'A little fun with 'The Art of Martyrdom': Different Stages presents a historical comedy
You probably aren’t familiar with the works of early playwright Hrosvitha – most people aren’t. Despite being the first known female playwright in the western world, creating her works some 500 years before Shakespeare’s birth, Hrosvitha is little-discussed today, even in the theater world.
“I have two master's degrees and my second master’s degree is in playwriting,” says Rita Anderson. “I was in a theater history class and there was a blip about Hrosvitha, I don't even think it was a paragraph. But my mind kind of fixated on that. And in grad school, I ended up writing two research papers on her and I was amazed that she was the first female playwright of the Western civilization, but I had never heard of her and I'd done theater my whole life.”
She checked with some friends (who also, presumably, knew a thing or two about theater history) and they were also unaware of Hrosvitha. And Anderson wanted to do something about that.
“So I wrote a play,” she says. “And originally it was published in New York City before I was even out of grad school, but it was a one act and it was a drama because I thought, well, you know… I wanted her to be taken seriously.”
And then Anderson had an important thought about Hrosvitha’s story – what if it was kind of funny?
“I decided I was going to have a little fun with The Art of Martyrdom,” Anderson says. “And I decided she was gonna be a fun person. So, I added the character of The Muse and Woman and other things that kind of flushed it out and gave me a lot of inroads and ways to make it a comedy.”
It’s that newer, funnier version of The Art of Martyrdom that is now being produced by Different Stages. The humor in the piece was one of the things that drew director Karen Jambon to the script. “The play is very funny,” Jambon says. “Rita did a tremendous job of bringing in a lot of humor. And we do have a muse who is only seen by Hrosvitha, and that creates a lot of hysteria because the muse is mischievous and does things to kind of rile other people up. And so thank goodness… that Rita decided to put in lots of anachronisms because we began to embrace that rather than try to set everything in the 10th century and have all of our props be historically accurate.”
“It's made rehearsals so much fun,” says Bernadette Nason, who plays the Abbess Gerberga in The Art of Martyrdom. “We have laughed as much in rehearsals as I hope the audiences are going to when they see it.”
While The Art of Martyrdom isn’t aiming for 100% historical accuracy, it is set in a 10th century convent, which means the actors are largely wearing robes and vestments. Actor Adam Rodriguez says his costume is pretty hot to wear during a record June heatwave, but it also helps him get into character as the Bishop. “Wearing the costume brought out a whole bunch of extra levels to the character,” he says.
“And you get a cape!” adds Jambon.
“Yeah, I get a cape!”
The cast and crew is hoping that audiences will leave The Art of Martyrdom knowing more about the life and work of Hrosvitha and also thinking a bit more about other overlooked women in history. “I think it's really important – and comes out in the play – that women's contributions have not been appreciated [and] have sometimes been appropriated by others,” Jambon says. “And that women are just as capable, maybe more so, of doing these things than men and, and we need to be recognized for who we are, what our contributions are and given opportunities to do more.”