Studio 4 Christened with a Splash
The McKee Gymnasium on Hitt Street was once home to the women’s natatorium or swimming pool on campus. Now home to the MU Theatre’s Studio 4, the first full production to be performed in the new venue maintains that aquatic connection. The Drowning Girls, written by Canadian playwrights Beth Graham, Charlie Tomlinson, and Daniela Vlaskalic and directed by doctoral candidate Sarah Senff, tells the tale of three Edwardian-era English women who rise from their watery graves to prosecute their murderer. In 1915, George Joseph Smith was hanged for the murder of his three wives, each of whom he had killed by drowning in the bath while trying to make the deaths look like accidents in order to collect insurance payments from the policies he took out on each wife.
“There are a number of interesting parallels, beginning with the fact Studio 4 was once the women’s natatorium,” Senff says. “Since March is Women’s History Month, I wanted to continue the conversation that we had last season with Good Kids directed by Carrie Winship, where she was talking about sexual assault. This is another kind of power-based personal violence, and although it’s a little different, it’s an important conversation to have. It’s one we’re having now in the national conversation about #MeToo and #NeverAgain.”
Senff says she has been fascinated by the story ever since she picked it up by chance at an Association for Theatre in Higher Education conference in Montreal a few years ago. She says she loves that the play moves back and forth from poetry to prose and calls it very playful while also being very dark.
“I have intentionally decided not to direct this play in the style of psychological realism because I think it has the potential to traumatize the actors when talking about this kind of violence,” Senff says. “Most of the actor training in the theatre department tends toward psychological realism, so this is something a little different for the actors.” She says the three actors on stage will portray 24 different characters during the course of the play. And they will do so while being partially submerged in bathtubs full of water and having water shower down upon them from above.
“We have to think about how the water impacts every element on stage,” Senff says. For example, props have to be pre-soaked to prevent dyes from leaking into the costumes; the costumes had to be altered from being 100% period authentic for safety reasons; surfaces had to be water-resistant while providing some traction; an elevated stage was constructed to provide room for plumbing underneath; and showerheads used in the play have to sit below the lights and other electrical equipment. “It is definitely logistically challenging, but we wanted to christen the new space with a splash,” she says.
We’ve Come a Long Way, But…
Senff says she has been struck by the contemporary themes that emerge from a play about a serial killer in the early 20th century. While the play is rooted in history, Senff says women remain vulnerable today to the kind of violence portrayed on stage.
Sarah Nolan, Cassidy Munie and Cassandra Ferrick from The Drowning Girls
“Women have greater financial independence, which makes them less vulnerable to predators, but there are new ways we’ve become vulnerable,” she says. “Our smartphones are incredible tools that can do a lot, but they also have left us vulnerable to stalking and harassment in new ways, so I want to talk about how far we’ve come as well as what we still need to do to make sure no one is vulnerable.”
That conversation will occur in Act 2 of the play—a talk back Senff will moderate with a panel of experts from the campus Title IX office, the Counseling Center, the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center (RSVP), and a doctoral student from the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies.
“For me, this kind of theatre is really about what lingers in the minds of the audience after they leave and the change that it makes—the potential impact on culture, even in small ways,” Senff says.
The Drowning Girls will run March 14–17 at 7:30 p.m. each night and conclude with a matinee performance on March 18 at 2 p.m.