Ashley (AE) Sarver played the lead role, Dr. Vivian Berring, in the fall play “Wit.” Her dedication to the role and the memory of her grandfather compelled her to shave her head.
The GlimmerGlass: Can you detail the article that you sent in to the Daily Journal?
Ashley Sarver: I wrote that piece to try to give people an understanding of why I would shave my head for a play. Yes, I have a huge dedication to theater, but it goes deeper than that. By shaving my head, I was honoring everyone who had struggled with cancer.
Two weeks before opening night, my grandpa passed away from cancer. The journey of preparing for this play was more difficult than it would have been had my grandpa not been going through cancer—which is what it is about. My character would struggle with different side effects or pains that my grandpa was currently going through when we were rehearsing.
That put a whole new dimension on the play for me. It made it a little more real. I wrote the article to explain that, yes I shaved my head for a character but I understand the depth of that action and that character.
GG: Before the first performance, were you emotionally connected to the character? I know that’s a struggle for actors.
Sarver: I memorized my lines over the summer because there are quite a few lines. I focused so much trying to memorize everything that when the first rehearsal happened I realized that this play was heavy. The first rehearsal was the first time I had put those lines into context.
I distinctly remember—it was the second or third rehearsal. We were going over the scene where I got sick and started throwing up. And for some reason, that scene was one of the hardest scenes for me to do—to act like I was throwing up. I think that act of getting sick opens itself up for vulnerability. I’m not very vulnerable in real life.
I would connect because Dr. Vivian Berring and I have so many connections already. And with my grandpa getting sick that also contributed to the reality of the show. But once I had an audience, that’s when I realized the impact.
It wasn’t until I had an audience that I realized how, regardless of the skills and talents I have, God can work through storytelling on stage.
This play changed my life and my perspective. Not just on the issue that we were talking about, but also my desire, my passion to continue studying theater. Theater has so much power to change people’s lives and shift perspectives. If there is any way I can keep ‘Wit’ alive, I will do that. And I think that it is alive. I will always carry a piece of Dr. Vivian Berring with me.
GG: Is this the most vulnerable you’ve been on stage?
Sarver: Yes, by far. I really don’t like being vulnerable. After one rehearsal, I just wasn’t getting there emotionally. Part of it was this fear of being vulnerable and maintaining a certain persona and poise within my life. After rehearsal, I just looked at Professor Cohagan and said, ‘I can’t do this. I don’t know how to be vulnerable. I don’t want to be vulnerable.’
Later that evening, he sent me a email and in it he said, ‘I think that’s why we go to the theater. To put ourselves in a state of vulnerability. Broken and in many ways emboldened by that.’ It’s in rawness that we see the truth. He also told me, ‘It’s in our vulnerability that we learn about our strength.’
That really stuck with me because I think many people are scared of being vulnerable because we’re scared of showing weakness. But it’s through our weakness that we discover strength.
GG: What connections do you have with Dr. Vivian Berring?
Sarver: The first time I read the play was a couple years ago in a theater class. I read the opening monologue, and I just smiled and was just like, ‘I love Dr. Vivian Berring. I want to be her someday.’ She’s intelligent, and I hope that’s a connection [laughter]. She doesn’t like physical touch. And I appreciate physical touch and understand the importance of it, so I don’t allow it very much. I save those moments for when they’re very necessary.
I’m very independent. I don’t want people’s help. I don’t ask for help. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. I don’t want people to treat me like a child. Dr. Vivian Berring is just very strong, independent, very capable, and she does not want to be vulnerable. And all of those things are the same for me.
GG: What did you learn from her during this play?
Sarver: Life is so much more than my achievements or what I do. I learned that the essence of a person is not the things they do or the labels people put on them. I am not defined by my singing voice or my major or my friends. It comes down to simplicity. It comes down to kindness. It comes down to vulnerability. It comes down to reaching out for someone’s hand and asking for help.
Vivian Berring allowed me to understand that. That that’s okay. In a more general sense, I learned that theater is beautiful and I cannot see myself doing anything else in my life but something theater.
GG: I was thinking back to the play after I watched it. Can you comment on the difference in punctuation in the play?
Sarver: In the play, John Donne’s holy sonnet ‘Death be not proud’ is mentioned, discussed, quoted.Thelast two lines are ‘And death shall be no more, death thou shalt die.’ There’s a question of the punctuation in this sonnet.
Apparently the correct punctuation is ‘And death shall be no more, death thou shalt die.’ In an inauthentically punctuated version: ‘And Death shall be no more; Death thou shalt die!’ Professor E.M. Ashford in the play, mentions why the punctuation is inauthentic with the exclamation point and the semicolon and the capitalization. All of that is so complex and it makes death more of an act and a big dramatic final ending to life.
The whole point of the sonnet is that we shouldn’t fear death, we shouldn’t think of life as being so complex. There really isn’t much distance between simple human truth and uncompromising scholarly standards. There’s just a a comma, just a breath, just one short moment. Not much separates us from life to eternal life.
When I said goodbye to my grandfather, I said, ‘Papa, very soon you’re going to be in heaven. It’s just a short moment and you’re going to be in heaven.’ I would not have had peace about what I told him and I would not have peace about my grandpa’s death were it not for that play. Were it not for learning about this sonnet that’s really ridiculing death and saying, ‘You know what death? Yes you have job security, but overall you’re job isn’t the greatest thing.’
It’s used by everyone. Death comes upon kings, death is for peasants. Death should not be proud because it’s hitting both the lofty and not the lofty. And once it’s over, it’s over. It’s just a breath. Literally just a breath. It doesn’t really have a great job, but it does have great job security.”
—Nathan DiCamillo, Life and Culture editor