Letters from Langston

The following post was written by Kaytlin McIntyre, Literary and Casting Associate.

Dear Elizabeth currently playing on the Leo K stage, is the narrative of two poets, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, and the deep, fruitful friendship that developed primarily through written correspondence.

Another letter writer has been in the news lately. Langston Hughes, jazz poet and leader of the Harlem Renaissance, penned hundreds of poems in his lifetime, enough to fill 20 volumes. In The Selected Letters of Langston Hughes a trio of editors sorted through his written correspondence and compiled a series of highlights.

Hughes was not a gossip. His letters hold few criticisms of other writers and are typically graceful and accepting of occasional condemnation of his simple, uncomplicated style. Nor did he write love letters; Hughes never married and his letters give little insight to secret romance or scandal. Instead, he would often write friends about his poetry, his city, and what it meant to be an African American in the first part of the 20th Century. The letters of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop illuminate the adventurous and sometimes rocky relationships the two poets forged through their lifetimes. Langston Hughes wrote tirelessly and engaged the greater socio-political conflicts rather than the personal dramas.  His story would be a solid but uneventful account of a constant worker – what he was often had very little to do with who he was.

His leadership position in the Harlem Renaissance went on to inspire writers like August Wilson and the civil rights movement. But his position as a figure-head for the African American artistic community was not always a comfortable position for him.

In a letter to his mentor and benefactor Charlotte Mason:

“I ask you to help the gods to make me good, and to make me make me clean, and to make me strong and to make me fine that I might stand aflame before my people, powerful and wise, with eyes that can discern the ways of truth. I am nothing now — no more than a body of dust possessing no without wisdom, having no right to see. Physically and spiritually I pass through the dark valley, a dryness in my throat, a weariness in my eyes, fingers twisted in to strange numb shapes when I wake up at night, the mind troubled and confused in the face of things it does not understand, the mouth silent because there is no one to talk to, the cool sweet air burning the lungs, the hot sun cold to the body.”

His anguish and uncertainty is beautiful poetry. He doubts his abilities as a beacon for the black community but so easily demonstrates his natural talent. Letter writing wasn’t only a matter of familial correspondence for Hughes, it was practice in his medium, illuminating the human experience in plain English. The first time he penned one of his most famous poems, “I, Too” was in a letter to Alain Locke, another  leader in the Harlem Renaissance:

Excerpt of Langston Hughs' letter to Alain Locke.

Excerpt of Langston Hughs’ letter to Alain Locke.










Hughes lacked the committed pen pal relationship of Lowell and Bishop, but his letters are a further testimony to the power of poetic language as communication.

Is there anything more seductive than a poem written just for you?

Keeping Up With The Poets

The following post was written by Artistic Casting Intern, Hattie Andres.

Over the course of their 20-year friendship and letter correspondence, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell referenced almost 1,000 names of political and artistic peers, as well as historical figures. Think you can keep up with these well-read poets? Test your knowledge by matching the names of these notable figures to their descriptions:

Suzanne Bouchard as Elizabeth Bishop and Stephen Barker Turner as Robert Lowell in  DEAR ELIZABETH Photo by Alan Alabastro.

Suzanne Bouchard as Elizabeth Bishop and Stephen Barker Turner as Robert Lowell in DEAR ELIZABETH Photo by Alan Alabastro.


1. Dylan Thomas            a. 17th century English composer

2. Mary Baker Eddy    b. popular 20th century painter,

                                      grandson of the “father of psychoanalysis”

3. Kierkegaard               c. 20th century writer, famous for published diaries

                                       and early exploration of female erotica

4. Lucien Freud             d. celebrated 20th century Welsh poet

5. Henry Purcell            e. 19th century Danish existentialist philosopher

6. Anais Nin                     f. founder of the Christian Science religion



Answer Key: 1-d, 2-f, 3-e, 4-b, 5-a, 6-c

Dear Elizabeth plays in the Leo K. through March 8, 2015.

Dear Elizabeth: Meet the Poets

The following post was written by Artistic Casting Intern, Hattie Andres.

In 2008, Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell was published and consequently fell into the lap of playwright Sarah Ruhl. After pouring through almost 500 letters written between the two 20th century American poets, Ruhl wondered how she might bring the extraordinary lives and friendship of these two writers to the stage. Dear Elizabeth, which runs through March 8th in the Leo K. Theatre, is a beautiful tapestry of selections from the letters, masterfully woven together by Ruhl.

Although heavily awarded and recognized within the literary circle of their time, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell are not widely read poets today. Get to know a bit about their writing before coming to the theatre! 

Elizabeth Bishop and friend, Louise Crane

Elizabeth Bishop and friend, Louise Crane


Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) experienced great loss throughout her childhood. Her father passed away during her infancy and her mother was institutionalized when Bishop was five, leaving her to live with relatives for the remainder of her upbringing. The trauma from her early years translates into a very objective, non-personal tone in her writing, choosing to make detailed observations about the world around her rather than reveal and reflect on her own struggles, which included a lifelong battle with alcoholism.




Her early poem The Fish, which was published in The New Yorker, exemplifies this style with the description of the subject:

He was speckled with barnacles,

fine rosettes of lime,

and infested

with tiny white sea-lice

Bishop lead a very nomadic life, traveling and living in Europe, Key West, New York, Maine, Washington DC, and the Yaddo artists colony before settling in Brazil, where she would meet her partner of 15 years, the architect Lota de Macedo Soares. Her poem The Map, published in the Pulitzer winning collection of poetry, North and South, illustrates her inquisitive attitude towards the world:

Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?

What suits the character or the native waters best.

Topography displays no favorites; North’s as near as West.

More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors.

Bishop again suffered loss at the end of her life, first with the death of Lota and then the passing of Robert Lowell. With these events, her work turned slightly more personal, exemplified in her poem One Art, in which she proclaimed:

Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Robert Lowell, Jean Stafford & Peter Taylor in New Orleans, 1941

Robert Lowell, Jean Stafford & Peter Taylor in New Orleans, 1941


Robert Lowell (1917-1977) experienced a rebellious and tumultuous childhood, citing the contentious marriage between his parents and pressure from his well-known extended family. Known for his blending of life and art, Lowell reflected his dislike for his traditional, Puritan upbringing in his early work, Lord Weary’s Castle, which won him his first Pulitzer.

Lowell continued this trend of self-reflection in his award winning publication Life Studies, in which he moved deeper into the “confessionalist” style of poetry, drawing from his ongoing battle with mental illness, multiple marriages and relationships, and continued bitterness towards his childhood. The writing was so revealing, that some criticized it for its disturbing nature.


The pinnacle of Lowell’s mixture of the personal in his art, was the publication of his Pulitzer winning poem The Dolphin, in which he used pleading letters from his ex-wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, in order to illustrate his position caught between the end of that marriage, and the beginning of his next. Elizabeth Bishop, above all, criticized Lowell for the exploitative nature of this style.

While Lowell’s writing tended to be much more sprawling than Bishop’s, he always admired her concise, detailed style, adapting some of his own writing to reflect hers, such as his poem The Waking Blue, which he wrote about one of his frequent stays at mental hospitals. In it, he parallels Bishop’s close observation from The Fish:

The night attendant, a B.U. sophomore,

rouses from the mare’s-nest of his droawsy head

propped on The Meaning of Meaning.

He catwalks down our corridor.

Azure day

makes my agonized blue window bleaker.

Dear Elizabeth plays in the Leo K. through March 8, 2015.

What did you think of Dear Elizabeth?

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Sound Off: Talking with Piano Lesson Sound Designer Michael Keck

G. Valmont Thomas as Wining Boy in The Piano Lesson.

G. Valmont Thomas as Wining Boy in The Piano Lesson.

The following post was written by Artistic Literary Intern Eric Werner.

August Wilson’s plays pulse with music. His characters riff off each other like jazz improvisers, and he said in an interview “Blues is the bedrock of everything I do.” If you’ve seen The Piano Lesson, you know how important music is to the world of the play. I recently spoke  with Michael Keck, veteran sound designer and composer for the production, to talk about how the music you hear on stage came to be.


EW: You’re no stranger to August Wilson’s work, or to working with Tim Bond— how far back does that partnership go?

MK: I first worked with Tim on Jitney for Milwaukee Repertory Theatre in 2002. Our partnership was followed by Gem of the Ocean, Fences (Seattle Rep!), Ma Rainey and Two Trains Running at various other theaters. This last visit with Tim and Seattle Rep was a particularly enjoyable one.

EW: There’s an interesting mix of worlds in The Piano Lesson—Boy Willie’s southern rural meets Bernice’s northern urban. How did that mix inform the music of the world on stage?

MK: Acoustic guitar and harmonica duets along with stride, boogie and blues piano are central to the soundtrack of communities living in the Black Belt South – a style of music which followed those communities north and west during the Black Migration.

EW: The Piano Lesson takes place in Pittsburgh in the 1930’s—what kind of research did you do while composing the music in the show?

MK: In addition to field recordings of Prison work-songs for Berta Berta.  I am inspired by the work of pianists Maude Lewis, Pinetop, and Eubie Blake for Traveling Man and Cleotha’s Blues. The brief piece played by Maretha, “The Princess Waltz, is based on something my mom taught me when I was about 8 years old.

EW: The Piano Lesson is rife with music—how does the music speak to the play, or vise versa?  

MK: The music is informed by African American history and culture. The beautifully carved piano in Doaker’s and Bernice’s parlor focuses the play on the cultural mythology and history of the family.

EW: What kinds of music do you listen to when you’re not sound designing? Any recommendations?

MK: Although I have a very large music collection representing just about every genre, I prefer reading and listening to audiobooks and podcasts.

Remembering August Wilson, Seattle’s Shakespeare

Tribute to August Wilson

Tribute to August Wilson February 13, 2006

The following post was written by Marketing Intern Amelia Peacock.

Our production of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, now onstage in the Bagley Wright Theatre through February 8, marks the first Seattle production of Wilson’s work in ten years. 2015 also marks the 10-year anniversary of August Wilson’s death. Though Wilson’s physical presence may be absent from Seattle Rep and his favorite haunts in the surrounding neighborhood, his legacy lives stronger than ever before. To help inaugurate these formidable milestones, the Rep is hosting two special community conversations in the final week of The Piano Lesson run.

The first conversation, Story Swap: August Wilson in Seattle, takes place tomorrow, Saturday January 31, following the matinee performance of The Piano Lesson. Audience members and the general public are invited to listen to personal stories and memories about August Wilson’s time in Seattle told by four people who knew him well: Sharon Williams, playwright and solo performer and Executive Director for the Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas; Chic Streetman, actor and blues artist; Al Frank, playwright and longtime friend of Wilson’s; and Dena Levitin, Wilson’s former personal assistant.

As we prepare for this nostalgic event, I took a look in the Seattle Rep archives for more walks down memory lane, or should I say August Wilson Way. Sharon Ott, Seattle Rep Artistic Director from 1997-2005, admits, “Several of my fondest theatre memories of all time have to do with August and Seattle.” Ott remembers a particular occasion discussing two characters Wilson was working on at the Mecca Café, Wilson’s “usual haunt” in Lower Queen Anne. Ott didn’t know it at the time, but these two characters would eventually become the leads in Wilson’s King Hedley II, which premiered at Seattle Rep as part of the 1999-2000 season. As Ott remembers, “I left the Mecca and had to just walk around the block a couple of times. I felt like I was back in Elizabethan times, and I had just had the privilege of listening to Shakespeare ramble on about a character who might later become Hamlet or something!”

“Seattle’s Shakespeare” is a fitting title for Wilson who considered Seattle Rep his adopted artistic home. Seattle Rep’s unique relationship with America’s most beloved African American playwright gives us the privilege and duty to ensure that Wilson’s work continues to be produced on the national stage and we are excited for this opportunity to remember and honor his legacy in the city he loved so much.

Do you have a memory or story about August Wilson or his work? Did you meet the playwright in person or see one of his productions at Seattle Rep? We invite you to share your anecdotes in the comments section on our blog. We also hope you will join us for Story Swap: August Wilson in Seattle Saturday, January 31 in the Rotunda following the matinee performance of The Piano Lesson. For more information about this event and upcoming community conversations, visit the ‘Dates to Note’ section on The Piano Lesson web page here.




What did you think of The Piano Lesson

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