Guest Blog: Portraying "The Woman" in THE YELLOW WALLPAPER at OUT LOUD Theatre

by Sarah Leach

BWW Rhode Island welcomes the four-woman cast of OUT LOUD Theatre's The Yellow Wallpaper to the BroadwayWorld guest blog. The Yellow Wallpaper, directed by Kira Hawkridge, is the second installment in OUT LOUD's fifth season, "That Way Madness Lies." This production presents a fully immersive, four-part experience; each part tells a complete story from beginning to end, but the individual pieces - RITUAL, LIGHT, COLOR, and ESCAPE - provide meditations on Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper as viewed through varying lenses. Sarah Leach joins BWW RI to explore "Color" in the third part of the guest blog series.

It's said that the most frightening thing a human can experience is the inside of their own mind. Throughout this entire year-long process, this idea has stuck with me the most. It's the reason my blood chilled when I read Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper for the first time - I thought, "Oh my god, I'm reading a horror story." It's the reason psychological thrillers give me more nightmares than any jump-scare slasher film. And I think it's the reason that mental illness is so misunderstood. We hold the idea of mental illness at arm's length, because to bring it any closer would mean realizing horrors we'd, let's be honest, rather pretend didn't exist.

And to me, the Woman in Gilman's story defines the misunderstood nature of mental illness. Her "horrors" don't stop at haunting images on her bedroom wall. And her affliction is more than just "nervous weakness." She faces blatant misogyny, medical malpractice, physical exhaustion, confusion, terror. She is not safe inside her own mind, no matter how nonchalantly she journals about her mundane daily schedule. She accepts John's confident cure so willingly, the fix-all tonics and pills, all the "rest" she could take, and enough fresh air to choke on. Forbidden to write, barred from friends and even her newborn child, her calm, serene tone is maddening, unnerving, and frightening. It feels like her fear is bubbling under the surface, and I kept waiting for her to be tipped over into full-blown madness. I wanted her to scream and rage, declare, purple-faced and screeching, that she was sick, over and over until someone finally listened. Until she was let out. Until she was properly medicated. I wanted to show an audience the mad animal we don't get to see in the story. The process of devising this piece allows me to crack her open, creep under her ribs and explode out. I can channel all of the fury, confusion, joy, and sadness I feel on the Woman's behalf into my performance.

Starting the devising process, each actor found their "seed," the raw element of the story that we connected with initially. I became fascinated with the idea of why the paper was yellow. The color is carefree, almost always associated with happiness and optimism. And I became further fascinated by the idea that color is purely perception, a scientific phenomenon of our brains, our eyes, and rays of light. I'm obsessed with the science of sensory perception. What causes us to see, hear, feel, and taste what we do? What can cause the senses to be warped and skewed? I also instinctively knew that my portrayal of the Woman would fight against the helplessness and frustration I felt as I read the story. OUT LOUD's devising process invites us to take an internal experience and translate it externally, in our bodies and in the world we create. I envisioned the Woman's struggle with her illness to be like fighting against a current, becoming submerged in liquid color, drowning in sensory overload. So my challenge with this process is turning this abstract concept into a performable physical experience.

I want to honor our source material by staying true to Gilman's story, but I also want my Woman's journey to be relatable to women existing in today's society. And I think Gilman's work allows us to do that. The struggles that this Woman faces are far too familiar for us to write them off as "old fashioned." I want our audience to realize how relevant this story still is. It delves deep into the mind of this one Woman, and it is also vastly expansive, reaching the women of 1892 all the way up to 2017 and beyond.

The Yellow Wallpaper is artistically the most intricate piece I have ever been challenged to create. We have four actors portraying the same Woman, creating a journey from four unique perspectives. Our four pieces could not be more different from one another. When we are the Woman, we have the chance to tell her story our own way. We explore her story through the rituals we perform to heal ourselves, the agony of the changing light that exposes our raw, bare selves, the numbing effects of medication that dulls our senses contrasted with colossal sensory overload, and escaping into a reality we create for ourselves. I think that if we had an infinite number of women to adapt this story and tell it from their own perspectives, we would have an infinite number of unique pieces to share.

But this unique process also calls upon us as ensemble members to engage with all of the performances as the Wallpaper, expanding to create the world she perceives and honing in to show her intimate thoughts. Our four Women go through our pieces as a unit, an unending cycle, a cycle that I still have many questions about. Does each Woman exist in their own universe? Is our audience spanning across time and space to experience each Woman's story? Are there elements besides the source material that connect all four pieces to form the cycle? As I go through the cycle, do I have memories of past rotations? Do any of my experiences as the Wallpaper influence what I perceive as the Woman? Performing all four pieces and attending all four parts of The Yellow Wallpaper experience will offer these questions (and many more) up for interpretation.

Following this Woman's journey from the inside out has given me a humbling perspective on "madness" that I hope to share through my portrayal of her. My biggest hope for audiences is that they allow their minds to push the boundaries of how mental illness is viewed in our society. I hope that no person is ever told to "get over" their "nervous weakness" again. I hope that no person is over- or under-medicated, misdiagnosed, or neglected. I hope that we can face the horrors of the inside of our own minds and gain a better understanding of "that way madness lies."

OUT LOUD Theatre Presents The Yellow Wallpaper: A 4-Part Immersive Experience: RITUAL | LIGHT | COLOR | ESCAPE from June 22 to July 9 at The Mathewson Street Theater, 134 Mathewson Street Providence, RI.

The Yellow Wallpaper is presented as a four-part series:

THURSDAYS - Part 1: Ritual (Featuring Siobhan LaPorte-Cauley)
FRIDAYS - Part 2: Light (Featuring Ottavia De Luca)
SATURDAYS - Part 3: Color (Featuring Sarah Leach)
SUNDAYS - Part 4: Escape (Featuring Erika Rethorn)

For full details and to purchase tickets, please visit

COLOR Website Page:
Sarah Leach's Ensemble Profile Page:

Photography by Piquant Photo | Justine M. Johnson.

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