By Nicole O’Connell
With a premier performance only days away, Lisa Kramer and Rachel Wiese practice “Walking Toward America” in the Sullivan faculty lounge. While this may seem an unlikely location for such an activity, Kramer and Wiese, both adjunct professors in Worcester State’s Visual and Performing Arts Department, have chosen the room as their rehearsal space for this play by Sandra Fenichel Asher.
Adapted from the memoirs of Ilga Katais-Paeglis Vise, “Walking Toward America” is a one-woman show in which Wiese plays Ilga at various stages as a child and as a grandmother, as well as a cast of other characters. The story follows Ilga, who, along with her family, are escaping Latvia during the Second World War.
“Walking Toward America” is the first production of Heart Forward, a new theatre company based in Worcester and founded by Kramer and Wiese. They will present Asher’s play three times this May, once at Notre Dame Academy and twice at Worcester Academy.
“Rachel and I were talking about how much we wanted more professional theatre that was in the Worcester area,” Kramer explained, as most paying theatre work is in Boston. Kramer read the script a while back and showed it to Wiese, who loved the story as well.
They started working on “Walking Toward America” last summer. As rehearsals progressed and they got to know each other, Kramer and Wiese realized how similar their ideas and plans were.
“She and I met and it’s like, ‘We can make this real,’” Kramer said. Heart Forward was founded soon after.
“We want to launch the theatrical side of the new Worcester experience,” Wiese said. “The city has been rapidly changing for twenty years and only now is it starting to be obvious. We want to be part of that obvious shift toward a culture of creative arts.”
Heart Forward aims to promote social justice, female empowerment, and compassion through their productions. They believe “Walking Toward America” strongly demonstrates these themes.
“It’s very relevant to the questions being raised about immigration,” Kramer said. “Ilga’s story is about a family walking across a war-torn country to escape Russia and Germany.” Furthermore, the audience sees a different side of history because, if Ilga’s father served, he would have been part of the German army, Kramer explained.
“Nobody makes the choice to walk that far to face those dangers to risk everything. It’s not an easy choice,” Kramer said. “They make it because there’s something better on the other side.”
Heart Forward urges the audience to consider the humanity of the story. Even though the characters are from a different time and from different countries, they are still people and audiences can connect with them.
“We live in weird times where everything is political but we’re not allowed to talk about politics. Part of the beauty of the show is it has a very political message, but it’s a subtle political message,” Kramer said.
“And that’s not the whole heart of it; the heart of it is the human right to seek safety and happiness for your family,” added Wiese. “And in this case, the parents never gave up hope.”
Kramer and Wiese hope that sharing Ilga’s story will have an impact in the Worcester area.
“We want to do stories that are relevant and timely and have some kind of impact on the community that we’re building,” Wiese said. “We want to actually influence the style of living here. So that’s why we want to work here now.”
Furthermore, the play is already resonating with audiences even before its first performance.
“We have at least three families coming to see the show who say that their personal story parallels Ilga’s story,” Kramer said. “There are a lot of people who have lived this story and a lot of people who are still living this story in different ways, so it’s really powerful to hear that people are coming to see it for that reason.”
“And [the families] mention specifically that for themselves it would be somewhat cathartic, but what they want is to share it with their younger generations, with their children,” Wiese added. “It’s hard to find the opportunity to talk about where you came from when the focus is the future.”
“We love that it is a story about hopefulness,” she continued. “It would be easy to do a commentary that is dark and dire and about the dark cloud that has descended and us hating each other and the wide chasm between parties and perspectives, and instead, this is a heartwarming piece that everyone can connect to.”
While this show fit into their company’s mission, both Kramer and Wiese were attracted by the idea and challenges of a one-woman show.
“I’ve never done a one-woman show and I thought it was so visually evocative,” Wiese said. “I could imagine the world of it so clearly.”
Most of Wiese’s professional career has been with improvisational and experimental theatre. These projects, starting with just ideas and concepts, often have multiple writers and their own problems.
“You always feel like it’s a fight to get the words right,” Wiese said. “When I read [“Walking Toward America”] I thought these words are thoughtfully, beautifully orchestrated and I get to just learn words and say them! It sounded like heaven.”
The 75-minute show runs without an intermission, so there are barely any breaks for Wiese.
“Staying focused for long enough to get through the whole play was just the kind of challenge that was appealing to me,” she said.
“It’s really beautiful seeing it come to life,” Kramer said. “Rachel does a great job. It’s tough. She’s playing 35 characters, I think. But she brings them all to life in wonderful ways.”
Though Wiese is the only actor, she does occasionally interact with the show’s musician, Virginia Bailey.
While reading the script, Kramer thought live music would be a fitting addition.
“Ginny came on board and she created this really beautiful score which she had intended for the harp, but we will have to go with piano for these first few performances because of technical difficulties with the harp,” Kramer explained. “But it’s going to be lovely anyway. She’s based the score off of some traditional folk music from Latvia plus there’s a little Americana in there.”
Even with just a director, actor, and musician, Kramer admits that a challenge of the show is finding rehearsal times when they are all available. “All three of us are juggling so many different things,” she said.
As of Sunday, costumes had not been finalized yet, but consideration was being made as to the practicality of the outfit.
“The whole show takes place in this trek and it’s winter. I have a dress, a sweater, a coat, and a scarf,” Wiese said. She’s searching for options that are, “truly wintery but aren’t overly hot.”
“Finding that balance between ‘I’m going to die under the stage lights’ and looking appropriate is hard,” added Kramer. She also explained there would be more emphasis on the emotional authenticity of the costume rather than authenticity of the time period.
Just as Ilga keeps moving, so, it seems, will the production. There are plans for the play to be presented at Assumption College and hopes for it to come to Worcester State. Heart Forward is also reaching out to other locations within driving distance of Worcester.
“We are both proud of the work and I feel that we are getting a beginning,” Kramer said. “Just with the little publicity we have had, other people in the community are starting to reach out and go, ‘Hey, I’d like to do this with you,’ which shows that there’s a need for this kind of work.”
“We are a new company and this is our first production, so even though [“Walking Toward America”] is representative of the kind of work we want to do, it isn’t all we ever intend to do, but it’s interesting when you’re just starting out to not be overly defined by the choice that you’ve made for your first show,” said Wiese.
“We have lots of ideas. Lots and lots of ideas,” Kramer said, laughing. “There’s so many stories that we have to hear.”
Performances will be held at Notre Dame Academy on Friday, May 10 at 8 p.m. and at the Worcester Academy Performance Center on Saturday, May 18 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased beforehand at heartforwardarts.org or at the door.