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Performance Artivism on the Road
Jeanmarie Simpson interviewed by journalist, Kevin S. Giles.
By: Jeanmarie Simpson
Kevin Giles: You're currently on tour with Mary's Joy. What inspired you to write it?
Jeanmarie Simpson: After a performance of A Single Woman, a Quaker woman approached me and suggested I do a solo work about Mary Dyer whose name I'd never heard. I read a couple of biographies of her life, and became hooked when it occurred to me that postpartum depression/disorder had probably much to do with the decisions she made in the last two decades of her life. I found that to be a kind of breadcrumb trail to Mary's Joy.
KG: I've heard you present it as a "performative reading." What's involved with that?
JS: I'm exploring a new genre idea called Performance Artivism. I read the work from a book, though I fully perform it. With the text in hand, I have noticed, audiences respond to the story, rather than to my acting. I'm a window through which they see the story, rather than being the focus. I don't ask them to suspend disbelief.
KG: Please talk about the rigors of performing Mary's Joy by yourself. For example, what's involved with learning the script and keeping the audience engaged?
JS: I don't perform it off book, so that's not a factor. Keeping the audience engaged -- there's the rub! Actors have our bags of tricks and garbage that we fall back on when we're flailing, but the best way to engage an audience is to engage ourselves in the verbal muscularity of the piece. Find the action in it, the driving motion of the story, and give it all we've got.
KG: You're on tour to the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe, performing a work about a very painful time in early American history. Does a dramatic expression of this particular topic raise eyebrows in England, for example, or raise other unexpected reactions?
JS: I haven't come across any raised eyebrows. What seems to be driving interest in the project is the notion of freedom of speech and religion. That is a pressing issue everywhere today, it seems, making the piece universally relevant.
KG: What's it like being a gypsy traveler with no home to call your own? Is this an extension of your artistic self?
JS: That's it, isn't it? No home to call my own. Ouch. Hmm... I guess the world has become my home. It's frightening, at times, certainly. But I have so many contacts through my decades as a peace activist and through my work in the theatre that I always seem to have more of my life booked than not. When I'm not booked with work, I'm visiting with dear friends, like now. I'm staying with a girlfriend from 5th grade (we're both 55 now!) and we're seeing lots of other friends from the old days and drama school buddies, etc., in Toronto. I certainly don't feel lost or alone. It definitely IS an extension of my artist-self. To risk, to take chances -- that's when the mysteries reveal themselves. When we're stuck in the same routine and, generally, know what's going to happen from one day to the next, I think we miss a lot of the nuances of this life. Maybe it's the only life we get. If so, I sure don't want to miss it.
KG: What have you learned about yourself at this point in your life? After how many years of acting?
JS: I've been acting for 43 years. What have I learned about myself? I love the question. I have learned, through the process of developing as an actor/artist, that I don't know a damn thing. I really know nothing about anything, and that is the most liberating thing I've ever realized. When I think I know something, I'm not really open to new information. When I acknowledge I know nothing, I am suddenly awake and aware and listening and engaged and life is interesting and rich. There's a beautiful Dan Fogelberg song (may he rest in peace), with the words:
The higher you climb, the more that you see
The more that you see, the less that you know
The less that you know, the more that you yearn
The more that you yearn, the higher you climb
That resonates deeply with me. I want to dive into things, roll around in them and find myself reborn over and over again. I definitely feel trepidation around launching into the tour with no base to return to, but I am determined to cross that threshold, as Joseph Campbell would say, and bring back that elixir to the world.
KG: Tell me how Jeannette Rankin has influenced your life.
JS: I have you to thank for teaching me about Jeannette's life through your book, Flight of the Dove. Yours was the first biography I read, and, I think the best one out there -- and I've read them all. Her determination, combined with her discipline, her ability to put one foot in front of the other, even while vilified and mobbed for her very appropriate action/s as a legislator and as an activist, made her the single most inspirational force in my life. I learned from her that when I don't have faith, going through the motions -- acting as if I had faith -- results in my faith being restored. I'm not talking about religious faith, though that may be true as well. I mean faith in democracy, faith in the power of taking a deep breath and going on, even when things feel impossible and terrifying. To stand firm in one's convictions, reach for that unreachable star -- to reach for it KNOWING it's unreachable. Because no matter what, we'll get further than we ever would have had we never tried. Despite what the pundits and the low level media want to spoon feed us, there is never any shame in trying to shed light on darkness or to effect lasting, meaningful change. Jeannette Rankin's life is, as Dennis Kucinich described it, "a hymn to peace." And she was a great character. I feel as if I know her and there are times when I swear I hear her encouraging me.
KG: After Mary's Joy, what comes next? Will you continue to write and perform, and if so, what?
JS: I'm starting the research for a new solo piece about Maria Montessori. I've been interested in doing it since learning, through my Jeannette Rankin research, that Montessori inspired Gandhi when he created his school. She was a great woman -- a feminist and peace activist. Giving children the tools to self-sufficiency was an integral expression of her worldview. Also, a brilliant activist-writer with whom I've recently become friends has begun work on a piece for me that might actually be political satire. So there is a chance I'll do some comedy! I have tried to write it myself, but my work just doesn't go that way, no matter how hard I try. There's always got to be some humor, but I never manage to write anything overtly funny. So, yes. I think I'll probably die onstage someday - and there is nowhere, I think, I'd rather do that.
****Kevin S. Giles is author of Flight of the Dove: The Story of Jeannette Rankin, and Jerry's Riot: The True Story of Montana's 1959 Prison Disturbance. Giles has edited several books and currently is a newspaper reporter and editor at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis-
Page Updated Last on: Jan 20, 2015