This week I am taking a detour in my regularly scheduled film-oriented programming to introduce you to a very important person in Temple’s theater department. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you won’t regret reading about Lindsay Harris-Friel’s journey.
Master of the Fine Arts candidate in playwriting Lindsay Harris-Friel’s play “Traveling Light” is making its Philadelphia debut in the Philly Fringe Festival after a successful run in Minneapolis, produced by Theater Pro Rata.
“Traveling Light” is based on the lives of playwright Joe Orton and Beatles manager Brian Epstein. They both died tragically within three weeks of each other. Orton was murdered and Epstein committed suicide. The possibility of a connection between the two icons creates a dialogue about what it means to live in London and be gay in the 60s.
The play is set in a graveyard in 1967 where Orton and Epstein meet to discuss the script that Orton is writing for the Beatles. The play explores human connection during a time that many people associate with the term “free love,” according to Harris-Friel.
“In the course of the night, they make connections, swap clothes, evade, seduce and escape the police,” she said. “The play has a lot of timely themes, such as the need for tolerance and police brutality, as well as being an exploration of loneliness, the artistic condition, class differences, love and [the] willingness to take risks.”
Of course Harris-Friel has a way with words when it comes to her play. This idea has been her baby for about 10 years.
“I think I got the first seed of an idea in the summer of 2004,” she said. “I started reading as much as I could about [Orton and Epstein] over the following year, all the while thinking, ‘Imagined meeting plays are so passé, this is a terrible idea.’”
But Harris-Friel’s love of the Beatles and Orton’s plays caused her to dig deeper and research more about the lives of these two individuals and how they could have intersected.
“When I noticed the odd coincidence of both Brian Epstein and Joe Orton dying so horribly within three weeks of each other, it got stuck in my head and I had to do some research. The overlap in their lives was intriguing,” she said.
After doing some investigating, Harris-Friel was able to begin writing the play, not only as an exploration of this possible connection, but also as a way to work through her own life and the social issues she noticed in Philadelphia.
“Writing the play helped me deal with a lot of things that were going on, like the class differences and creative differences in Philadelphia,” she said.
One of the challenges she faced, however, was how to toe the line between fan fiction and factual evidence while writing the play.
“If you don’t write it carefully, then it’s just a love letter to Brian Epstein and Joe Orton and then it’s just an Easter egg hunt: ‘Let’s see how many historical facts we can talk about,’” Harris-Friel said. “A lot of the setup of the play is true, what happens in the play itself, in the cemetery, when it’s too late to be night and too early to be morning, is fiction. Two of the characters, the police who come along and tangle with them, reflect attitudes that existed in society at the time and put the relationships in context.”
While the play is inspired by history, Harris-Friel said her use of creative freedom is just as important to the play as the facts themselves.
“The scholarship exists in the play’s setup, but the fiction, and maybe the truth, exists in what these characters could have been and what they could have done. Hopefully, the value is in the fiction, the emotional truth of the story,” she said.
The play has had a successful run in Minneapolis. It was named one of the best plays of 2010 and was lauded by critics from Lavender and Metro magazines and the Southwest Minneapolis Patch website. The performers are excited to be bringing their work back to Philadelphia to share at the Fringe Festival. All of the actors are Philadelphia natives, as is Harris-Friel. However she is no stranger to the Fringe Festival – she has self-produced for Fringe.
“Being able to have written this in Philadelphia, and produce it here, working with this community and for this community, makes me overwhelmed with gratitude.”
“Traveling Light,” produced by Liam’s Sofa Cushion Fortress, will be playing at The Skybox at The Adrienne Theater Sept. 6-14. Tickets are $20 and can be bought at the door or online at fringearts.com.
Chelsea Colatriano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.