We are so happy to welcome WAM Co-Founder Leigh Strimbeck back to the fold to direct our August 21 Fresh Takes Play Reading of Samsara by Lauren Yee. Currently, Leigh is the Artistic Director of the Theatre Institute at Sage (TIS); an artist-in-residence in the theater program at Russell Sage College; and an associate member of the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble (BTE). At TIS she adapted, directed and toured The Trojan Women in 2013, directed On the Verge, Spring Awakening, Grounded, and Wait Until Dark.
WAM Theatre: One of the great things about our Fresh Takes series is that there is a fairly minimal time requirement, which means we can lure busy artists like you to come and work with us! What appealed to you about Samsara?
Leigh Strimbeck: I like the script a lot because it has a little bit of a whimsical element to it. It’s about the drive people have to start families which I certainly understand, and I love the diversity that is built into the casting.
The play is about a white American couple unable to conceive and the Indian surrogate mother who they hire to carry their child. Other characters include the French doctor who is managing the case and the expectant mother’s imagined embodiment of the child she is carrying, who is also Indian. I am excited to meet the cast and thrilled to be bringing in two actors who I have worked with before. Jean-Remy Monnay, the Founder and President of Soul Rebel Performance Troupe over in Albany, who is doing really great work presenting and promoting minority theatre pieces and performers. He is Haitian and speaks fluent French, so I cast him as the French doctor. I am also pleased to have cast Jonathan Albert, who I have known since he was just a kid and a student of mine at SUNY Albany.
WAM: We know you are in the throes of completing your script for the centennial celebration for Russell Sage College this year. WAM is always interested in untold stories of women, there must be plenty attached to the college!
Leigh: Yes, the President of Sage asked me to write a play on the 100 year history of the college. I am going into my sixth draft of the script of Yours – based on founders’ letters, and articles from the student newspaper, The Quill. I have spent untold hours in the archive reading those newspapers from the last 100 years in order to fully grasp and clearly express how the voice of women grew and how women’s issues have changed over the past century. The show goes into rehearsal at the end of this month for an October 7-16 run.
There are so many interesting women’s stories to tell at Sage. Russell Sage was a robber baron, but the women’s college in Troy, NY, was founded in 1916, ten years after his death, by his second wife, Olivia Slocum Sage. Upon his death she became, overnight, the richest woman in the world, inheriting about $70 million for her unrestricted use. A graduate of Emma Willard, she was a very interesting character, deeply Christian and very humble, which is why there are no buildings bearing her name even though she donated tens of millions of dollars to promote women’s education. Sage also funded the work of her friend, Lillian Todd, an aviatrix who built dirigibles and bi-planes. But after she was denied permission to fly her own plane Todd gave it all up to become Mrs.Sage’s executive secretary. Then there was Eliza Kellas, who co-founded Russell Sage and served as both dean of Emma Willard and the president of the college for 12 years until they were completely separate institutions.
WAM: It sounds fascinating. What else is on your plate?
Leigh: I am collaborating on another project about Greenwood, Oklahoma, at TIS later in the year, after I direct I Never Saw Another Butterfly in February. TIS is an educational theatre company at an undergraduate institution, we produce five to seven shows a year, more than any other undergraduate theatre program, so our students learn experientially. I am very happy to say that our graduates have gone on to many great theatrical adventures, they do well when they leave.
I also just recorded the walking tour of the Olana State Historic Site, home of the painter Frederic Church, one of the major figures in the Hudson River School of landscape painting, in Greenport, NY. Everyone should pay a visit! I love voice-over work, but this was different because it was a sustained narrative and usually voice-overs are done in short spurts. I had a great time working on it with Paul Riccardi, at his wonderful Wave Farm in Acra, NY.
The downside for me of having a full-time job is once the school year starts I am not available. I would love to do more professional acting and directing work. But with one son graduated from college and the other son halfway through, my husband Joe and I are getting ready for empty nest time! It’s going to be fun.
WAM: We hear you were a semi-finalist in a WordXWord Story Slam the other night in Lenox.
Leigh: Yes, the event was held at The Mount, which was great fun. This was the first time I was able to tell a story without writing anything down ahead of time. The topic was U-turns and I had to use a story from my own life, so I told about when I was flying to Nairobi with a theatre company and, due to mechanical problems, the plane had to dump out all its fuel over the English Channel and return to London. This adventure coincided in my personal life with a breakup with boyfriend and I was crying and crying…There was a time limit in this competition and I am always interested in how artists respond to structure. It’s challenging to turn on the stopwatch and watch it go while I’m telling my story.
WAM: We know you follow WAM’s progress closely.
Leigh: Yes, because I was really involved heart and soul for those first two years. I am really happy to see that WAM is thriving and that Kristen is doing so much and so well. I’ve had the pleasure of working with WAM Scenic Designer Juliana Haubrich twice now at TIS – on Spring Awakening and Wait Until Dark – and she mentors the students so beautifully and really inspires them. She is an excellent model for what it is to be a professional female theatre designer/technician.