Southbank Theatre Company, the brainchild of founder Marcia Eppich-Harris, commences its second season with her newest play, a world premiere of “The Profession,” on September 15 at Fonseca Theatre, located in the Haughville neighborhood on Indy’s near Westside.
Prompted by recent events, including the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe. vs. Wade, Eppich-Harris decided Southbank’s sophomore season should focus on woman’s rights. “I’d been developing ‘The Profession’ for three years, and the time felt right to bring it to the stage,” said Eppich-Harris.
Set on the campus of St. Sebastian University, a Catholic liberal arts college, “The Profession” recounts the story of Valerie (Becky Schlomann), a professor who learns she is being fired. As she attempts to salvage her career, she discovers rampant corruption among her conservative male colleagues. At the same time, her treasured student Marina (Trick Blanchfield) decides to become a sex worker to pay her tuition. Eventually the costs for both become too high for each to bear. Both women must decide how much should be sacrificed for a job in this powerful drama in which religion, sex and politics collide.
Recently, I spoke with Schlomann and Blanchfield from their respective homes during a Zoom call. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Tell me about your role, Trick.
Trick: My role is Marina. She is an English student, primarily studying Renaissance literature at St. Sebastian. She is absolutely in love with Becky’s character who is her favorite professor. Marina works as a dancer at a club, and she is being tempted throughout the play to slowly get into sex work. It is faster, easier money, but she is doing it at the expense of her own morality, questioning initially the threshold for her standard of living. Is the money easy enough that it justifies her going down this darker path that she does not want to go down initially? Is it going to be worth her eventual success and eventual career? She is trying to figure out the return on this investment of sacrificing some of her ideals for the endgame of being taken seriously as a writer and academic, as a professional.
Tell me about your role, Becky.
Becky: I play Dr. Valerie Hardy. She is a professor of literature at St. Sebastian which is a small Catholic University, a liberal arts school. In the first scene, she is denied tenure unfairly, which is the inciting incident in the play. She goes on a journey fighting to get tenure, while also trying to understand what is happening to Marina. Both characters are very much affected by men at the university who are not very happy with Valerie because she is outspoken and a strong woman who can be a little prickly. She does not play the game of university politics very well, and she is also trying to understand how her story connects with Marina’s who is her star student. She loves her dearly. She is concerned about what is going on with her and the work that she has chosen to undertake and how the other men in the university are choosing to participate in that work.
What are the play’s themes?
Becky: One of the things Marcia has done well is write these incredible monologues for Valerie which I think set up the themes of the play so well. In the opening monologue, she asks the big dramatic questions of the play. Who controls women’s bodies? Who controls women’s destinies? It is a lot about women having agency over their own life. It is about race and class and gender, academia and politics all colliding at the same time.
Trick, what attracted you to audition for this play?
Trick: This play was my introduction to Marcia as a person and as a playwright. We began reading this in IPC (Indiana Playwright Circle) by Zoom during quarantine. That’s how I got into Indy theatre – by doing these weekly meetings – and from the things we read initially in IPC, I was very impressed. I had already recorded a monologue that I had written myself for IPC, but when this opportunity came, I just wanted to audition because I was so impressed with Marcia as a writer and as a human, and I just wanted to work with her.
I identify with Marina quite a bit, being the intellectual student who goes above and beyond, and I fell in love with the script immediately. I love the empowering factor that Marcia has created for every single character in this play. With every masculine character we have in these roles, we think, “Oh, geez, I don’t think I would be able to identify with that amount of misogyny,” but misogyny is so normalized that most of the time, it is under the surface. You do not really notice it at first, but when you are living as a feminine human throughout your life, it does not matter what role you play. You are going to have to adhere to the rules of this game that you did not decide to play. Marcia represents that beautifully through each one of her feminine characters. Each of them must play their roles in this society that was created before they came into the scene at all. And you know someone like these characters in every aspect of your life. It’s so normalized that when you are seeing this on stage, you are really homing in on these characters and homing in on their struggles.
Becky, what attracted you to this play?
Becky: My story is similar to Trick’s. I have gotten to watch “The Profession” being developed through IPC over the course of several years. The character of Valerie was much older for a while, so it wasn’t an option for me to play her, so I was delighted when Marcia made her a little bit younger because I got to participate. One of the things that has really been cool is to see as we have been marketing this production how many theatre people in Indy feel a sense of investment in this play because we have all gotten to see it come to life for so many years. I feel “The Profession” has one hundred midwives and cheerleaders, and I think there are a lot of people who are really excited to see it finally happening on stage. I am certainly one of them.
And what about the timing? What with the recent controversial Supreme Court decision overturning Roe. Vs. Wade?
Becky: Yes, it gives it resonance. The play is set in 2019, but it does have this abortion subplot in which Trick’s character gets pregnant by one of her professors who is paying for her sex work, and she feels ambivalent about that.
Trick: Ambivalent about the abortion? No. I don’t think you can go through something as excruciating and traumatizing and remain ambivalent throughout the entire process. You are obviously going to disassociate in a certain way and try to protect your mental health and your physicality and your morality, but it is a big decision, and it is a decision that is going to affect Marina a lot. Like obviously she gives into temptation, and this is the result for her. So this is another way that the women in this universe mirror the real world in which women are used and then they are responsible for taking care of the effects of that abuse. There was an article I read that Marcia shared where one of the quotes was, “Women ascended the glass ceiling only to find there was another one. That they were inside a globe.”
Have either of you known a sex worker?
Trick: One of my best girlfriends is doing my role in real life. She has been a sex worker and a burlesque dancer for a decade now, and it’s enabling her to go to graduate school in Norway for a year. She will be busy with graduate school, but I am sure she will pick it up there because it’s just a normalized thing – paying for sex, paying for attention, paying for your time. Most people just want to go on a date with someone who listens to them.
Did you reach out to her for research?
Trick: Absolutely. We just got together for dinner a couple of weeks ago. She introduced me to the culture of the club she works at, over by the airport. She is an amazing dancer, and most of her income is from dates.
I presume Marcia shared her experience in academia.
Becky: She did. I also work in academia myself. I work in higher ed. I am a staffer rather than a professor, so I certainly have my own perspective. One of the things we talked about in rehearsals is the power dynamics, the strict hierarchy of status in academia, and that is certainly something I see in my life.
Tell me about your cast mates. What are they like to work with?
Becky: They are great. This is an intense show. A powerful show. I know when I am done at the end of the night, I am drained. When you are doing a show like this, it is important that you have trust alongside you, and I think we have developed a great ensemble. Trick, what do you think?
Trick: This is my first experience working with an intimacy director. I love Clair Wilcher so much. I just want to put her in my pocket. She is amazing. She brings this great energy and normalizes: “These are the conversations we should have.” That is what Becky is talking about. The center of trust and center of energy. Anybody who comes into rehearsal: everybody checks in with each other regularly. Everybody in the ensemble is incredibly talented.
Is there any comedy in the play?
Trick. There are scenes with my fellow dancer in which she is very sisterly, very lighthearted, poking fun at things. A lot of camaraderie. My character has a great relationship with Becky’s character, her favorite professor, so we can play around with certain things…intellectual repartee. There is a great balance. There are heavier aspects to the play, but it is just very conversational. It is very true to life. You are going to have these very difficult elements to your life, but you are going to find places to breathe and places to laugh, but I think there are some really enjoyable elements to this play.
Becky, tell me about your director.
Becky: Elisabeth Speckman is amazing. I love that she understands both of our characters as a woman, as an academic, as a writer, as an English major. She has given us a lot of freedom to explore while giving us a sense of safety and containment that Trick was talking about, and that is difficult when you are dealing with such difficult subjects. I feel like we are in really good hands with her.
Trick, what do you hope men will come away with after seeing the play?
Trick: I hope they will come into the space and walk away with a deeper sense of empathy and a deeper sense of understanding of what women go through and survive, and I hope they won’t perpetuate toxic behavior. I hope they can look inside themselves and realize, “most of that might have been me in the past. Some of that may have been my friends, my family, my coworkers, and it is time for it to stop.”
Becky, why should people come to see the play?
Becky: They should come because this is a powerful and provocative piece that asks questions about women’s agency and autonomy in the world, and those are questions that need to be asked right now. And I think audiences will be challenged. It is a piece people will be talking about and asking questions about.
WHEN: September 15-25, 2022, Thursday through Saturday performances at 7:30 p.m., Sunday matinee at 2:00 p.m.
WHERE: Fonseca Theatre, 2508 W Michigan St., Indianapolis 46222
COST: Tickets are $25 for adults, $22 for students and seniors and available at the door and online at Southbanktheatre.org.
WARNING: Content includes abortion, abuse of power, sex work, and workplace discrimination and is not appropriate for children.