When deciding on the series of theatre productions for each year, Chair in Theatre Arts Liz Carlin Metz considers shows in conversation with political and social issues that are currently in progress. For her, “The Drowning Girls” was the perfect show to illustrate the fragility and vulnerability of women’s status.
The actresses each play one of the three women who marry and are then murdered by George Joseph Smith. The actresses frequently change roles throughout the play, switching between their main role, the role of George Joseph Smith and of other minor characters. As Director of the show, Metz feels that having a small cast instead of assigning each role to a new person creates a sense of intimacy that is vital for the show’s intention.
“I love the intimacy of this play. It has a really candid intimacy in the women’s stories and the relationship between the three of them. It’s not a play in the cause-and-effect kind of realismÉ They narrate their stories, they share stories, but they’re very defined persons.”
Taking place in the early 1900s, the play occurs during a time of Victorian Codes that Carlin Metz feels emphasizes the fragility of women. She mentioned that options of employment during the era were limited for womenÑthey could be tutors or governesses, or get married.
“Basically, for middle class women and upper class women marriage was the only outlet,” she said. “So ultimately, when society places those constrictions on womenÉ their lives become very much endangered.”
Metz said that the three women in the show have been called upon to tell their stories as cautionary tales when another era where women are in danger looms. She feels that, with the current political climate, now is that time.
“Whenever the major pillars of society are denied to anyoneÉ That group is significantly at risk. Their lives are literally at risk.”
The youngest of the three women in the play, freshman Emma Bohman describes her character Alice as headstrong and romantic. Conforming to the ideals of the early 1900s, Alice looked for freedom in her marriage with George Joseph Smith. Bohman explains that, because women did not have a lot of options during the time, marriage was the best way for them to achieve success. She feels the three women represent the obstacles women face that often go beyond specific time periods.
“Based on the current political climate, I think these women are sort of rising out of their bathtubs to help warn and support women who are in times of crisis,” Bohman said.
Noting that women normally got married around the age of 18 in that era, the characters, all above their 20s, were in an even more vulnerable position, with little reason to decline the marriage proposal. Each of them just wanted to be successful and live their lives, Bohman said.
“The man who killed them, George Joseph Smith, he offered them that. At that point, all of them were considered old maids, they were over the hill, so they really had no choice but to accept it,” Bohman said.
She mentioned that a challenge she faced was taking on the role of George Joseph Smith while remaining costumed as Alice. However, she feels that this emphasized the flashback aspect of the show and that it placed the importance on the women.
“When you’re in the wedding dress, in all your costume and hair, and you have to become one of these men, you have to change your entire physicality,” Bohman said. “And so that really puts on more of an exaggerated kind of persona. And it’s not really a man, it’s more like the idea of a man.”
Freshman Amanda Roth knew she wanted to get involved with theatre before coming to Knox, but wasn’t expecting to already be as immersed as she is. As assistant director and assistant stage manager, Roth feels fully integrated into the process of producing a main stage production. Having spent most of her involvement in high school theatre as an actor, Roth has had a different experience being in a different part of the production process.
“You’re thinking about all the aspects of the show. When you’re acting you really just want to put on a good show, you really want to get into your character,” she said. “Whereas when you’re doing tech you’re enabling those actors to tell their story.”
Roth feels that this show will always be relevant as long as women are in a place where they can be made vulnerable. Not only does the show bring this to light, Roth mentioned, it also contains a central theme of victim blaming that is still present today.
“It wasn’t their fault. The society they lived in was such that they would blame them and think ‘well, it must have been something they did,’” she said. “We live in that sort of culture where people can get taken advantage of and that’s exactly what happened to these women in a completely different time.”
Roth thinks that having separate characters play the role of the murderer would take away from how integrated he was into their lives.
“In a lot of ways, George Joseph Smith is who they are now,” Roth said. “It’s part of who they are. They can’t escape that. It was really symbolic of the deeply rooted criminals can be.”
Roth is aware that people are going to interpret the show differently depending on their past experiences. She hopes the play sparks conversations on empathy and reaching out to victims who are trying to find help.
In his 20 years at Knox, Technical Director and Associate Professor of Theatre Craig Choma has only used water once prior to “The Drowning Girls.” Though this previous production allotted him the experience of adding water elements to a production, this show posed the additional obstacle of needing to use water on a stage that was far from a water source. Choma joked that, along with all of his other duties, he had to assume the role of a plumber for “The Drowning Girls. “
“As a technical director within theatre, you never really know — it’s all based in the production as to what you have to figure out, what sort of problem-solving you have to employ,” Choma said.
While Choma felt confident in his ability to get one shower working, he was nervous about using one water source to power three showers. He was concerned that the water would lose pressure as it reached all three showers, lessening the impact.
“I knew that I could get one working with one source of water, if I learned enough about the fittings I needed and figured out how to hook a garden hose up to that,” Choma said.
Choma did not have to worry for long. After finding a piece of equipment that attached to the garden hose and allowed the stream to divert to multiple sources, Choma successfully added running water to all three showers, each at an adequate pressure. After overcoming this obstacle, Choma was then faced with the challenge of keeping the stage safe for the performers.
To provide traction on the tiled floor, Choma added fine grit sand, often used for sandblasting, to the tile when sealing it. He said that this is the best option to ensure the performers’ safety, but acknowledges that it is not perfect.
“Even having that down, because they’re in and out of the tubs, the amount of water near the end of it makes it a little bit more dangerous,” he said.
For senior Jayel Gant, “The Drowning Girls” serves as an opportunity to carry out newly developed skills after taking time away to undergo acting training. While Gant’s primary role Bessie is one of the main characters, they also serve as the movement coach and hair designer. Being involved in several aspects of the show allowed Gant to see how important cohesion is to the performance.
“When you’re designing a costume you’re thinking about the character. When you’re designing a set you’re thinking about the character,” they said. “There’s a lot of thinking about themes, making sure our ideas are cohesive, making sure pictures look good together and making sure there’s harmony.”
They describe their character Bessie as unapologetically who she is. They feel that much of their character development does not occur until late in the production process, after they are solidified in their blocking and memorized their lines. After that, they noted, actors can relax in their roles enough to fill the empty spaces with characterization.
“There’s things that you’re supposed to do when you have lines, things you’re supposed to do when you don’t have lines,” they said. “But there’s also a little bit of space in between that the director doesn’t really pay attention to, and that’s where these kinds of discoveries are made.”
Since they are playing multiple characters without significant costume changes, Gant had to put extra effort into body language and posture. They felt that, because of their training, this ability to change physicality came naturally.
“Liz [Carlin Metz] is very into movement and physicality, so instead of struggling and having to think about my body I was usually able to just do it instead of having to ask ‘how I would do that,’ because I already had the training.”