Everyone at some point in their life needs a little bit of advice. In Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Dear Sugar” the popular writer discusses her time as an advice columnist and encloses some of the most powerful letters that came across her computer. The book has taken on a life of its own, so much so that the book was adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) so that more people could witness the magic of Sugar and her life-changing experiences. The play’s director Maura Krause, and lead Emilie Krause sat down with Metro to discuss the show and their inspirations for bringing this emotionally charged and beautifully relatable show to life
Arden Theatre Company’s ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’: Discover the sweetness of Sugar
How familiar were you with Cheryl Strayed before taking on this project?
Maura: The book had actually come into my life from a friend in a moment that really meant a lot to me. I also read “Wild” because I’m a big hiking person, so I did have a connection to some of the material. However, one of my favorite letters in this book which is not in the adaptation a friend and I had used a piece of it to make another show back in 2015 or 2016 although we just mentioned it, we didn’t quote it.
Emilie: To be honest, I’m not a memoir person. But it’s funny, because when I started working on the show I just thought “Okay, suck it up and dive into memoir town.” Now the book specifically is really growing on me, it’s fun to explore from this different perspective. I did have a vague awareness of “Dear Sugar”, but whenever I mention that I’m working on a play based on that column, people just perk up. There’s really a cult sort of following for the column, it means a lot to some people.
Emilie, how would you describe your character?
Emilie: The character’s name is Sugar and she’s based on the real-life exchange between a writer named Cheryl Strayed and anonymous people who wrote letters to her for advice. So there’s this nebulous thing that’s happening where Sugar is a character that Cheryl Strayed was tapping, and now I’m playing Cheryl Strayed playing this meta character named Sugar. The approach that I’m taking is finding what is true between three things: myself, Cheryl Strayed as far as I know her and can get to know her writing, and this idea of Sugar. So somewhere in the middle of those three points is where this character is ending up.
Maura, what kind of direction are you taking with the show to bring this complex story to life?
Maura: I think the first thing that I started with was how genuine can we make this play? Because the work is so beloved and the letters were written by real people, and obviously Cherly herself is a real person with a ton of life experience. It felt like the only way to be respectful to all of that was to try to create the most genuine space possible. What we’re doing is simple and straightforward, we’re not performing someone else’s grief or struggle for example. We’re trying to find what in that is true for us and share it with the audience. That manifests in everything from the design being straight forward to inviting the actors to invest some of who they actually are in portraying these roles.
Are there any themes that stick out to you in the show since it is so emotionally involved?
Emilie: So many people throughout the world in their own individual lives have ways that they suffer, sometimes it’s small and sometimes it changes the whole course of your life. [The show] can feel like a river, and you step into the river of all of these people’s lives. Sugar opens the computer and there’s this sort of flood of letters and you step into the current of people reaching out and needing help. That reaching out that they do and writing the letters actually becomes a theme, and Sugar ends up reflecting back to them. What ends up becoming the advice is from the question and the answer, so the whole theme of the play is that this act of healing can only come from both the question and the answer together.
Maura: The only thing I would add is that there is an extreme power in togetherness. That’s something that I would say is a major theme in the play and it’s something you discover in the text. The beauty of that is we are able to invite the audience into this world so it doesn’t feel as lonely.
What do you hope audiences take away from the show?
Emilie: I hope that it’s going to be an odd little experience for them. It’s not the kitchen sink drama, it’s not a Shakespeare play, it’s a sort of a different kind of experience. We’re talking about being genuine and being present so the dream is that the audience comes into the theater and we speak to each other and we speak to them until we have this sort of odd, intimate, truthful experience.
Maura: I hope that the audience takes away a more layered understanding of generosity. In order to make this play, the rehearsal room has to be so incredibly generous. All of these actors and the production team need to be generous for all of these emotions that we need to delve into to represent these people in this play. I think generosity is a thing that can make the world slightly easier to move through. But there are pieces to the puzzle: When should you be generous to someone? When should you have a boundary? When should you be generous to yourself? Why is that so hard sometimes? If the audience can come away with even a little more thought around that I’ll be happy.
“Tiny Beautiful Things” will be on stage at the Arden Theatre Company Oct. 24-Dec. 8. For more information, tickets and showtimes visit ardentheatre.org