The title character in the play that won this year's Kentucky Women Writers Conference's Prize for Women Playwrights, The Silent Woman, doesn't have any lines. In fact she's not even alive. Or dead.
She's a doll. A human-sized one. And her role is to portray Alma Mahler, the lover who spurned Austrian expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka while he was away fighting in World War I.
History has judged Kokoschka's painting style as one of the foremost examples of German expressionism. He had such a long, celebrated career that his stint living with a real-life effigy of the lover who broke his heart has become something of a curious footnote.
Prize-winning playwright, 27-year-old Lydia Blaisdell stumbled upon this unusual anecdote of art history while still an undergrad at Columbia University.
Never miss a local story.
"Of all my plays, this is the one that had the longest period of time between me finding the subject matter and actually being able to write it just because of all of the research," says Blaisdell, who is now a fellow at Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas.
Blaisdell's initial research of this period of Kokoschka's life didn't yield many details, but with the help of a Jerome Travel and Study Grant, she was able to research extensively in Vienna and Berlin in 2013.
Her research provided the details she needed and she began to write early drafts.
"At first I tried to write a version of the play that had Alma in the play," says Blaisdell. "She's totally fascinating in her own right. Alma Mahler ends up marrying four very famous Austrian artists of different kinds, so I found whenever she was in the play, she took it over."
Blaisdell turned her inquiry to the tale's "side players," ordinary folks who must have played a part in maintaining Kokoschka's fantasy life with his former lover's effigy, a fantasy life which allowed him to paint prolifically and ultimately move on from Alma's memory, artistically and emotionally.
Audiences at this weekend's premiere of the play will meet these "side characters," including Hulda, a scullery maid who is hired to be the doll's lady's maid (to dress and feed her, etc.) played by Bethany Finely and a butler, coachman and policeman, all played by Bob Singleton. Darius Fatemi portrays Kokoschka.
Blaisdell says the characters of the intimate world she creates for Kokoschka were inspired by real people.
"When Kokoschka describes getting the doll in his memoir, he mentions the butler fainted and that Hulda thought it was beautiful," says Blaisdell, who says she became increasingly captivated with the idea of having the doll on stage.
"As soon as I saw the photograph of the doll, I really wanted it to be this weird object on stage," says Blaisdell. "The idea that the doll that gets to have all these expensive things and have all this attention paid to it when Hulda, who is this real woman in the room who doesn't get to wear silk and maybe doesn't have enough to eat, isn't as important as this thing made out of sawdust is a potent metaphor."
The play was the winner among more than 300 submissions. After rounds of review, the selections were narrowed down to the top three. Acclaimed playwright Carson Kreitzer, one of Blaisdell's favorite playwrights, picked the winner.
"The Silent Woman is a deeply assured work, funny and strange and beautiful in turns," Kreitzer said. "It will make a thrilling production."
The premiere production of the play was originally a joint venture between Actors Guild of Lexington and the Kentucky Women Writers Conference, but when Actors Guild went on an indefinite hiatus in 2014, organizers asked former AGL artistic director Eric Seale to stay on and independently produce the show, a process he has enjoyed for its creative freedom.
For Blaisdell, the opening night performance of the show will be the first time she has seen a full production of one of her plays that she was not involved in.
"I'm excited to see what my work looks like when I'm not there to explain it," says Blaisdell. "I want to see if my intentions come through."