh. Dear. Do I know? With any of the older writers, we find their concerns to be no different than ours are today. Technologies and fashions change, but basic needs and emotions persist. I love the fact that with the most minimal tweaking or explanation of these authors’ works, I can conjure onstage the lives of a century ago and feel my present-day audience viscerally connect with them.

Though I devoured historical biographies as a child, two projects post-college truly “turned me on” to history: My first one-woman production (a near-verbatim dramatization of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic “The Yellow Wallpaper,”); and exploring my mom’s genealogy. For “Wallpaper” I read a great deal about everyday life, women’s issues, and medicine of the last quarter of the 19th century. I’ve never considered myself a feminist, but reading women’s history certainly has impressed upon me where we came from, how far we’ve traveled, and how many nameless, forgotten women brought us here.

I thoroughly enjoy the male writers I’ve “worked” with: O. Henry, Bret Harte, H. C. Bunner—and no woman’s story in my repertoire is more profound or “womanly” than Twain’s “Eve’s Diary” (as adapted by Gayle Stahlhuth). BUT, yes, I do connect more directly with the women. And I think for two reasons: First—women’s concerns and viewpoints often differ from men’s, so empathy comes naturally when women’s issues are involved (as with Edna Ferber’s “Representing T.A. Buck,” in which an unusually successful traveling business woman of 1913 (a “lady drummer”) longs passionately to clean house and roll out noodles. Second—I cherish “my” authors’ attention to the simple details of everyday life. Especially with the New England writers (Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Alice Brown), tiny, homely details are observed matter-of-factly, yet events that would seem inconsequential to an outsider radically change lives. When those changes are for the better, they are accepted with a humble gratitude that is more compelling for its lack of demonstrativeness.

Michele LaRue, Photo courtesy of Arthur Cohen

Can you give a brief overview of Tales Well Told?

Tales Well Told is a repertoire of stories from America’s Long Nineteenth Century (the period from the Civil War to WWI).  I offer about two dozen now, but I continually add to the roster so that my sponsors can choose programs that suit the time of year, a particular holiday, or a theme of their choice. Many of the Tales are about senior citizens, covering everything from self-worth to romance. A program of Tales runs from 25 minutes to an hour—again, depending on the sponsor’s needs.

The genesis of “my” Tales is the fundraisers that Warren Kliewer held for The East Lynne Company, which he founded in 1980 to revive the undeservedly underrated plays (and literature) of the late 18 and early 1900s. For  the ELC, we read old stories in the parlors and on the porches of Victorian Cape May. (The company continues to put stories on those porches every summer.)  Warren used to say that the stories of this period were written for the ear, not the eye; they were meant to be read aloud. In those days, not only children gathered around a grownup with a book. Adults of all ages—by candlelight, gaslight, and later electricity—sat back (the women often with sewing in hand), as a familiar voice and their own imaginations spirited them away to another time and place.

What is the audience reaction to hearing stories written 100 years ago?

Well, enthralled. Though the words are the writers’ and the voices are mine, the images are conjured up in the audiences’ heads. They’re listening so hard that they’re absolutely silent; they’re as actively involved in the story as a group of six-year-olds. It doesn’t matter that the words are 100 years old; they’re clear in context.  I don’t believe I’ve ever heard an audience member say, “I didn’t understand that.”  What I have heard are: “You could hear a pin drop!” “I could just see it all in my head!” “On my way home I could smell the apple blossoms!” [In response to: Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s “The Bedquilt,” Sarah Orne Jewett’s “Miss Esther’s Guest,” and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “The Apple Tree.”]

Why did you select A Pair of Silk Stockings?

I’m often asked that about my scripts. (In addition to Tales Well Told, I tour with several other solo productions from the same era.) It usually comes down to acting choices and my gut. These stories work so well when read aloud in part because the verbs are active, the adjectives evocative, the situations and characters intriguing (and they often speak in dialect). These elements are fun and challenging for an actor, and they make for well-written drama.

I read “A Pair of Silk Stockings” decades ago, in an anthology of Kate Chopin’s short stories, edited by my friend Dr. Barbara H. Solomon.  I loved Chopin in general, but of all the stories, years later, it was “Stockings” that first came to mind when I thought of her. I don’t want to give the ending away – but my heart goes out to “Little Mrs. Sommers.” Chopin describes her heroine’s unexpected holiday with understanding simplicity, as one detour leads to the next. And she does this so well that the story continues in your head after ending on the page.

Are there any specific ideas or themes you hope the audience will come away with?

We are who we were. The past and these writers should never have been “lost,” because they wrote about us.

How would people learn more about your work, or contact you to schedule a performance?

Thank you for asking! I perform nationally for libraries, historical societies, various clubs and academic conferences, private and corporate events, senior communities, colleges, and universities. I would love to bring these stories to literature, history, and sociology classrooms.

I’d welcome any inquiries. My email address is mlrprods@aol.com. You’ll find additional information on my web site—michelelarue.com—although, perhaps appropriately, it is very much out of date because I’m rather a Luddite.

A Pair of Silk Stockings – PBS Electronic Library

Kate Chopin

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