The Wake of Dorcas Kelly: Interview with Playwright Sara Fellini

Dorcas Kelly
“The Wake of Dorcas Kelly” is a darkly comedic play by Sara Fellini that is scheduled to begin on July 8 at Off-Broadway’s The Players Theater.

“The Wake of Dorcas Kelly” is a darkly comedic play by Sara Fellini that is scheduled to begin on July 8 at Off-Broadway’s The Players Theater. The play brings the audience to Dublin in 1762, mourning the death of The Maiden Tower brothel madam Dorcas Kelly, an alleged serial killer who was executed by hanging and then burned at the stake. At her funeral, a riot rages on the streets outside while, inside, the mourners reveal secrets and question their feelings of love, lust, fear, and anger.

Sara Fellini is an award-winning playwright, director, actress, and skilled artisan who recently discussed this play via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your talent for writing and what was it about plays that most interested you?

Sara Fellini (SF): When I was little, I was considered more of a “liar” than a writer. I was compared to my grandfather, who convinced a neighbor that they let him swim next to the USS Arizona in a fishing net during World War II. So, I’ve always written stories. Once I could actually physically write, I would write morality tales that would shock and disturb my mother. The morals were terrible mockeries of children’s stories — there was one where a dog keeps getting beaten up by cats and the moral of the story was that the dog should just let cats beat him up because the world is cruel. My mother hated my stories. One of my aunts once offhandedly mentioned that she didn’t like women writers. These things only briefly discouraged me because my outsized opinion of myself has always made me very comfortable knowing I was talented. I impressed a few teachers when I was younger by writing “she retorted” instead of “she said”; and then when I got a little older, by dissecting the literary male mental illness of Fight Club and comparing it to Holden Caulfield. When I was in the semester of college I attended before failing, I was disappointed when I wrote a gender exploration of a group of artists in the late 1800s, and my teacher’s mind was blown. The most outside validation I’ve received for my writing is when the New York Times came to the production of my first full play and called it “wrenching”. I love plays because I like to embrace the moment and create work that will never be done the same way twice. Unless you’re in the room when it happens, you won’t ever see it or experience it, and once it’s gone, it’s gone. It makes the work very precious and also frustrating.

MM: How did you initially get interested in theater and how did you break into the industry?

SF: I used to perform, direct, and build sets for plays with my Catholic Church’s youth ministry. As with many community theater groups, we would often take on classic stage musicals that may have been somewhat beyond our capabilities. I would say that our passion for creating a perfect production was irregular and overwhelming. We would all put every ounce of energy we had into perfecting the props, costumes, sets, performances, to a level that sometimes I feel like I’m eternally trying to recapture in my collaborators. There is nothing like the passion of amateurs – once the work becomes a job, many people see it as mundane and it kind of crushes the wings. I was a waitress after I failed at college, so I did a community theater production of Noises Off, where I met a friend who introduced me to someone working for the Off-Broadway production The Other Mozart by Sylvia Milo. I loved the show so much that I worked my way up from intern to sound board operator (not a small feat in a production with ~96 timed musical cues), and in doing the sound I memorized the play. So, when they were looking for an understudy / alternate, I literally performed the entire show for them from memory. I toured with that production across the Southern US, with some help from friends, and brought it back home to The Players Theatre. That’s where I met many of my present collaborators, and we’ve been working for six years building our company spit&vigor from the ground up.

MM: Why did you decide to make Dorcas Kelly the subject of the story?

SF: I like big, difficult, complicated women who are not very likable. We’re always trying to make women so likable, it’s exhausting. At first glance, Dorcas Kelly looks like a modern feminist hero: she was a brothel madam who was brutally executed for shooting a man, and a riot ensued. I combined that history with “the legend” – that during the riot, when her close friends barricaded themselves in her brothel, they began to discover the bodies of young men that she had murdered and hidden throughout the house. I also added the difficulty that Madam Dorcas Kelly is dead, from top of the play to the bottom. There’s no questioning her, there’s no answers. So as her friends, we are left to digest her death and all this new information in our own myriad of ways. As an audience member, you only have the memories of Dorcas Kelly to contend with, through the filter of her friends’ personal experience and opinions.

MM: How much research did you have to do to write this piece and what most surprised you about what you found?

SF: I study history as a passion, and so I was able to use a lot of my base knowledge for this play, but as always, I did make it so I was forced to do a lot more research. I immerse myself in period writing to get the feel of the language, and then continue to research as I’m writing – I’ll write three lines, realize a character has to reference some kind of, say, lighting source or refer to a mode of transportation, or a certain piece of clothing, and then I’ll do a deep dive into how they might light a candle or travel state-to-state or wear underwear in 1761 Dublin. The fun thing about studying history so passionately is that I’ve gotten to the point where I’m also able to almost speak the language of history, wherein I’ll make up old-fashioned terms or ways of doing things that seem to fit in the world but aren’t actually historical. I’m not chained to history when writing plays, I do make certain individual flourishes. One thing that surprised me was the attitude towards sex work in the 1700s versus the 1800s. In the 1700s, women were able to marry out of sex work and it seemed to be generally considered more of a temporary moral lapse that many poor women would dip into and out, as opposed to the more Victorian concept of sex work as some sort of permanent blight on the soul, which we carried with us into the 20th century. Sometimes when we think of the past, we consider it a slow dirge until our present enlightened times, but especially in regards to women’s work and rights, there are many cycles.

MM: What’s your favorite part of the play and why?

SF: There’s a certain bit with “doubles”, like a character’s otherworldly double enters the room, and everyone knows it’s not the actual character but a lookalike, that scares and thrills me. Doubles, or changelings, are a very scary concept- that your loved one can be replaced by a lookalike.

MM: Was it a challenge to plan for live theater during a lingering pandemic?

SF: Yes, but we basically planned it and then laid in wait like little theater snakes until it was safe to come out.

MM: What is some of the best feedback you’ve gotten about this piece thus far?

SF: Mainly only the actors and designers have been able to read the piece in its final iteration so far, so they are biased. One of our cast members was particularly touched by the portrayal of drug abuse in the play. A few of the cast members have found intricate comparisons to Shakespeare which has really inflated my ego because I’m not really familiar with Shakespeare at all. We had one private reading where a friend of a friend gave me the line that I used in a previous answer about noticing Dorcas was basically a modern feminist hero that is slowly dismantled and examined. That was probably the best feedback because I used it to hone the later draft.

MM: What other projects are you working on right now and what themes might you like to explore in future works?

SF: We are returning to The Players Theatre in January with a play that I’m finishing about spiritual mediums in the early 1900s called Ectoplasm. That story is about a love triangle that derails a particularly fraught seance.

MM: What are your ultimate goals for the future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?

SF: Our company spit&vigor is looking to move from our rehearsal studio in Gowanus to a small blackbox space or storefront in the next year. We believe in producing difficult pieces of theater without easy answers that inspire conversation, and we are hoping to provide a space where people can have an alcoholic or non-alcoholic cocktail, have a sit and talk about a very intimate piece before and after seeing it. Kind of a mix of a cabaret – but for intimate and innovative theater pieces – and a philosopher’s coffeehouse.

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