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Vulnerable verse

Pam Chabora's timid Emily Dickinson had an unlikely precursor in Miss Lynch, the bossy English teacher in the musical "Grease." In the fall of 2004, the North Dakota State University acting professor traveled to Bismarck to accept an award from t...


Pam Chabora's timid Emily Dickinson had an unlikely precursor in Miss Lynch, the bossy English teacher in the musical "Grease."

In the fall of 2004, the North Dakota State University acting professor traveled to Bismarck to accept an award from the North Dakota Speech and Theatre Association. She dreaded stepping on a podium and facing a crowd without the shield of a stage role. So she decided to conjure her grouchy heroine and have her claim the award.

"I donned my bifocals and became a 73-year-old woman, and that was easier," says Chabora.

The move inspired Valley City State University theater chairman Martin Kelly to recruit Chabora to inhabit Dickinson, the emotionally fragile 19th-century poet, in a 2005 Valley City performance.

The one-woman bio-play "The Belle of Amherst," which arrives at the Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre on Wednesday, is the local acting debut for this experienced performer.


For years, she's channeled her considerable energy into teaching, pushing her students to embrace the raw vulnerability of live theater. With this riskiest role in her career - one that reveals a great deal about the Pam Chabora behind the expansive persona - she practices what she's preached.

Embracing self-doubt

At the end of a recent run- through of the play, Chabora paused briefly in FMCT's cavernous, exposed backstage, as if to bring herself back after playing Dickinson for two hours. Sheila Coghill, a Minnesota State University Moorhead expert on Dickinson, had stopped by to offer feedback on Chabora's portrayal.

Through the show, which weaves Dickinson's poetry into a first-person account of her convention-flouting life, Chabora fended off an intrusive internal voice. It questioned if she accurately conveyed the poems' experimental rhythm and chided her for getting a word wrong.

After a quiet minute with her back to the stage, Chabora dashed to hear Coghill's verdict. "There were only three poems where I really got lost," the actress said apologetically in her signature booming voice.Chabora's experience with William Luce's text has been fraught with nerves from the start. She says she's been genuinely petrified as she first steps on stage, wearing one of Dickinson's pristine dresses in what the unmarried poet's gossipy neighbors sneeringly dubbed "bridal white."

In those first minutes, her reclusive, introverted character is startled and stumped by the sight of the audience - before she launches into a deeply personal monologue.

She first performed it during a stint with Kentucky's Stephen Foster Company in the summer of 2005. The temperature was 104 degrees in the outdoor theater, and Dickinson's family-recipe cake Chabora cuts up during the show melted on her fingers.

Then, during the Valley City State University performance that fall, an audience member's sneeze during Act 2 made her lose herself in the text. For a few tense minutes, she improvised and struggled to regain her concentration. She'd never done a one-woman show before, and she nervously navigated the stage on her own.


Then, when FMCT invited her to reprise the show after a Mayville State University production last year, she stressed about performing in front of her students for the first time.

Daring to demur

The play, based on Dickinson's poems and personal correspondence, peers behind the enigmatic persona of the great American poet, who spent her entire life in her Amherst, Mass., family home, addressing visitors in the lobby from the second-floor landing. The text reveals a sensitive woman who strategically cultivated her image as the town's resident eccentric.

Dickinson caves inward under the intensity of unfulfilled longings: for the approval of her distant, demanding father and for wide recognition of her writing.

"She saw herself as a misfit, and she didn't quite jibe with the rest of the world, which I can really understand," Chabora says. "I don't feel I fit into the world somehow. It's always been that way."

Chabora has immersed herself in the life of the woman she so readily relates to. She revisited the poetry, of course, but she's also working her way through more than a half-dozen biographies. Last summer, she visited Dickinson's home, where she gazed out the parlor window at the fir-flanked path that in the play becomes a metaphor for the poet's isolation.

The play gives Chabora more than a few opportunities for the creative risk-taking she advocates to her students, especially in the darker second act. Her voice creeping up to a fragile high pitch, she tells of her failure to publish her poems and the death of her father and young nephew.

"I never noticed a shyness about Pam," says Kelly, who directed her in Valley City. "She's very good about presenting herself in public. But as we started working on the show together, I discovered a beautiful vulnerability that's a great asset for an actor."


Chabora's FMCT director, Martin Jonason, continued encouraging her to tap into that vulnerability. In one recent rehearsal, she gave herself license to take the character's fragility to an extreme at which her lines started crumbling.

"She felt the innocence of Emily," Jonason says. "You sat there, and she really took you in."

After several productions of the show, Chabora doesn't fear the pressure of being alone on stage will trip her up: "There are so many parallels between me and Emily, and they're so incredibly potent that it's easy to be engulfed in the play."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529

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