If you ask alumna Hope Singsen what inspired her play SKIN (performed at Vassar during the fall semester), she will—with clarity and precision—list a number of influences ranging from the writings of Anaïs Nin to Lacanian psychology to D. W. Winnicott’s object relations theory. In the hands of some artists, this foundational material may have led to an unwieldy and overblown play full of self-indulgent ruminations. Singsen, however, takes a different route.
She uses her research as a foundation but strips away the technical jargon to create something much more human. When we first meet Singsen’s character, Marais, she informs us that she has 70 days to finish a dissertation on Virginia Woolf’s 1927 novel To the Lighthouse. Marais, however, is distracted from her writing process when she meets Georgia, a fellow Woolf scholar, who is equal parts brilliant and idiosyncratic. Marais is completely infatuated.
But as time passes, Marais begins to struggle with being open and vulnerable in her work and in her new relationship. She soon realizes that these problems aren’t just vague neuroses that can be overcome with a little time and space but instead are products of repressed sexual trauma. Horrified by the recovery of these memories, Marais finds herself unable to finish her dissertation by the deadline and her relationship suffers. But at the same time, Marais is aware that, by identifying the roots of her struggles, she’s taken the first step in her healing process.
Singsen has done extensive academic research on the notion of vulnerability and has done a great deal of personal introspection, as well. “One of the ideas that came to me through working on the piece is that vulnerability is inescapable,” she says. “We are vulnerable to the world; we are touched by the world.” Despite the universality of vulnerability, it’s still often seen as a nuisance—something that needs to be stomped out. Marais has to learn to embrace vulnerability, and understand that openness does not equal weakness.
Singsen admits at the end of the play that the character is based on her own life, with only a few slight changes. The dissertation that Marais works on mirrors Singsen’s thesis project, completed during her senior year at Vassar. It explored how creative expression has the power to bring about both personal and social change. Singsen is still fascinated by the transformative power of creative works. Her thesis sat untouched for eight years until she eventually created what she terms a “performance collage,” a mix of songs, poems, and other works all based on the research she had done for her paper. That “collage” would eventually become the play SKIN.
Singsen, who has appeared in numerous films and television shows, as well as on the New York stage, recently completed a 10-day residency at the Catwalk Institute, an artists’ retreat owned by Purcell Scheu Palmer ’62 in Catskill, NY. Toward the end of her stay, Singsen held a panel and workshop attended by Vassar students and faculty as well as fellow artists at the retreat. Several weeks later, Singsen came to Vassar and performed the play based on work she’d started at the college decades ago.
As Marais, Singsen tells the audience at the beginning of SKIN, her favorite character in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is Lily Briscoe, a pensive and artistic woman who starts and (a decade later) finishes a painting in the titular beacon. If Vassar is Singsen’s lighthouse and SKIN is her portrait, it’s easy to draw parallels.
—Sam Cibula ’20
The production of SKIN at Vassar was sponsored by Creative Arts Across Disciplines, an initiative funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.