Content warning: This article discusses abortion and trauma, and mentions sexual harassment.
For high school swimmers Amy and Ester, the poolside is anything but terra firma. This weekend, student-run theater group Pen, Paint and Pretzels (3Ps) will perform its realization of Ruby Rae Spiegel’s award-winning one-act play “Dry Land” (2015) in Curtis Hall. 3Ps boldly takes on the challenge of confronting a bevy of often trivialized (and potentially reminiscent) tropes of teenaged life including abortion access, female sexuality and the volatility of relationships — nearly all from the benches of the girls’ locker room.
Swim team member Amy, played by senior Margaret Parish, has been burdened with an unwanted pregnancy and enlists her lonesome teammate Ester,played by first-year Schuyler Bartlett, to help her induce an abortion. Through the girls’ attempts to end Amy’s pregnancy and through moments of intimacy and vulnerability between the two, the audience begins to recognize Ester and Amy’s relationship as one that is rooted in trust and support, which are themes that Director Caitlin Morley sees as central to “Dry Land.”
“For me, [“Dry Land”] is about being known to the point of being helped,” Morley, a senior, said. “It’s about trusting somebody enough to let them know who you really are … [Amy] puts up a well-crafted front and does not let people know who she really is and the things that she really thinks and feels until she meets Ester.”
Morley expressed her interest in examining the queer femme gaze in plays (citing a lesbian reimagining of “Romeo and Juliet” that she directed in 2019) and sees the characters of Amy and Ester as young women who are, perhaps unknowingly, beginning to explore their sexualities.
“They’re the most important people that each other has met,” Morley said. “For me, Amy and Esther incapsulate the initial queer crushes that I think are really common for queer women, at least in my experience and the experiences of other queer people that I know of.”
While Amy is in an extremely turbulent period of her life and needs to lean on Ester through the uncertainty, Ester has her own anxieties surrounding college recruitment and her future. First-year Sid Samel, who plays the role of Victor, the son of a friend of Ester’s mother and a student at a university that is scouting Ester for swimming, sees his character as a “lockbox” for Ester when he hosts her in his dorm room before she swims for the coach at his university.
“In the script, Ester doesn’t really get a lot of time to be herself,” Samel said. “It’s all kind of taken up by helping Amy and trying to be there for her. But with Victor … he’s someone who [Ester] sees once and never again. She can get all this baggage off her chest with him.”
Katelyn Young, who plays the character of Reba, Amy’s friend and a source of comic relief in the show, shared that she sees great reality in both the themes and characters in “Dry Land.”
“Even the smallest characters have so much nuanced development [and] are so human at their core,” Young, a junior, said. “Something that I felt when we read the script was that I could see myself in all the characters, regardless of how much on paper I actually had in common with them.”
With this reality comes moments of intense intimacy between several characters in the show, which culminate in a heart-wrenching and unstinting scene where Ester provides comfort to Amy as she has her abortion onstage.
“The scene is harsh and it is honest and it is brutal, but at the same time, [it is a] beautiful moment of care between the two girls,” Morley said.
As is written by Spiegel in a note in the script, “Harshness is as true to this play as sweetness.” Morley and the cast and crew of “Dry Land” certainly work to capture this direction, approaching both the harshness and the sweetness of the play with the vulnerability and attention required to succeed in its performance.
“The sweetness of the play, the tenderness of the play, is an effect of this harshness,” Morley said. “There are harsh truths and realities of the play … the most obvious one is the fact that Amy is pregnant and does not want to be. The realities of that situation require a tenderness and sweetness by Ester.”
Morley, who is writing a thesis in the education department about trauma in theater, takes the emotional and physical protection of her actors very seriously, and recognizes that these moments of intense intimacy have the potential to take an emotional toll on the actors.
“Some directors are like, ‘Tap into your emotions and pull up your own trauma and put it on stage,’” she said. “That’s not what I’m looking for.”
For this production of “Dry Land,” 3Ps hired an intimacy choreographer who facilitates the creation of consensual and repeatable choreography among the actors, and aims to prevent unnecessary discomfort and sexual harassment. The intimacy choreographer for this show, Margaret Clark, has worked in this position for a number of shows around New England.
“[Clark is] fantastic,” Morley said. “She’s come in … to help me stage these moments of intense intimacy … and really makes sure that these physical movements are specific — no surprises.”
“Dry Land” is both technically and thematically challenging; nonetheless, Morley and the rest of 3Ps were willing to take on the challenge. The organization has gone through some major changes over the last few months, which have, according to 3Ps’ current leadership, allowed executive board members to more directly support their artists. Abi Steinberg, the current president of 3Ps, explained that the group has shifted away from being an “umbrella organization” that encompassed all student theater groups to being an organization that focuses solely on playmaking.
“We wanted to shift to being a playmaking group instead of an umbrella group so that we could actually invest in our artists instead of stretching the six board members so thin that they have to do everything for every theater club,” Steinberg, a senior, said. “We can engage with our artists and support them … and make sure that they feel supported.”
3Ps’ production of “Dry Land” will be performed in Curtis Hall on Dec. 10, 11 and 12. Tickets can be reserved through Tufts Tickets.