This year, Playbill is inviting two artists performing their shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to write down their reflections. These artists first perform their works in New York City, and then again abroad—and Playbill is asking for a behind-the-scenes look before and after their Edinburgh run. This entry is from Kayla Boye, whose show Call Me Elizabeth, where she plays Elizabeth Taylor, first premiered in 2022 at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. It is running at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe August 22–26 at theSpaceUK at Surgeon’s Hall.
August 2023 will mark my 10th anniversary as a Chicago actor. It will also mark my first experience at Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and the culmination of an endeavor that has been steadily progressing since my arrival to the Windy City: Call Me Elizabeth.
In August 2013, I was a newcomer to the Chicago market, immersing myself in seeing as many shows and meeting as many people as possible. Of all the productions I experienced, solo performances were, by far, the most thrilling. I perceived that the solo format, unlike any other theatrical genre, demanded complete and total commitment from the actor and the audience.
While interning at Goodman Theatre, I attended a workshop sponsored by Actors’ Equity Association on making your own work. I entered the rehearsal room and was overwhelmed by seeing so many of the veteran actors whose performances I had admired. I quickly found an empty seat and tried to disappear. I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Who are you?” a kind voice inquired. I smiled and said, “Nobody.” The actor shook his head and said, “No, you are a future member of Actors’ Equity. We are so happy to have you here.” I took out my notebook and scribbled feverishly for the next hour, soaking up every word.
I determined that I would write my own show. There was never any question about the subject. It had to be Elizabeth Taylor.
As a young girl, one of my favorite pastimes was watching Turner Classic Movies at my grandparents’ house. One sunny afternoon, National Velvet charged onto the screen, starring a 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, who dazzled me with her blazing violet eyes and sparkling, uninhibited spirit. I wanted to learn all I could about this girl who showed that it was possible to take life by the reins and chase your dreams.
With her multifaceted career and technicolor life, Elizabeth Taylor remains a pop culture icon who continues to captivate. Twelve years after her death, her image still graces magazine covers, and her perfume sales continue to fund efforts to treat and destigmatize HIV/AIDS. But what is the story behind the image? How does a star develop into a legend, and how does that legacy sustain itself?
Set in May 1961, Call Me Elizabeth is framed by Elizabeth’s conversations with writer Max Lerner as they discuss plans for an autobiography at The Beverly Hills Hotel. Elizabeth has just survived a nearly fatal battle with pneumonia and received her first Academy Award. Over the course of the play, she recounts the formative events of her life and rediscovers her sense of self—just before becoming embroiled in, arguably, the biggest scandal of the century: her love affair with Richard Burton during the filming of Cleopatra.
I started writing Call Me Elizabeth while starting my career performing in regional Equity musicals. Any time offstage was spent researching; my dressing rooms were littered with sticky notes affixed to various biographies, and I filled my days off by rewatching Elizabeth’s films and televised interviews. Introduced by a mutual acquaintance, I was fortunate to speak with her sixth husband, the late Senator John Warner. Our hour-long conversation revealed the compassion of her character and her sense of humor. I also spoke with Max Lerner’s biographer, Dr. Sandy Lakoff, to get a sense of their collaborative relationship.
After circulating early drafts to mentors, I invited a few close friends for a private reading at my apartment (with the promise of plentiful wine and cheese). Looking back at that gathering, and at how far the script has come since then, I can’t believe how patient they were—that first draft was way too long.
In October 2019, the piece was ready for a staged reading at The Den Theatre. The evening was directed by the late Hollis Resnik, who helped me navigate the essence of Elizabeth’s speaking voice for a theatrical setting. While it was exciting to say the words aloud, the most gratifying aspect of that night was the community presence. People actually came! The impact of that public support and constructive feedback cannot be overstated. It inspired me to keep going.
While fine-tuning the script with director/dramaturg Erin Kraft and pitching the show to prospective theatres, I applied for and received an Individual Artist Grant from Illinois Arts Council to support the world premiere of Call Me Elizabeth, slated for 2020. Then, COVID-19 struck. I needed to utilize the grant funds to produce a deliverable product.
So, in an ironic twist of fate, Call Me Elizabeth premiered as a film before it was ever performed as a play. A grant from Arts Midwest supported a streaming presentation with my hometown theatre, The Youngstown Playhouse, followed by presentations with Chicago’s Porchlight Music Theatre, Broadway on Demand, and the 2021 virtual Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
In June 2022, Call Me Elizabeth made its live world premiere in the Hollywood Fringe Festival at The Zephyr Theatre. It felt right to premiere the play in Los Angeles, where the play’s events take place. My nightly route to the theatre took me past the Paramount studio lot, where Elizabeth made some of her greatest films. After visiting her gravesite at Forest Lawn, I met a friend of her personal physician, Dr. Michael Roth, who ended up attending the show.
Following the performance, I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Roth, who was at the forefront of the AIDS epidemic. He said that the show “got it right,” and laughed as he recalled, “When I was first introduced to her, I mistakenly called her ‘Liz’…twice! That was enough. She affixed me with those incredible eyes and said firmly, ‘My name is Elizabeth.’ I never made that mistake again.” It was a very special, surreal experience.
Thankfully, the show was well-received in Hollywood, leading to subsequent bookings in California and Chicago. But what about the Edinburgh Festival Fringe? I needed to follow through on 2021 by performing there in person. So, since August 2022, I have been preparing to finally bring Call Me Elizabeth to Edinburgh.
In July 2023, Call Me Elizabeth enjoyed a sold-out Off-Broadway engagement under the direction of Michael Weber, as part of 59E59 Theaters’ East to Edinburgh Festival,. The opportunity helped me fine-tune my performance in a venue that was a similar size and configuration to the Edinburgh space.
While I won’t be able to fully comprehend the magnitude of Edinburgh Festival Fringe until I am actually there, I have benefited from my previous experiences of self-producing and my growing personal network of fellow solo artists— we are often each other’s best resources and cheerleaders. At the Fringe, I am looking forward to seeing other shows (solo and otherwise) and meeting international presenters. I am also eager to explore the city itself following our matinee performances. Most of all, I can’t wait to share Call Me Elizabeth with Fringe audiences, where Dame Elizabeth’s story really began, in the United Kingdom.
Stay tuned on Playbill.com to see how the 2023 Fringe unfolds, and check out www.callmeelizabeth.com for more about the show.