Corrib Theatre‘s newest production, of Brian Foster’s play Myra’s Story, brings together a pair of deeply accomplished women — Portland novelist Rene Denfeld, who is the show’s dramaturg, and actor Luisa Sermol, who takes on down-and-out Myra and several other personalities in the one-woman show — working with a third deeply accomplished woman, director Gemma Whelan, who is also a novelist and a co-founder of Corrib, Portland’s contemporary Irish theater company.
Luisa Sermol is a longtime Portland actor who is now living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her stage credits include many Portland, California and New York productions. Luisa has performed in New York and regionally with The Roundabout, Classic Stage Company, Colonial Theatre, and Williamstown Theatre Festival, as well as in numerous Off-Off Broadway productions. She is a five-time recipient of the Portland Drammy Award for Outstanding Actress in a Lead Role. Her television work includes Grimm, Leverage, Personals, Zero Effect, and Insect Poetry. She holds a conservatory degree in acting from The Juilliard School and is also a teaching artist. She is proud to be the mother of a young playwright who lives in London.
Rene Denfeld is the bestselling author of several novels, including The Enchanted and The Child Finder. She is the winner of a French Prix, an ALA Medal for Excellence in Fiction, a Carnegie listing, and much more. The former chief investigator at a public defense office, Rene spent more than fifteen years as a Death Row investigator. In 2017 The New York Times named Rene a Hero of the Year for her justice work, and she was honored in Washington, D.C., with a Break the Silence Award. Rene lives in Portland, where she is the happy mom to several kids from foster care. Her next novel, Sleeping Giants, is coming out in Spring 2024.
Sermol and Denfeld took time out before the show’s May 5 opening for an expansive chat about Foster’s play, and working together, and the ways in which Myra’s Story, which is set in working-class Dublin and deals both rawly and comically with alcoholism, street life, and generational and political trauma, intersects with “real” life — essentially interviewing each other on the theatrical process. Their conversation is below:
Luisa: I got to admit, when I heard you were going to be the dramaturg for Myra’s Story, I was like, What? Rene Denfeld is our dramaturg?! What the heck? That’s amazing!
Rene: I felt the same about working with you! Isn’t status a funny thing? Coming from where I did, the whole idea of success makes me uncomfortable. A bestselling novel isn’t intrinsically better than one that doesn’t sell. A Broadway play isn’t inherently better than one running in a tiny theater. The same is true with activism. Sometimes I think I accomplished more working misdemeanor cases than Death Row work. With a misdemeanor case I could get a client who was, say, a houseless veteran arrested on a petty charge. I could get him services. Medication. Housing. Help. That’s saving a life, too. We get hung up on what looks good in our culture. Not what actually is good.
Luisa: I ended up feeling that way in New York. It’s a very hierarchical system. There’s always another place you need to get. You make it up that one step of the ladder, now there is another step. You’re supposed to get going until you reach the top. Whatever the top is. I thought, I don’t want to go climbing to the top. I don’t see life as a ladder. I want a life that is round. I wanted experiences in life. I wanted a house, a family, the ocean, the mountains. I wanted it all.
I realized that there was as much bad and good theater in New York as there was in Portland. So my search for a round life led me back home and I moved back to Portland with my then-husband. I loved the community here and was very happy for many years, teaching and acting. Then, about five years ago, after a nine-year long-distance relationship (after my fairy-tale divorce), I moved down to be with my new husband in the Bay Area. I thought, “What else am I going to do? Just keep doing what I’m doing? I want new adventures!” And the Bay Area has a lot of offer—although I do miss so much about home.
But enough about me. I’m curious, what made you want to be a dramaturg?
Rene: I’m a good researcher. I’m always willing to dig deep, and question everything. I love theater. I love story. To be part of its creation—nothing could be better.
Luisa: It has been such a powerful thing to have you in the room. You really have been a source of groundedness. Your experiences really help give an integrity to the story we’re telling.
Rene: Thank you! It’s been such an honor. Tell me, why this play? Why Myra’s Story?
Luisa: Well, when I read it I just salivated. I just felt it right away. It felt like a great opportunity to tell this story. It’s exclusively about a woman, and a woman who has a story that needs to be heard—It’s a poignant story for our times, particularly for Portland these days. Coming back and forth from the Bay Area it is quite clear that the houseless population issue in Portland is a growing issue that the city needs to deal with. The humanity of Myra is undeniable and so filled with the humor and strength one would imagine someone living on the streets needs to find.
And personally, taking on a one-woman show was a challenge I wanted to take on—having done one 15 years ago. Do I still have the stamina? The brain power? But I’ve found those years have only given me more skills and life experience that I can bring to telling stories. That and the chance to use dialects (which I have a passion for), the opportunity to be directed by delightful Gemma, having enjoyed working with her before on Hen Night Epiphany, and getting to come back to Portland and it was a no brainer!
Rene: Every note of it is pitch-perfect, isn’t it?
Luisa: Yeah. It’s brilliantly written. The story stays with you. One of the things I’m finding is how I am looking at the world through a slightly different lens as I work on Myra. Like, there was a homeless camp that was growing near where I am staying in town. The other day it just disappeared. And I thought, the camp disappeared but the people did not. They went somewhere. I can’t see them now. But they are still there. Where did they go? I’m sure that the people in the houses around them are “relieved,” but where did they go? We keep trying to make people invisible. But they are still trying to live … somewhere.
Rene: It’s what we do in this country. We banish people, disappear them. That’s what mass incarceration is all about. Doing my justice work, I spend a lot of time in prisons. We have more prisons and jails in Oregon than we have colleges—it’s no small wonder we have so many houseless. It’s the prison-to-the-streets pipeline. It’s almost impossible to get a job or housing when you’ve been incarcerated. Anyhow, going into prisons I’m always struck by how we’ve created this entire caste system by banishing people.
Luisa: It’s the one thing story can change … at least in some small way of bringing awareness.
Rene: But sometimes we fall short. Let’s talk about sexism in the arts.
Luisa: OK. For an actress it gets harder as you get older. I want to knock on wood because I’ve been very lucky. I have a lovely relationship with a theater down in the Bay Area, and I’ve gotten some good roles. But the roles are few and far between and the irony is that there are so many wonderful actresses of a certain age out there with so much life experience who could knock it out of the ballpark (or the football ground…as Myra would say), but there are so few roles.
It’s just a shame in general. The major theatergoers are older women, and yet we are the ones that are represented least on stage. Even when we get roles, it’s often in stories that center the male experience. One of my pet peeves is that somehow it feels a box is checked off if women are used in male roles, or roles that tell male stories. But that still makes it about the male experience. Those are not our stories. They’re not about our experience. We have so many stories to tell as women, in all shapes and forms.
Rene: The same is true in the literary world. Women are the vast majority of readers, and yet male authors are the ones who get the praise and reviews. Stories about men are seen as the real stories. Stories about women are poo-poohed as women’s literature or chick lit. That we even divide literature into the “real” stuff and then “women’s literature” is in itself telling. There’s been numerous studies that show men win most of the literary awards and get the bulk of reviews. We even see it in stuff like book covers and promotional materials. Men get the more artistic cover art, full of gravitas. With women authors, we often have to fight to get something besides a pink shoe or a woman’s back, gazing at the sunset. I had a friend write a fantastic book on a serious subject and the cover art made her book look like a cheap romance novel. From the get-go, it is much harder for women authors to get our stories heard. Of course, this is a thousand times worse for writers of color and those identifying as outside gender norms.
Luisa: That’s fascinating! You know, even when theaters do blind readings, when we don’t know if the playwright is a man or woman, people—men, women, in between—still veer towards stories about men. Sadly, that male gaze is embedded in all of us. And those are the plays that typically get produced.
Rene: That’s such a great point. It’s a bias I’m aware I have to overcome, too. I like learning new stuff. I think one of our greatest strengths can be a willingness to be wrong. If we can be wrong, and really own it, the world opens up to us.
Luisa:. That’s right! Now, you mentioned you have a new book coming out. Tell me about it!
Rene: It’s called Sleeping Giants, and it comes out next spring from Harper. I had better come up with the elevator pitch! It’s been a long, hard road to get this one published. But I feel very lucky. I am very lucky person.
Luisa: How so?
Rene: I survived being homeless when I was a young teenager. At that time it was the early 1980s, and a lot of my friends died of AIDS, or murder, or suicide. It helped me understand how life is precious. I want to spend every moment I can helping others and making this world a better place. This world can be so beautiful. I remember waking up early on the streets and walking through an empty downtown and being thunderstruck at just how beautiful the world can be. Just look outside! Isn’t that just amazing? That’s another thing I love about Myra’s Story. Too often we deny hope and whimsy to the marginalized. But Myra has hope. She is funny as hell, too.
Luisa: That’s what gets me about her story. She’s surviving. She still has hope, after so many years on the streets and with her alcoholism—she keeps going. She has such a poignant story to tell. That’s the wonderful part of being an artist. I love being in service to story. It illuminates life for me. It helps me look at life through a different lens. I’ve learned so much from doing Myra’s Story. When I walk onto the street now and see a person who is living there, I see them differently. I actually see them.
Rene: I can’t wait for people to see Myra’s Story. You’re brilliant. It is an amazing performance.
Luisa: Oh, thank you. I love the script and have so enjoyed collaborating with the beautiful heart of Gemma Whelan, our director—and the amazing (stage manager) Colin Herring, who, along with you, have helped me through this whole rehearsal process! I’m looking forward to the talkbacks Corrib has arranged with local service providers and to bringing attention to this issue of houselessness and addiction. We’re going to make this an opportunity for everyone to come together and really see each other as the resilient humans we can be.
- Dates: May 5-28, 2023
- Performance times: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ticket information here
- Company: Corrib Theatre
- Performing at: 21ten Theatre, 2110 S.E. 10th Ave., Portland
- Playwright: Brian Foster
- Director: Gemma Whelan
- Show Sponsor: Ellyn Bye