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Jeanmarie Simpson -- Artivist in the Modern Landscape (Part 1)

Posted: 10/03/11 07:15 PM ET

Over the past few years, Jeanmarie Simpson and I have become fans of one another's work. I have read some of her latest work in progress and have had the privilege of introducing her at a performance of her wonderful show Coming in Hot, a one-person play in which she handles several different roles, presenting the writings of women who have served in combat.

She is a terrific writer, a riveting performer and an artistic activist of the sort all too rarely seen in America today.

I had hoped to write a review of her work and may yet do that at some point, but it occurred to me that a good place to start would be to get her to answer some questions. What she said seemed clear enough, profound enough, insightful enough to get out to the world as a printable interview. Here, therefore, is that interview for your reading pleasure.

DB: Hi, Jeanmarie. Here in Hollywood a great many people put together one-person shows as a way of showcasing their talents, breaking into the mainstream entertainment industry. It's very clear that the agenda is very, very different for you. Tell me how you started putting together these one-person shows.

JMS: I was founding artistic director of the Nevada Shakespeare Company (NSC). We opened Romeo and Juliet on September 13, 2001. The World Trade Centers had fallen and with them my friend from high school and thousands of others.

I had recently been to NYC with someone who had never been and we did all kinds of touristy things like going up to the top of the Twin Towers and the Empire State Building and took the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and went to Ellis Island. We touched my uncle's name on the World War II memorial at Battery Park and drove out to Queens and saw the site of the 1964 World's Fair that I so indelibly remember. My mother grew up in Brooklyn and I spent a lot of vacation time in the city, and I was a theatre person and New York is our Mecca in the 'New World.'

The morning of September 11th, I turned on my radio and heard NPR's report and the whole world changed. The trajectory of my life's work changed. Suddenly, doing mainstream theatre felt silly. From that day forward, I began finding human rights non-profits with which to partner. I redefined NSC as an activist company. We joined Theatres Against War. In 2002, after we'd been bombing Afghanistan for a year and my son was in the military, and I knew he was gonna go to war because the fucking sabers were rattling like crazy and everybody was all fired up about going to war with Iraq (or, as Chris Rock more aptly put it, we were gonna JUMP Iraq). And I thought I was going to lose my mind and when I was on the verge of doing something desperate (immolation? hunger strike? Shave my head, move to the mountains??!), I found, on Carnegie Hall's website, the delicious, delectable, irascible, articulate and magnificent Jeannette Rankin. I knew within minutes that this was my new work, and I set about writing a solo work about her. It became unwieldy and I added an actor who played 57 other parts. We went all over the place with it, and during the 2004 election it really caught fire and we couldn't keep up with the demand -- we closed the play and made a (horrible) film of it. That's probably the biggest disappointment of my life. I have recently created an audio of the play with images and a tiny bit of video footage -- just to get it documented once and for all. It's called Flight of the Dove.

In 2008, end of the year, I met Shannon Cain, co-editor of the book, Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks From Vietnam to Iraq, and I knew right away that it would be a great theater piece. I didn't intend for it to be a solo work, but the reality set in of the cost of producing an ensemble work and we realized that I should just do it myself, and we couldn't find a theatre company to produce it, so Kore Press courageously took it on. We titled it Coming In Hot and took it to high schools and colleges and did it in Hollywood, Seattle and Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Reno and it was very well received. We're trying to get a reasonable video of it, but dammit, theatre is so goddamn difficult to translate to film! So it's a struggle. But we haven't given up.

DB: I've seen that piece and it's absolutely beautiful. In the interest of full disclosure, I suppose I should mention that you had me speak a bit before a performance of that show and introduce you when you brought it out to L.A. for a fundraiser with Frank Dorrel. What came after that piece?

JMS: My newest work, Mary's Joy - The Anatomy of a Martyr, came from I don't know where. I don't remember -- weird, huh? But I was doing some reading about the great Mary Dyer, first colonial woman executed in the "New World," and I found out that she was imprisoned in solitary and that she was hanged at 9 in the morning on June 1, 1660. It simply felt natural to write a solo work about her last hour and a half or so and to expose the issues that emerge when one researches her life - feminism, civil rights, freedom of speech, religious freedom, mental illness, etc...

DB: So, do you conceive these pieces with the intention of making them inherently activist, or is that just a byproduct of the subject matter you choose?

JMS: I do intend for them to be activist projects. I don't see the point otherwise.
I have created original work since I was 12, in 1972. But my work didn't really become became activism-based until after the 11th of September 2001.

DB: Do you think of yourself more as a writer or a performer? Actor or performance artist?

JMS: I'm an artivist. Started out as a singer-actor, then evolved to an actor-singer, then got into directing and producing by the time I was 30 I called myself a "Theatre Artist," because it was not accurate to call myself any one of those things (and I always feel especially strange when people refer to me as an "actress"). Now I'm an artivist.

DB: It seems that the entertainment industry continues to expand while the artworld shrinks. So, as an artivist, I have to ask, where does art really fit into the current cultural landscape?

JMS: Hell if I know. I can't appreciate art anymore, when it's entombed in an institution or underwritten by corporations or rich people who feel all warm and fuzzy and important because they "support art." I don't give a shit if you're Hockney or Alice Neel or Bob Who Paints Watercolors Down on the Corner, if you're making art you need support. ARTISTS need support. "The Arts" are a wonderful industry for administrators. They make six figures while the Van Gogh's of today (and yesterday and tomorrow) make diddly doo dah. I love what the young artists are doing, the street stuff, the amazing video stuff they're self-generating. I love the work of a young woman named Lucy who produces her own videos and releases them through youtube, she goes by the name lucyinabucket She just turned 18 and she knocks my socks off.

And there's an absolutely beautiful piece called "Retarded" by a young woman named ReganB that's stunning!

I think American culture is lost because we, Americans are lost. Culture?!! TV is and has been American culture for decades. And it's sickening. Not the shows so much, although many (most) of them are, just because they are so busy making money and having a great time while people all over this planet are suffering as a result of our foreign policy, but the ADVERTISING makes me want to smash the screen. The obscene Macy's commercials and the Home Depot and the blahdiddyblahblah selling their fucking widgets while American kids are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan and we're killing civilians all over the world (to protect "our way of life") and we have 800 BASES in more than 150 COUNTRIES!!!! That is so beyond diabolical and disgusting. So I return to my first answer to this question. Hell if I know where art fits into the current cultural landscape. If it's diversion, it appalls me. If it's confrontational, everyone is tired of it. I just don't know.

DB: So, I take it you are not hoping to find your way into television and film.

JMS: HA!

{Part two of this interview will be posted within a few days}

 
 
 

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