– What about your early career?
I had the most wonderful teacher in Toronto at Senator O’Connor high school. She is called “Miss Emma,” and all of us fortunate enough to have worked with her carry her indelible inspiration into our lives. I couldn’t imagine doing anything but theatre, even before I met Miss Emma, but her influence changed the kind of theatre that interested me – previously, I thought I would be doing musicals and comedies, but she hooked me on the darkest, most dramatic material.
– When and where did you first encounter Quakerism and why were you drawn, at that time, to it?
In the fall of 1978, I played Abigail in a production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. The most fierce judge (Danforth) has a line – “It is not for you to say what is good for you to hear!…What, are we Quakers? We are not Quakers here yet, Mr. Proctor. And you may tell that to your followers!” – I was intrigued, and went to the library and read about Quakers while doing my research for Abby. I always held Quakers up as extraordinary people who were far better than I. It wasn’t until after September 11, 2001, when my country was ripped to shreds by first the terrible destruction in New York, but then by political divisiveness the likes of which I had never seen, that I felt driven to find a spiritual alternative to the aggressiveness, acrimony and ugliness in which social justice activism is often framed. I started hanging out with a group called Sierra Interfaith Action for Peace, some of whom were Quakers, and I began attending meetings in various cities where I performed and lived (Reno Nevada, Boulder Colorado, Tucson Arizona).
– 1984 was a very important year for you – why?
I was a 24 year old mother of two little boys and, during Ronald Reagan’s second presidential campaign, I became radicalized. I was horrified by what I had learned about US foreign policy, especially in Central and South America. I started connecting the dots, and I have never looked back. Before that, I was a pretty lazy citizen, not paying attention to anything politically beyond my immediate personal economic interests. Even though I’d had a socialist grandmother (on the Lopez side of the family), I hadn’t appreciated Liberation Theology as a way of life. That all began to evolve in 1984.
– Why are the words ‘activism’ and ‘peace’ so important to you?
Activism means action. It’s got muscularity to it. It’s not a passive thing. I have never been comfortable being comfortable.
Peace is more complicated. And peace IS enormously important. But peace, in the sense I believe you mean, is a hard and messy-won thing. It’s not easy, it’s not calm and gentle. Peace is about compromise and it’s about swallowing pride, giving up ego, subjugating the self and thinking of the whole community – even the world. I have seen some of the worst behaviour from people who called themselves “peace activists.” I’ve engaged in some of it myself. But when we learn, we grow. When we grow as individuals our communities grow stronger, from the roots up. Peace is the realization of deep justice.
– You have described yourself as an ‘artivist’ – it’s a fascinating term, but what do you mean by it?
I discovered the Artivist Film Festival in Los Angeles about 10 years ago. I was thrilled to find a term for the kind of work I am compelled to do. Art that is activism-based. There is an agenda, and it is to wake people up, engage in meaningful discussion and consider history as if one were an apprentice – not just looking back and shaking our heads, but actually making mindful choices to change the present and, by extension, the future.
– How have you put it into practice? Examples? Choices involved?
My first very intentional, activism-based theatre work was A Single Woman, about the life of Jeannette Rankin, the first American woman who served in congress. She voted against American entry into both world wars. It was a two-person show, with the second actor playing 57 characters. It was remarkable, how audiences responded to Jeannette’s voice of reason and sanity – we opened when George Bush ran for the second time. People were set on fire by Jeannette’s speeches, especially.
The second piece was collaborative, though I performed it solo. It was called Coming in Hot, and was adapted from an anthology of women’s writing – women who had been in the US military from Vietnam to present day (we opened in September, 2009). I played 17 different women, many of whom had encountered sexual harassment and even sexual assault, at the hands of their “comrades.” The discussions following performances were extraordinary. The women whom I met were extraordinary. They took their experiences in stride – they had been discriminated against from Day 1, but they took it as part of the job. They expected it as part of the cultural nature of the military. But they all had reasons for being there, usually survival. An opportunity to have a job with benefits, a pension after 20 years. Their chances of otherwise having such a thing are slim to none. For most of these women and their children, the military was their best option, and I think that says something deeply disturbing about American society. But it’s been true, at least since the Civil War. Probably before. I have chosen to keep the work grassroots, though I did have a run Off-Broadway with A Single Woman, and a (very poor) film was made. By ‘grassroots,’ I mean I take the work to people in non-traditional venues. I perform in living rooms and office conference rooms, meeting halls, etc., not usually theatres. It’s always great fun and a luxury to be in a theatre, of course. I’m a theatre person, through and through. But I’m also a peace activist from my bones out, and this way of working has evolved with both those realities at first side by side, but now interwoven. I don’t allow the lack of a venue to keep me from performing the work – I was very inspired by the Rhapsodic Theatre in Poland during the occupation, when it was illegal for theatre to be performed. Plays were forbidden, so actors stood up in people’s living rooms and spoke the epic poetry of their country. It was a potent protest. The way I now work is deeply informed by that.
– Why were you drawn to creating biographical works of historical women? Examples? some thoughts on who, what your approach was, the themes you wanted to explore, the particular challenge and pleasure of it all?
I was drawn to Jeannette Rankin because she speaks for me. Her voice is clear and sane and she was charismatic and the story of her life fascinated me. I didn’t choose to create a biographical work of an historical woman. I discovered her, randomly, after the US had been bombing Afghanistan for a year, and I was out of ideas about how to navigate the world. Then I stumbled on her quote, “You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.” I was hooked. I started with her speeches, then worked with a dramaturge who guided me. I used a clothesline approach, because a story from Jeannette’s childhood felt made for it.
With Coming In Hot, it was based on a book, and I worked with the editors and some of the authors. They weren’t “historical” women, but they’re living women. So that approach was, at first, very tender. I felt their words were sacred, and was very, very fearful that our edits would offend them. Quickly, I learned that they were tough (I mean, duh!) and smart, and appreciated that we needed to cut everything down significantly, since the performance could be comprised of only a fraction of the words from the book. Again, I used a clothesline approach. One of the authors wrote an exquisite piece about her time in mortuary affairs while she was over there. Beginning and ending with that, and having “episodes” of it bring us back home throughout, was very powerful. We identified the most performable essays and a couple of poems. More editing happened while we were in rehearsal, because some things seem as if they’ll make good theatre until you try them every which way and they just don’t emerge as theatre moments. It was an exceptional experience.
Mary Dyer is only the second “historical woman” I’ve taken on, but I’ve become known as someone who does this as a way of life. And now I’m looking at Maria Montessori. So – I’m buying into my own reputation, I guess. Or I’m accepting that I love doing it, and committing to it as an artist. I just don’t want to be expected to do things the way scholar-performers do. I will never function that way. My Maria Montessori piece is, at this point, shaping up as entirely non-verbal.
– What is the background to ‘Mary’s Joy’? What attracted you to her?
A Quaker woman approached me after a performance of A Single Woman and suggested I look up Mary Dyer and see if I didn’t want to make a piece about her. Once I read a couple of the biographies, I was interested enough to get started. Then, she charmed me and I haven’t looked back.
– Could you talk about your approach to dramatizing the story – what themes did you focus on and why and what was the challenge of making them engaging for a live audience?
I was convinced, pretty early on, that Mary had severe postpartum. Of course, it wouldn’t have been diagnosed and, of course, it would have only gotten worse and worse. It made sense of the trajectory of last two decades of her life, when she left her children, went to England for 7 years and then returned as a radical Quaker (were there any other kind, in those days?).
Making a script engaging is about telling a good story, the way good stories are always told. It’s not didactic, but when history is involved, the exposition must be woven in with the action and always, always, always, there must be tension and conflict. The works I’ve
chosen have in them so much inherent conflict that there’s no stretch, in that area. I have to take the leap of faith and believe that audiences will find me interesting as the performer, and I have to invoke all the techniques that I’ve picked up along the way. 43 years on stage, but I never assume they’re going to love me. I have to do the same amount of work every, every time.
– Live performance has a special magic about it – you will be bringing this to many Quakers in Europe – what is it for you?
What is the magic? For me, it’s the intimate relationship I feel with the people in the room. We breathe together. They respond to me, and I to them. That can’t happen with film. And to have the honour of telling the story of one of the first Quakers, a martyr, who has been terribly misunderstood because of some of the choices she made – to tell her story and feel the shared appreciation for what she went through – there is a mystery there that transcends the corporeal and I describe it as magic.
– Given your earlier encounters with Shakespeare, I was interested in what you felt by the language of the 17th century. I sense that you really enjoy research, and language, and have a restless and well developed ‘curious gene’!!
I do love the language. Every word in Mary’s Joy was in common usage at the time Mary Dyer lived. It is delicious. The “thees” and “thous” only come in when she is speaking with other Quakers, because that language was elevated only on stage in her day. Today we hear those terms and think they’re fancy, but in her day that was plain speech. That’s a point of interest for a lot of people, including many Quakers.
I love the research part of what I do. In fact, it’s the most interesting part for me. The more I learn, the more empathetic I become. People are complex, and that was as true for Puritans and early Friends as it is for all the diverse populations alive today. It fascinates me to find out all the specifics and differences that make up human history.
– Every life is a particular kind of journey – one that involves choices, including moral ones – and I wondered how you feel about this in relation to you own life and the lives of the characters you have been drawn to?
Choice is the essence of Mary’s story. The first lines of the play are:
“Is life the most important part of freedom? Is choice? I’ll hang today, or I’ll go home to my family. I’ll sleep in my husband’s arms, or I’ll swing at the end of a rope. My choice.”
My own life’s choices have been very poor, for the most part, borne out of fear and ideas about survival and desperation. Mary has given me the courage to take the time to NOT make choices, but to engage in deep discernment before making most choices. It’s been a long, winding and vital road. Choice was at the heart of A Single Woman, too – Jeannette Rankin deliberated long and hard before choosing to vote against those two war resolutions. And the ripples from those choices continue today, 42 years after her death. Choice is the most important of all alchemical ingredients.
I recently learned that the world “heretic” means “able to choose.” I nearly fell out of my chair when I learned that.
– You have lived with Mary Dyer for some years – how do you feel about her now and have your feelings changed over the years?
Oh, my. I have grown up with her, I think. I mean, she has helped me to finally grow up.
Very early on, I had the idea that she had been afflicted by intense brain chemical changes as a result of untreated postpartum. I do believe that’s true, but I have come to appreciate that as a piece of the story, but not something that stands on its own. Her life was a mosaic – myriad pieces that together created the whole. Each thing led to the next, each episode stacked on top of all those before it, until she made her final choice. But even then, her story wasn’t over because the American First Amendment had everything to do with her being hanged more than a century before it was drafted. Speaking very personally, her life – the choices she made, the way she kept going in a day when we can’t even imagine the kinds of conditions in which people lived – she’s helped me find the ambition to get up many a morning when all I wanted was to crawl under the covers and stay there.
– What is the central message of the story of Mary Dyer for you?
The central message. Hmm… I don’t know if it’s a “message,” but it’s a revelation, to me, at least. Maybe everyone has their own experience with her story. But my insight is that choices make us whole. We are powerful when we choose things, as opposed to having them thrust upon us and being forced to accept them or die or whatever. Even hard things, even being executed, when it’s our choice, is a liberation. I think about that every day now, and it’s a gift Mary gave to me.
– What sense have you formed of New England at that time? Are there echoes of that world today in contemporary America?
New England was a hard life in the early days – freezing and wild, though incredibly beautiful as well. The Puritans made it unthinkably difficult, in my view. There were no choices. Choice was criminal behaviour. To choose to step outside the narrow confines of church/state law was to be condemned, shunned, punished, even killed. Contemporary America has a different kind of harshness to it. We are at the mercy of a set of laws that hold up corporations as more important than people. Rather than religion as the opiate of the masses, it’s corporate-driven entertainment that compels us to consume, consume, consume, stay in debt, die in debt, pass on our debt to our children, etc.. It’s grim. But that’s not to say, ever, that life isn’t beautiful, because it is.
Ian Kirk-Smith is editor of The Friend.