BWW Interview: Anna Kotula, Steve Grumette of THE BELLE OF AMHERST at Rubicon Theatre Company

BWW Interview: Anna Kotula, Steve Grumette of THE BELLE OF AMHERST at Rubicon Theatre Company

The life and writings of Emily Dickinson, one of America's most treasured poets, comes vividly to life in a one-night-only reprise of the acclaimed Ojai Art Center production of The Belle of Amherst by William Luce. The production is presented on Saturday, August 31 at 7 pm at the Rubicon Theatre Company as a benefit for Rubicon's Education and Outreach programs, and stars Ojai actor and choreographer Anna Kotula under the direction of Steve Grumette, artistic director of the Ojai Film Festival. VIP tickets include a champagne reception that features a slice of Dickinson's famous "black cake," served up by Kotula.

We've seen and marveled at Kotula's work before. She did an outrageous impression of Harpo Marx in the Ojai Art Center's production of Animal Crackers two years ago, earning a Vee-Cee award in the process, and also was hilarious as Agnes Gooch, the frumpy, anxious secretary in Mame, also at OAC. Playing Dickinson, however, is a serious challenge, and Kotula has dived into the part by examining personal letters sent by Dickinson during her lifetime, which helped to reveal her complex personality and character. We visited with Kotula and Grumette in a FaceTime interview, in which they talked about the play.

VCOS: Tell me a little about your background.

ANNA: I am originally from Texas and moved to California when I was a teenager. I was involved in the theater growing up and was in a few commercials. I then went to L.A. County High School for the Arts with first singing then drama as my major. I continued on at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts for acting where I became interested in theater movement and dance in particular. I injured my spine while dancing and in the process of recovering, decided to study movement further and attend physical therapy school. I have been a PT in private practice since 2004. I have two beautiful children, one of whom is transfixed by the theater and she was really the one who lured me back into the entertainment world. Coree, my daughter, is 12 and has already been in over 40 productions. For the last 10 years, I have taught dance in Ojai and have choreographed a number of musicals for the Ojai Art Center Theater. My latest musical was Mamma Mia! which had a 5-week run this summer, also at the Ojai Art Center Theater. Steve first saw me perform as Gooch in Mame in 2015. I auditioned for a play he was directing at the time called Skylight, by David Hare and somehow he cast me and we fell in love with working with each other. We then went on to do Engaging Shaw, a play about George Bernard Shaw and his courtship with his wife. We also put up All In the Timing by David Ives in 2018.

VCOS: So tell me how you first encountered the Emily Dickinson project.

STEVE: After we did Engaging Shaw, I told Anna how much I enjoyed working with her and I said "You kind of spoiled me. I'd like to work only with you from now on so can you find a one-woman show that you'd like to do? And if I like it, I'll direct you in it." So I set her off on that quest and she came back with this show about the life of Emily Dickinson

ANNA: I came up with a list of plays but was particularly interested in the work by William Luce who also wrote a one-woman play about Emily Bronte but we both agreed that Emily Dickinson was the one. When I saw the play, it sparked childhood memories of learning some of her poems. My grandfather was very interested in poetry and he would memorize poems. All of his nine granddaughters at one time or another all enjoyed to taking walks with him to discuss philosophy and memorize poems. He really drummed the idea into us that learning language, understanding and reveling in the written word is worthwhile.

VCOS: So you knew Emily Dickinson's works but you didn't know the person yet.

ANNA: Right.

VCOS: So how did you go about learning about who she was and were you surprised by what you found?

ANNA: There were many surprises. We didn't know what a mysterious character she was. She spent the last years of her life as a recluse and one of the stories told was how when she was about to die she asked her maid to burn all of her letters, which was customary back then. But the poems survived. Then there's also Mabel Todd, who was her brother's mistress. She was the one who was instrumental in getting out the first publication of the poems. Emily Dickinson's few fans, during her life, were the recipients of her letters. We don't have letters that she received because those were actually burned, but we have her letters that other people saved and shared after her death, and this play includes excerpts from a number of those letters.

VCOS: Do the letters reveal much about her personality that you don't get from her poems?

ANNA: That's controversial. Some people think they can see her personality and understand her, but there are also experts who argue vehemently about the details.

VCOS: Does the play reveal anything about her?

ANNA: One theme the play explores is a deep desire to be published and how she overcomes some failures around this. The play also delves into the major relationships in her life; her father, brother, sister, lovers, girlfriends, nephew, and others. There is one character who is considered by many to be one of the people she was romantically in love with but they're not 100% sure.

STEVE: Luce makes certain interpretations about her nature through the words that he puts into her mouth, most of which do come from her writings, but some of which is the result of his own way of imagining what he thinks she might have been like from what that we know about her history. I think he was concerned as much about making sure that the play was entertaining but also an accurate recounting of what we know of the real Emily Dickinson.

VCOS: I know that the play makes a point about her sense of humor. Is that one of the things that surprised you about her?

STEVE: Well, when she was very young, she was very lively and that is demonstrated in the play. She became reclusive only in her later years, but when she was a teenager, as she says in the play, she went to parties and dances and loved to send Valentines. So she was very outgoing.

VCOS: Was there a traumatic event in her life that caused her to become reclusive and withdraw?

ANNA: She lived in two houses during her life. One is now the Emily Dickinson Homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts, and both of us have been there. But there was a period where she moved out of that house and lived in a house in Amherst that across the way from a cemetery, and her bedroom window overlooked that cemetery. And there are poems where she writes about watching funerals or wondering what happens after death. In that time period during the late 1800s, when you fell ill, oftentimes you died. There was typhoid and other maladies that you couldn't recover from because they didn't have modern day medicines. One particular death that was a major turning point for her entire family was her brother's youngest son Gilbert, who died of typhoid at eight years old. When you go to the Homestead Museum, they have his original clothes laid out neatly on his bed. She kept a picture of him on her bedside until she died. Also, it was after her father's death, approximately 12 years before she died, where she began to wear only white.

VCOS: Is there anything about Dickinson that you can relate to personally?

ANNA: Whoo! That is a great question. She has so many great one line quotes and here is one I love, "I took my power in my hand and went against the world." She was someone who stayed in tune with and true to herself. For example, her whole family was deeply religious following the strict customs of the church but she chose herself not to attend church. I love the poem that start out "Some keep the sabbath going to church, I keep it staying at home." Oh and none of her poems have titles. They are often identified by the first line. Overall, there is a lot of self-confidence in her work. She was able to build herself up and find joy within a realm of solitude.

STEVE: Although she wasn't a Christian in the truest sense, she did have deep strain of religiosity. There are three things that much of her work was preoccupied with: love, death, and nature.

ANNA: What is inspiring is this concept that your paradise is accessed by going within. Her work and the letters she leaves behind seem that way to me.

VCOS: How old is she in the play?

ANNA: She's all different ages. At the beginning of the play, she says she is 53. She lived to be 55. So she opens up the play toward the end of her life and the play itself goes through the seasons and when the entire cycle of seasons ends, you see that she has come to the end of her life. There are also about 15 characters in the play, which I become or ones in which she has conversations with. Playing these different parts is a great deal of fun for me.

VCOS: How does the staging work on this show, Steve?

STEVE: The way the play was constructed, there are two distinct parts of the set: a parlor and her bedroom, and she moves back and forth between them. Then there's a third portion of the set, the downstage area, that she enters when she's addressing the audience directly. The lighting was designed so that each of those three sections could be lit separately. As she moves from one area to the other, the light in the portion that she's leaving dims out and comes up again in the part of the stage that she is moving into.

ANNA: In the beginning of the play she says "My sister says I tend to wander back and forth in time, so you must bear with me," so those lighting changes give that sense of wandering.

VCOS: Talk about the Rubicon's education program.

ANNA: My daughter has participated in the Education programs at the Rubicon each year for the last five years. It's always been a top-notch, state-of-the-art experience. I know that the theater is always looking for ways to support that program so we thought this show as a fundraiser should benefit there good work. Coree just got through playing Ti Moune in Once On This Island, Jr. and she really killed it. Now they're closing out their Jackie Okie summer youth season with Into the Woods and they have some super-talented kids. The age group is 15-25. Tthey had a part for an entertaining hen who lays golden eggs, so that is a lot of fun for her.. They also have a show called Kids For Kids, which is also a fundraiser for the program. It's a concert directed and produced by all of the children in the program. Coree is actually the assistant director. That happens this Sunday 8/18/2019 at 7 pm. This is an evening of Broadway's hit tunes!

VCOS: Do you wish that you could play Emily for more than one night?

ANNA: Steve and I did this play for the first time at the Ojai Art Center Theater for a 6 show run over Christmas. It was a huge success and there were a number of folks who suggested that we bring it to the Rubicon. My plan is to keep this play in my mind, my heart, performance ready for many years to come. My aim is certainly to do this show again in the future!


The Belle of Amherst plays for one night only, Saturday, August 31, at the Rubicon Theatre Company. For tickets, visit

BWW Interview: Anna Kotula, Steve Grumette of THE BELLE OF AMHERST at Rubicon Theatre Company

The Belle of Amherst plays for one night only, Saturday, August 31, at the Rubicon Theatre Company. For tickets, visit

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From This Author Cary Ginell