Friendship: Agathe David Weill '95, Emily Davis '95, Shannon Harvey '95
Puppets are not just kid stuff or Commedia dell’Arte anymore, and three members of the class of 1995—Agathe David-Weill, Emily Davis and Shannon Harvey— are pursuing their own puppet dreams through a new theatre ensemble based in New York City.
Yet despite the burgeoning popularity of puppetry, it’s been tough to get attention, and funding, for Messenger Theatre Co.
“It’s hard to reduce our work to a sentence,” admits David-Weill, the company’s producer. “It’s not naked men singing; therefore it's hard to sell.”
“But it is accessible,” insists Davis, Messenger’s co-artistic director along with Harvey. “It’s not really esoteric. It’s hard to find a sexy way to describe our work. It’s intelligent, thoughtful storytelling using whatever visuals are at our disposal.”
The friendship among these women is tight. They collaborate as artists, and they finish each other’s sentences. Yet although they were friendly at SLC, the impetus to work together artistically didn’t occur until long after graduation. By the late ’90s, Harvey was living in California and working as a public artist; Davis was living in New York, pursuing acting and playwriting while teaching theatre; and David-Weill was working for a New York-based movie production company. It wasn’t until Harvey came east to visit in 2000 that the ladies began to toy with the idea of collaborating.
“When Shannon came, I showed her a copy of a play I had written,” remembers Davis. “She really liked it and said that we should work on something together. Since we were both really interested in mythology, she suggested a retelling of the ‘Persephone’ myth.” While Davis distilled the story, Harvey moved to New York. Once the play was finished, they knew they had something special, and they asked David-Weill to come in and act as producer.
In spring of 2001, Messenger Theatre Co. embarked on its first production: “Persephone.” However, at this point the women had little more than friendship to help make it happen.
“It was my first time directing out of a school setting,” says Davis. “Our first time collaborating, our first time in a company…”
“My first time living in New York City,” Harvey chimes in. “My first time making puppets…”
“My first time producing theatre,” adds David-Weill, and the trio dissolves into a hearty laughing fit remembering their inexperience.
Despite their greenness, “Persephone” went from a reading, to a two-week run at Brooklyn’s One Arm Red, to a successful stint at the 2002 New York International Fringe Festival.
“The Fringe is cool. You get a chance to show other people what you’ve created,” David-Weill says. “But there are about 250 shows at about 25 venues, with a 15-minute turnaround to get the actors in and out. ‘Persephone’ did become one of the shows that people talked about within the Fringe, but unfortunately it wasn’t quite edgy: no naked people, no outrageous name.”
“After the Fringe ended, we actually came up with a juicy new title,” says Davis. “‘Naked Persephone in the Underworld Has Sex with Hades While the Demons Are Looking… and Gwyneth Paltrow Too.’”
And they all start laughing.
Cynicism is rare with this bunch; Messenger is characterized by camaraderie. “We really work well as a team,” insists Davis. “We’re lucky in that we share similar aesthetics.”
In 2003, Messenger produced a variety of projects both large and small, most notably a two-week run of Davis’ “The Golden Apple: For the Fairest” at the Kraine Theatre in the East Village.
“It’s a retelling of Helen of Troy with other myths woven in,” says Davis. “It’s very epic. There were 12 people in it playing 25 characters. I knew if we could do it, we could do anything.”
And although the production didn’t garner the press they would have liked, it did attract great crowds and often sold out.
And after Troy?
“Our big goal is to become self-sustaining and support ourselves as artists,” explains Davis. “To that end, we’re offering workshops and also producing a children's play that we plan on touring.”
Children’s theatre? “It’s based on the Russian folk tale ‘Baba Yaga’,” Davis says. Ah. No treacly, amateur, after-school- specials for Messenger Theatre Co.
Now they just need a sexy title.