Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.

Northwestern University

Three Actresses Tempt Fate in Moby Dick 


“Call me Ishmael.” The first line in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is one of the most memorable in literature. Published in 1851, the novel’s themes – obsession, greed, duty, friendship, and, of course, death – remain relevant. Two films have depicted the face off between man and whale, the 1956 version directed by John Huston, with Gregory Peck as the ship’s Captain Ahab, and 2015’s In the Heart of the Sea, directed by Ron Howard, with Chris Helmsworth as first mate, Owen Chase.

This holiday season theatergoers in Washington, D.C. will experience something totally different – a stage version that uses daring trapeze and acrobatic work, rather than computer generated special effects, to recreate Melville’s spell-binding story. The production is the brainchild of David Catlin, a founding ensemble member of Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company. After runs in Chicago and Atlanta, Moby Dick will play in Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theatre from November 18 through December 24. The set, designed by Courtney O’Neill, includes a portion of the ship’s deck and what mimics a whale ribcage as the ship’s masts. As much action takes place above the stage as on it, as the actors climb, twirl, swing, and hang from the rigging.

According to Arena’s Artistic Director Molly Smith, “The story just doesn’t come alive in this production, it flies in the air all around you. Prepare to be amazed.”

While there are only two minor female figures in the novel, the stage version includes three actresses, whose characters are identified ominously as “Fate.” We had the opportunity to ask these actresses – Kelley Abell, Cordelia Dewdney, and Kasey Foster – about the production and their roles.

“I actually saw an earlier version of this production at Northwestern University before hearing about it,” said Foster. “When I saw the women playing the powerful role of Fate, I fell in love.” Abell called the play’s women, “pretty essential and antithetical to the men: the force that gives life, and that which takes it away.”

What do the women as Fate represent? “One could see the women as representing the whale, but as an actor I prefer to perceive that, as a Fate, I have the power to become the very things that influence the sailors,” said Dewdney. “Thus, the Fates create and control the inevitable, but are simultaneously swallowed up by the inevitable themselves.” Added Abell, “It’s a nice dichotomy we get to play with: human characters who create actual emotional or intellectual obstacles to the men – and the metaphors that haunt and drive them.”


Christopher Donahue as Captain Ahab and Cordelia Dewdney as Fate

Dewdney said she first read Moby Dick for an American literature class her freshman year in college. “I had a wonderful teacher who dressed up as the characters or writers of the books we were reading, and for Moby she donned all white!” she said. “I was most struck by unstoppable movement of the storyline. The writing has a unique circuitous path that, no matter how many winding twists it takes, always falls to the chase of the men’s inevitable fates.”

Abell said she first listened to Moby Dick on tape while driving to and from high school. “I was struck by the incredibly detailed descriptions that fill the book, the minutia of rigging and whale parts and hooping spare barrels, the monotony of those mundane tasks that made up a whaler’s life,” she said. “At 18, I think I was frustrated at how little happened in the book, you know, where’s the romance, where’s the intrigue, where are the women, but coming back to the story as an adult, I see my own fixation on the small details of my life that Melville so beautifully captured. The minutia is the stuff that makes up a life, is it not?”

After a performance in Atlanta, the actors met with a group of high school students and one young woman offered her interpretation, that “man can become so swept up in his pursuit of x  – money, fortune, fame, power – that he loses perspective, that he loses sight of his own human purpose, and that he forsakes his connection with humanity in the wake of his frenzy,” said Abell. “I wish we could bring her along as a spokesperson!”

Dewdney noted that while the play illustrates the prejudice and racism that existed during Melville’s time, Moby Dick is also about friendship, including the close bond that exists between Queequeg, a tattooed cannibal, and Ishmael, a white sailor. “Once they leave the society that separates them, they find that the ship binds them,” observed Foster. Abell said that early in the play, Ahab invites the men – “Pagans and Christians alike”  – to be equals. “I see the quality of the diverse crew as essential to our production,” she said. “But it feels more about what it is to be essentially human, those truths which resonate most deeply.”

The actors prepared for their physically demanding roles by working with instructors from Chicago’s Actors Gymnasium. “Many of us came into the production with dance or physical theatre training, but many of the circus elements were very new to me,” said Abell. “In Act 2, the women are incorporated into a straps routine, including a trick which took me countless failed attempts to master. Turns out that quick thinking while spinning in mid-air is not something that comes as easily to me as panic does. Cordelia [Dewdnwy] has the most circus tricks of us all – and she handles them all like a true pro.”

In addition, the three women had to learn to work together as a team, since they are often moving together, ostensibly, in the sea, perhaps representing the whale. “These are some amazing women I work with who both think and work deeply and honestly,” said Abell. “During rehearsals we had some time to work as a trio – how to move as one unit, how to sing as one unit, how to feel cohesive as the `Fate’ of all these men. We’ve become experts with peripheral vision and speaking at the same time.”

The production has received rave reviews wherever it has been staged. “Oh, we are so curious [to see how audiences in D.C. react],” said Abell. What they do know is that the story of one man’s relentless pursuit of a whale continues to resonate. “One of the hardest things to do in this life, is to `let go’,” said Foster. “Whether loosening your grip on the way things used to be, or letting go of a loved one, the concept of moving on often feels impossible. Ahab has a grip, stronger than anyone, and it brings him to his death. Everyone can relate to Ahab, because we all understand the feeling of holding on too firmly.”

Moby Dick
Lookingglass Theatre Company
Adapted and dirceted by David Caitlin from the book by Herman Melville
Co-production with the Alliance Theatre and South Coast Repertory
Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
November 18 through December 24, 2016

Photos by Greg Mooney
Top photo: Kasey Foster as Fate

My Career Choice: Marika Lindholm – ESME (Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere)


Being a solo mom can be tough. Marika Lindholm, solo mom herself, wanted to help others. So she launched ESME (Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere), a website that aims to redefine single motherhood by providing resources, inspiration, and a point of connection for the underserved community of Solo Moms.

Born in Stockholm, Sweden, Marika moved to New York City with her parents when she was a young child. Always fascinated by civil rights, women’s rights, and global issues, Marika realized when she took a sociology class that she could blend her passion with a profession. This awareness led Marika to take on graduate studies at SUNY, Stony Brook, where she received her Masters and Ph.D. in Sociology. Marika spent the next 13 years at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, teaching classes focused on issues of inequality, diversity, and gender.

During her time at Northwestern, Marika became a Solo Mom. Newly divorced with two young children, she was fortunate to have a stable job as a college professor, but realized many other Solo Moms were working for minimum wage while desperately trying to make a good life for their families. She was also aware that, while finances were a primary issue for many Solo Moms, other challenges united them: co-­parenting with an ex, isolation, navigating holidays and finding much needed time for self-care.

She was inspired to build a digital resource that could help women raising kids on their own. Spurred by this new challenge she used her skill set as a sociologist, researching, conducting focus groups, and talking to Solo Moms to gain insight into their lives. The results of her inquiry made clear that women parenting alone wanted and needed support, community, and resources, eventually leading to the creation of  ESME.

Marika is now remarried and living in New York’s Hudson Valley. In addition to overseeing ESME, she runs an organic farm with grapes, apples, chickens and 350,000 bees and is the mother of a blended family of five children, including two daughters that she and her husband adopted internationally.

Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
When I was a newly divorced mom juggling work and young children, I became very sick with a curable blood disorder. While doctors were trying to figure out what was wrong with me, I felt scared, weak, and alone. Even though I had a good job and friends, the reality of uncoupling was so much harder than I’d expected. When I got so sick soon after, I vowed that if I ever had the opportunity, I would try to support other women who faced similar struggles parenting without partners. The opportunity came years later, but the seeds were sown during that difficult time in my life.

What about this career choice did you find most appealing? 
It’s very gratifying to apply my sociological imagination and expertise to building a company dedicated to supporting women who parent alone. I’m always inspired by hardworking Solo Moms, who do so much for their children. It’s an amazing feeling every time a mom says that she was helped by ESME.

What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
With a sociology PhD in hand and 13 years of teaching at Northwestern University under my belt, I wanted to apply my skills outside the classroom. I really had no idea what I was getting into when I pursued the idea of helping single moms. Fortunately, I’m determined, organized, and energetic. The learning curve has been steep and exciting. I love that at age 50, I’ve acquired a whole new set of skills that complement the work I’ve done as a sociologist.

Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
When I first told my friends and family that I wanted to build a support site for Solo Moms, most of them nodded their heads, said “that sounds nice,” and moved on. But once they saw our effort and the site itself, they’ve been very encouraging.

Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt career change?
I remain passionate about ESME and don’t let doubts overwhelm me. My current work is a wonderful culmination of my skills, experience, and interests. My academic background, especially my research on women and social movements, made it easy to imagine a social platform that empowers single moms. Raising children as a divorced mom and now as a stepmom and adoptive mom puts me in touch with many of the issues that ESME digs into. I’m so fortunate to be able to work in a creative, intellectual space that makes an impact.

When did your career reach a tipping point?
A tipping point was my realization that ESME.com was attracting talented Solo Moms writers, guides, and allies from all over the country. In the beginning, I relied on networks to find freelancers and collaborators, but then one day I realized that we didn’t have to push to find Solo Moms for our team. Instead, they found us!

Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
One of the most challenging aspects of building and running a website was diving into the unknown. At Northwestern, I knew my stuff and had a lot of control over what and how I taught. In my current role, I’ve had to learn so many new skills: marketing, search engine optimization, business systems, social media, content management, editorial decision making, and lots of other intangibles. Even though I’m a quick study, I’ve made a bunch of mistakes as a newbie. I’m glad I was relatively clueless when I started out, or I may have been too intimidated to move forward. My strategy is to gather as much information as I can by talking to people with experience. Regardless of what I’m trying to figure out or learn, I always ask folks who’ve been there before me, “What mistakes did you make?” Then I try very hard not to make the same mistakes. Of course, as I take risks and try to do things differently, I will make my own mistakes.

What single skill has proven to be most useful?
I read fast! Which means I have the opportunity to read widely. I read every article we publish, and I’m able to find writers and cull assignment ideas because I read voraciously. I love fiction, but also read journals and magazines, and keep up with social media on a wide range of topics.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I’m proud that I was able to transform a secret wish from the worst time in my life to a collaboration and passion project to make this the best time in my life.

Any advice for others entering your profession?
Surround yourself with people who share your vision. Start-ups can be excruciatingly demoralizing – lots can and will go wrong. You will need cheerleaders, so pick your team carefully. Team ESME rocks!

Photo credit: Circe Photography