In 1987, 18-month-old Jessica McLure was trapped in well for 58 hours.
You won’t spend 58 hours in playwright Philip Santos Schaffer’s unusual and interactive, phone-driven show, Baby Jessica’s Well-Made Play, but the work does require some time and audience commitment. Yet, you can do it all in your pajamas from the comfort of your home.
The five-act show takes place over two nights (two 90-minute segments on night one and one 90-minute segment on night two) and then there is a mysterious 5th act that takes place sometime in the future.
You are asked to be an active participant in the show. The more you give, the more you will get out of this work that delves into celebrity, pop culture, and our own memories of the past.
For Act I, you are in charge of building your own theater space. You are instructed to put yourself somewhere “dark, constricted, but comfortable.” I opted for my bedroom closet where the noise of the outside world faded away and I could dim the light and concentrate on the show. I piled blankets and pillows in there and made sure my arms were compressed between the wall and my laundry basket. It was oddly cozy and a little claustrophobic.
Don’t tell anyone I left the closet door open and my nightlight on just in case I got panicky.
Act II begins with a text message that leads you into pre-show music (yes, I maybe have been dancing around to “Invisible Touch”) and then a link to the show pops up on your phone.
With headphones on, I nestled into my set. Through sound design and actor re-creations, the incident from 1987 is laid out. Jessica’s mother stepped away from the yard to take a phone call and Jessica falls down a well. Trapped in the dark, covered in tar, and unable to move we can imagine the scene as rescue workers drill down to try to reach her. A media frenzy ensues. But in the end, she is rescued.
The show focuses us on imagining Jessica’s experience and then builds out from there into conversational questions around things that come from being trapped in the dark–fear, hope, and self-care.
Actor Mary Round leads Act II and shares true stories from her life. She asks for you to share true stories from yours. This part of the show was focused on the sensory—the feel of tar on the well walls, the presence of thick darkness above and below you, and the distant hammering of drills. The abstract sounds and Round’s voice gave it a meditative quality.
Though I had moments of panic that my stories were not filling the time or maybe I was droning on too much about the darkest place I’ve ever been, a moment of loneliness, and a time I was lost. Not all the prompts led me to an immediate epiphany about what to share. Was it ok if I uhm-ed and ahh-ed for a moment while trying to thinking of a good yarn to share?
One-on-one theater that asks audience members to share of themselves is a delicate balance. It must serve the intentions of the work, but the piece needs to also recognize this costly exchange. You never want to feel like you are giving away pieces of yourself and no one is listening or acknowledging them. That validation has always been critical to me.
While the Round and I commiserated about Catholic childhoods and shared some of our beliefs, I wished our interaction had been consistently more conversational. Often, after I shared my story, it was an abrupt transition back to the script. This had an air of the depository or transactional—pay the toll to cross the narrative bridge if you will.
In the end, my time down the well ended up mostly atmospheric. Sitting in the dark in silence, thinking about the sounds, smells, and confusion of Jessica’s time in the well worked.
But Act III is where the show blossomed for me. It gave me more of the conversational satisfaction I craved. Again, by phone, an audience member, who has already experienced the show, asks you 58 questions about Baby Jessica, pop culture, activism, and celebrity. While the questions were scripted, my “interviewer” laughed, agreed with me, and shared bits of herself as well.
Being put on the spot during Act II to tell a story of a “miracle” left me sputtering without much miraculous life experience to share (I ended up telling a ghost story because my dead grandmother’s funeral material always kills). But the 58 questions posed to me by fellow audience member, made me think around the issues raised by Baby Jessica more.
Why was this story media catnip? What was happening in 1987 at the time? Was it a good thing Baby Jessica got a $1.2 million trust fund from people who sent in money? Why did people send in money? Are there moments in history I remember distinctly? Have I been a part of any?
Some of these queries were easier to answer than others, but they got my mind whirring about my own values, evolving activism, and events that have made me who I am. There is also the thrill of remembering things you’ve forgotten–odd bits of ephemera from your life that an unexpected question unearths. Sharing this with a stranger too, creates intimacy, if you are willing to go there.
In Act IV, I got to play interviewer, presenting the 58 questions to someone else who seemed a lot less into this than I was.
If you’re squeamish about putting yourself in the mix, then this may not be the show for you. These forays into interactivity were not deeply invasive. You are in control of how much you share. But if you’re not open to a lot of personal engagement, then it’s going to be a drag.
As the hours of Zoom theater have piled on and my relationship to “screens” right now is fraught, creating a theatrical experience by phone allowed my brain the space it needed to wander, imagine, and explore. I chatted away as if an old friend had called out of the blue and we were catching up on the past 25 years.
I maybe also enjoyed being the “star” of the show for Act III. I’ve been locked in my house for 7 months alone, so anyone asking my thoughts and feelings is going to get an earful. It was cathartic to share random stories of my childhood, my weird relationship to pop culture, my recent obsession with K-drama, and how a Cher movie changed my life. I’m not usually this narcissistic, but it was good to get laughs from my audience of one.
Whether in a well or in a pandemic, a little connection in the dark is everything.