AUBURN – Cayuga Community College’s student theater group will shine a light on a historic photojournalist whose contributions to photography were matched only by her resistance to societal conventions.
Harlequin Productions’ performance of “Alice in Black and White” focuses on the career and personal life of Alice Austen, a leading photojournalist whose career and life defied what society expected of women during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Performances are scheduled for March 15-17 and March 22-24 at the Irene A. Bisgrove Community Theatre at Cayuga Community College.
All shows start at 7:30 p.m.
The play, written by Robin Rice, traces Austen’s childhood in the 1860s to a year before her death in 1952, when her work is rediscovered and celebrated.
“The play starts with her upbringing as a transcendental Victorian woman of means that at that time had one responsibility, and that was to get married and have children,” said Harlequin Productions Director Robert Frame. “Women had no rights at all in that period of time, and she was able to become a photojournalist. It’s somewhat germane to now, fighting for women’s rights. The story spoke to me because she did fight for herself.”
Austen, whose work and life are memorialized at the Alice Austen House in Staten Island, grew up and found her passion for photography in Staten Island. According to the museum, she received her first camera from her uncle and by the age of 18 was an accomplished photographer.
Austen’s focus was primarily documentary photography, and approximately 3,500 of her 8,000 photographs still exist, according to the Alice Austen House.
Along with her steadfast dedication to photography, Austen also broke societal norms by refusing to marry, instead living with her life partner, Gertrude Tate.
The struggle for women’s rights was just one part of the play that made the script appealing, said Frame.
“I look for plays that I think will make the students learn and entertain, and that are something new for the students to work with, but it also needs to be something they can relate to,” said Frame.
The script also lent itself to a strong female cast, which Frame said was definitely another reason for selecting “Alice in Black and White.”
Sophomore Hannah Abrams said she wasn’t familiar with Austen before reading the script in 2017.
Now, cast as the famous photographer in what will be her final Harlequin show, Abrams said Austen is a fascinating character, both as a photographer and as a trailblazer for women’s rights.
“The role of women in Alice’s lifetime was to take care of the home and children. End of story. If you didn’t conform to society, you were an outcast, but Alice didn’t care. She lived her life the way she wanted, and if you see this play, you’ll know it was definitely to the fullest,” said Abrams.
A veteran actor who started in middle school, Abrams said the role of Austen is her most challenging to date, particularly due to the different era in which the production is set.
The plot, stretched across 70 years, forces Abrams to portray Austen from her younger years to the year before the photographer’s death.
“I’m 20 years old, trying to walk around like I’m an elderly person at some points. My movements and voice have to show the audience I’m getting older through the show,” she said.
The play’s message encourages people to be themselves and not adhere to what society expects of them, said Abrams, who pointed out that Austen was the “exact opposite of the ideal woman in her lifetime.”
“She was a black sheep in the herd and there’s nothing wrong with that,” said Abrams.
While the play spotlights Austen’s career and personal life, it also draws attention to how her photography was rediscovered shortly before her death.
Her fortune lost in the Great Depression, Austen was destitute when a partner in a publishing company, Oliver Jensen, needed photos for a book about American women and was invited to the Staten Island Historical Society to review Austen’s work, according to the museum.
In the years after, her photos were featured in several publications.
Cayuga student Autumn Brewer plays Sally, who in the play helps Jensen find the photos that revive interest in Austen’s career.
Brewer said her character is also a guide who pretends to be a Victorian-era woman when giving tours.
That switch between her character and a role her character assumes can be tricky, said Brewer.
“Finding the difference between the two of them can be difficult because it’s not just the voice that changes, but also how they carry themselves,” said Brewer.
Brewer, a freshman who will be acting in her second Harlequin Productions show, said what she’s learned about Austen through the play has been “incredible.”
“I think she was a strong woman and was incredible for showing who she was in a time that wasn’t accepting of it,” said Brewer.
Frame complemented the 10 actors in the production, noting auditions started in late January and early February, leaving the cast only weeks to prepare.
Frame said the students have taken such an interest in Austen’s life that they’re exploring a possible field trip to Staten Island to learn more about the photographer.
“They were very interested in who she was and what was going on in her life,” said Frame. “They’ve been really enjoying it and working hard and figuring out who these characters are.”
Tickets are available at the door the night of the performances.
Tickets are $2 for students and $7 for general audience members.