The Penitents of MAGDALEN: Erin Layton and Julie Kline with Zack Calhoon
The first time I saw Erin Layton present one of her monologues, she stood in street clothes on an empty stage speaking while very deftly creating the laundry, the sheets, and a wash tub out of thin air. Her simple and elegant physicality brought to life the experience of one struggling woman inside Ireland’s Magdalene laundries. I was mesmerized. A physical actor whose work is evocative and breathtaking, Layton has further developed the piece into a full, solo performance under the direction of Rattlestick Literary Manager and Rising Phoenix Rep Artistic Associate, Julie Kline.
The resultant piece, MAGDALEN, is based on the stories and experiences of the girls and women who were sent to “wash their sins” in a Magdalene laundry—a commercial workhouse run by several orders of nuns in the Irish Catholic Church. Those who toiled in the laundries were deemed the “fallen class” of Ireland: unwed mothers, orphans, “flirtatious” girls, and the disabled. Such “unfortunates” were branded “the penitent” by the nuns. Every day, from 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., they worked in silence, in atonement for their sinful lives. The last of the laundries was closed in the 1990s. Their history is one that the Catholic Church in Ireland would rather forget.
MAGDALEN opens at this year’s New York International Fringe Festival.
Zack Calhoon (Rail): What did you ultimately hope to achieve with the play? What do you want audiences to take away from the piece?
Erin Layton: I fully intended to create a play that could both challenge me as an emerging writer and also something that could exhibit my skills as a versatile performer. Though MAGDALEN serves those purposes, my intention toward the play as a story shifts every time I perform it. The audience response transforms it. My director and I have generated a different draft of MAGDALEN every two months since our one year collaboration together and often times, these drafts will focus more on one character than another. Inevitably, we have discovered that the audience is never drawn to the “main” character but to the auxiliary characters, the girls in the shadows. This information has been incredibly helpful in shaping the story. It has helped me to see what pieces are missing, what truths are not being fully realized in the play. The laundries were auxiliary places so the audience response to the “insignificant” characters is right on! I have also discovered and heard from audiences, both men and women alike, that the girls in the laundry are reflections of themselves, of who they could have been had they been “sent away”—which is the most powerful response that any performer or playwright can ask for.
Rail: Tell me about your trip to Ireland—which laundry did you visit?
Layton: I went to Ireland in 2010 and toured the laundry sites in Dublin. There are abandoned laundries all over the Republic but I only had four or five days in Ireland on a bare bones budget. I stood inside one of the abandoned laundries on Sean McDermott Street—the Gloucester laundry where they later performed a site-specific play called Laundry last year. There was a youth hostel right next to the abandoned building and when I knocked on the door, a very kind older man showed me inside and took me through the hallway that lead to an abandoned Magdalene laundry entrance. We stood inside the laundry lobby and there he told me all about the penitent girls, the girls who worked in the laundries, and the nuns. His stories, which have become largely fictionalized, have made it into my play through the narrator, Reid, who is named and created off of him. I was amazed at how many people in Ireland were intimately aware of what happened in the Magdalene laundries. When asked, they seemed helpless and ashamed but were also eager to share what they knew.
Rail: When did Julie become part of the process? How has her input and outside eye helped the shaping of the script?
Layton: Julie Kline and I began our collaboration together in May 2011. I was a guest artist in a Long Island University production of The Glass Menagerie last year, and Barbara Parisi, a full-time professor of theater and executive director of a theater in Brooklyn, invited me to perform MAGDALEN as part of a workshop lab process at her theater. I didn’t have a director at the time, so I asked around and was referred to Julie. I think I sent her a very, very rough and embarrassing sketch of my play. We met, she was on board because of the material and history of the play, and within one month, we presented a workshop draft of MAGDALEN. Julie has been instrumental in the development and direction of MAGDALEN. She just gets the story. I naturally do not follow a straight line of logic when it comes to art making. I mean, MAGDALEN started as a dance piece two years ago. It was written as a movement piece without words—just dance but no story. I really didn’t know where to begin to build a foundation for a play about silent women. I didn’t know how to dissect the when, what, how, and who of language in a place and a history stripped of language. I had established moments, but I didn’t know how they fit together as a whole. When Julie and I started working together last summer, we began with very detailed, specific shaping of characters; then we had them interact with each other. Then the magic began.
Rail: Julie, how did you get involved with the project? What do you ultimately hope to achieve with the play? What do you want audiences to take away from the piece?
Kline: Last year—I think on Daniel Talbott’s recommendation—Erin emailed me about the show. She was looking for a director for the next step in MAGDALEN’s development: an initial workshop out at the Harry Warren Theatre in Brooklyn. Upon just reading her e-mail detailing the stories of the Magdalene laundries, I was hooked. I had no idea the laundries even existed, and I’ve found that almost every time I have since explained the Magdalene story to friends or strangers, I am met with the same surprise and shock. It is incredible that these women’s stories of oppression are so little known. Erin’s commitment to telling the stories of these women moved me, as did the incredibly complex archetypes involved in the laundries—the pure, virginal Mother Mary represented by the nuns; the sinful, penitent Mary Magdalene represented by the girls; the priests as the religious patriarchy that ruled over all. Ultimately, I hope that audiences take away a deeper knowledge of the laundries and what the girls suffered there, but I also want to equally represent the mentality of the nuns and the priests who ran the laundries—to explore how those who deeply felt they were doing good could be so damaging. There is also something fascinating about the separation of spirit from body in these places—the Church was “saving” these girls’ souls at the cost of their bodies and minds.
Rail: How do you feel the different “workshop” opportunities have helped the play’s development?
Kline: The rehearsal room for a solo show is by nature intimate, and can sometimes get insular. Inviting audiences into the process has been extremely important because sometimes Erin and I reach a place where we’ve been too close to the material for too long, and need outside perspective to re-charge us. Every workshop has served a different purpose—the first at Harry Warren was literally just throwing paint on the canvas: a part of this character, another part of that character, just seeing what we could make to start to create the world of the laundries. From there, for a reading last December, we focused on getting a full script together, developing individual arcs for the characters to follow their journeys through the laundries. A performance in February at the Kumble Theater at Long Island University gave us a chance to try the story on a vast stage and play with light and image with the extensive facilities they have there. Finally, this last workshop back at the Harry Warren gave Erin 10 performances to seriously “go to bat” with the characters night after night and get audience response over the course of a full run. Every time we’ve presented any piece of the show, there have been discoveries, and Erin is constantly impressing me with how willing she is to shift and change the work, and run in an entirely different direction in order to discover something new.
Rail: How do you feel the piece has forced you to stretch as a director?
Kline: Tremendously! I have never directed a solo show before, though I wrote and performed one myself a few years back (REMEDIES at the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre and Estrogenius Festival), and coming back to the form as a director feels like a completion in a way. The actor-director relationship in a solo show process is incredibly intimate, and it’s been an honor for me to be the sounding board for Erin to throw all her ideas at. It’s been a challenge and a delight to figure out how to represent this whole world—the laundries, the convent, Ireland itself—with just one body on stage. I’ve discovered that, because of this, a solo show can be inherently more theatrical and heightened than any other kind of play, and yet we’re dealing with a real part of history here, so it’s been a long journey of discovery as to how we determine the rules of this specific play—when we want to utilize a stylized sense of the world and when we need to ground it.
Rail: Erin, do you have any favorite, telling moments in the play?
Layton: There’s one, in which Meade, the prostitute, shouts to Father Patrick who is loudly praying for the prostitutes outside the walls of her brothel. She says, “Your prayers are no good, Paddy love. Virgin Mothers and holy water—slaves to holy nothings is what we are.” It encapsulates her very specific personal theology which sets her apart from the theology of the laundries. Shortly after she says this line she and her “girls” in the brothel are captured and sent to the lock asylums where they are “cleansed,” sanitized before they are sent to the actual laundry to work, to “wash away their sins.” Her line is comical but also tragic. The laundries were labeled as these safe houses to “fallen” women but to think that so many women were sent, literally captured, against their will, dragged and force-fed these beliefs that they severely opposed, is such an awful representation of the church and yet such a true representation of the laundries.
Erin Layton’s MAGDALEN, directed by Julie Kline, will be presented August 10 – 26 as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. For more about the play, visit www.magdalentheplay.wordpress.com. For schedule and location, check out www.fringenyc.org.
ZACK CALHOON is an actor and playwright living in New York City. He maintains the theater blog, Visible Soul, and is currently working on a commission for Rising Phoenix Rep.