Fringe interview with Colie McClellan of THEY CALL ME ARETHUSA

“How do you know if you know a woman who’s survived abuse?” asks Colie McClellan and Mark Kennedy in their publicity material for their Fringe show THEY CALL ME ARETHUSA. “The answer is: you do.” McClellan’s performance-poetry-meets-docudrama script is based on interviews that she conducted over several months with women who are survivors of intimate partner violence. Greek myth and Southern folklore based on stories from McClellan’s home town in coastal South Carolina weave in and out of these true testimonials. Phindie spoke to Colie McClellan about her process and the upcoming Fringe production.

Colie McClellan They Call Me ArethusaPhindie: Was this a difficult play to write?
Colie McClellan:
This play was difficult to write. I found myself very overwhelmed at times, incredibly humbled at others. Women were sharing with me intimate secrets that maybe they hadn’t told anyone before, and I was supposed to do something meaningful and purposeful with them. Sometimes I felt like a fraud and would think, why were they sharing these stories with me? What are my qualifications? 

For this piece, the creation was less about my own sense of ego or artistry and more about how my artistry could serve the women whom I interviewed and also women who are still struggling to find their voice. That fact in particular is what made this feel particularly special and allowed me to cut through any overwhelming moments straight to the doing of the thing. It seems to me that art is all about serving something bigger than yourself. This put that in stark relief for me. Nothing I’ve done has ever felt more purposeful.

Because of that, I only care about it being good. And for some reason, that doesn’t have a lot to do with reviewers and theatre critics, but with my self, and the voices of these women. It’s a ridiculous freedom. I’m just excited to have people see it. Even people who don’t like it – I want to know why. I want to talk to them. Not because I want to pander, but because I want to pick their brain. I’m proud of the show, but what didn’t do it for you? It’s incredible.

Phindie: Is it difficult to perform?
CM: It’s not difficult to perform. I love the doing of this show. It’s the easy part. All of the homework is done, all of the writing edits and the curatorial conversations are over. Now, I get to fly. Is it a workout, emotionally and physically? Absolutely. And it’s great.

Phindie: How about for the audience. You talk about some heavy topics, how do you make the difficult to watch into successful theater?
CM: As for the audience: We have this poetry—this soft, Southern, whimsical poetry—interspersed throughout the play, and it helps you pull back for the audience. They hear these modern testimonials, and they can be really hard to hear, but then Arethusa the Southern water nymph comes out to play with them a little and she’s fun and her stories are still hard but a little more removed and gentle, and they lean in again. And then they’re more ready for the next heavy hitter. It’s a salve for them and allows me to keep going.

Phindie: How do you use the classical Greek characters in this play?
CM: I love the world that we created for the classical Greek myths. Arethusa is like a Southern drag queen, or your Southern granny (it’s hard to tell the difference), and her mission is the same as my mission. She’s fun but also holding the mirror up to nature. She tells you these ancient stories that you may think are sweet or silly, but she’s got a new light to shed on them. And they have a correlation to the modern testimonials that they follow, so there it gets more sinister, too. But she’s also hopeful. And hopefully, that’s how you’ll leave too. Hopeful and driven.

Phindie: What brought you to the Philly Fringe? What excites you about the festival?
CM: I’m coming to the Fringe because my director Mark Kennedy loves the Fringe—he’s done two shows as a director/producer and four shows total in the Fringe. His most recent one was Othello, Desdemona, & Iago Walk Into A Bar at the Trestle Inn two years ago. He was an Arden Professional Apprentice and lived in Philly for four years before moving to NYC. I’m really excited because I used to come and see his work in Philly and fell in love with the city—and can’t wait to get to live there for a few weeks myself!

Phindie: Are you going to have time to check out any other shows?
CM: I certainly hope to see other shows! We have a packed schedule but anytime we can go see something else I’d love to. I’m especially interested in Annie Wilson’s Lovertits and Pig Iron’s 99 Breakups. I also want to see PAC’s Rape of Lucrece, I’ve heard amazing things and it’s an interesting parallel being a one man show with similar themes to our show.

THEY CALL ME ARETHUSA runs September 5-20, 2014, at Pig Iron School Studio One [1417 N 2nd Street]; fringearts.com/event/they-call-me-arethusa-14.

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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.