It's a ghost story straight from the archives of the Missouri History Museum.
In the summer of 1913, St. Louis housewife Pearl Curran claimed to be channeling the spirit of Patience Worth, a British colonist, through an Ouija board. Through Pearl, Patience composed books, poems and plays, which were then published with help from Pearl's husband, John.
Was the spirit real? Paranormal researchers and scientists, naturally, disagree. St. Louis native Jennifer Schlueter personally does not believe in the supernatural, but to her, whether Worth existed does not matter. What mattered was that Curran believed she did — and that her story is an interesting tale ripe with dramatic possibility.
"The more I read about it, the more it felt like this was the kind of project that would be perfect for my theater company, which deals with material from the historical records," Schlueter says.
Schlueter's for/word company brings its production Patience Worth to St. Louis in March. It was developed as a staged reading in both Columbus, Ohio, and London. Schlueter serves as both playwright and the company's joint artistic director. The story draws on many historical records, including some of the books supposedly written by Worth through Curran, as well as works about Curran/Worth from authors Irving Litvag and Daniel B. Shea.
"I'm really interested in the question of it all," Schlueter says. "Is it real, or is it not real? Is it the product of her own imagination or is there something actually taking over?"
Schlueter says she is not trying to pick a side, but is rather letting those questions inform the dramatic arc of the piece. Her script also gives the actress who plays Curran, Emily Bach, a chance to perform in a "dual" role, since she also has to channel Worth's spirit.
"I get the chance to develop two distinctly different characters," Bach says. "I played more with, I think the term Jen used a lot that really stuck with me and resonated with me, was 'the landscape of Pearl's mind.'"
When performing in a dual role, Bach says she goes through both vocal and physical changes. In the beginning, the distinctions were very broad, but Bach says that changed as the production was developed. She went from a "pirate-like patois" to something subtler.
"I think it's becoming more interesting if the lines are a bit more blurred and it's sometimes maybe a little bit difficult to determine who is speaking, who is in this body right now," Bach says.
The for/word company is dedicated to exploring innovative ways to interpret material available in archives. With Patience Worth, that meant creating a technological and visual aspect with a team of students at the Ohio State University led by Vita Berezina-Blackburn, an animation specialist at the university's Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design.
Schlueter was awarded an $18,000 grant to develop Patience Worth. She and the company participated in a month-long residency exploring technological possibilities for the production. The play's premiere coincides with the national conference for the U.S. Institute for Theatre Technology, where they will present their research and findings.
The technology creates a sense of presence, as opposed to a visual representation, incorporating motion capture and facial capture to allude to the presence of the spirit. Movement plays a big part.
"My hope is that [audiences] will have a sense of presence of something that is not directly translated into either a physical presence, or a stage set, or a projection of specific characters," Berezina-Blackburn says.
As for this month's St. Louis performances, a three-night run at the Kranzberg Arts Center, Schlueter is especially excited. This will be her first work to premiere on her "home turf," a place where she learned to love theater, but which she has not visited in years.
"I really only know the city from the perspective of a kid," Schlueter says. "I'm excited to come back as an adult."
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