film feature: caris’ peace

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Caris’ Peace (2011)
Directed by: Gaylen Ross with Rebecca Nelson

Caris Corfman in "Caris' Peace"

There are circles of friendships and pieces of lives and morphing toward peace in this lovely documentary about an inspired performer who is dealt a tough hand and rises to reclaim her place on stage.

Caris Corfman is a daughter, a friend, an actress, a well-educated human being.  We come into this story meeting Caris in the mid 2000s, as she is pictured here — funny, middle-aged, negotiating her way into a convenience store to obtain a newspaper to read about herself and her one woman show.  We soon realize that this is not an egotistical actor rushing out to gather reports and reviews of her performance to assuage her sense of her art.  We learn, instead, that this is a woman who is reading to capture a sense of memory of her own experience, her own life.  Caris suffers during the last years of her life with short-term memory loss caused by the after effects of brain surgery to remove a tumor on her pituitary gland.  She has long-term memories of childhood, young adulthood, brilliant Yale Drama School experiences and her classmates and colleagues (Tony Shalhoub, Kate Burton, Lewis Black, Rebecca Nelson, among others), and successes on and off-Broadway and in film.  But she needs to take notes to recall at the end of the day what transpired earlier that day or that week or perhaps earlier in a conversation.  Journaling not for pleasure or for art but for necessity.  Capturing moments of a life on paper.

Full disclosure: this film had to win me over.  I am a dramaturg who asks questions and wants to know context.  We are left with many questions about Caris’ life and experience — about her mother who died some years before, about family members other than her father who is an on-camera presence, about school and life and loves and other experiences.  I focus at first on all that we do not know and are not shown in this film as context for Caris’ life.  And then I grow to accept the lovely choices that these filmmakers have made.  We live Caris’ life with her at this moment in time, as she lives her life day-to-day, through the eyes of her friends who come to visit her, the colleagues who recall their time in graduate school (and still and filmed images fill in blanks), through Caris’ own words.  We see enough of the past to understand the losses felt by the woman in the present who valiantly struggles to create a version of the experience she so adored and in part has defined her: a one woman show.

Caris' Peace, the stage show, in cards.

The film includes recollections of friends interviewed for the camera about Caris, her promise, her brilliance on stage.  We have discussions and illustrations of the warm friend beloved by many.  We are told by one of her doctors enough of the medical details to understand the mechanics of the memory loss and the sources of possible hope.  We see how Caris gets through every day with supplements to keep her body functioning and health aides to cart her to therapy and the notes to keep track of everything.  And we see how Caris recaptures a sense of herself on stage, first at a theatre in Maryland and then at the Flea Theater in Manhattan.  With the help of pieces of paper holding snippets of dialogue and stage directions.  Any writer and journaler will love that fact. Triumph through the written word.

  • “What does it feel like to be an actress again?”
  • “I could cry.  I’m still not convinced that I am.”
  • “You’re an actress, Caris”

This lovely film has been announced as a selection in two film festivals in Fall 2011:

© Martha Wade Steketee (September 29, 2011)

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