Starting on May 20, Solas Nua will be presenting “In the Middle of the Fields” until June 12 at P Street Beach Park in Washington, D.C. Solas Nua, which means “new light” in Irish, is an award-winning arts organization dedicated to contemporary Irish arts. It is located in Washington, D.C. and their mission is “to bring the best of contemporary Irish arts to American audience.”
“In the Middle of the Fields” was written by Deirdre Kinahan whose “Wild Sky” played at Solas Nua to sold-out audiences. She also co-wrote the Helen Hayes Award-winning play, “The Frederick Douglass Project” with Psalmayene 24. “In the Middle of the Fields” focuses on Eithne, a breast cancer victim who is undergoing chemo-therapy. She wonders how the disease and recovery will affect her life. Artistic Director Rex Daugherty hopes that today’s audiences will connect with this theme as we all come out into the “fields” again after surviving the pandemic. The audience will be seated in a field with Eithne as we all “dream of a brighter day.”
Also, Daugherty is excited to bring back live performances to the Washington theatre-goers. The outdoor production will be held near Dupont Circle under the stars. The play features Jessica Lefkow, Caroline Dubberly, and Ryan Sellers — all Helen Hayes nominated performers.
I had a chance to interview Laley Lippard, the director of “In the Middle of the Fields.”
Laley is a freelance artist committed to championing new work, developing new plays and the next generation of theater artists, and creating events that disrupt injustice. She co-founded and served as executive co-producer for the Chicago Home Theater Festival (CHTF). Other producing work includes Z/Magic Mondays at Magic Theatre (former Artistic Associate), as a creative producer with The Welders. Lippard is a proud member of the National Directors Fellowship, a partnership between The O’Neill Theater Center, National New Plays Network, Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC), and The Kennedy Center; the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab; and an associate member of the SDC. She holds an MFA in directing from Northwestern University.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I don’t know about you, but over the past year I’ve thought a lot about what you’re asking. I’ve been lucky enough to work and live from coast to coast and in New Zealand, Rome, and Berlin — and to call Washington DC home once again. I was born in Boulder, CO, a place I return to as much as possible, and where I fell in love with hiking and skiing — anything outdoors. Following the completion of my mom’s PhD dissertation, we moved back to the Virginia Beach, VA area where she had grown up and where my extended family lived. So, though I was born out West, I was raised in the South as a Quaker, surrounded by academic and artistic families (my mother was a professor, painter, and poet) and the Society of Friends. I loved being a kid growing up down at the oceanfront boardwalk with the diversity of tourists and night swimming in the Chesapeake Bay. I found theater early and never looked back.
After graduating from Catholic University, I moved across the country to the San Francisco Bay Area with a directing and dramaturgy internship at TheaterWorks. I had the opportunity to learn from new work champion, Kent Nicholson, and later became a company member of foolsFURY Theater. I trained with SITI Company, Mary Overlie, and Stephen Wangh among other physical theater makers. I also pursued new play development as an associate artist at Magic Theater and assisted Carey Perloff at American Conservatory Theater. Through an SDC Observership grant, I was the assistant director to Anna Shapiro on “A Number” at A.C.T.. I went to study with her and folks like Mary Zimmerman and Michael Rohd at Northwestern University for my MFA in directing. While in Chicago, I co-founded and produced The Chicago Home Theater Festival, a five-year city-wide artistic event centering BIPOC artists, immigrants and refugees, and LGBTQIA+ folks. It organized artists from local community leaders, change agents, youth, and other invested neighbors to celebrate neighborhood culture, share a communal meal, experience transformative art, build intentional community across lines of difference, and inspire direct action.
While serving an Artistic Directing Fellowship at Cleveland Play House, my mother’s illness worsened. So, I made the hard decision to move back to the East Coast to care for her. An interim creative producer position with The Welders 2.0 brought me back to Washington D.C. in late 2018, where I’ve since worked with The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Prologue, Theater J, and, way back in the day, Rorschach Theater, Woolly Mammoth, and Arena Stage. I have been back in the area for almost three years exactly, though one of those years was just getting cozy with Zoom and the walk between my house and Malcolm X Park as my daily activity during quarantine. I have missed being in rehearsal! I feel so lucky to be back with this brilliant team.
As the director, what are your favorite productions before “In the Middle Fields”?
That’s hard! They’re all my favorite. The first one that comes to mind is the show just before the shutdown, “The Smuggler” by Ronan Noone with Solas Nua. Ronan’s juggernaut story of citizenship, capitalism, and exploitation in the United States neatly blended sneer, stand-up, and poetry with the struggle for survival and self-worth. I staged the piece as a site-specific, cocktail-included event in an elite speakeasy bar called Allegory, located behind a secret door in the Radical Library at Eaton DC. The piece went on to garner critical raves including The New York Times Top Picks of 2019 and Hit Show of the Year by DC Theatre Scene, one of the Best Shows of the Year by DC Metro Theater Arts, and an extended run at Round House Theater. Thinking about this show brings me so much joy — from the rehearsal process, to the extensions, to the amazing folks at Eaton and Round House — and the partnerships we made with RAICES and ICE Out of DC.
I directed the world premiere of Eric Coble’s “These Mortal Hosts” at Cleveland Play House which asks the question: What happens when you discover you’re not alone in your body? The play follows three small-town Colorado strangers as a series of spiritual mysteries upend their world while exploring questions of faith, madness, and miracle. Moving from memory to direct address to the present moment, we heightened the theatricality with trap doors, false walls, and physical transformation with a pregnancy and a birth on stage and also creating subtle moments of intimate human connection. Roc Lee was our sound designer and the way he built a world of internal and external audio landscapes still gives me chills to think about.
Working with actor Kate MacCluggage on George Brandt’s “Grounded” — the brilliant play about an ace fighter pilot who struggles with the trauma of flying drones in an unnamed dessert — in my hometown at Virginia Stage Company, was a truly meaningful personal experience as well as one of my favorite designs. We transformed the full stage and proscenium into a 40-foot-high series of tarmac walls angled at precarious positions to conjure both a runway and prison. Using projections, we created the feeling of barreling through the blue sky or portraying the eye-in-the-sky drone security camera. We used abstraction in the projections to trace her deteriorating mental health, and the effect of a combined solo show in verse with complex digital theatrics by Sarah Tundermann was truly stunning.
As part of the Chicago Home Theater Festival, we commissioned a series of short plays that were inspired by a neighborhood or specific home. I directed Zayd Dohrn’s “’Cause I Know You Got Soul,”which is about the first date between Michelle and Barack Obama. I staged it on the porch of Bill Ayers’ home, a couple of blocks from the site of their actual date in Southside Chicago. Those layered intersections gave the piece a palpable feeling of immediacy and nostalgia, as the young couple heatedly discussed the new movie “Do the Right Thing,” lightly exposing the problems in Obama’s middle-of-the-road approach to governance.
What attracted you to this production?
Solas Nua and Rex Daugherty have a unique vision as a culturally specific multi-arts company, one that I have loved, and after my collaboration on “The Smuggler.” As an associate artist, I eagerly awaited the next time. They are a home theater for me. When I first read Dierdre Kinahan’s poem, which was inspired by a Mary Lavin novel of the same name, I was hooked by the evocative language that wove together the past and present like music; by the story’s resonance to our collective moment of emerging from illness; by the way nature is a healing force; and the theatrical possibilities of adapting a poem into an outdoor piece of theater. It is a simple story. A woman sets out after a long illness, towards freedom and healing. But the depth of her journey is multi-layered. Rex and I spent weeks hunting for the right location that checked all the logistics boxes. It incorporates the wildness of an Irish meadow and sits next to a stream which provides the kind of emotional gravitas called for in the piece. P St Beach really captures that sweet spot “In the Middle of the Fields” calls for.
In researching Mary Lavin and Ireland’s movement to recognize Lavin’s genius among mostly male literary greats, I found such inspiration in the way she uses the domestic struggle of a woman seeking freedom to be a subversively simple and profound comment on our collective socio-political moment of reinvention. We cannot choose to return to the same world. We must reimagine ourselves, our society, and our values and remember our interconnectedness, despite our discomfort, fear, and exhaustion. I’ve wanted to work with Dierdre since reading her work a few years ago, and I loved the exciting chance to adapt with her, writing in the rehearsal room and crafting the play on its feet. The form of the poem invited wildly creative collaboration. With the incredible design team — including two sound designers, Tosin Olufolabi and Gordon Nimmo-Smith — we are incorporating a rich sonic landscape (through headphones), movement, original music, and theatrical effect to realize the play. I am continually awed by being together in rehearsal again with this piece, the luminous work of the performers (Jessica Lefkow, Ryan Sellars, and Caroline Dubberly), and the masterful work of the design team.
Have you directed other outdoor performances? If so, how does this one differ? If not, what are the differences of doing an indoor and outdoor productions?
I have directed a few outdoor pieces, and they have all been different. They have been affected by the details of the location, proximity to the audience, and technological adaptation, especially in terms of amplification of the actors’ voices. For this piece, we have some exciting ways we’re working with sound, amplification, and music composition. What has been so thrilling for “In the Middle of the Fields” is how the layers of storytelling allow us to play with the theatricality. The production is inspired by a play which was devised from a poem which was written to honor a novel. Like a poem, we are exploring a single story from a multitude of artistic forms. There will be traditional theatre, movement devised by the company, dance choreographed by Tony Thomas, an original song written by Caroline, and the sound designers are building an entire layered soundscape. Each audience member will have their own set of headphones, which will transmit a live feed of the actors’ voices as well as a rich and surprising world of sound and music that creates each location of the play — from an Irish farm to an Irish Pub to an Oncology Ward. We also get the chance to work with the majesty of nature. The sweeping vista and rushing creek of P Street Beach are scenic elements we could never recreate fully in a theater. The play is set during the sunset, so audiences will feel the gloaming hour as the sun dips behind the horizon, and we’ll use lights to enhance that magic hour between light and darkness. In the play, nature is a healing force and the main character’s relationship to the earth, to the grass, and trees and bowl of the sky is central to her journey. The audience will be truly immersed in the world. A heron has visited rehearsal almost every day we’re on location and that kind of magic can be a wilder, deeper collaboration than when we have total control in a theater.
Are there any shows you would like to do in the future?
There are so many brilliant women and non-binary playwrights whose work I am in complete awe of like Sylvia Khoury, Charly Evon Simpson, Lily Padilla, Leslye Headland, Sarah B. Mantell, Justice Hehir, Mona Mansour, and Haruna Lee. I could go on and on. Locally, I am anticipating seeing each of The Welders’ pieces! But, to answer your question, I’m putting these projects out into the world. I want to direct “Usual Girls” by Ming Peiffer and “Cost of Living” by Martyna Majok; create an adaptation of “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt; and produce/organize the International Home Theater in the D.C. Metro area, in partnership with local playwright residencies in homes and alternative living spaces across D.C.
“In the Middle of the Fields” will be performed from May 20-June 12, 2021 on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 pm at the P Street Beach Park (23rd and P Street NW) just three blocks from Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. For tickets and information, go to this link. For information about Solas Nua, go to their website.
“Nationally recognized Creative Strategist Philippa Hughes will provide audience engagement events throughout the production in conjunction with Nueva Vida. Solas Nua will be raising awareness and funding for this organization throughout the run of the show. Nueva Vida is the only organization in the D.C. area that provides comprehensive support network for the under-served Latino population effected by breast cancer. Read more about this worthy organization.”