Chloe Dirksen is all about using theater to give voice to people that might otherwise go unheard. That’s why, for her first venture into producing, she was excited to explore a population often forgotten.
With the popularity of Orange is the New Black, women in prison are not completely off the radar. But the moment in time that British playwright Chloe Moss’s play, This Wide Night, explores isn’t when the women are in jumpsuits behind bars, or when they’re committing the crime. This Wide Night takes place after two former cellmates have been released back into the world, and it explores not only their individual struggles with adapting, but also how their relationship weathers the transition. It doesn’t address the obvious dramatic moment. But, it finds the drama in the subtle aftermath.
“This play isn’t about the details of their crimes,” says Dirksen. “This is about two people. These are just women who have had difficult circumstances in their lives, and they ended up in jail, and it changed their lives.”
In addition to the interesting subject matter, it’s the way Moss wrote the characters and the priorities in their lives that Dirksen found so compelling.
“We don’t see in theater a lot of stories about women that aren’t about men,” she says. “But women’s reality is their lives as people, as mothers. This isn’t about women trying to get married or to be pretty. This is about two really human people. I loved how real that was.”
Dirksen is acting in the play alongside her producing partner Jessica Mortellaro. Because they are both acting and producing, they have been able to explore the production in a different way.
“It’s been exciting to have so much control over the creative process,” says Mortellaro. “It is the story that we want to tell, and the way we want to tell it.”
Of course, there are the technical responsibilities, like getting the sponsorship for the playbills and figuring out the set design and direction. That aspect, too, has been new and exciting, because it’s opened them up to the support of the community.
“I have been floored by the support from our community,” Mortellaro says. “Our team has so enthusiastically jumped on board to help us shape this project.”
But they’ve also been able to take ownership of the production in a way that’s given them the freedom to explore the content of the script in a special way. The two women were given the rare privilege of visiting the Riverhead correctional facility to talk to inmates and experience a few hours on the other side of the walls. They spent three hours in the jail, and were able to go to an empty section of the jail and be locked in a cell together.
“Our characters met as cellmates,” says Dirksen. “So we were in this tiny little cell with a bunk bed, and they locked us in.”
The experience hit her on so many levels. She laid on the bed and let her senses absorb everything.
“To hear the sound of the doors opening and closing, the sounds of the people,” Dirksen says. “It smelled so strongly of bleach. I found my eyes were getting kind of sore—it was so sterile. The fluorescent lights were on low, and everything was beige.”
They were able to walk around the jail, to areas where inmates were kept behind bars. She described it as jarring.
“It was like they were in cages,” she says.
Now that they’re back in the outside world, the women can draw on that very real experience to tell the story. And that’s how This Wide Night came to be in the first place. There’s a residency program where playwright Chloe Moss lived in a women’s prison, so the way she wrote these characters came from first-hand exploration. Of course, observing people in jail is not the same as having been in jail, no matter how compassionate a person you are. Dirksen has struggled with this.
“Who am I to tell this story?” Dirksen says she sometimes asks herself. “My life is so far away from this. But the answer to that is because I am able to. That’s why I have to. The people who are in this situation are not in a position where they can tell this story. I hope that that’s enough.”
This Wide Night will run at Guild Hall in East Hampton from March 17-26. For tickets, go to thiswidenight.brownpapertickets.com or call 800-838-3006.