‘When you have a great and difficult task, something perhaps almost impossible, if you only work a little at a time, every day a little, suddenly the work will finish itself,’ asserted acclaimed author Karen Blixen. Riotous Company is currently pursuing the ‘great and difficult task’ of not only dramatizing her short stories, but of characterizing the sophisticated and charismatic Blixen herself.
Four of Blixen’s stories make up the main acts of the play, Out of Blixen, and although this is not a biographical production, Riotous felt compelled to weave her stories together with some personal context. These ‘Blixen Threads’, as they are referred to in rehearsals, share some biography and insight into the complex author while revealing other dimensions to her stories as they are brought to life on stage.
There are many aspects of the woman to consider as the threads are devised: How do we authentically depict the woman who owned a coffee plantation in Africa, was a big-game hunter, a cosmopolitan socialite and a world-renowned writer? How do we avoid painting her with broad strokes and acknowledge her complexities? How much of her personal life do we include and how do we present it?
Karen Blixen was a fiercely independent woman with a brilliant mind and adventurous spirit, yet her life and writings are controversial for many reasons; not the least of which include her disparaging portrayal of the ‘natives,’ as she referred to the people of Kenya in her autobiography Out of Africa, marred with sweeping generalizations and treating them as inferiors. That being said, it is clear from her short story ‘Sorrow Acre’, among those being performed in this production, that she did, at least, struggle with some of the ramifications of her position of power and privilege as a Kenyan land owner and colonialist.
This makes representing her in three short Blixen Threads a challenge. How does Riotous Company explore these disparities? In order to accurately represent her in all her morally questionable glory, we have been playing with the theatrical convention of allowing the different facets of Blixen to question, provoke and confront each other. Like the stories, the threads have been reimagined and edited on a regular basis, and with days to go until opening night, these choices are solidifying in the final rehearsals. Little by little, one day at a time, we are finding that ‘suddenly the work will finish itself.’
Photo of Production Designer Luis F. Carvalho on visit to Karen Blixen's Rungstedlund in Denmark.