Edinburgh Fringe 2022
Explore environmental icon Rachel Carson’s nature in this wildly inventive solo show from fellow Pittsburgher Elise Robertson, who uses puppets, found objects, and stage wizardry to interweave her own messy coming-of-age with Rachel’s, as they struggle with their identities as artists, mothers, and truth-tellers.
Hi Elise, thank you for taking the time to talk with The New Current, how does it feel to be heading to Edinburgh Fringe & C Venues, C digital this summer?
Thrilling and terrifying in equal amounts! I developed this show during pandemic and to this point have only performed it to a camera or zoom audience in my little log cabin studio. I feel a bit like a hermit emerging from my cave.
Imagining Rachel Premiered digitally at the Fringe in 2021 as well as toured other major Fringe festivals, what was this experience like for you?
It was amazing to be able to share the piece with folks from all over the world without having to travel. Rachel Carson would certainly have approved of the environmental aspect of that! And experimenting with animation and green screen and other digital effects for that version was a wildly creative experience, if a bit of a rabbit hole, LOL. I’m very proud of that work, but also cannot wait to get back in front of a live audience.
What does it mean to you to be able to Premiere Imagining Rachel live at C venues later in August?
I mean…it’s a dream come true. I was previously booked to work on a television series in Canada in early August, so if not for Hartley at C ARTS finding a little late run window at the C cubed venue, I would not have been able to do it. Now I get the best of both worlds. Opening August 20 also gives me and director Steve Simone-Friedland a little more time to reimagine the piece for the live stage. We’ve staged a whole underwater scene with two ladders, a bucket and a curtain, and an 8-foot rain stick I built (I’m calling a tide stick). It’s gonna be really moody and experiential I hope.
Will there be any nerves ahead of your Edinburgh Fringe debut?
Oh, hell yes. I’m panicking! This is not only my first solo show, it’s also the most raw and personal piece I’ve ever done. I will be naked up there (not literally, don’t worry!). And 72 minutes with no other actors to bail me out if I lose a line? I guess I’ll just have the puppets take over and start telling jokes…
What does Edinburgh Fringe mean to you?
It’s the world’s theatre playground, a swirling vortex of creativity, exuberance, virtuosity. I’ve only been once before, back in 2008 with a show I was directing, and I’ve been wanting to return ever since. To come back with this incredibly personal piece, at this time of environmental crisis—it’s…whoah…it’s big.
Can you tell me how Imagining Rachel came about, where did the inspiration for your show come from?
Rachel Carson is a fascinating woman who started working in science in the 1920’s, when there few women in the field. She approached her work with what we might call a ‘feminine’ mindset, in that she was an observer, studying the interconnectedness of the world’s eco-systems (a term she helped popularise) at a time when much of the scientific community was focused on making things better through science. An approach that created DDT, among other things.
What was it about Rachel Carson’s life and environmentalism that interested you so much, has she always been someone you have been inspired by?
I didn’t know much about her as a kid, actually, but as an adult I discovered that she grew up just a few miles from me in Western Pennsylvania. And she also loved the Outerbanks, and Maine. We’d led parallel lives—but there was a huge disconnect as a I began to explore her life. Our personalities were so very different, the choices we each made. It was this space between us that ended up inspiring the piece, understanding what that was
"...I’m more willing to let my journal doodling inform the narrative, to let it evolve and wiggle its way into shape, instead of trying to hammer on a structure by force."
Did you have any apprehensions about drawing from your own experiences for this piece?
I was very, very nervous for my parents to see it. I talk about my childhood, living with my Dad in the depths of his alcoholism, escaping the house to raise hell as a teen, stories I don’t think they knew. I was actually overwhelmed by their support of the project. My Dad’s story had a happy ending (he’s sober now), so I guess that helped.
You are a founding member of Unmuted Participants, how did this initiative come about and did you expect it would get such an incredible response from theatre makers as well as audiences and the press?
We were a group that came together under the artistic guidance of Ann Noble. The name came from our Zoom roots. The group started during pandemic and we have only ever met and collaborated on that platform. A lot of us have never even met each other person!
Will Unmuted Participants be something you will continue to explore in the future?
Absolutely. It’s an amazing group of very different, but incredibly creative and generous folks. We’re touring our pieces now, but I think we may go back into our creative cocoon this fall…
What would you say have been the most valuable lessons you have taken from Unmuted Participants and creating your show and what have you discovered about yourself during this whole process?
I really credit Ann Noble with encouraging me to explore my piece not just as a biography, but as an exploration of Rachel Carson through the lens of my own experience. It made the work so much richer. That lesson, to lean in to the things that are causing difficulty, to pull those apart, that has been really key to my growth. And in UP, we all play that role for each other, busting each other on the moments that don’t feel honest in the most gentle and supportive way, challenging each other to strive for the deeper truth.
Have you always had a passion for theatre and performing?
Pretty much. Since I could walk and talk, I’ve been either performing or building a world to perform in. I’m hopelessly an artist by nature.
How much has your background as an actor and director helped to guide you on this production?
I can’t not do both. I would put art in there too, actually. In rehearsal, we’ll work on a scene, and it’ll inspire an idea for a set piece or a prop. I’ll go away and build it and then often that will then inspire a new acting idea. I guess I am like Rachel Carson in that way, that interconnectedness between the inner life and the outer life, the visuals, the writing, the character work.
Has your style and the approach to your work changed much since you started out?
I’ve gotten a lot looser. I remember when I first started directing back in college, I wanted to dictate every detail. Now I’m more likely to let the actors choose their own blocking and tweak it. As a writer, I’m more willing to let my journal doodling inform the narrative, to let it evolve and wiggle its way into shape, instead of trying to hammer on a structure by force. As an actor, well, since that’s my main gig, after 20 years I think I just trust myself more. I’ll try anything to get a scene or moment to work. I’m happy to mess around until the truth pops out. It’s recognising when you’re getting to the good stuff, that’s the trick.
Do you have any advice, tips or suggestions you would offer fellow theatre makers or actors?
Dive in and start. Find like-minded folks to play with. Follow the crazy ideas and don’t be afraid to pull up the floorboards if a better path presents itself.
And finally, what do you want your fringe audiences to take away from Imagining Rachel?
She’s not so different from us. She cared about something, and she took little actions daily to lean into what she thought was right. Eventually her actions added up to a huge shift in humanity’s perspective about our environment. If we can all be a little more gentle with ourselves—try to do little things to help the environment, not get overwhelmed by how hopeless it all feels, but let those little things add up… Well, then there is a real possibility for another huge perspective shift. And that is what the world desperately needs.