Stage & Dance

SummerFest's 'Pride and Prejudice' has a real mother-daughter act

Trish Clark, left, and her daughter Ellie Clark star as Mrs. Bennet and her daughter  Elizabeth in SummerFest's production of Pride and Prejudice, which opens Wednesday.
Trish Clark, left, and her daughter Ellie Clark star as Mrs. Bennet and her daughter Elizabeth in SummerFest's production of Pride and Prejudice, which opens Wednesday. staff

Trish Clark's parents used to call her a "river child."

"That definition was, 'From day one, you are going to go down a river and you don't even step on the banks,'" Clark says. "'You just keep flowing down the river.'"

That river was theater for Clark, a retired theater teacher from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School and other area schools who now directs the Kentucky Classical Theatre Conservatory.

She was enough of a river child to recognize that her daughter Ellie Clark shared the same passion for theater.

Now, they are sharing a stage.

Ellie will play Elizabeth Bennet and Trish will play her mother in SummerFest's production of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, which opens Wednesday and runs through next Sunday.

It will be only the second time the mother and daughter have shared the same stage. Ellie says the first time, a 2007 production of Bo List's Dracula: A Variation, which traveled to Scotland, didn't really count because she joined the cast at the last minute.

"There was barely a rehearsal process because I came in from New York, late, and just sort of fit myself in," says Ellie, who has since moved back home to Lexington. "So no, we have not been through a thorough rehearsal process together as two professionals."

Trish, says, "We have had great desire to work together," and Ellie concludes, "we just never found the time to do it."

Not that they haven't had a lot of time in theaters together.

Ellie and her sister, Emily, started going to rehearsals for plays Trish was directing or acting in when Ellie was in the fourth grade. Trish and the girls' father had separated, so the most practical thing to do was bring them to rehearsal. Ellie would snuggle up in her pink sleeping bag at the foot of the stage in the University of Kentucky's Guignol Theatre if she needed to go to bed while rehearsal was still going on.

Ellie has distinct memories of her seventh-grade summer, when director Joe Ferrell moved rehearsals for a play to the back yard of the Clark residence to accommodate the girls.

Local actors were familiar enough with the Clark girls that they earned the nickname "Trishketts," and now they speak about Ellie like proud aunts and uncles.

"Ellie reminds me of Trish when she was in college," says Lisa Thomas, who went to UK with Trish and is the leading lady of SummerFest's first production, The Merchant of Venice, which closes Sunday night.

Walter Tunis, who plays Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, was part of that home-rehearsal cast and many other shows while Ellie was growing up.

"I tend to forget the whole mother-daughter thing as it relates to real life," says Tunis, who is a contributing music writer for the Herald-Leader. "They're just two very focused, very professional, very strong actresses who happen to be playing parent and child. But their closeness is obvious.

"Just the other night, in the middle of one of Ellie's speeches, Trish leaned over and quietly but seriously said how proud she was of her. I don't think anyone who knows them thinks otherwise, but it's always nice to hear those feelings spelled out."

Ellie has been part of SummerFest and the former Lexington Shakespeare Festival, of which Trish was once the artistic director, off and on for years. Two years ago, she played Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra opposite Eric Johnson, who used to carry Ellie out to Trish's car when Ellie fell asleep at rehearsals.

It was Trish who had to be drawn in to auditioning for Pride and Prejudice.

"I haven't been on stage in a long time," Trish says.

So Ellie was a little surprised when her mother asked Ellie to listen to Trish practice a monologue at SummerFest auditions.

"I said, 'Are you auditioning for the show?'" Ellie recalls, "and she said, 'Well, I don't know. Just watch me do this monologue.'"

Trish's motivation wasn't so much to share the stage with her daughter, but to share the stage with her numerous former students who also were auditioning.

She says a certain amount of self-doubt and a focus on being a producer and director had kept her from auditioning, but "seeing all those girls and knowing they needed a mother, it seemed like the thing to do."

Director Sullivan Canaday White, who directed the apprentice program at Actors Theatre of Louisville when Ellie went through it in 2002, was the one who came up with the art-imitating-life casting.

"It was pretty clear to me when I had Ellie read that I was going to cast her as Elizabeth," says White, who, like both Clarks, graduated from UK's theater program. "And then when Trish read, I said, 'Oh, this is the choice that I should make.' It was just clear those were the right choices for those roles. And then it dawned on me, 'Oh, they're mother and daughter.'"

Playing this mother and daughter duo is not exactly playing house for the Clarks.

The Bennets are a 19th-century aristocratic British household, and their mother-daughter relationship differs from the Clarks'.

For instance, while the Clarks are a lot alike, Elizabeth Bennet favors her father. Though Ellie says she loves her own father and has enjoyed building an onstage father-daughter relationship with Tunis, it has occasionally seemed odd to align herself with dad against mom, as Elizabeth sometimes does.

But there have been other times that have seemed very true to life, at least to observers.

"There was this one moment that, the first time they did it in rehearsal was so lovely because it was like, 'I know who you are, Ellie Clark, and you'd better stay in this room,'" White recalls.

In that scene, Elizabeth is not interested in meeting a suitor, but her mother insists.

For Ellie, it reminded her of when she was a child, always walking in front of her mom to make sure she didn't forget her.

"When she turned around to me on the stage to say, 'Stay!' I just laughed hysterically and said, 'Does this remind you of anything?'"

Trish adds, "It hit us both at the same time, and it was so funny, because she had that same look she always had."

Ellie defines the look as, "Don't leave me, Mom."

At this point, the two river children seem destined to be together.

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