Dolls can be scary, especially when they are Carol Channing ventriloquist dolls.
"At Christmastime, my niece showed me this strange gift. It was a Carol Channing ventriloquist doll. She said she called her Tessy and that she was a terrifying doll," playwright Kara Lee Corthron recalls.
The doll -- a big hit during JCPenny's 2007 holiday season -- stuck in Corthron's mind, eventually emerging as a central player in Holly Down in Heaven.
"I thought it would be fun and creepy to have a lot of dolls onstage," she says.
The play gets a staged reading this Saturday at Penumbra Theatre as part of Word(s)PLAY 2012. That will be followed by a full production by the company this fall.
"The first time I worked with Penumbra was in 2009, when I did a Word(s)PLAY of Julius by Design," she says. "We had a good relationship, and they wanted to keep working with me. I'm glad they could make that happen."
Julius by Design had been part of the 2011-12 season at the theater, but was cancelled when Penumbra was forced to tighten the budget at the end of last year. Corthron still has high hopes for the play, which has received a single full production so far. One where she was a producer. "It would be great to just be a playwright on it," she says.
The play itself centers on Holly, a 15-year-old girl who has just discovered she is pregnant. The young woman, who is also a born-again Christian, retreats to her basement and doll collection to await the baby.
"I'm interested in taking a story that might be stereotypically seen as tragic and melodramatic and turn it on its head," Corthron says. "I used to teach at a high school for pregnant teen girls and most of them came from not-great backgrounds. So I was completely interested in throwing a curveball into the idea of what a pregnant teenage girl is."
The audience for Saturday's reading will have to use their imaginations a bit, as the dolls won't be present, but the workshop has helped Corthron to refine the script, and for the designers to start thinking about ideas.
"I hadn't looked at this play for about three years, and it has been really enjoyable. I remember where I was when I wrote it and see where I am now. I have the freedom to play with it. I'm not as emotionally attached to it. It has been a real nice time," she says.
The workshops "are really important. There is a popular danger that you can have too many workshops and never get a production. I would feel very nervous going into production without this kind of process. I think the workshop process is incredibly beneficial for me. It gives me time to work and play without being completely stressed out," she says.