Home is Where the Art Is

Actress Monica Bishop Steele's Northern Lights

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Monica Bishop Steele is thinking about going home. The Tampa-based actress/writer/educator, whose "Women's Work" series at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center has for more than three years brought into high focus the inner lives of girls and mature women, has already applied for positions in and around Duluth, Minn., her childhood home. And she's discussed with her husband, Christopher Steele, a longtime directing professor at USF, the purchase of property near her family's cabin, and the process by which they might eventually become year-round Minnesota residents. The impetus for the move came last summer, when Steele was back in Minnesota researching Northern Lights, the monologue — accompanied by Scott Kluksdahl's cello — that runs from March 6-10 at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center's Shimberg Playhouse. "My parents are, like I said, in their late 80s now, and I want to be closer, I want to be available to help them," Steele said. "I really loved that last summer ... I kind of joke about it in the play, but it was just the best. I just loved working with my Dad in the garden, and learning about the boat and how to do things right and take care of the cabin. And he's just not so able any more, nor is my mother, and (sister) Mady has, I must say, become more than anyone else a caretaker, so it was great to be able to spell her. ... If I could manage to get a position there, and if not there, close to there. ...To get back before dark."

What it is that Steele finds in Minnesota — back in Duluth and also at the family cabin near the small town of Ely — is precisely what audiences will discover in the lyrical, haunting Northern Lights. The full-length monologue is about a childhood spent on the shores of Lake Superior, "an unchanging landscape combined of myth and reality, love and longing, untold stories ... and for me ... a feeling ... always of a sad certainty that life would not be any other way."

It's about parents and grandparents, sisters and aunts, but also about the ever-present "birch, white pine, cedar, balsam" and "deep woods filled with wild roses, lupine, blue bells and forget-me-nots ... and trilliums." It's about fishing with sister Mady, the death of a grandfather, unspeakable joy at the prospect of a day in Ely, and the ever-present feeling that one is different, somehow, from one's siblings — more sensitive, more attracted, finally, to the arts. Even now, Steele recalls that there was only one place besides Minnesota where she always felt at home — and that was on a stage, "a place where I was free to see and feel deeply."

Since moving to Tampa in 1980 (from Dallas, where she attended Southern Methodist University) Steele has spent a lot of time on and around local stages. She's acted and/or directed for the Alice People, American Stage, the Tampa Players and the Playmakers. Her productions include Put Them All Together, Bosoms and Neglect, Passion, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Serenading Louie and Later Life. She's taught acting, movement and voice at USF. And, starting in 1992, she's brought episode after episode of "Women's Work" to TBPAC.

The first installment was called Who Do I Think I Am, and featured 10 12-to-17-year-old girls talking about their authentic selves. Then there was Minding the Body, adapted from a published book by that title, featuring six stories of women ages 30-55 dealing with such subjects as fertility problems, multiple sclerosis and disfigurement. Other "Women's Work" presentations have included My Left Breast, Susan Miller's performance piece about surviving breast cancer; Girls Thinking Out Loud, about fantasy and truth; In the Name of the Mother, on the subject of motherhood; and Margaret Edson's Wit, for which Steele was named Best Actress in Weekly Planet's 2001 Best of the Bay issue.

And now there's Northern Lights. The monologue developed over the course of many years, Steele says, starting in 1998 as a collection of autobiographical pieces on the subject of her first 10 years. She even did a reading of the piece in the Shimberg Playhouse — then called the Off-Center — but couldn't yet imagine a final shape for it. In the years that followed, she returned to it several times, and "a lot of times I was playing music, and a lot of times the music I was listening to was music that contained a lot of cello."

So she set up a meeting with musician Kluksdahl, "and I said I have this idea about the cellist being the muse, the one that evokes, the one that inspires, draws one back to another place and time and also brings one forward."

Kluksdahl signed on ("Scott/the music is really the second character in the play"). Steele kept revising, and last summer she made the momentous return to Minnesota for research. Finally, there was a reading at USF in the fall that convinced her she was on the right track: "It's interesting because the response that came from people after the reading, it had to do with their thoughts," she said. "I mean, they were being taken to places in their memory: landscape, people, events."

Even a listener from Costa Rica told Steele that "it reminded her so much of the longing she has for that place still, and the people and the culture."

Home. Steele finds a piece of paper on which she's written some of the meanings of the word: "One of the definitions is "the abiding place of the affections' ... and "the locality where a thing is usually found or was first found or where it is naturally abundant' ... "the vital center' ... "the heart, the core.'"

She admits that there was a time in her youth when she couldn't wait to get away from Minnesota. But, she said, "I realized over time that everything that has come to me that has helped me to thrive, survive, to at times triumph, comes from there."

She felt it unmistakably when she was visiting her family last summer: "I'm telling you, when I'm in northern Minnesota on that lake on a summer night, and those lights are playing, and it's just this, I don't know, I think it might be the Ojibwa Indians talk about the lakes are the ... eye of God or something. ..."

For a moment she imagines herself back there at lakeside:

"This is where I belong. Here I am where I ought to be."

Contact Mark E. Leib at [email protected] or call 813-248-8888, ext. 305.

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