Email Aimee for bookings,
orders, assignments,
workshops and information.

Feature arts writer, The Laguna Beach CoastlineNews and The Orange County Register

Julie Harris on Emily Dickinson: Actress opens Playhouse 80th Anniversary season with a reprise of The Belle of Amherst.
By : Aimee Greenberg

The Laguna Beach CoastlineNews, September 1, 2000

Legendary Julie Harris brings out the "Belle" to Laguna audiences. Based on the poems and letters of 19th century poet Emily Dickinson, The Belle of Amherst depicts one of America’s greatest literary figures. The play provides an opportunity to peek into the private world of a great poet and astounding mind. Julie Harris has received five Tony Awards and five Tony nominations for her work in the theatre. In film, the role for which she is best remembered is Abra, opposite James Dean in Elia Kazan’s screen adaptation of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden . Harris gave a benefit performance of The Belle of Amherst at the Laguna Playhouse in 1986. She is a resident of Cape Cod, where she is a board member and actress of the Wellfleet Harbor Actor’s Theater.

The Laguna Playhouse production reunites the talented trio of Julie Harris, director Charles Nelson Reilly and author William Luce twenty-five years after The Belle of Amherst was first produced. The play is being produced in agreement with Don Gregory, the original Broadway producer and Newport Beach resident. The Laguna Playhouse production will tour nationally for six months; spreading the visibility of the local theatre nationwide.

The following is an excerpt from an interview with Julie Harris during rehearsal.

AG: Obviously, you have a very personal and intense connection to Emily Dickinson?

Harris: Emily’s connected to all of us, for all time. I think she’s a great poet. A great soul.

AG: But I can’t help but associate James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night and his obsessive relationship to the repeated portrayal of the Count of Monte Cristo. It’s been twenty-five years since this play was first produced. You’ve enjoyed a successful run on Broadway, a national tour, a television show and a Grammy Award-winning recording. Why resurrect the spirit of Emily?

Harris: Somebody asked me: Do you have a death wish, that you want to do this again? No, I would do Member of the Wedding again, if I could. Or any great play. The Last of Mrs. Lincoln or The Lark. To be able to do a part that you did twenty years before, and come back to it, is a very interesting experience. Not only is this a wonderful story about a wonderful spirit, but also I find, in many ways, it’s as if I’ve never done it before. I have to find my way back to it, which isn’t very hard.

AG: Could you recite one of your favorite Dickinson poems?

Harris: This is one of my favorite poems. It’s not in the play.

I measure every grief I meet with analytic eyes.
I wonder if it weighs like mine.
Or has an easier size.
I wonder if it wore it long, or did it just begin.
I could not tell the date of mine. It feels so old a pain.
I mean Wow!

AG: Yes, this is a wise soul.

Harris: And then there’s a poem, we didn’t always have in the play, but we have now.

Nobody knows this little Rose-
It might a pilgrim be.
Did I not take it from the ways
And lift it up to thee.
Only a bee will miss it-
Only a Butterfly,
Hastening from far journey-
On its breast to lie-
Only a Bird will wonder-
Only a Breeze will sigh-
Ah, Little Rose-how easy
For such as thee to die!

Everything she writes filters down like nature, like the sunrise and the sunset.

AG: It’s true. She is one of our greatest poets. But, what about Emily the eccentric and sometimes morbid recluse?

Harris: People always ask me: "Wasn’t she unhappy?" Didn’t she have a lonely life?"
She went through periods of great despair like all of us do. She knew early on what she had to do. She had to be quiet and alone, to be able to receive all of her words and images, like a Saint. It wasn’t a pain for her, it was pleasure. "I find ecstasy in living," she said. "The mere sense of living is joy enough. Take all away from me but leave me ecstasy."

AG: And yet, the culture persists in depicting her as a tortured voyeur.

Harris: The pain of living for her was loss. Loss of friends and family. It’s a universal feeling.

AG: You two are kindred souls in a sense.

Harris: Yes, as long as I live, I’ll have a connection with Emily Dickinson. She’ll never forsake me. She’ll always be a part of my life.

AG: You performed "My business is To Love" with soprano Renee Fleming at Alice Tully Hall in New York this year?

Harris: Yes, it was thrilling. I read the poems and Renee became my sister in the dialogue, Lavinia and then she sang songs that were composed for the poems by Andre Previn and other composers.

AG: Charles Nelson Reilly directed the concert. This is another artist with whom you’ve had a long-lasting connection. You’ve done eleven productions together, including the recent production and subsequent tour of "The Gin Game?"

Harris: Charlie is a great teacher, with a soul as great as Emily. He’s an extraordinary man. We just have fun together. We’re finding new things in the play. He sees me thinking and knows what I’m going to do before I even try it. And he’ll say: Go ahead, try it!

AG: How are rehearsals going? How has the passage of twenty-five five years affected the process?

Harris: Well, the floor plan is there, so we just have to follow it. But then I’ll stumble on something new and Charlie will encourage me to explore. There are so many elements that we’re discovering now. It makes us wonder, why didn’t we see this before?

AG: How are you dealing with the age difference?

Harris: Well, I’m not thinking about it. I am, at this point, twenty years older than she was when she died. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the literary publisher in her life said at her funeral that she looked like a child when she died.

AG: There’s a cruel joke about Emily, that’s built into the mythology of her persona, wherein it’s said that she had become so obese from over-eating that when she died, they had to break down the walls of her bedroom to retrieve her body for burial.

Harris: She called herself Jumbo. She had Brights disease, which is a kidney ailment that made her bloated. I don’t think people will think about the age. The time is the 1800’s and I’ll be wearing a long white dress, with a nice wig. I won’t look as old as I am!

AG: What is your approach to creating a character?

Harris: Primarily, I use the given information in the play. In The Belle of Amherst, you have a wealth of research to investigate. I’ve been to her house. I’ve looked out of the windows of her home. I know what her garden looked like. For instance, I say:

I hide behind the tree, with a garter snake in my hand.
It’s not just any tree.
I hide behind the big maple tree in my garden.

There’s a beautiful maple tree in the garden of her house. I’ve been there in the fall, when it’s scarlet. That identity is very specific for me. And, I’ve read, I read the three volumes of her letters. That’s the most powerful way to learn about her, through her letters.

AG: And, of course, you use personal experience?

Harris: I look at that daguerreotype. It’s the only picture we have of her. To me, she wasn’t plain, but at the same time she wasn’t like the prettiest girl in school. Boys would pass her up. That was a hurt you felt as an adolescent…when the boys would pay attention to the other girls.

AG: Why did you choose to perform a one-woman show?

Harris: It wasn’t an active decision. At the end of the fifties, I performed some of Emily’s poems and letters for the Caedmon Recording Company. It was my first connection with her work since high school. At the same time, my son Peter’s teacher asked if I would do a solo benefit performance for his father’s church. I said: "I don’t do that. I don’t perform solo!" But I asked him if I could do a program of Emily’s letters and poems. Well, he said yes and I was stuck with it, so I went away that summer and created a piece in chronological order. I performed the work at the benefit and Charlie Reilly came to see it. He said it was beautiful and belonged in the theatre. We worked on the material on and off for eight years. William Luce and Timothy Hegelson joined the project. At one point, they wanted to perform it with other people in the cast, like the family members. I kept my mouth closed, but I wanted to do a solo show. We know what she sounded like from her letters, but who knows what the family sounded like. It’s her point of view. And then, producers Don Gregory and Mike Merrick were doing Darrow with Henry Fonda on Broadway, and they overheard Charlie talking about his one-woman show at Sardis. They read the script and agreed to tour it and bring it to Broadway.

AG: Who are your favorite directors? If I were an actress in the fifties and sixties, I would have loved to work with Kazan. He was so gifted at working with actors.

Harris: Yes, Mr. Kazan. Harold Clurman, John Van Druten. They really spurred you on and knew how to trigger you. And Charlie, Charlie, Charlie. Always Charlie. He’s the greatest.

AG: I’m looking at the range of characters you’ve played: St. Joan, Eliza Doolittle, Emily Dickinson, Sally Bowles, Ophelia, and Frankie Addams. Is there a "Julie Harris" character, quality or archetype?

Harris: Sometimes, when people say a Julie Harris role, I think they mean a cross between Frankie Adams and Joan of Arc. Sensitive, a little rebellious…odd.

AG: …Fragile, on the edge, with a strong inner life?

Harris: Yes.

AG: The New York Times has called you "the greatest living stage actress."

HARRIS: Who, where, how?

AG: The New York Times! How do those words impact you? Is it a burden?

Harris: It’s a burden and it’s not true. It’s not a truth. There’s no such thing as the greatest.

AG: But you’ve won five Tony Awards! It’s unprecedented!
Harris: But I can’t believe in it. I mean it’s a great honor, but there’s no such thing as the best.

AG: What was it like to work with James Dean?

Harris: He was beautiful and gifted and fun to be with. He improvised a lot and kept things very exciting.

AG: Who are some of your most important influences?

Harris: Tolstoy, Mother Teresa, Eleanor Roosevelt and Nelson Mandela.

AG: What’s next for you Julie?

Harris: Well, after this tour is over, I’m going to Chicago to do a new play: Fossils, by Claudia Allen at the Victory Gardens Theater. And, then we hope to tour William Luce’s Lucifer’s Child, the Isak Dinesen piece.

AG: So, after this tour, Emily will once again be put to rest—temporarily.

Harris: Yes, and Issak will emerge, hopefully. And after that, I have a play called Staying On Alone, about Alice B. Toklas that I’d like to do.

AG: You’re very busy.

Harris: Well, there’s no end to the wonderful ladies you could portray. I hope I’m around long enough to do justice to them.