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Skidmore College

Faculty scholar: Playwright Stephanie Fleischmann wins Howard Foundation Fellowship

April 23, 2014
Stephanie Fleischmann
Stephanie Fleischmann

Stephanie Fleischmann, who teaches playwriting in the Department of Theater, is one of nine recipients of a Howard Foundation Fellowship for 2014–15, which will enable her to develop a new play, Sound House, over the next year.

Established in 1952 at Brown University by Nicea Howard in memory of her grandparents, the Howard Foundation annually awards approximately 10 fellowships to early and mid-career recipients who have achieved recognition for at least one major project. The fellowships provide artists and scholars in the creative arts (including photography, painting, music, and playwriting) and in historical and critical studies (including history, anthropology, literary studies, and philosophy) with time to complete their work.

Sound House, a dark comedy, is the story of Daphne, “a kind of vaudevillian female Clark Kent destined to save the world from its shortcomings by dint of her own awkwardness. She is obsessed with and inspired by the work and sound world of British inventor/composer Daphne Oram (1925-2003), an obsession that ultimately provides her namesake with the means to build her own ‘sound house’,” explains Fleischmann.

Oram invented the Oramics Machine, “a graphical system for generating sound, predating the synthesizer by a decade,” according to Fleischmann. Oram also was the creator in 1957 of the BBC’s first-ever fully electronic score—for Amphytryon 38, a radio drama—paving the way for the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, which Oram co-founded in 1958. That same year she composed the score for Samuel Beckett’s radio play All That Fall.... She received modest notice for her work, but as a woman operating in a male-dominated field during the mid-20th century, her profile was fairly low and she died in extreme poverty, according to Fleischmann. A substantial archive of her work has been established at Goldsmith’s University in London, and Fleischmann plans to visit the archive for research.

She says that her play “will center on the condition of feeling/being invisible. I am interested in how sound helps us to see. And inversely, how sound might serve as a kind of cloak, a theatrical means of communicating the condition of invisibility. It is the character Daphne’s obsession with Daphne Oram that will, ultimately, liberate her from the condition of invisibility, and in so doing, in a faintly superhero style, liberate the world from that which is oppressing, in particular, those who are in our culture invisible.”

The story of the two Daphnes will be told in an unorthodox format and promises some surprising developments, according to the playwright. Ultimately, she hopes “to make a theater piece that is as haunting and surprising, and innovative as Oram’s work.”

Fleischmann calls her theater pieces “blueprints for intricate three-dimensional sonic and visual worlds. My work mines a theater of images, the spectacle in a story, the emotional resonance and narrative space implicit in sound. For me, it is the combustion—or alchemy—of language, image, soundscape, and technology that becomes a medium for telling stories.”

A Skidmore faculty member since 2005, Fleischman has earned notice for her theater works. The New York Times has referenced her “lyrical monologues” and Backstage has called her a “neo Emily Dickinson.” She has developed a number of theater pieces, including Tally Ho, The Street of Useful things, Red Fly/Blue Bottle, and Eloise & Ray, among others, for venues throughout Europe and the United States.

Her current commissions include librettos for The Property, for Lyric Opera of Chicago, which premieres in February 2015, and The Long Walk, based on the memoir by Brian Castner. Commissioned by the American Lyric Theater, The Long Walk received a 2013 Opera America development grant, and this June, the project will be workshopped at the DiMenna Center in New York City and subsequently featured in the Opera America Conference’s New Works Forum in San Francisco.

She is currently collaborating with Brian Mertes and Melissa Kievman on a screenplay for Chekhov’s The Seagull and with Andy Dawson on The Russian Doctor, inspired by Chekhov’s sole full-length prose piece, Sakhalin Island. The Russian Doctor will be presented May 9 at Mass MoCA.

Fleischmann is a former Tennessee Williams fellow in playwriting at Sewanee and holds an M.F.A. degree from Brooklyn College.

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