The haunting image of Ophelia, so young and beautiful floating amongst the willows in a glassy stream stirs the imagination. The proximity of beauty, madness, and suicide is fused in the archetypal character of Ophelia, the young beauty, driven from reason to madness and finally to suicide, escaping the maelstrom of the dark forces that surround her. Using the archetypal figure of Ophelia,The Ophelia Project excavates and unravels the delicate balance between women, madness, and suicide through a multimedia physical theatre investigation. Weaving a collection of poems, historical texts, and journal entries of renowned poets Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Virginia Woolfe, who tragically took their own lives and wrote prolifically about the daily struggle and agony between life, death and madness, the Ophelia Project walks the tightrope between these realms, aiming to illuminate the poetry of being in-between: life and death, madness and reason.
Using Ophelia as a starting point, I embarked on a two-year in-depth dramaturgical/research project into the lives and writing of three renowned women writers (two of which received Pulitzer prizes) Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Virginia Woolf. Since November 2006, as the principal faculty investigator, I met with a group of MFA acting and playwrighting students to develop The Ophelia Project based on these women's poetry and writing. In the first year of our research, we read many of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton’s biographies, journals, letters, poems, and novels as both an insight into their worlds, their struggles, and their process as well as material for the creation of a new dramatic work that fuses together their writing with the devised creations from the group.
The Ophelia Project is a timely, contemporary, and provocative piece of theatre that deals with difficult subject matter such as addiction, mental breakdown, and suicide. By bringing the words and lives of Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Virginia Woolf back to life on stage is an homage to the tremendous challenges and accomplishments each writer faced, ultimately forging the path for women today, especially in the arts. The Ophelia Project has the potential to become a vehicle for social change in the conversation and debates surrounding the difficult themes of the work. Oftentimes, addiction, mental instability, and suicide are a product of the social forces and situations one find’s themselves in. In the life of Virginia Woolf, being a woman writer in the Victorian era was practically unheard of and she fought resistance her entire life. Both Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath faced similar societal pressures in the 1950s and 1960s. To be a woman and an artist in these times produced tremendous hardship, leading these women through cycles of depression, addiction, and eventually suicide. While the play deals with these difficult topics lived by these three writers, the message is ultimately about hope and inspiration. As Virginia Woolf poignantly wrote:
It would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare. Let me imagine, since the facts are so hard to come by, what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say. […] She died young – alas, she never wrote a word. She lies buried where the omnibuses now stop. […] Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the crossroads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh. (A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf:113).
Some of the questions this material forces us to examine are: What social forces drive people into depression and towards addiction and suicide? This piece is an homage to their struggles, their failures, their successes, and ultimately their incredibly rich and full creative, artistic lives as a way for us to reflect on our own lives, how far we have come and how much further we have to go.
**This production received permissions from the Virginia Woolf estate, the Anne Sexton estate, and the Sylvia Plath estate. The project is not associated with the National Ophelia Project.
This performance is made possible in part by a grant from the Herberger College of the Arts, Arizona State University.