Pilgrim’s Progress

on May 29 | in Featured | by

Pilgrim's Progress rehearsal
By Jeff Hodges M.A.L.S. ’11

Conventional wisdom said it couldn’t be done, but a powerhouse team led by Hollins Theatre chair Ernie Zulia brought Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to the stage.

“Are you a masochist?”

Rachel Nelson ’07 recalls with a smile the startled reaction of her playwriting instructor when Nelson told her she was developing and conducting research this spring for Hollins Theatre’s adaptation of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Annie Dillard ’67, M.A. ’68 is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

“It’s a work that asks a lot of you,” admits Nelson, who is pursuing an M.F.A. at the University of Maine. But the production’s dramaturg and cast member is quick to insist that the notion of Pilgrim as “the worst book to adapt for the stage because it’s this epic, heavy tome is completely not true. It’s incredibly accessible and exciting. There’s this lightness of possibility to it that’s been really fun to work with for the theatre. The book is actually brilliant for the stage.”

Dillard’s treatise on nature and the value of observing the world in a different way, based on journals she kept of her walking trips through the Roanoke Valley, was enthusiastically received upon its publication in 1974. It won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction the following year. Over time, the book has endured: In 1998, Modern Library included it in its list of the 100 best nonfiction books of the 20th century.

Pilgrim’s odyssey from printed page to theatre piece began three years ago when Hollins Theatre chair Ernie Zulia spearheaded the launch of the theatre’s Legacy Series.

We wanted to target some of the great writers who have emerged from Hollins, either as undergraduates, graduate students, or faculty members, and have made a real impact on the literary world,” Zulia explains. We decided it would be terrific to take some of the works created by these writers and bring them to the stage in a way they’ve never been seen before.

The Legacy Series first produced Good Ol’ Girls by Lee Smith ’67 and Jill McCorkle M.A. ’81, and subsequently featured acclaimed adaptations of Bellocq’s Ophelia by Natasha Trethewey M.A. ’91, A Woman of Independent Means by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey ’60, and Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown ’32. From the beginning, Zulia says, “We wanted to embrace Annie Dillard in the Legacy Series, but we weren’t sure how. The book of hers I’m most attracted to is Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which is spectacular, but a difficult one to think of in terms of the theatre. We decided to tackle it because it would force us into a creative approach that would be different and challenging, and would illuminate this work in a way nobody expected, including us.”

In the meantime, Zulia’s work had caught the attention of Andy Belser, a nationally recognized theatre artist who teaches movement, voice, and acting in the Master of Fine Arts program at Penn State University. Belser is founding artistic director of the Gravity Project, a professional theatre company and new work incubator.

Andy Belser and Rachel Nelson '07“For years, people told me, ‘You need to meet Ernie Zulia,’” Belser said. “‘You share a heart and a level of craft in your work.’ Finally Ernie came to see a staging of Our Town I did that was a physical production with very kinetic energy. He asked me, ‘Have you read Annie Dillard?’, and I said, ‘Oh my goodness, have I read Annie Dillard! For a time in my life I was devouring [her books] Tickets for a Prayer Wheel, The Writing Life, An American Childhood, and of course, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.’ And Ernie said, ‘Well, what would you think about adapting Pilgrim?’, and I jumped at it.”

Like Zulia, Belser had no illusions about the task they were facing. “I realized it was going to be intensely difficult to conceive of Pilgrim for the stage. We went through a process of talking with Annie about whether she could imagine a stage adaptation of the book. At first, I think she couldn’t. But then she got to the middle of ‘could and couldn’t’ and gave her consent, which is evidence of her confidence in Ernie and the level of his work at Hollins Theatre, and his reputation.”

Not surprisingly, a fair amount of trial and error ensued. At one point, for instance, Belser says he was speaking with a lot of writers about Pilgrim and considered incorporating the words of those who were influenced by the book into the adaptation. Ultimately, he decided to go solely with Dillard’s prose, “but what that taught me was how important this book is in the world, particularly to the way writers think about their process. Most writers I’ve talked to have said to me, ‘There are very few books in the last 50 years that are game-changers, and that’s one of them.’”

Belser cites several aha moments that convinced him the adaptation was on the right track. “One was just sitting down and reading through the pieces I selected and realizing that what the text says out loud is moving, period. It just sounds good. I have an audio book of Pilgrim, but that’s not the same thing as listening to it being read. It felt theatrical.

Last summer, I was doing some teaching with professionals in New York and I workshopped a small section of the adaptation just to ask, ‘Is this going to work?’ It moved them to tears.

Among the production’s other strengths are how it overcomes the book’s lack of a linear narrative to establish a structure and how it uses lighting and background to create what Belser calls “some pretty cool theatricality. People float through it, and they appear as if out of nothing, they sort of materialize. There is sumptuous imagery in this piece that looks magical and a soundscape that’s luscious and accessible. My hope is that people will look at it and say, ‘It’s not what I normally see [at the theatre], but it feels so inviting.’

“That’s what you do as a director, you sit and you put the audience in your mind and try to see through their eyes as well as your own, and when I did that it revealed itself as a piece that works onstage.”

Another key to the production’s success has been the considerable contributions of Nelson, who burst upon the theatre scene nationally while still an undergraduate at Hollins when her original, full-length play, Paper Cup Ocean, was selected as a finalist by the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. Since leaving Hollins, she has worked professionally, primarily as a playwright, with a number of theatre companies.

“Rachel brings a really useful spirit and energy to the room,” Belser explains. “She has a theatrical intelligence, and it provides me with something I can push against and get inspired by.”

“When we started working on the project, there was this sense of it being so quintessentially Hollins in so many ways,” Nelson says. “It’s a Hollins writer, we’re working on it with Hollins students, and there’s something about the themes and the way we’re working through the material that has really connected a lot of dots for me in thinking about what is important about the Hollins experience.

“Andy and the cast have done a beautiful job, and the way we’re crafting the play is a very open place for people to come. It’s beautiful, it’s funny, and there’s a sense of sweetness to it I wasn’t expecting. You’re going to see something that has the possibility to change the way you are in the world in a minute but very profound way.”

Jeff Hodges is director of public relations.


The Pilgrim Project

Theatre Director Ernie Zulia’s vision for celebrating the 40th anniversary of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was broader even than an ambitious reinterpretation for the theatre of Annie Dillard’s ground-breaking book. Essentially, he wanted to make it a month-long happening, populating April with special events in the spirit of the book and involving various parts of the campus community. The result: the Pilgrim Project, which featured hikes, art projects, a tree documentary, bird and tree walks, and a discussion of Dillard’s book.

Watch a complilation video of Pilgrim Project events.

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