A lifelong Chautauquan, Kathryn Metzger said her familiarity with Amish culture stems from her family’s annual reunions on the grounds.
“My grandmother was a professor at the University of Akron, a professor of anthropology, and she was always really intrigued by the lifestyles of other people, and she was always a great advocate of the Amish, especially when we were here,” Metzger said. “I spent my whole life talking about and noticing the Amish but not having a lot of encounters with them, which I actually think is true of most of us — that we see but don’t necessarily encounter.”
For Chautauqua Theater Company’s production of The Amish Project, Metzger wears a dress and bonnet to play seven characters affected by an Amish schoolhouse shooting. The one-woman show finishes its run, and CTC’s 2018 season, with a performance at 2:15 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 21, in Bratton Theater.
Metzger said she likes to refer to the play’s central incident as “the happening,” as this is how the real-life Amish community referred to the 2006 shooting that inspired the play.
Metzger’s characters include two of the Amish girls killed in the schoolhouse, the gunman and his widow, a grocery store cashier and a local professor who explains certain Amish customs to the audience.
“For me, the play is about how events impact a huge community beyond the people that are in the room,” Metzger said.
An alumna of CTC’s conversatory, Metzger previously graced Bratton’s stage in 2016 as Catherine Givings in In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) and as Grumio in The Taming of the Shrew.
“Coming back to Chautauqua always feels like a touchstone for me,” Metzger said. “I don’t know how I got so incredibly lucky to also have this incredible theater company here. These are the hardest working, most genuine, most driven and innovative artists I know in my theater life.”
Metzger said she has been challenged as an artist by CTC’s limited rehearsal time to bring difficult productions to life.
“In the Next Room felt like a total treat because I was working with a beautiful cast of people and we always had each other’s back and we were always running lines with one another,” she said, “and I felt safe on stage because I was never alone.”
Metzger said she doesn’t have this same luxury on stage when performing The Amish Project.
“That’s the most difficult part about this piece: when I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it,” she said. “I don’t have those people that I trust on stage with me. I have so many people I trust and believe in in the rehearsal room with me, and so many people I trust working on the piece with me, but when the lights go up it’s just me, which is kind of a unique headspace to be in.”
Although rehearsals for The Amish Project did not officially begin until August, Metzger and director Sarah Elizabeth Wansley started researching the play in June and the guest artist began memorizing her lines and talking with the designers in early July.
“We’d been doing these Skype rehearsals where we’d talk about where we are,” Metzger said. “We knew we’d have 72 hours to make a play, and I knew it was going to be important to both of us to be prepared as possible.”
Upon returning to the grounds to begin formal rehearsal for The Amish Project, Metzger met Malinda Byler, a local Amish woman who constructed Metzger’s navy blue costume to be “breathable and movable” on stage.
“Something I didn’t know is that when the Amish make their clothes, they pin them together with straight pins,” Metzger said. “It’s all about sustainability and simplicity, and so I think the dress is really reflective of that.”
When Blyer asked if she could see the play, Metzger said that she and Wansley were surprised, as the two had assumed theater could not be part of the Amish experience.
“We both had this moment when we realized we also had been making assumptions about the Amish and we hadn’t allowed them to speak for themselves in this moment,” Metzger said.
The Amish Project is Metzger’s second one-woman show. During her third year of graduate school at Case Western Reserve/Cleveland Play House, Metzger performed a series of “warrior monologues” from Shakespeare and other writers, interspersed with excerpts from Ulysses.
“I actually was mentored by Laura Kepley, who directed Into the Breeches!, and she and I worked on a piece where I put together of a bunch of male Shakespeare monologues that I had always wanted to do but never got a chance to work on because I’m a girl,” Metzger said. “Being here, seeing Into the Breeches! — which is all about that — and working on a one-woman show is kind of wild.”
Metzger said she hopes her experience working on The Amish Project will help her process her reactions when she sees other traumatic events on the news.
“Of the many things I take away from the play, it is a question for myself about how I can be better at managing the larger and smaller traumas in my own life,” Metzger said. “What can I take from this play about this lesson of forgiveness that is not a blank check and bring into my everyday life? What is it that I can be doing to be more?”