Over the past six weeks, a cast of seven Appalachian State University student-actors have been rehearsing five days a week to bring to life a true historical drama based on the life of prestigious art critic John Ruskin.
“The Countess” will bring the world of Victorian England, 1850s art and scandal to Appalachian when it shows in the Valborg Theatre on campus from Feb. 25-28 at 7:30 p.m. and March 3 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $9 for students and $16 for the public.
“[Ruskin] befriended a very well-known painter named Everett Mallais, and he, Mallais and John Ruskin’s wife all went to Scotland, where relationships shifted, changed, grew and deteriorated,” said Jake Dailey, senior theatre performance major. Dailey plays the role of Mallais in Appalachian’s version of the play.
Far from your average love triangle, “The Countess” addresses serious themes of the dangers of idealism, said Molly Winstead, senior theatre and history major who plays the role of Effie Ruskin, John Ruskin’s wife.
“One of John Ruskin’s biggest flaws is that he is constantly looking at the world through this lens in which everything is and should be ideal, and those things that aren’t ideal, like most people, don’t live up to his expectations,” Winstead said.
“The Countess,” written by Gregory Murphy, is a true story based on real events and people.
“For me one of the biggest challenges has been having to learn a whole new set of social values, and not just social values but mannerisms,” Winstead said. “How I talk, how I move, how I sit down in a chair or drink wine or eat food.”
Senior theatre education major Preston Perrin plays John Ruskin, and said he has found it both challenging and enjoyable to psychoanalyze the characters using real letters, sketches and journal entries.
“We’ve actually been able to figure out – very possibly – their thought processes by looking at these remnants of their lives,” Perrin said.
Winstead said another challenging aspect of “The Countess” has been its “episodic” quality. With 15 scenes in the entire show – some taking place months apart – the actors have had to adjust to abrupt mood changes. Dailey described his experiences as the “most intense multi-tasking” he’s ever encountered working in a show.
“It’s been tricky, and it’s something that we’ve all gotten to be pretty good at,” Winstead said. “You have to totally get out of one emotional state and go right into another one.”
Winstead said one of the standout characteristics of “The Countess” is the amount of time and research that has gone into ensuring its legitimacy, with several of the lines in the play straight from letters written between the Ruskins and Mallais. Luke White, senior theatre major and dramaturge added that the cast and crew of “The Countess” have done their research by checking out libraries and websites.
“We’ve also been able to get our hands on a lot of [material], which is something we don’t usually get to do,” White said. “On this project we took a study abroad trip last summer, and we got to see Mallais’ paintings and we got to look at some of the actual sketches.”
Several students also visited New York a few weeks ago on a senior capstone trip to view Mallais’ sketches in the Morgan Library that is said to have inspired one of the most pivotal scenes in the play.
In addition to this research, White said he also obtained a grant from the office of student research to stay in England an extra week in order to visit John Ruskin’s estate.
Despite the challenges and preparation for The Countess, Dailey, White, Winstead and Perrin agreed the experience has been incredible. White described the cast as the “dream team,” and Winstead said they felt as though they had just “won the lottery,” with their roles.
Story: Liz Flamming, Intern A&E Reporter