Sara Fellini on NEC SPE / NEC METU / by Declan Maloney Drummond

How did you get your start in theatre?

When I was a kid I was very involved in community theater through my local Catholic church’s youth ministry program. Our youth minister was very into theater, and my sister who’s about eight years older than me was always the lead in the productions. I idolized her and saw every single performance of every show she was in. Then they’d let me go backstage and see all the costumes and sets and it’s the only place I ever wanted to be and the only thing I ever wanted to do. You can try to convince me that their production of Evita with high school aged children was not the most sophisticated and nuanced production that has ever been, but my memory will not quite grasp it.

The church would keep their set pieces in an old fallout shelter-and-boiler room in the basement of the church, so there were wooden Carousel horses and a big pharaoh’s head next to the emergency showers. As you walked down the cement steps, there was red paint on the wall welcoming you to "Hell".

When I graduated high school I went to a few years of college but ultimately had to drop out, and I was a little lost for a while. I waitressed and bar tended, generally. I didn’t get back into theater until I auditioned for another community theater production in my early 20s, where I met some friends that would introduce me to other projects and classes and companies around the city, and so on and so on. It felt like coming home again, in all seriousness.

What is NEC SPE / NEC METU about?

NEC SPE / NEC METU is essentially two dovetailing monodramas about the rogue Baroque painter Caravaggio and one of his followers, Artemisia Gentileschi. Caravaggio lived a very violent life, and it ultimately led to a very sorry end for him, and Artemisia is able to give a unique perspective on Caravaggio, having watched his life as a young girl. She also gives a new perspective on her own story. Famously (for art historians), Artemisia was raped by her tutor Agostino Tassi, and all too frequently that very public rape and subsequent trial eclipses her brilliant perspective and incredible talent.

Although the story is steeped in old history and art, I don’t think you need to know anything about these painters before seeing it, because ultimately it’s a story about a lot of issues we still grapple with today, like sin and redemption, gender politics, religion, sex and violence.

What's it like performing your own work? 

Sometimes it can be difficult to get out of my own head, or to stop revising my own work as I tell it. But I’ve learned that when I’m performing I need to just look at it as if it’s someone else’s writing. And we have a superb director (Pat Diamond) who is extremely deft at pointing out things that I might not even have noticed about my own work. Many times, as artists, we just kind of let our pen or paintbrush move without a lot of circumspection and our subconscious does the work for us, and it is so vital to have a director who can guide you properly through that process. It’s been fascinating to learn that, honestly. Sometimes I hear writers talk about their own work and I think they must be insane or lying that they didn’t purposely weave together all the little ties that bind the piece, but it’s true that at least some part of every work of art is just pulled out of the clean blue air.

How did this production come about and what are your future plans?

I’ve always loved Caravaggio. His personality is so devastating and his art is so incredibly brilliant, so completely ahead of his time that he’s essentially a time traveller. So I always wanted to write a play singularly about Caravaggio, and I wanted Adam Belvo to play him because his genuine sensitivity as an actor is so crushing, and he’s amazing with characters. And when I was performing as Nannerl Mozart in The Other Mozart (a monodrama by Sylvia Milo about the life of Mozart’s sister), the production team and I would all chat about other forgotten or otherwise denigrated female artists that deserved more attention, and the lighting designer Joshua Rose brought up Artemisia Gentileschi. I had never heard of her, although I had heard of her father Orazio, and so I looked into her life.

The dramatic draw of Artemisia Gentileschi is that she was raped by her tutor and there was a very public rape trial that ensued, wherein she was tortured with a device that must have temporarily crippled her hands. But as I read through the transcript of the entire trial and the existing letters from the rest of her life, I decided I wanted to draw a full portrait of Artemisia as an artist and as a person, a perspective that often gets neglected. She was so funny, and clever, and brave. She was absolutely brilliant, and I hope that I pay a nice tribute to her with this production.

At the moment we are arranging to perform in The Tank's DarkFest this summer, in pitch darkness lit only by practical lanterns (a very fitting choice if you’re familiar with Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi’s dark and dramatic painting style!), and then we will be headed to Theater Row for a performance as part of the United Solo Festival in October. We are also hoping to be a part of the InFringe Festival in New Orleans, if it works out. Our company, spit&vigor, has an affinity for bringing ghost stories like this to New Orleans.