Feature: Debra Kaufman’s ‘Illuminated Dresses’ Brings Many Voices (and Dresses) to the Stage
Debra Kaufman is the architect behind Illuminated Dresses, now playing at Burning Coal Theatre in partnership with Odyssey Stage. Kaufman’s process, which she calls a “creative collaboration as a radical act,” was the driving force behind this project. She describes that creative collaboration as: “a feminist perspective [where] each person has a clear role and responsibility to others. It takes a lot of maturity to be in the present moment. Realize it is emotional terrain, but hold your own presence.”
Instead of holding back and fleshing out a full-length play on her own, Kaufman knew the work would be more interesting if it involved many playwrights’ voices. So, she put out a call and the response was overwhelming. Out of 70 submissions, Kaufman whittled it down to 14 monologues that make up the finished product.
Each five-minute piece is about a woman and an article of clothing that has significant meaning in her life. From a little black dress to a Girl Scout uniform to a hospital gown, the dresses become characters in their own right.
The ethos of Kaufman’s creative collaboration is not only alive in the relationship she has formed with each playwright, but she says she has found an exceptional partner in director Lori Mahl.
“One of the things I love about [Lori] as a director is she cares so much about the text,” she says. “She has a lot of respect for writers. She really works with the text with the actors.”
“When she had the idea to do the reading as a workshop reading, the playwrights were flies on the wall. It was so great for the playwrights to see so many iterations of the way it could be presented.”
Illuminated Dresses was originally workshopped by Kaufman, Mahl, and a group of talented actors at the Women’s Theatre Festival’s OccupyCon in 2018. Since then, the pair took their time to methodically develop the project and find the right collaborators and partners. Kaufman said that suddenly, after such a long time, there were so many yeses, and the doors just kept opening.
“One of the things I want people to see is the way that women are telling their stories in these pieces are very authentic, they’re intimate,” she says. “I want people to feel like when they come they are experiencing something that is emotionally resonant, whether it’s a conflict, or contemplative, whatever it is, that you feel like you could be having a conversation with this person, that you feel like you know this person in some way.”