A Pearl in the Rough

By Sara Dabney Tisdale

How do you portray an elf-child? A demon offspring? A baby born from sin? A freak?

These are all descriptions given to Pearl, Hester Prynne’s illegitimate daughter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter. The product of Hester’s affair with the Reverand Arthur Dimmesdale and the symbolic manifestation of Hester’s adultery, Pearl is a challenging character to play on many fronts. Pearl is smart. She sees meaning in things. She flits between earnest and cynical. She dances and giggles and pouts and throws tantrums. Hawthorne suggests that Pearl is otherworldy, too – sent by God, as Hester argues to Governor Bellingham, to serve as her mother’s punishment as well as her redemption.

So where does this motley combination of traits leave me as an actor playing Pearl’s character? Throughout the rehearsal process, I wanted to tease out the entirety of Pearl’s fantastic, colorful personality, but I also wanted to ground her actions in circumstances that were very real. It would be easy to play Pearl as the proverbial bad seed – even a tool of the devil – intent on terrorizing her mother.  Indeed, so much of Pearl’s character is preternaturally spooky: “It was as if an evil spirit possessed the child, and had just then peeped forth in mockery,” writes Hawthorne of Pearl’s interactions with Hester.

But while Pearl’s character is spiteful (and, OK, slightly demonic) at times, our director, Renana Fox, and I decided that the more challenging (and, ultimately, more creatively rewarding) approach was to tackle Pearl as entirely human – but a child whose troubling mannerisms spring from her social isolation and her ignorance of the reasons for her status as an outcast. Pearl isn’t a demon– she’s a loner.

Isolation is nothing new for Hawthorne’s key characters. But Pearl’s isolation is unique in that it’s not a result of her own actions – she’s an innocent in the business of Hester’s sin. Judgmental adults avoid her, and hateful children bully here. As such, Pearl learns early on to reject others as dangerous.

As our director Renana pointed out, a key to Pearl’s isolation is her ignorance. The adults in her life have cut off her access to knowledge. Because Pearl is precocious and observant, she naturally seeks to know more about her society and her world. Pearl doesn’t know what the scarlet A means, but she does know that invoking the A is a tactic she can use to provoke her mother into answering her questions. The letter becomes a symbol for all the secrets Pearl doesn’t know, a feeling only amplified by Dimmesdale, with “his hand always over his heart.”


But how to funnel all this rich detail into Pearl’s voice? And how to play Pearl, as Isabel Smith-Bernstein’s script demands, from an infant to a toddler to a 7-year-old to an expectant mother?

I started with some YouTube research on the way children speak. What struck me, regardless of their age, was the free, un-self-conscious quality of a child’s way of speaking. There is confidence and imagination and delight in creating thoughts and sentences. It was critical to imbue Pearl’s speech with this confidence. Because she has learned to own her role as an outcast, Pearl doesn’t care what others think of her declarations.

Yet, as Pearl ages, so does her vocal character: Infant Pearl cries. Three-year-old Pearl is both mischievous and joyful, but she can’t yet articulate her words. Seven-year-old Pearl is bitter; she has learned to articulate her speech in an uncanny and precocious way, and to use that articulation to her advantage. Adult Pearl – whom we only meet in a concluding letter to her mother at the end of the play – is much more at ease than her childhood counterpart. Having escaped “small-minded” Massachusetts, Pearl enjoys a life of freedom and love in England. Her voice is stripped of the anger she held as a child; there is warmth in her words, and her maturity, happiness, and intelligence combine to create a clear, sincere voice.

In everything, I strive for confidence and intelligence – Pearl’s enduring traits that carry her from toddlerhood to adulthood. But in the end, I don’t think I’ll ever have Pearl’s character and voice completely pinned down. I suspect, with Pearl, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.


Just Like Us: Puritan Parallels of Modern Life

By Michael Harris

We give you a story about Puritans. All judgment and dour joylessness. Warriors against pleasure. Followers of a Merciless God. The Forebearers of all of America’s moral busibodiness in the public square. All that and one other thing: people, just like us.

That is what strikes me most about working on Lean & Hungry’s adaptation of “The Scarlet Letter.” The Puritans have their judgments and gossip and dark fears and their rigid drawing of lines of belonging. They have beliefs you must hold, and rules you must not violate (at least publically) lest you be cast into the darkness (or at least, the forest).

In a way, just like us.

The Puritans are different and familiar. Odd yet identical. We may have different rules, different actions and beliefs, that we judge with, but the results are strikingly similar. Almost all of us live in ideologically homogenous communities, even if the borders are less geographic than cultural. We are all searching for community and connection, and, in theory, we claim love and respect can transcend our differences.

The Puritans believed in a God who loves all of humanity. They stopped the execution of a woman caught in the act of adultery with the words, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” We, rightly, have disgust for the hypocrisy and selective indignation of the Puritans. We contrast our open mindedness and tolerance with their moral marital law. But, in truth, how many of us have fostered an environment in our own lives where others can be honest with us—about politics, or religion, or art, or anything of substance–and know that no disagreement, however deep, would deny them love and acceptance? Would allow them to avoid some other Scarlet Letter to be placed upon them?

Hester is a Puritan. She is an adulteress. And no one in the story is more honorable, more insistent on giving others a fair chance. No one is more forgiving, more Christian, than her.

Dimmesdale is a Puritan. He failed spectacularly in one moment of his life, and fights like hell for the rest of it to make amends. He defends Hester and Pearl even as he hides his relation to them. He is a heaving mess of courage and cowardice, love and fear.

My character, Chillingworth is a Puritan. For all his satanic reveling in tormenting Dimmesdale, he is honest enough to admit that the greatest cause of Hester’s adultery was his own coldness. He asked something unreasonable and received the predictable result.

They are each a mess. Their souls are battlegrounds between light and dark, vice and virtue. They are Puritans. They are people.

Just like us.

Isolation and Connection: Finding Meaning for Dimmesdale

By Matt Bassett

Reading John Stange’s previous blog post (check it out if you haven’t, it’s lovely) got me thinking about isolation, both in the story of “The Scarlet Letter” and in the playing of that story.

My character, Arthur Dimmesdale, lives in a self-determined isolation. No one points a finger at him. No one gives him a mark of shame to wear on his chest. Dimmesdale’s isolation is that of the man hiding in plain sight. He feels love from those around him that he knows he doesn’t deserve and is stealing with every breath he takes. Though he does the best he can to help others, he cannot escape the crushing self-loathing that comes with “getting away with it.”

Since no one is there to punish Arthur, he punishes himself, through actual self-torture, but also through self-imposed isolation. He keeps everyone around him at a distance, including the woman he loves and the daughter who doesn’t know him. He gains a trusted friend, yet keeps that friend as far away from the truth as he can. No one gets close to Arthur. No one touches him.

Now, this is all lovely intellectualizing on my part, but that last sentence – particularly “no one touches him” –  came alive for me during rehearsal the other day. We broke from our usual work of talking through the script and how to best use our voices to bring it to life in order to get on our feet and physicalize the text. “This might seem stupid,” our director, Renana, said to introduce the idea. It was far from stupid.

In our little rehearsal room, Jennifer J. Hopkins and I played through a pivotal scene of reunion that, until we actually touched, had remained more based in idea than experience for me. In this run, I was able to feel the warmth of another’s touch and take solace in it as both actor and character.

For Matt, the actor, the solace came from a trusted colleague’s acceptance of what I was bringing to the scene. It was thrilling after days of working in a bubble called “Dimmesdale.”

For Dimmesdale himself, the solace was deeper. It became clear to me that Arthur had finally, finally allowed someone to pull him out of hiding. He was exposed, with the full sight of another upon him and with that other’s full acceptance. It’s freeing and beautiful, however fleeting it might be.

This was truly helpful, as it gave me the best sense yet of what’s on the other side of Arthur’s isolation. What he might just earn if he punishes himself enough, saves enough souls.

What I hope for now is to keep that relief of being seen in the final broadcast, even though most of our audience won’t see a single thing. To make the connection for Arthur from a music stand, into a microphone, through a laptop or a set of speakers or earbuds or what have you. I’m enjoying the challenge.

A Snow Day

By Jennifer Hopkins

The snow falls and DC shuts down. So during the snow day last week, I found myself home alone.

Only, we are never quite alone anymore. We have the world wide web and the comfort of Facebook to keep us connected. Reach out and touch someone used to mean you picked up the phone and heard a loved one’s voice. Now it means updating hundreds of loved ones, colleagues, acquaintances, and people you randomly met one night and forgot you friended with just the push of a few buttons. This is exactly what I did last week.

For a few decades, there was a happy medium between public and private life. Your inner circle was just small enough to be friendly and comfortable, while the world was big enough to be exciting give some anonymity.

In Hester’s Puritan town there was no broader world. People left what they knew behind and their entire existence now held fast between yonder edge of town and t’other.  Everyone’s business was the town’s business and entire lives where managed by public opinion. There was no place to hide for a marked woman like Hester.

In recent years we’ve all witnessed how our world, however vast, has become remarkably connected. A flight will take you across the world and you can tweet every minute to perfect strangers who share an interest in your hashtag. Our relationships are defined by Facebook; In a Relationship, Engaged, It’s Complicated, etc. ‘LIFE EVENTS’ are broadcast under a privacy policy very few of us read. I can’t help but wonder what a woman like Hester would have had on her Facebook Page. Perhaps a defiant selfie of her baring the Scarlet Letter as her Profile Pic, some choice words in the About Me section, and status updates such as “Chopped my own wood today. Ye ‘Goodwives’ should do the same.” Feeling 😉 Proud.

Remarkably, in our efforts to cross the borders of the world and bridge the distances between – we’ve consequently invited that world into our daily lives again. We’ve asked, nay – demanded, that it voice an opinion on every life choice we care to share. The need to reach out to Community is clearly engrained in us. I confess, I marvel at it – and how this Community can be used powerfully both for better…or worse.  Is it now:  Reach out and Judge Someone?  Have we ‘progressed’ any further from Puritanical New England? Is there once again no place to hide from public opinion?

Even more, do we want to? Or do we all have a little bite of Hester in our hearts: daring the world to judge us?

A Valentine’s Day Post on Love and Loneliness in The Scarlet Letter

I suppose I’ll have to admit it now, since it might be noticeably audible during the live broadcast: I get choked up every time we read through the ending of “The Scarlet Letter.”  The final correspondence between an elderly Hester Prynne and her grown daughter, Pearl, gets me every time.  It’s a little embarrassing, and more than a little baffling; I’m not usually the first actor in a room to be moved to mistiness so easily. If anything, I more often have trouble letting go of my own ironic distance from the material in my hands.

I’ve figured out why this resonates with me, but it took hearing Michael Harris (our villainous Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s husband) drop some heartbreaking nuance into this exchange with his wayward wife during a recent rehearsal:

“True, it was my folly!  I have said it.  But up to that epoch of my life, I had lived in vain.  The world had been so cheerless… Mine was the first wrong, when I betrayed thy budding youth into a false an unnatural relation with my decay…”


Nevermind the noxious criminal code of colonial Boston. We all know Puritans weren’t nice people; that’s not interesting.  All of the evils visited in our characters start with a sad, lonely old man roping a young girl into a loveless marriage in a desperate attempt to salvage his empty life.  A chain of people end up with their natural ties to humanity severed brutally.  Isolation is a poison for most human beings, and the toxic desperation and anger that follows are what drive our ensuing slow-motion tragedy.

We are social animals.  We hear it said all the time, but we don’t always think about what it can be like to be cut off from even the most basic contact that we take for granted.  It’s probably one of the worst tortures you can inflict on a person over the long term. Try to imagine being the prisoner in solitary confinement for a year.  Try to imagine being a gay teenager in an Evangelical small town in middle America, or for that matter anywhere at all in Russia or Uganda.  Try to imagine being a victim of sexual violence in Taliban country, punished and shamed for someone else’s inhumanity.  Try questioning your faith in place where that’s a crime, written or not.  Try, most of all, to remember that there isn’t a way out, nowhere to go, nobody on your side.  Bitter yet?

In spite of the fact that he brought it on himself, Chillingworth succumbs to the temptation to act on his rage born of a lonely life, a betrayal, and a healthy dollop of modern-day sexism.   I think that succumbing to the bitterness is a recurring character flaw in Hawthorne’s Puritan world.  I’ve found myself fascinated with Mistress Hibbins, the Governor’s witchy sister who openly brags about going into the forest and cavorting with the Black Man, a sort of universal Satanic bogeyman figure to Puritan society. I have my own personal theory about Mistress Hibbins: somewhere along the line things went wrong, and she ended up on the bad side of some Puritan stigma.  Her coping strategy: own the rage.  Flout the society that has put her out, snipe at it from the sidelines, tip their sacred cows, and hope against hope to find someone else just as bitter with whom to commiserate.  The not-so-better angels of my own nature wishes she had found a friend in Hester.

This is what sets our heroine apart from everyone else.  Not the totality or unjustness of Hester’s isolation, but her stiff-backed refusal to lash out in anger like Chillingworth, Hibbins, and even young Pearl.  Her genuinely Christian behavior outshines everyone else in this profoundly religious place.  I’d venture that even applies to her pastor and (spoiler!) lover Arthur Dimmesdale, given his self-absorbed obsession with his own guilt.  But then, it’s not really just her nature, is it?  Hester’s a firebrand- it’s easy to see her taking the Mistress Hibbins route, lashing out and fighting back.  It’s her daughter Pearl who’s keeping her in the world.  She tells Hibbins herself, “…had they taken her from me, I would willingly have gone with thee, and signed my name in the Black Man’s book too, and that with mine own blood!”  Her love for Pearl keeps her from collapsing into a singularity of righteous rage. In turn it’s probably only Hester’s love that allows the contrary, spiteful little girl to escape her poisonous childhood and grow into something better.

If I were to take anything from that, it is that the only escape from the horror that loneliness can wreak on a person is to unconditionally love something outside yourself.  So if you’re wondering why I’m a little hoarse in the closing narration on the 28th, there you go.

Scarlet Letter Tech: Microphone Technique

By Sarah Cumbie

About halfway through each rehearsal process, actors in a Lean & Hungry production get stuck spending 20 minutes alone in a room with me. As a non-actor and non-director who has more experience attending theater than making it, I may seem like an illogical choice to be part of a theater production. But Lean & Hungry’s productions throw in an extra twist: microphones. As a staff member at WAMU 88.5 FM and liaison between the station and Lean & Hungry Theater, it’s my job to work with the individual cast members to get them comfortable talking into a microphone.

Talking into a microphone may sound like a simple task, but there’s more to it than just standing there and speaking. Each actor is responsible for “mixing” his/her own audio levels, moving closer when quiet and farther away when loud. This is made more complicated that the fact that actors often play multiple characters with distinct voices and relationships to the microphone.

In our 20 minute crash course, actors find the ideal distance and angle from the microphone for each volume of each character. We also work through avoiding common microphone pitfalls such as popped plosives (when the air from a P, K or T causes an unpleasant popping sound on the microphone), sounds that may not translate well over radio (whistling, crying, screaming, etc.) and moving heads away from microphones.

All of this combines to make an impressive personal choreography for each actor: moving forward, backing off and changing axis with the microphone as his/her character necessitates.

If you’re able to attend The Scarlet Letter at Artisphere on February 28th, I hope you’re able to see the work the actors are doing to control their audio levels. If you’re listening to it on the radio or stream, try to keep in mind the fact that the broadcast engineers are hardly touching their boards, since the actors are in manipulating their own audio levels.

Join Lean & Hungry Theater for our 1-hour performance of The Scarlet Letter on February 28, 2014 at 8:00 pm in Artisphere’s Dome Theater.  The performance will be broadcast live on WAMU 88.5, Washington’s most-listened-to radio station.

A Critical Examination of the Role of Ann Hibbins in “The Scarlet Letter” or, WAIT! WITCHES?

By Catherine Deadman

Witches. My favorite moment from the first read through was when I eagerly asked Isabel Smith-Bernstein (dramaturg, adaptor extraordinaire, and blog author) if one of my characters, Mistress Hibbins, was really a witch, and she replied, “Well, do you believe in witchcraft?”

Perfect response! No, I don’t believe in witchcraft, but I am so steeped in the contemporary climate of “American Horror Story: Coven,” that my first thought was, “I’M A WITCH!”  It may also have had something to do with the fact that I’d just played one of the witches in a performance of “Macbeth” 24 hours prior to the read-through.  The dark arts were definitely on my brain, and I appreciated Isabel bringing me down to witch-free earth.

I should have asked more precisely:  Did Hawthorne intend for his readers to believe that Mistress Hibbins is a witch in the fictional world of his story? Turns out Hawthorne was an apologist for his Salem ancestors who DID have a lot of alleged witch blood on their hands.

He even added the “w” to his name to distance himself from his witch-slaying forefathers, the Hathornes.

Mistress Hibbins is actually based on a real historical figure, Ann Hibbins, who was executed for witchcraft in 1656.  Based on my extensive research (one short Wikipedia article), it’s clear that she was killed for no good reason whatsoever.  She had opinions.  And she fatally forgot that, as a woman in mid 17th century Salem, that was an unpardonable offense.  Again, on the basis of my extensive (near nonexistent) research, this makes me want to play her as straight and nice and sweet as she can be.  Nathaniel didn’t write her this way.  In “The Scarlet Letter,” Hibbins actively tries to entice Hester into the woods to engage in evilfuntimes.

So why did apologist Hawthorne paint her with such a witchy brush?  I understand that he wrote her to represent a category that was entrenched in Hester’s cultural reality, and he did so with good reason.  By including a representative of that deviant category and keeping Hester separate even from her, it makes Hester seem all the more outcast and alone.  So it serves a purpose to fictionalize Hibbins in this way, BUT STILL:  Having done the aforementioned research and knowing that the real Ann Hibbins was just a woman who forgot that she was dirt, it makes me want to portray Mistress Hibbins like this: “Hi, Hester!  I brought you a casserole. Hey, let’s take your A off and sit and chat awhile?  OH MY GOD–”God” because I’m not a witch–IS THAT YOUR DAUGHTER??! She is adorable! Hey, wanna start a book club? I just read a great book called This Town Is Full of Jerks. You’d love it!!”  And on and on forever.
Obviously I’m not going to play her that way. I’ll play her just as the text and director guide me.  I’ll force the improviser in me to go on holiday, and the would-be Broadway smash “Hester and Hibbins Paint the Jerktown Red” will have to wait and be explored at a later date.  (Stay tuned!)