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Theater Preview: Abbey Theater Presents World Premiere of the Story of Mary, Queen of Scots

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Theater Preview: Abbey Theater Presents World Premiere of the Story of Mary, Queen of ScotsNikki Davis in The Life of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots - photo courtesy The Abbey Theater of Dublin
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The pandemic has changed life for all of us and the solutions throw a wrench in the way we’re used to experiencing performance art, for fans and especially for creators.

When the shutdowns began, Dublin’s Abbey Theater had auditions scheduled in a week for 140 local children for productions of the musical Madagascar and the school edition of Les Misérables. As director Joe Bishara said, “How do we take that away from the kids, but still provide them something not exactly the same, but at least something in its place that still feels somewhat substantive?”

Friends of his in New York were already working on a piece to address this loss, The Show Must Go Online and Bishara and the Abbey hosted the Central Ohio premiere, part of a wildly successful wave that’s led to over 400 productions in the last four months.

“While that was going on, I kept on saying, ‘Well, what else can we do?’” Bishara said.

Those thoughts led to a more robust season of the Virtual Theater Project, filmed and broadcast from the Abbey. This season kicked off with an acclaimed adaptation of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, Letter from a Birmingham Jail adapted and performed by Troy Anthony Harris, and it continues with the world premiere of Nikki Davis’ historical drama Marie Regina: The Life of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. I spoke with Bishara and Davis by Zoom about this exciting project.

“I knew that Nikki’s piece was a hybrid – as long as she was willing to roll along with it, I was like, ‘Wow, this would really work great on film just as well as it will with an audience,'” Bishara said. “So, shortly after the pandemic happened, I also reached out to [her] and I said, ‘Hey, are you willing to roll with me on this? I think we can really make this work.’ And she said yes.”

The piece had its origins even earlier. Davis visited Scotland at 13 and became enamored with the fascinating story of Mary Stuart, her reign beset by treachery and rumor. In undergrad, Davis studied abroad in Scotland and deepened the research into this monarch and reactions to her.

“At a young age, I always had a fascination with women throughout history who were put to death because they had exercised some sort of personal agency or power in a time where society deemed that threatening to the patriarchal status quo,” Davis said.

While studying in Edinburgh, “I did a little further digging into Mary because I was so interested in her, and then decided that I would do my undergrad theater honors thesis on her,” Davis said. “To unite my theater major and history minor, I wanted to do the research, become that historian who really got to dig into her past, and then be able to write and perform a one-woman show about her.”

On a research grant to return to Scotland, “I traced her footsteps through castles and ruins, which was really, really remarkable, but also got to learn a lot about what Scotland and the UK as a whole, what they know about Mary, if they know anything,” Davis said. “What do they think about her? What do they say to tourists? So, I would interview different tour guides and whatnot to just really pick their brains about, ‘How do you advertise this place? How do you advertise her?’”

When Davis came back from Scotland with that research, she was faced with turning it into the 70-minute piece being premiered this weekend.

“How could I transform this history that so many authors have put into five, six hundred-page biographies, and how do I transform it into art? What is the point that I’m trying to make?” Davis asked. “And at the end of the day, it’s about enlightening audiences about how far we have come, but how far we really still need to go in order for women, women in powerful positions, women of agency, to still feel safe, respected, and powerful in our still very patriarchal societies.”

The collaboration with Bishara also started organically in pre-pandemic times.

“I knew in 2018 that I was going to be applying to grad school and so before I left Columbus, I really wanted to work with Joe,” Davis said. “I have a Columbus bucket list of a handful of people or companies that I might want to work with or reach out to. At the very least, I wanted to pick his brain; I’m very interested in directing, as well, and so I just wanted to get in the room with him and work with him if I could.

“So, he cast me in a staged reading, and then, following that piece, we had a meeting during which I got to talk to him about my aspirations and the thing I loved more than anything was getting to write my one-woman show about Mary, Queen of Scots, and I’d love to do more historical research about historical women to further this historical female solo performance thing. And he was like, ‘Well, would you want to send it to me?’ And I was over the moon. Never expected that.”

The approach Davis settled on finds her playing a ghostly, omniscient version of Mary Stuart, looking back over her life from the vantage point of today.

“Essentially what it boiled down to, Joe made me realize, was this Mary with perspective, is essentially me,” Davis said. “It’s me having learnt Mary’s story and now being able to comment on it.

“So, she’s the narrator of the story, and as memories pop up, Mary at different ages – Mary at 15, Mary at 18, Mary at 23, Mary in prison in England, Mary about to be beheaded. It bounces around a little bit [generally chronologically], but there’s certain things that are out of place based on where Ghost Mary’s mind is being taken by her own storytelling.”

Bishara and Davis were united that this is a theatrical experience using the advantages of film.

“[We tried] to make it as theatrical as possible,” Bishara said. “We’ve been toying around with different ways of handling this. The virtual theater projects that we’ve done with youth artists, the artists have been at home and shot by the student or members of their family, again, to practice social distancing. But with, like, our Martin Luther King piece that we did on Juneteenth, and now Nikki’s piece, these were things that were rehearsed and then performed/recorded in the theater.”

As it was filmed, Bishara said, “The first day of shooting, we actually went through the whole show from beginning to end, and then the next day, we came back and got some very unique pick-up moments and things like that, because again, it’s a deconstruction. There’s a movement sequence that I really wanted to shoot separately so Nikki had enough energy to go through it. [There are a] couple specific voiceover moments what’s really about Nikki reacting to what’s being hurled at her as Mary, or as Ghost Mary, in a sense memory kind of thing. But everything was shot together, with the exception of those pick-up moments, with three different cameras.”

Davis concurred.

“I have done extremely little film work; I am very much a theater actor [and] it was important for me that the piece still felt like a theatrical show being filmed, as opposed to a film [balancing what’s] most effective given that it’s filmed, but also would make whoever watches the stream realize how effective this piece is on a stage,” Davis said. “My particular focus in my future research is on specifically female solo performance, having a singular woman on stage, for audience viewership, and how that dictates how stories are perceived if you are… What does an audience think about this woman, and how do they feel about this woman as they have to sit and look and listen to her for a 60-plus minute performance?”

In the future, Davis hopes to tackle more works like Marie Regina: The Life of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots.

“I’m hoping to keep expanding on projects like this, keep evolving my performance theory about historical female solo performance as this effective teaching mode, and Mary is just the first woman in the process that has been given that treatment of being applied to this theory, and I have aspirations for it: I would love to perform this other places,” Davis said. “I would love to take it to schools. I would love to someday direct other young actresses in it, and I hope to continue to write other stories.”

Her thoughts of future projects are expansive while keeping this same focus.

“I have current interests in some other beheaded female royalty or executed female spies, particularly in World War II,” she said. “Any woman who was burned at the stake… So, it’s those sort of stories that so disturbed me when I was young and that I’m so determined to understand why these women had to die. What was so bad that they did, that they literally had to be silenced?”

Bishara is excited to see the audience’s reaction to the piece.

“You look at any blockbuster film, everything that happened with Mary Stuart’s the formula for it,” Bishara said. “Drama, intrigue, adventure, murder. So, I knew it was one of those things that could transcend the stage, as long as Nikki was amenable to it. She was, and I’m really excited to see how audiences interact with the piece next weekend.”

“Mary is just the first step in this for me,” Davis said. “The long-term goal is to write a series of these, as well as to expand my theory, and we’re talking dream level here, but someday I want to get my PhD and hopefully someday teach at a university, but this fall is kind of the start of that, and I can think of no better way, no better way, to kick all of that off than having gotten to work with Joe on remounting this. It has been such an amazing learning experience, as far as what is really important in what I want to study, in what I wish to create and wish to write. He has provided a lot of focus, asked a lot of really wonderful questions, and I couldn’t be more grateful for this starting-off point I have for my education.”

Marie Regina: The Life of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, runs at 8:00 p.m. Friday, July 31, and Saturday, August 1, and 2:00 p.m. Sunday, August 2. For tickets and more info, visit https://dublinohiousa.gov/abbey-theater.

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