Frankenstein’s Author: Jennifer Summerfield on her new show MARY SHELLEY

Phindie has long been a fan of local actor Jennifer Summerfield. We were impressed by her roles in site-specific productions of Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House, a “tour” de force turn in the brilliant Alp D’Huez, and a haunting performance in Conor McPherson’s The Weir, among others. Somehow, she manages to be constantly onstage yet still the most criminally undercast actor in the city.

This month, Summerfield showcases another side of her talents with MARY SHELLEY, a solo performance she created for rare book museum the Rosenbach. The Rosenbach currently displays pages from Shelley’s horror classic Frankenstein alongside author notes from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in the exhibit Frankenstein & Dracula: Gothic Monsters, Modern Science (on view through February 11). We talked to Summerfield about her creation, produced one night only, January 17, 2018 at the Rosenbach, 2008 Delancey Place. Tickets at rosenbach.org.

Photo by Kyle Cassidy.

Photo by Kyle Cassidy.

Phindie: What attracts you to Mary Shelley?

Jennifer Summerfield: I have completely fallen in love with her over the course of my research and development. I think, like many people, I always underestimated her, thinking she had peaked so early, writing Frankenstein at 19. When I discovered everything she overcame and that her life was much more than Frankenstein and keeping her husband’s flame alive, I came to deeply appreciate her. She was every bit the champion of living life authentically and helping the downtrodden as her mother, early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, was. She had a deep strength and integrity that I really admire.

Phindie: I know you as a super-talented actor, what inspired you to create your own vehicle?

Jennifer Summerfield: The credit goes to the Rosenbach’s manager of public programs, Edward Pettit, who approached me several months ago about writing a piece on Mary Shelley to accompany their special Frankenstein & Dracula exhibit. I’ve performed solo work before, which has a freedom to it, but nothing I’ve written myself. For many, many years, I talked about writing a play about Shelley’s mom, Mary Wollstonecraft, but I’m fundamentally a fairly lazy person and it’s extremely helpful to me to be given an assignment, with a deadline. So, thank you, Edward Pettit!

Phindie: Yeah, Ed’s great; I took a reading class with him on Sherlock Holmes. I like classic genre fiction, but one thing I don’t like is a biopic. How did you approach telling a person’s story within the confines of a short play?

Jennifer Summerfield: It was really challenging. I realized fairly quickly that it would be possible to write a dozen plays about her and that, because it’s under an hour, each one could focus on a single aspect of her life. I wrote several drafts and kept having to sacrifice people and events that I found personally fascinating, but that didn’t have a place in this iteration of the piece. My friend, Cara Blouin, helped me in the early development stages and came up with the device of speaking directly to my daughter-in-law and seeking her help, which I found incredibly useful. The main challenge was in giving it a certain theatricality while still sharing her story.

Phindie: What do you like about working with the Rosenbach?

Jennifer Summerfield: They’ve been wonderful. Edward Pettit has been my main contact there and as manager of public programs he has done an amazing job of creating some fascinating programming, including lectures, classes, the monthly Bibliococktails that has a monthly theme (this month’s is on Friday, the 12th and has a “Frankenstein” theme!) He’s also been available for questions and feedback, while at the same time stepping back and allowing me the space to create my own piece. Plus, it’s been incredible to have access to the Rosenbach’s resources of original manuscripts… to hold letters and first editions signed to the Shelleys’ friends is chilling and inspiring. And all the staff have been wonderfully enthusiastic about the Mary Shelley performance, which is at once lovely and intimidating. I don’t want to let them down!

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein Vol. 1. London: Printed for Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor, & Jones, Finsbury Square, 1818. On display at the Rosenbach.

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein Vol. 1. London: Printed for Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor, & Jones, Finsbury Square, 1818. On display at the Rosenbach.

Phindie: How did you like their exhibit Frankenstein & Dracula?

Jennifer Summerfield: Well, it’s a thrill to see Bram Stoker’s and Mary Shelley’s original manuscripts! I love seeing how writers edit their work on the page, and the exhibit is beautifully curated. I highly recommend seeing it while you can! Plus, the exhibit room is dark and mysterious — it makes you feel like you’re a voyeur, peeking over the shoulders of these great writers as they hone their work. Their humanity comes through in the ink blotches.

Phindie: Do you get annoyed when people call Frankenstein’s monster Frankenstein, or are you irritated by pedants who object when you call the monster Frankenstein like everyone else does?

Jennifer Summerfield: Here’s a little secret I discovered: Mary Shelley herself called the monster Frankenstein on more than one occasion in conversation, so I’ve decided it’s good enough for me.

Phindie: Is there any other Philly theater you’re looking forward to?

Jennifer Summerfield: I’m looking forward to seeing my director, Josh Hitchens’s one-man Frankenstein on the 24th at the Rosenbach, and also the Lydie Breeze Trilogy at EgoPo, which looks really interesting. I’m also really excited to have the opportunity to work with Brenna Geffers at Curio Theatre in February! We start rehearsals for Marie Antoinette next week and it opens on Valentine’s Day. I’m sure there’s much more, but I’ve been living in a cave for the last several weeks and am looking forward to coming out and looking around after Wednesday the 17th!

Phindie: Yeah! Thanks Jennifer!

[The Rosenbach, 2008 Delancey Place] January 17, 2018rosenbach.org

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About the author

Christopher Munden

Your faithful correspondent and publisher Christopher Munden has written and edited for many publications, websites, and cultural institutions. He was an editor/publisher of the Philly Fiction book series, collections of short stories written by local writers and set in Philadelphia. He's also a soccer coach and a pretty good skier.