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Chautauqua Theater Company’s Sarah Elizabeth Wansley eyes authenticity for ‘The Amish Project’ with local dressmaker, design fellows

In a week dedicated to documentary film, Chautauqua Theater Company extended its summer season, allowing theatergoers to see one more play on stage: The Amish Project.

Sarah Elizabeth Wansley

“We were interested in expanding the boundaries of our season and offering programming to visitors who are coming later, but at the same time we couldn’t do a full production because a lot of our shops are closing down and heading out for the season,” said CTC Artistic Associate Sarah Elizabeth Wansley. “In a way, this solo show allows us to do one more project that’s of a smaller scope.”

The Amish Project, directed by Wansley, continues its run with a performance at 4 p.m. Mon., Aug. 20, in Bratton Theater. Due to the show’s adult content, it is not recommended for children.

The Amish Project takes artistic liberties in its retelling of a 2006 school shooting and the Amish community’s forgiving response. However, Wansley took care to accurately represent Amish people. To add authenticity to the play, she collaborated with Malinda Byler, a member of the local Amish population.

“It was important to us to include the community in this process,” Wansley said, “but we also know that theater is not a part of their culture and different Amish families have different beliefs or experiences about whether or not theater can be a part of their experience.”

Wansley was introduced to Byler through Marsha Butler, a member of the Friends of Chautauqua Theater Company who asked her housekeeper if she might be interested in making a dress for the play. After speaking with Wansley, Byler accepted the project and said she was assured that only one costume was needed.

Jeff Sherwood

“I’ve never made dresses for anyone else,” Byler said. “I don’t usually do that.”

Throughout the play, guest artist Kathryn Metzger flips between characters affected by the tragedy, wearing a dress and bonnet all the while. Compared with her own attire, Byler said the costume has a few differences.

“It has more pleats in it and it’s a little longer than ours,” she said.

Byler said it took her five hours to cut and iron the costume, which includes a cape and apron.

“I was a little stressed because I’d never met Kathryn,” Byler said. “I had no idea how her body was shaped. I’ve never had somebody hand me measurements and say, ‘Make a dress.’ ”

Having read the script, Byler said she is excited to see the play with her friends and hopes that audience members will enjoy it, too. However, she said that the Amish community’s forgiveness — a central point in the play — is not a blank check.

“It’s not that all the Amish forgive everything,” Byler said.

Wansley also worked with CTC’s design fellows, who were responsible for the costumes, lights, sound and scenic design for the New Play Workshops and assisted the designers on the season’s mainstage productions.

“The lovely thing about Amish Project is I’m here all season and so are they. I had all the fellows over for dinner, and we’ve just been able to be talking about the play all season long,” Wansley said. “We’ve had a full process in terms of the design. I think even though the rehearsal process is so short, we put a lot of ideas in place to build the world in advance.”

Mextly Almeda

Lighting design fellow Mextly Almeda said this forward thinking was helpful, as was the script’s call for a minimalistic schoolhouse setting.

“Sarah’s been really great about … talking to us and engaging us,” Almeda said. “There’s these windows that we want to use, and that’s incredible for me because I love shafts of light. … It’s fairly constrained and simple in that sense — and not in a bad way — which is easier to handle.”

In his research for The Amish Project, sound design fellow Jeff Sherwood studied various Amish communities across the country. He learned that many communities favor a capella music, often performed in a church setting.

“I also found that they really love to listen to popular music on the radio on the way to work in their taxi or Uber,” Sherwood said. “They really love country music, which is really funny because they are really against string instruments … because that brings out the individual.”

Sherwood said that his soundscape for The Amish Project not only shapes the world of the play, but also helps audience members recognize when Metzger shifts between roles.

“Sarah and I also talked about having an introductory sound to each character,” he said. “I’m just trying to think about what encapsulates the sound of the townie that a isn’t part of the Amish community who lives next door, and what is their world in contrast to the world of the Amish community.”

Tags : Amish ProjectBratton TheaterChautauqua Theater CompanySarah Elizabeth Wansley
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The author Kevin C. Vestal

Kevin Vestal is from Westerville, Ohio, and is a rising senior at Miami University in Ohio, studying journalism and professional writing with a minor in theater. Last summer, he interned for The Florence Newspaper in Italy, and he is excited to cover Chautauqua Theater Company and the Family Entertainment Series for the Daily. An avid thespian, Kevin recently performed on stage in Tartuffe and also has an irrational fear of wrists.

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