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'Blue Lias' to explore life of Victorian-era fossil hunter

On the heels of the Darwin bicentennial and at the end of women's history month, a William & Mary scholar will present her one-person play exploring the life of Victorian-era fossil-hunter Mary Anning.

Claudia Stevens, a Visiting Scholar with the College's music department, will present "Blue Lias" at the Williamsburg Regional Library on March 23 at 7:30 p.m. The play is part of the Ewell Concert Series and is jointly sponsored by the library and William & Mary's departments of geology, biology and anthropology. The event is free and open to the public.

Stevens said that the solo play uses music and visuals to tell about "the very eccentric life and personality of Mary Anning who was a fossil collector and paleontologist during the Victorian period in England."

"That sounds rather dry and scientific, but it's anything but," said Stevens. "She was really a most extraordinary personality, and the piece captures something of that, I think. I play her complete with her black cloak and bonnet, and accent and also depict some of her adversaries in the science world."

The play deals with issues of gender and class, but Stevens said "that's only a small part of the piece, which really is, I think, a work of art."

Claudia Stevens in Blue Lias. Photo by David Becker."The response to it has been such that it is a piece that works on many levels and offers many sort of insights and views of this person and her time and related figures," she said.

Stevens said that the play also addresses the conflict between science and religion during Anning's time, when Charles Darwin's theories first came to light.

 "It was clear to the science community and the community of paleontologists that there had been change. So my character talks about change constantly," said Stevens. "This is almost a motive in the piece, the use of the word ‘change,' but at the same time she was a very devout Christian herself and this did not appear to her to be in any kind of conflict."

Though the piece addresses serious issues, Stevens said "it does this in an extremely subtle and constantly unfolding way that also brings in delightful music, some of it I perform live, some of it is on CDs, electronic sound and music played by a violist and a bassoonist that was recorded here in San Francisco."

With a doctorate of music in piano from Boston University, Stevens began her career as a pianist. However, about 20 years ago, she crossed into the realm of interdisciplinary performance, which combines music with dramatic narrative, monologue and art.

"It's a very different career from what I originally set out to do," she said.

Throughout her career, she has performed as a pianist in recital and as soloist with orchestra at Carnegie Recital Hall, on NPR's "Performance Today" and live on public television. She has also created about a dozen solo plays, many of which have been published and staged around the country.

While she was an associate professor and adjunct faculty member at William & Mary, Stevens taught piano and piano chamber music "and at the same time was doing very, very different things in my own world of performance - so that was a very exciting time," she said.

Now as a visiting scholar in the College's department of music, Stevens visits William & Mary occasionally to give presentations. This year, that presentation is "Blue Lias."

Allen Shearer, who composed the music for the play, is joining Stevens on her visit to Williamsburg. He will give a free lecture about the music in the performance as well as his other works on March 23 at 2 p.m. in Ewell Recital Hall.

Stevens has been collaborating with Shearer on several works of chamber opera, including "The Dawn Makers," which premiered in San Francisco in February. That premiere included a special event hosted by the San Francisco-area William & Mary alumni chapter.

Stevens, who now lives in the San Francisco Bay area, said that she is always delighted to come back to the College.

"I have dear colleagues still on the faculty there, and it will be wonderful to see them again," she said. "And there are some new people who have come in since my time, and I'm looking forward to making contact with new people in the music program."

Stevens said she is also pleased that so many people from the College's scientific community have been involved in bringing her play, which is being performed around the country, to Williamsburg.

She said that the play's being co-sponsored by so many science departments might be a first for a music department performance.

"To enlist the support of other departments that have a very disparate focus, it's truly interdisciplinary," she said.

Stevens said that when creating the play, she set out to "achieve something beautiful and meaningful with the forces and resources at my disposal - the story, the different elements of the story, the different ways of depicting them."

"I hope it will be perceived as something unique -- which it truly is -- and not quite like anything that people have seen before as a work of solo musical theater," she said.