As promised, here is the second portion of my interview with the lovely and brilliant artivist Jeanmarie Simpson. (If you missed the first part of the interview, click HERE to catch up) In the second portion of the conversation I moved beyond questions of content and inspiration and was able to really begin learning about her creative process. Read on, lovely peeps. Read on.
DB: All right, let's get specific here. Everybody in the world of art has his or her own way of getting to the final product. Tell me about your process as a writer and as a performer.
JMS: Every project reveals its own process. As a performer, I started out doing it because I came from a musical family and my mother was from the theatre and it was natural to do it. Right away I became very interested in the research level of theatre -- playing people who lived other places and in other times and historical characters were always fun for me for that reason. I'm a research junkie. I considered myself a "Method" actor when it was in style, and I didn't when it wasn't and I just wrangled my way through -- still do, really. Acting is a very organic process and it's awkward and awful at first and then something happens. I'll stumble into something that takes me down a magic breadcrumb trail and it feels ecstatic and I know I'm onto something and then I can usually find satisfaction to some degree -- not entirely, ever, of course -- I'll know I've put my every corpuscle into it and I don't regret having done it.
A couple of times, the text just never really worked for me, and when it's another author's work, especially a living author's, it can't be changed. So I was stuck with it. Those are the times I wanted to disappear -- to crawl behind the scenery and disintegrate. But I have been lucky and have played hundreds of wonderful parts. My years as a "leading lady" garnered me a lot of praise and I had the opportunity to say some of the most beautiful words ever written -- Shakespeare and Marsha Norman and Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams and people you've never heard of. Vern Theissen wrote a glorious one-woman show called Shakespeare's Will, and I was fortunate to perform in the American premier, produced by Leonard Nimoy. I still don't understand why that one hasn't played on Broadway. I can't believe Helen Mirren didn't snap it up. But it's a weird field out there nowadays. So different from the '70s when there wasn't a single musical playing on Broadway at one point.
As a writer, it's entirely different.
With A Single Woman (the first name of my Jeannette Rankin play) I started with her speeches and then worked my way into her personal life with the help of a dramaturg (the great Rick Foster). When it's someone so historically interesting as Jeannette Rankin, there's a ton of material on the NY Times website -- their archive goes back to 1871 or something like that -- and I learned a lot about what she was doing, what the world thought of her and how she responded to inquiry from journalists. And I used as a clothesline a story from her childhood -- about a wagon train that met a group of Indians -- and it's a cliff-hanger that is a startling parallel to Jeannette's life as a peace activist. One day in rehearsal I was just sick of the whole thing and decided to go backwards with the script. But I kept the Indian story moving chronologically, because it really wouldn't have made sense otherwise. So I started with Jeannette at age 92 and went backwards in time and when she was 10 she first heard the Indian story and the two lines of the text collided and BAM! We had a show.
I approached Coming In Hot very differently, of course, because it's an adaptation. Once again, I used a clothesline -- the first piece in the book is called Hymn and it is written by the amazing Charlotte Brock, a Marine who worked in Mortuary Affairs for a time when she was deployed. I split it into 10 sections and then I actually worked in a very linear fashion -- went through and identified the essays and poems that I found most performable and then passed to Shannon the "script," which was still at around 25,000 words -- WAY too many for a theatre piece -- and Shannon whittled it down to about 13,000. Then I started reading it aloud and that revealed the awkward bits and the places where the words became mush in my mouth, and where it felt didactic, or tedious or whatever. Once we got into rehearsal, the book's other co-editor, Lisa Bowden, was the director, and she started slashing as she watched me squirming, trying to commit to stuff that just didn't work but I didn't know if it was me or the text or what -- and then the magnificent Vicki Brown, our composer/sound artist joined us and she was very helpful and it was the most grueling and satisfying collaboration of my life.
Mary's Joy seemed to write itself -- I think end of life monologues are always interesting, and when it's a woman with six living children, a colonial grandmother who is about to be executed -- it's pretty compelling stuff. I love the etymology of the 17th century, combined with the fact that Mary Dyer was a Quaker and used Thee and Thou which make for a kind of elevated elegance, even when we're talking about dysentery. So it was great fun researching her life and also the language. Every word in that play was in common usage by the time Mary came along, and she was one of the first Quakers and they evolved as a response to the brutality of Puritanism in England and the American colonies first, then the surrounding countries and now, of course, they're worldwide. They are all about radical non-violence, and there is nothing more compelling or worth talking about, in my view.
DB: There's a certain egolessness in letting other people perform your writing. You will notice, it is something I almost never do because I am -- as is widely known -- a tremendous narcissist. How do you decide which pieces to do yourself and which ones to cast with other performers?
JMS: I always want someone else to play the character first -- I always think I'll serve the project better as a director or even just as the author. But somehow I always end up doing them myself. Probably economics and practicality. It's pretty damned simple to call a rehearsal when I'm the only one who needs to show up.
DB: It's been great talking to you, and I do hope whenever you're in L.A. you'll be in touch so we can get together. Is there anything I can have on hand for you when that happens?
JMS: Yes, I really do love single malt scotch. And the more, the merrier.