Trinity Repertory Company has been developing and is staging Shapeshifter, by Laura Schellhardt, which will have its world premiere May 1-31. It's a tale about mysterious women who emerge from the sea and alter the lives of a small group of villagers, and it becomes a story of how in time we all change for others.
A FAST JOURNEY Rachael Warren in Shapeshifter.
The power of myth is the power of metaphor come to life, a wider truth made tangible so that we can touch an abstract idea and it can touch us.
"The things I love about myths is that the first mythmaking happened the second that somebody died and humans had to make sense of where they went," says playwright Schellhardt, speaking from Ontario. "And rather than put them in the dark ground all alone, they created this other world for them that looks distinctly like the human world but has certain other elements that make it slightly grander and more epic in nature."
She says that folktales, myth's less grand children, are close to her since her family is Scottish and she grew up with some of those stories.
"What I love about folktales is that they celebrate humans, but they are linked to a culture, that every story that comes out of them is in part a way to either illuminate or celebrate or explain one type of people," she says.
The kernel of the story developed when Schellhardt was one of Paula Vogel's MFA playwriting students at Brown in 2003, where she assembled three short plays about shapeshifters on a remote island. But when she finally had the opportunity to develop the play at Trinity Rep, two of the stories fell away as one of the characters, a little girl, emerged with the strongest voice.
"It became very clear that the girl actually was the story, and that the idea of this little girl who had lost her mother and was therefore trying to figure out who she was without any guidance really quickly became the linking factor," she says.
Schellhardt has done extensive research on myths and mythmaking, out of personal as well as professional interest. She has found that there tends to be a difference between such tales that focus on men and those about women
"The question of the male shapeshifting myths often are a question of power, the power they have over humans or the power they have in the world," she says. "Female shapeshifting myths seem to be ones where they find themselves in the human world for one reason or another and then they do not know what to do. Either they are not allowed to switch back or they find they have fallen in love with someone in the human world and it becomes very complicated.
"And those are the myths that interest me the most: the distinctive difficulty of figuring out in which land you belong and remaining true to something you were, and at the same time moving forward into something new.
An important feature of the development process has been continuity. Laura Kepley, who directed the workshop readings, is directing the premiere. Miriam Silverman, the Brown/Trinity Conservatory student who worked on it from the beginning, is again playing Midge, the young girl. Even stage manager Barbara Reo is back.
"What's been lovely about it is that many of us are familiar enough with each other and with the text that as it's changing it really feels more like it's sharpening," the playwright says. "We have a lot of eyes on that, and we have a lot of people to say, 'Well, remember where we started — do you want to go back to that?' Or, 'When we were first starting, these things were important, and are we changing it over it this way?' So it's radically different now. The focus used to be the three supernatural stories, and now it's this little girl and this community.
"It's a much faster journey than it was," she adds.
Schellhardt has had her plays produced around the country, and her awards include a Dramatist Guild Playwriting Fellowship as well as a TCG National Playwriting Residency with Trinity Rep. She is the author of Screenwriting for Dummies and currently heads the playwriting program at Northwestern University.