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PlayMakers' "Dairyland" to explore food politics and identity through comedy

"Dairyland" cast members Emily Bosco and Dan Toot at Brush Creek Swiss Farm in Siler City, NC. Photo courtesy of HuthPhoto.

The world premiere of Heidi Armbruster’s play, “Dairyland,” will take place Wednesday, Oct.16 in the Paul Green Theatre at 7:30 p.m. 

Directed by Vivienne Benesch and featuring the talents of Playmakers' veteran Ray Dooley and New York-based actress Claire Karpen, “Dairyland” brings self discovery to the world of farming.

Armbruster, a Wisconsin-born actress and playwright, wrote “Dairyland” seven years ago, crafting a semi-autobiographical narrative focused on the exploration of the self in relation to family and the home. 

Karpen plays the role of the main character, Allie, a food writer from New York City, longing for authenticity in the work she’s doing. 

“She ends up getting on the wrong side of the locavore farm to table movement," Armbruster said. "It leads increasingly to her alienation and professional downfall. Then in sort of a desperate attempt, she escapes to her father’s dairy farm in Wisconsin."

Armbruster said the second half of the play focuses on the relationship between Allie and her father — mirroring the relationship of Armbruster with her own dairy farmer dad. 

“Farming is of course not at all what she had imagined it would be like, and she's not as good at it as she thought she would be," Armbruster said. "But she's given an opportunity to help her dad birth a calf. And there's something in that experience of physical exertion, working together and a positive outcome that starts to set her on a more balanced path." 

Earlier this month, Armbruster along with the rest of the cast visited Brush Creek Swiss Farm of Siler City, North Carolina. 

“Going to the dairy farm has definitely been a highlight because I knew nothing about that, and we got to meet dairy farmers and meet the cows," Karpen said.  "And in fact, I even got to kind of inspect a cow as part of the research."

Dooley, playing Allie’s father, Henry, found his visit to the dairy farm to be a reinforcement of his character’s core values.

“When you're an actor, it's not simply intellectual," Dooley said. "It has to be in the body. What is the texture of the wood that you see, what does it feel like to touch the cow, to have a cow lick your hand. It's a very different feeling. So all of that said sensory input, all of those things, as well as information about the economics of it, the biology of it. All of those things are important."

While "Dairyland" focuses on Allie’s specific journey, it branches out during the course of the story to bring up issues about food politics, relationships and identity. 

“At the heart of it, the play is ultimately about relationships, but in the framework of some of these questions about food, sustainability and farming," Karpen said.

Armbruster said she hopes that a more universal message of self-discovery blossoms from Allie’s more specific journey.

“The act of choosing one's identity is brave," Armbruster said. "And I think through the specific, that specificity is the portal to the universal. So in this one woman's very specific journey, there is a universal lesson about how hard and simultaneously how important it is to look for your true identity.”

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