Debra Ann Miller goes beyond historical costuming. She has made a living by portraying historical figures. She kindly took the time to answer a few of our questions.
You’ve performed as Mary Todd Lincoln, Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott and Dolley Madison. Which one was your first role, and where was it performed?
Well my first role was Mary Todd Lincoln– I started doing Visiting the Lincolns with Michael Krebs and playwright James Clark in 1997. As a solo, my first was Jane Austen- I began performing as Jane in October of 2010, after a year of research and writing. That’s the format I’ve followed ever since: a year of research and a new Woman of Letters every year- I took 2016 off to refine the previous scripts. I premiered Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 2015, and have been working on tightening up her script and expanding Louisa May Alcott, actually.
What do you find that the historical women that you portray have in common that appeals to you?
On a practical level, they all have extant letters and journals- the scripts are composed almost entirely of these women’s own words; and that is important to me. I interpret and fill in of course but I try to stay as faithful to their “truths” as possible. In the question and answer sessions that follow the performances, I sometimes have to clarify that just because they said it, it isn’t necessarily the truth.
We still don’t know if Dolley Madison’s version of the saving of George Washington’s portrait is the truth, but most of the pertinent details have been corroborated. And we know that while Mary Todd Lincoln writes in a letter that “Mr. Lincoln assures me that he will wait until I am by his side to tour Richmond”; we know he didn’t wait.
On a personal level- I don’t know that they have anything in common. I admire them all for different reasons. Jane for her quiet determination and wry sense of humor, Mary for her strength in the face of so much tragedy, Dolley for her diplomacy and grace, Louisa for her resourcefulness and sheer force of will, Elizabeth for her love and faith and courage. I love them all for their faults too.
How did you and Michael Krebs partner as Lincolns?
Michael had a “Mrs. Lincoln” he was working with, but she had 3 daughters that were just entering their teenaged years and as the bookings began to rise, the demands of motherhood increased, and Dee Anne chose to retire. I had worked with the playwright, James Clark, at my day job- I worked as a stitcher, making curtains and soft props for the theatre and convention industry, he was a carpenter. We were chatting at the Christmas Party, talking about what we had been doing in our artistic careers and he had a copy of the play with him. He gave me a copy to read. I read it that night and called him WAY too early the next morning-woke him up to tell his YES! I wanted to audition for the role.
How do you and your Mr. Lincoln develop scripts?
The Lincoln script is set- Thanks to James we have a 90 minute play that we can do in theatrical venues, then an edited 30 minute school version.
Are there any historical figures that you still would like to portray?
I have a list. Some are legitimately in the queue; some are on the sentimental wish list. I start my research for the next one mid June. I will have to work quickly this time- I want her ready by October first. I am very excited about this one- I think it will be fun and I think it will sell well. I hate to have to think about that, but Historical Women of Letters is my company and my livelihood- so the shows must be accurate, entertaining and marketable.
Talk Like Jane Austen Day on facebook is where you can see a listing of all my upcoming shows.