‘Natural woman’

Emily Dickinson’s love for the outdoors takes center stage in ‘The Belle of Amherst’

Running at the Dairy Arts Center through Nov. 26, The Belle of Amherst taps into what BETC Artistic Director Jessica Robblee calls “the subterranean life of one of our greatest thinkers.” Credit: Jamie Shaak

Colorado is known for its breathtaking natural beauty, but because of our hectic daily schedules, some of us might not always take the time to enjoy the wonders of nature. But Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company (BETC) seeks to rekindle its audience’s love of the outdoors in The Belle of Amherst, an intimate one-woman show based on the life of Emily Dickinson.

“Boulder is a beautiful natural place that suits the content of this play perfectly,” says Jessica Robblee, BETC’s artistic director and star of The Belle of Amherst. “Emily Dickinson’s connection with nature meant everything to her, so for me as the actor, this play has made me look up more. I find myself taking more moments to really absorb my natural surroundings as she did. When you’re memorizing her poems, you can’t help but think about the details more, because she would dwell on something with such care.”

The Belle of Amherst delves into Emily Dickinson’s life as a poet who rarely left her bedroom but left an indelible mark on the literary world. The play follows Dickinson from her early years to her death in 1886, providing insights into her reclusive life, writing and profound connection with nature. 

“One of the reasons I wanted to do this show is to introduce Emily Dickinson’s poetry to a whole new generation of people,” says Mark Ragan, BETC’s managing director and the play’s director. “My daughter is now in her junior year at Valor High School and has never read a word of Emily Dickinson. I’m not even sure Emily Dickinson is taught in schools anymore, but when you hear this poetry, which seamlessly grows out of the text that William Luce wrote, you feel like you should go buy her anthology.” 

Ragan rediscovered the play while he was doing research for a one-
woman show about the life of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Upon rereading the script, Ragan was so moved by Luce’s writing that he chose to stage the play with Robblee at Denver’s Buntport Theater earlier this year as part of their theater group, Clover and Bee Productions. 

“This was before we were appointed as the new leaders of BETC, but I just realized most young people have no idea what The Belle of Amherst is,” Ragan says. “What I find funny about that is that, to my generation, The Belle of Amherst was top of mind; it was an incredibly popular Broadway sensation. After Julie Harris created the role, the playwright, William Luce, went on to specialize in one-person shows. … I’ve always been fascinated with one-actor shows. If you have the right [performer], you have the potential to blow away audiences.” 

That’s exactly what their performance at Buntport achieved. In addition to the positive feedback given during talkbacks following the show, Robblee’s performance earned her the 2023 Henry Award for Lead Actress in a Play. 

“The idea, even before BETC was a glimmer in our eye at all, was that Mark wanted to tour this particular show all over,” Robblee recalls. “At our flagship production in Denver, we told every single audience we’d also be doing The Belle of Amherst in Boulder in the fall, and then BETC entered our lives.”

Dickinson’s ‘subterranean life’

In addition to their plans to remount the play in Boulder, Ragan and Robblee already had an invitation to perform at the Millibo Art Theatre in Colorado Springs. Rather than abandon their commitments, the new leaders of BETC decided to fold these plans into the company’s 2023-2024 season along with its other offerings, Coal Country, Holly, Alaska! and What the Constitution Means to Me

“The Colorado theater market is spread out, and audiences are quite separate,” Robblee says. “People don’t necessarily travel to see theater, so by taking the show on the road, we’re meeting people where they are.” 

BETC recently wrapped up the first leg of the tour, which played in Colorado Springs earlier this month, and opened its limited engagement of The Belle of Amherst at the Dairy Arts Center on Nov. 22. 

“I’ve been surprised by a lot of things since Jess and I took over BETC,” Ragan admits. “But one thing I wasn’t surprised about was The Belle of Amherst selling out so quickly. BETC has one of the most literary audiences in the country — I greet every patron as they come into the theater, and our patrons regularly quote from Shakespeare and have this enormous background in poetry. It’s a different experience from performing at Buntport or in Colorado Springs, because BETC’s audience was tailor-made for this production.” 

After selling out its run in Boulder, the company added two additional performances to accommodate demand. The success of The Belle of Amherst — tapping into what Robblee calls “the subterranean life of one of our greatest thinkers” — is not only a testament to the enduring power of Emily Dickinson’s words: It is also a feather in the cap for BETC’s new leadership team, demonstrating that audiences are enthusiastic about the company’s programming and future. 

“The response has been deeply gratifying,” Robblee concludes. “It’s Emily Dickinson’s life compacted into this really surprising 85-minute experience. [She] is often portrayed in a black-and-white way, but we don’t want to leave her there.” 

ON STAGE: The Belle of Amherst. Various times, Nov. 22-26, Dairy Arts Center – Gordon Gamm Theater, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder. Tickets here.