September 30, 2013
At the age of three, still a toddler, Bekah Gross would put on skits. It was easy and fun for her to just think up dramatic stories, rummage through some clothes and makeup in the house — for the full effect — and usually cast herself as some animal or Mary, the mother of Jesus.
The hard part was piquing the interest of an audience — her mom, who was usually lying in bed sleeping in the early hours of the morning, or as Gross says, trying to sleep. "I'd prance into her room and put on a show," stated Gross. "Sometimes I would get her attention and other times she wasn't all that interested. Even though the audience was bored at times, the show must go on. Right?"
That would remain Gross' attitude. Even her mom couldn't ignore the spirit and persistence any longer. Realizing her daughter's talents she got her started with theater in the first grade.
"That was my dream as a kid," stated Gross with a content smile. "I told myself ‘I want to be an actress when I grow up.'"
Not only was that the beginning of her acting career but also, unknowingly, the start of performing in one-person plays. However, the one she is about to perform is on a much bigger scale in audience and profile. On Friday and Saturday, Oct. 11 and 12, at 7:30 p.m., the public is invited to the Former Governors' Mansion in Bismarck for William Luce's The Belle of Amherst, a one-woman show based on the writings of Emily Dickinson — starring Gross as Dickinson. The performance, which is free and open to the public, will also tour the state at three locations thanks to a Humanities Council grant. The first act will be performed for Wilton High School on Thursday, Oct. 17,and then the full play at the Ellendale Opera House on Friday, Oct. 18, at 7:30 p.m., then in Wahpeton on Saturday, Oct. 19, 7:30 p.m., in the Harry Stern & Ella Stern Cultural Center.
"This is a formidable challenge for a young actress, but Bekah's passion for the role and for Dickinson's life and work has resulted in a truly wonderful performance," suggested Dr. Jamieson Ridenhour, the play's director and an associate professor of English at the University of Mary. "And it's a particular joy to produce the play in an actual 19th-century drawing room at the Former Governors' Mansion. The audience will be sitting in the room with Emily Dickinson, guests in the poet's home."
The play delicately explores the life of one of America's greatest poets at various stages in her experience from the age of 15, when she was full of hope and success, until she died at 56, a virtual recluse with her door closed against society. Her life is recreated withliberal excerpts from her poetry and by the method of her playing the roles of her father, teacher, and friends.
Gross, a St. Paul, MN, native majoring in English with a theater minor, never paid much attention to Dickinson's works until last January in Ridenhour's class when he required students to research an author.She picked Dickinson and from that point on fell in love with her and her writing. Recognizing Gross' deep interest, Ridenhour gave her the play script to read. The temptation was just too great. "It would sure be cool if I could do this play," Gross suggested to Reidenhour. "He agreed and said over the summer I would have to memorize the script. I had to take it everywhere – even back home to St. Paul. It was hard but I loved it."
Of course, upon finding out about the play, Gross' mom and biggest fan, being honest with her daughter and continuing to be that same tough, bedroom critic she was 16 years ago, asked "How are you going to make this interesting?"
The summer has passed and show time is fast approaching. Gross eats, breathes and sleeps Emily Dickinson. After months of research, watching the Tony Award winning performance of Julie Harris who also played Dickinson, and knowing everything there is to know about Emily, she's come to this conclusion.
"She was different, but by no means was she crazy like many have stereotyped her to be," exclaimed Gross. "I want the audience to get know Emily better. She is generally misunderstood. I hope to convey a different feel. I want people to see Emily the way I see her."
And perhaps that, in part, answers her mom's question. "I plan to stay true to the script and take in all of Dr. Ridenhour's words of wisdom," added Gross. "Each actor has to interpret the script in their own way."
Gross has held true to that philosophy ever since she began performing in front of her mom back in St. Paul, but only this time it will be in front of a bigger, more enthralled audience at the Former Governors' Mansion. "We're lucky to have this venue," Gross commented. "I think it's exciting. I feel like I am playing dress-up, and I am in her house, wearing her dress, at her desk. It's going to be really intimate. I'll literally be breathing on them."
That sounds familiar. But only this time there's no doubt she'll have the attention of this captive audience.