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The New World Stage PlayFactory will present a workshop production of North Carolina playwright Ann Marie Oliva's new biographical drama, Alice Neel, May 14-24 at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro, NC. World-renowned 20th century American artist Alice Neel (1900-84) is most famous for painting unflinching but affectionate portraits of her family members, friends and lovers, neighbors, and fellow artists. Art experts say Neel's paintings and watercolors are famous for their intensity and psychological depth.
"This is a New World Stage PlayFactory Production," says NWS artistic director Scott Pardue, "which means that the playwright collaborates with our creative team in a workshop environment. Improvisation is used extensively to help the playwright overcome problems in the script."
Durham, NC-based New World Stage, which actively promotes the work of North Carolina playwrights, performing artists, and other theatrical artists, tests new plays through its PlayFactory workshop engine for new scripts. Burning Coal Theatre Company artistic director Jerome Davis of Raleigh, NC will direct Alice Neel.
"Jerry Davis and Burning Coal Theatre Company have a history of promoting new work in our community," claims Scott Pardue. "This is evident through their New Play Series and their support of playwrights immersed in the PlayFactory at New World Stage."
Charlotte, NC playwright Ann Marie Oliva says, "I was inspired [to write Alice Neel] by watching my daughter. From the moment she picked up a crayon, she could draw. I also noticed she saw the world differently. She saw 'more.'"
Oliva adds, "I began to read about women artists. The history of women artists has been a difficult one, including the years Alice Neel was painting. She was a contemporary of Georgia O'Keeffe and Frida Kahlo (both of whom I've written about); but unlike them, Alice did not have a famous husband to help her gain notoriety.
"When I read Alice Neel's story," Oliva explains, "it struck me that she made choices for her art at great personal expense. I've been working on the full-length version of this play since the end of last year through the PlayFactory of New World Stage, the producer of the play."
Oliva admits, "What appealed to me most about Alice Neel's story is the need she had for complete freedom to create her art and how she followed her passion despite the consequences. All of the other characters in the play try to control Alice to one degree or another, and it seems to me this never works, especially with individuals like artists who must have their own 'space.'"
Oliva quickly adds, "This is not to say their motivations were 'bad,' just that as in all relationships, each person has his/her own set of needs that he/she is trying to get met.
"I don't like to think I write [message plays]," says Oliva, "but I believe that complete creative freedom, without compromise, is what all artists want. I can identify with her struggle in that regard."
Oliva says Alice Neel began as a one-act play entitled Shadows & Light. "[I]t was performed as a monologue at the Art I Gallery's 'I Am Woman' exhibition and competition in Gastonia, NC, in August 2000," she says. "It was performed twice on opening night of the exhibit. The audience was made up of artists and supporters, and it had a very good reception. Many of them came up to me afterward and complimented me because they felt I had captured the essence of the artist's struggle.
"The monologue was also performed at Theatre Charlotte's Four O'clock Theatre, on local public access television, and as part of Three Moons, a performance-arts collaborative," says Oliva. "The monologue was a finalist for the 2001 Just Desserts Fringe Festival, Horla @ The Rose and Crown Theatre in Surrey, Kent, UK. The literary manager e-mailed me that the readers there were very impressed by the language, but ultimately couldn't include it because of the time factor (it's about twenty-five minutes long.) The monologue has not been reviewed, but has always been enthusiastically received by audiences."
Ann Marie Oliva says the subsequent full-length play, called Alice Neel, "focuses more in-depth on approximately 10 years of her life, from 1924 to 1934. It has certain 'abstract' qualities, however, that are carried over from the one-act play."
She adds, "The PlayFactory working sessions included improvisations and many discussions to help mold the play. There were trips back and forth between Raleigh and Charlotte (where I live). A great deal of hard work, time, and commitment went into the creation of the play, especially by Scott Pardue, Flynt Burton, and John Honeycutt."
Oliva says, "Alice Neel [Flynt Burton] is a young woman who must deal with an over-controlling Mother [Diane Gilboa] who doesn't want her to be an artist. She marries early to [hot-blooded fellow artist Carlos Enriquez (Scott Pardue),] a wealthy Cuban (whom she does love) and moves to Cuba in an attempt to escape from a stifling situation and find a new life, but finds herself pregnant before she is ready.
"She returns from Cuba with a young daughter who dies of diphtheria before her first birthday. She immediately has another daughter out of guilt, but is dealing with, I believe, increasingly severe post-partum depression that began after she had the first baby.
"The marriage falls apart," Oliva explains, "and her husband takes her second daughter back to Cuba. When he doesn't return in the promised time, Alice realizes she has been abandoned and has a breakdown. She attempts suicide several times.
"She is hospitalized, but manages to come out of her depression. She moves to Greenwich Village in New York with a sailor, Kenneth Doolittle [Mark Perry], and begins her life in earnest as an artist. Again, though, Alice makes choices that have consequences for her personal well-being, but she perseveres and ultimately lives her life as artist, receiving national recognition late in life."
Alice Neel has another important character: John Rothschild (John Honeycutt), a friend and confidant whom Neel meets while she is living with Kenneth Doolittle, who becomes jealous of Alice's relationship with John as well as the time she spends on her art. "[John] is kind, supportive — and more importantly — the first person to give [Alice Neel] validation as an artist," Oliva says.
She adds, "In the 1970s, after living in near poverty for most of her time in New York, she is 'discovered' by the Women's Movement and becomes a hero to woman and lauded for her artistic genius as a portrait painter, with some comparing her to Van Gogh."
Staging this workshop production of Alice Neel presents considerable creative hurdles for guest director Jerome Davis, assistant director Kendall Rileigh, set designer Scott Pardue, lighting designer Steve Tell, and sound designers Steve Tell and Shawn Pauling to overcome.
Scott Pardue says, "The set is a minimalist cube design in solid black and white, except for the area of Alice Neel." He adds, "The costumes are solid black and white except for Alice Neel, who is has typical clothes for her lifestyle in the 1920s."
Pardue adds, "If you are familiar with The ArtsCenter, then you know that the audience is typically shaped like a 'V,' flaring out from the stage. For Alice Neel, one side of this 'V' (house right) will be blocked off and only the house-left side will be used."
"I believe it is important," says playwright Ann Marie Oliva, "for the audience to know [Alice Neel] is a biographical play based on the life of the artist Alice Neel. This is her story. I believe it is important to be true to the essence of the real-life people, events, attitudes, language, and tenor of the time in which she lived. To me, biography is a 'warts-and-all' proposition. The audience may not agree with Alice's choices, but those are the ones she made, for better or worse."
The New World Stage PlayFactory presents Alice Neel Wednesday-Saturday, May 14-17 and 21-24, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, May 18, at 3 p.m. at The ArtsCenter, 300-G E. Main St., Carrboro, North Carolina. $12.50 ($10 advance tickets, students, and military personnel). 919/929-2787. http://www.newworldstage.org/productions/playfactory/2003/alice_neel/alice_poster.htm [inactive 4/04].