Ada native to perform in Tulsa show

Karen Eleanor Wight

Karen Eleanor Wight still remembers the day she learned that people could turn their love of the performing arts into a career.

“I was 10 at the time, so when I learned that a person could earn money performing onstage, my eyes got even wider and I suddenly forgot all about my plans of becoming a veterinarian,” she said in an email to an Ada News reporter.

Today, Wight is a Brooklyn-based performer and movement coach who has played a variety of roles. She has also worked on Broadway as a member of the wardrobe departments for the musicals Hamilton and Wicked.

Wight is currently playing Toadpipe in a nationally touring production of The Screwtape Letters, based on C.S. Lewis’ classic Christian novel. The show opens tonight at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center for a five-performance run.

The Ada News recently interviewed Wight via email about her Ada connection, her decision to pursue an acting career and her role in The Screwtape Letters. Here are questions and answers from that interview, edited for clarity and length.

The Ada News: What are your ties to Ada?

Karen Eleanor Wight: I grew up in Ada.  My dad was an Okie but was stationed out of state for a few years while he was a doctor in the Air Force. 

My family moved back when I was very young and settled in Ada, where he established his private family practice (and has since been frequently named Ada’s favorite doctor!).  We were parishioners at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, and I attended Byng and worked at Hardee’s and Braum’s in the summers.

But after graduation, I attended college at California State University in Fullerton to major in acting and musical theatre. 

My father and his wife still live in Ada, and so does my youngest sister and her family.  And my mother is buried there. 

I try to come back to visit with my husband, and now our two kids, at least once every couple years, and in 2017 my dad’s house served as our home base while we spent the summer living in Oklahoma.  It was a special homecoming to share my childhood memories with my own children, exploring Wintersmith Park and gathering cicada shells, making new memories with them like collecting and painting stones for the Ada Rocks! project and participating in East Central’s community viewing of the solar eclipse.

The Ada News: How did you become interested in a theatrical career? Are you primarily an actor or a movement coach?

Wight: I became interested in a theatrical career the instant I found out that acting could be s career … Additionally, my move of the arts was a gift from my mom, who was an incredibly creative person. She was a painter and sculptor who founded the Ada Summer Arts Program while I was beginning grade school.

And so, from that time until I left for college, I performed in whatever local productions I was able to, whether at school, Ada Summer Arts, ACT II or ECU. A few of my favorites during those years were Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Maria in West Side Story and Adelaide in Guys and Dolls.

And so I’m a performer first — my passion is being onstage. But over the last several years, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying opportunities as a movement coach on different projects as well, which has developed in part out of my hears as one-half of the wordless improv duo Imp. We performed at national and international improv festivals, where I would also teach movement and other improv master classes.

And yet it was as a teenager in Ada, actually, while playing the Mute in The Fantasticks, that I learned the performance power of silence, stillness and physicality. Of course, I didn’t know then about all the exciting places that would lead me, but it was those early experiences that eventually paved the way to my unique role as Toadpipe and to this additional work as a movement coach for Off-Broadway and immersive theatre productions.

The Ada News: What appealed to you about the role of Toadpipe in The Screwtape Letters?

Wight: When I read the audition notice which called for improvisation to develop a wordless gargoyle-like character, I couldn’t wait to get into the room! I immediately picked up a copy of C.S. Lewis’ book, and was a little surprised to discover that Toadpipe is described only as Screwtape’s secretary and is mentioned in just a single sentence!

But rather than become deterred, I was even more intrigued. What does this character do? And how will these curious and devilish letters be adapted for the stage? So I was thrilled to originate this part and loved the challenge of using physical movement to delineate the various human characters that Toadpipe turns into, in order to express all of their intentions and develop the complex relationships that help to tell this unique story. 

And, of course, I have been incredibly fortunate to work with Max McLean over the years, beginning with this very early stage in the venture.

As the artistic director of Fellowship for Performing Arts, Max co-adapted the book for the stage and originated the role of Screwtape, which I had the joy of playing opposite in so many performances that I’ve lost count (hundreds!). Max and the rest of the team gave me freedom from that very first audition to explore and create this creature from its inception, as well as to build the distinct silent humans that Toadpipe makes manifest.

Over the course of a two-month rehearsal period, which is wonderfully long for an Off-Broadway production, we collaborated closely to discover Toadpipe’s place in the show. Using improvisation, physicality and research, I developed the creature’s motivations, point of view, crawling and upright walking movements, letter-writing style and techniques, and primal sounds. I watched a lot of Animal Planet and researched the gargoyles of New York buildings and other fantastic creatures.

The Ada News: I understand you are also a movement coach for Toadpipe’s role. What does that involve?

Wight: Exactly. So not only does that work include teaching the physical movement, placement of specific sounds and the nuanced characterization of the human figures, but I also go through the detailed back story that we invented for the production, and that works as the motivation behind Toadpipe’s actions and behaviors, which helps to enrich each performance.

The Ada News: How are audiences reacting to the show?

Wight: The nature of the audiences can vary widely from performance to performance. Some are enthusiastic in their response, and others can be intensely quiet.

Lewis’ letters are surprisingly funny at times and quite prescient. And so, I think due to the always deep and thoughtful quality of the subject matter, and the overt theology, some audiences may be reluctant to laugh. But for every one of those, there’s another where folks react viscerally and have been known to call out in agreement or shock during the show!

And then whenever there’s a Q&A with Max after a performance, I can hear from my dressing room, while removing my crazy creature makeup, how eager audience members are to dig deeper into the challenging ideas addressed in the play.   

The Ada News: What message, if any, would you like audiences to take away from the show? What message does the show have for you?

Wight: For me, the beauty and power of theatre is that each person perceives the play through their own filter of experiences and point of view. 

Hopefully, our production promotes personal introspection and lively discussions on the drive home and beyond. Depending on the particular time in my life, or even what happened that day before a specific performance, different scenes or moments from the show will have a strong impact on me. 

I think the main theme, for me, is that each person has to constantly work toward becoming a better version of themselves. And beware of anyone who dismisses that work or thinks they’re exempt from it — such as Screwtape!

Eric Swanson is the City Hall and general assignment reporter for The Ada News. He spent 15 years working at the Dodge City Daily Globe in Dodge City, Kansas, before joining The Ada News’ staff in 2012.