Staging a festival for Millay

By Dagney C. Ernest | Aug 30, 2017
Sarah MacDonnell will portray Edna St. Vincent Millay (inset photo by Carl Van Vechten) during the Millay Arts & Poetry Festival in Rockland.

Rockland — Edna St. Vincent Millay was born 125 years ago in a “double house” on Broadway; when she died in 1950, she left a multi-faceted legacy, not only as a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, but also as a playwright, librettist, actor, activist and writer in many forms.

The recently incorporated nonprofit Millay House Rockland is dedicated to restoring her birthplace and making it a literary resource. Thursday through Saturday, Sept. 7 through 9, Millay House Rockland will help present the first-ever Millay Arts & Poetry Festival at sites around the city. Two weeks out, the home of festival producer Alva Hascall was abuzz with still-coming-together energy.

“It’s kind of an old phrase, but we’re dancing as fast as we can,” said Lisa Westkaemper, Hascall’s wife and a Millay House Rockland board member.

The three-day festival, embracing multiple art forms, as did Millay, is ambitious for a premiere event, including almost three dozen separate happenings. Some are free, including open mics and readings at Rock City Café; and “Appearing as Words,” a sure-to-be-surprising smartphone-interactive event by The Steel House’s Nate Davis, capping opening night at the Strand.

The rest are on a Pay What You Can basis, with suggested amounts. Workshops and established Maine poet readings at the Farnsworth Art Museum will take place all three days, suggested at $5 to $20. And there are a number of big-time featured events at the Strand Theatre, separately ticketed or included in the all-festival pass.

“We’re venue to venue to venue,” said Westkaemper. “We’re much more like CIFF than we are like the lobster or blues festivals.”

Like the Camden International Film Festival, the Millay festival pass offers entry into all events, as long as the pass holder shows up in a timely manner. And, like CIFF, its suggested price is an investment, albeit one that offers significant savings over separate admission for all events.

“Please know that although we want to make it possible for everyone to attend, we have significant festival bills to pay. We need your help. Pay what you can to attend any event, and help us give this exciting festival to the community by contributing generously,” the board said in a statement Aug. 28.

Monies from ticket/pass sales go to the expenses of mounting the festival and bringing in its impressive roster of speakers and performers.

They include Tracy K. Smith, the newly appointed 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States; 2013 Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco; “Savage Beauty” author Nancy Milford and a gathering of other Millay biographers and scholars; The Edna Project, performing on opening night; and professional actors and director for the world premiere of “Vincent,” a play to be performed on the festival weekend’s Friday night at the Strand.

“Vincent” had its genesis in 2013, when Hascall and Westkaemper bought their house to make the move to Rockland from Texas. The selling agent was local realtor Michelle Gifford, who pointed out the crumbling old house two doors down.

“She said, 'That house there? Edna St. Vincent Millay was born there, it’s falling down, what are you going to do about it?' She handed us a copy of ‘Savage Beauty’ and talked about trying to save the house,” Hascall said.

As “a theater person,” Hascall — who has written a number of one-woman works about historical characters — started thinking about working poetry into a piece for the stage. He read several biographies, did a lot of research and “waited for her to start speaking to me — and she did.”

Hascall terms “Vincent” a work of interpretative fiction. The hour-long play takes place in the last hour of Millay’s life — she died alone at age 58 at her Steepletop farm near Austerlitz, N.Y. — and is based on “what facts we know.” The title character is not alone on stage, however. She converses with her late husband, Eugen Jan Boissevain, “out of her memory,” said Hascall. And she engages with musicians who perform during the play.

“I’d always wanted live music,” said Hascall. “I imagined her sitting in her writing chair. She’s dozed off; she startles awake; she hears music, and there’s people in the room — she doesn’t know who they are or why they are — and Eugen is nearby. She talks to him all the time in my world; this is a little over a year after he died, she’s quite lonely.”

Months ago, Hascall and Westkaemper talked to the DaPonte String Quartet about being in “Vincent,” and the just-south-of-Midcoast-based ensemble’s embrace of the project has led to changes in the play itself. Westkaemper said the relationship that has developed has led to two of the DaPonte players, Myles Jordan and Lydia Forbes, actually having lines in the play. And all have been involved in programming music, both for the play and for the final afternoon’s poetry concert at Harbor Square Gallery, held during the festival as a separately ticketed fundraiser for Millay House Rockland (gallery owner and goldsmith Tom O’Donovan is the nonprofit’s president).

“Lydia’s kind of an alter ego for Vincent, and Vincent asks, who are you? What are you? and she talks to her. She and Eugen, especially, they’re guiding Vincent through this last phase,” said Hascall.

The first time the couple met with the quartet and offered a brief synopsis of “Vincent,” Jordan immediately brought up the Schulhof first string quartet, saying the fourth movement would be an ideal fit.

“And Kirsten [Monke] is the same way, she reads something and she hears music that would be perfect. They are very, very good at this! We figured that out quite early on and just said: program it,” said Hascall.

The quartet, rounded out by Dino Liva, also has programmed some 90 minutes of music to accompany the readings of Millay poems at Harbor Square. Westkaemper said when she and Hascall attended one of the quartet’s summer concerts at the Rockport Opera House, Millay poems fell out of Forbes’ case when she was putting her violin away at the end.

“I think she was pretty new to them, so that’s been a grand gift, to watch that relationship develop with the poems,” said Hascall.

Four years ago, Hascall went to Cape Cod’s Provincetown to see a fellow playwright’s production. He admits that although he watched the play, he spent most of it imagining one of its performers, actor Sarah MacDonnell, as Millay in “Vincent.” He’d written an early version by then “and I couldn’t get it out of my head.” Too shy to talk to MacDonnell, Hascall later asked his friend to connect them and when he sent her a script, she called with an enthusiastic affirmative.

MacDonnell is a New York stage actor who has been a regional performer in Provincetown for many seasons (Millay worked with the Provincetown Players in Greenwich Village). MacDonnell’s recent appearance in the Tennessee Williams Festival production of “Small Craft Warnings’ was praised by the New York Times; and she twice has played the title role of Anna in Eugene O’Neill’s “Anna Christie” for Provincetown Dramatic Arts.

Joining MacDonnell on stage as Eugen will be John Williams, who, over the past 45 years or so, has been involved in productions in Worcester, Mass., Washington, D.C., and Maryland; and on Cape Cod. And coming from Austin, Texas, to direct is Robert Faires, Arts Editor for The Austin Chronicle and named by American Theatre Magazine in 2011 as one of the nation's 12 most influential theater critics.

“We have graciously been offered and accepted rehearsal space at Lincoln Street [Center]; Sherry and Mario [Abaldo] have given us a key, literally; it’s lovely, so we’ll be rehearsing there, the days they are here, right up to the performance,” said Westkaemper.

Said one-time-only performance is at 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 8, at the Strand, 345 Main St. The festival’s An evening out with Edna St. Vincent Millay event begins at 6 p.m. around the corner in the main gallery of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. The catered, art-surrounded gala will include a Trillium-catered spread and open bar. Tickets for the full evening are a suggested $100, available at millayhouserockland.org.

The Millay Arts & Poetry Festival box office and information center will be in the Strand lobby, beginning 9 a.m. all three days. Also in the lobby, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., will be Kelly’s Books To Go, offering all the presenters' books as well as, of course, books of Millay’s poetry.

“That’s what they do, set up remote bookshops for festivals and events,” said Westkaemper of the Portland-based Kelly’s.

The local hello, hello bookshop, located to the rear of Rock City Café, also is offering a cornucopia of Millay and Millay-focused options. And Westkaemper said the Farnsworth “has been selling ‘Savage Beauty’ like hotcakes!”

For the full schedule of events, some still in a bit of flux, and ticket and pass purchase, visit the Millay House Rockland website. Media sponsor for the Millay Arts & Poetry Festival is VillageSoup/The Courier Gazette; Courier Publications’ Camden Herald was one of the first places Millay’s poetry saw publication.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Valli Genevieve Geiger | Sep 03, 2017 14:23

What a great event! I am so looking forward to it. I appreciate Alva and Lisa's creation of so many events, both free and paid. I also appreciate the blend of national poets and local poets provided opportunity to share their work. Edna St Vincent Millay is the perfect symbol for Rockland: brilliant, beautiful and tough.

Valli Geiger

 



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Staff Profile

Dagney C. Ernest
A&E editor for Courier Publications, LLC
(207) 594-4401/4407, ext. 115
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Dagney has been providing Courier coverage of the local arts scene since 1985 and has helmed the multi-paper A&E section since it debuted in 2003. She has been a local performing artist, community and professional, for more than 30 years and spent a decade writing, producing and announcing on-air for several Midcoast radio stations. When not in the NewsNest, Dagney likes to be in motion.

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