BWW Interview: Amy Jo Jackson of THE BRASS MENAGERIE at The Duplex
Tennessee Williams would, so, have approved. One of cabaret's most industrious creators, Amy Jo Jackson, created THE BRASS MENAGERIE and debuted the unique piece of theater in July of 2018 at The Duplex. The popular nightclub sold out every performance of Jackson's piece and it became abundantly clear that an encore was in the works. With the new year has come a new round of shows for Jackson and The Brass Menagerie on January 9, 16 and 17. The show is described as a campy romp through the women of Tennessee Williams...in song. Ms. Jackson takes on the Wingfield women, Dame Blanche, and that famous feline, Maggie, who is alive, by the way. The ridiculous lark of a concert takes musical theater songs known and loved and applies them to Williams' most famous of creations as Amy Jo gives audiences her humorous take on classic American theatrical heroines that people need not necessarily know to enjoy. Directed by Andrew Neisler and featuring the perennial favorite Brian Nash behind the piano, The Brass Menagerie is a much-anticipated part of The Duplex calendar.
As Amy Jo Jackson enters the final rehearsals for her show, I shot her an email, asking where all the antics and creativity comes from and how The Brass Menagerie came to be the surprise hit of the summer of '19.
To maintain the integrity of Ms. Jackson's epistolary answers, this interview has been copied directly from our email exchange.
Amy Jo, how did The Brass Menagerie come into being?
My partner and I were sitting on the couch one night, talking about Ethel Merman (it happens). We started joking about a show of The Merm playing Amanda Wingfield, and he said, "You could call it 'The Brass Menagerie!'" We laughed and made up a few more bits that would go into such a silly act (my version of "The Rose Tattoo" was also born from that first discussion), and by the end of the night I was making a playlist because we realized it was just ridiculous enough to have some future possibilities. I then completely forgot about it until I was applying for the Denovan Residency at The Duplex later that year. I thought, "This idea is SO stupid, surely no one will give me a residency and a grant to produce it, but whatever, might as well apply." I advise against applying to things if you don't actually want to make something, as I suddenly found myself writing a show when I got word a month later that I was awarded the residency, though obviously I was thrilled for the opportunity and the deadline! I did it in July 2019 and it went over fantastically, so I thought I'd bring it back for a slightly longer run.
You have done a lot of nightclub work in New York City. What is it about cabaret that appeals to you?
I love that direct connection to an audience. You get it in Shakespeare, too, all of the direct address, removing the fourth wall and looking people right in the eye. I really dig that, and love being able to work a room, to take an entire group of people on a ride. Cabaret has been a delightful way for me to take more artistic ownership of my work and get crystal clear on what my artistic voice IS. It really challenges your creativity, especially if you do any work in the comedy or hosting scene. You constantly have to be thinking up new bits, new numbers, new jokes....you're always on the hunt for something funnier or more inventive than the last time you were on stage. Additionally, I'm an exacting performer and collaborator - sometimes, it's easier if it's just me out there because if it goes poorly, it's only my fault! That's a big motivator, as I'm way too anal retentive to get up there without thinking it all through pretty meticulously. And of course, for my solo shows, I'm never out there ALONE - my incredible collaborator (MD and arranger) Brian Nash is always out there with me, sometimes singing backups, and always making me sound better. It seems silly to call it a solo show when it's actually a long duet with Brian.
Your website shows many photos and videos of your work, you seem to be fierce and fearless - where does that come from?
Practice! Ha! Not even kidding. I was SUUUUPER shy when I was younger, but I was never shy when it came to making art. Performing was a place where the social anxiety melted away and I could be the full-throttle version of myself that's always cooking under the surface. I've learned a lot from the roles I've played, and over time I've been able to habituate bringing more of that ferocity into my daily life. In reality, I'm just a clown that loves language who found a great hairstylist (shoutout to Jessie at Soon Beauty Lab!) and fooled everyone into thinking they're cool.
You're a very versatile performer, doing broad comedy, torch songs, Shakespeare -- is there one particular part of your acting repertoire that you feel most passionately about?
Thanks! I really do enjoy bopping around from one style to the next. Keeps everything fresh and interesting and makes one a better performer across all genres. I love making people feel things, preferably a wide range of things...I think perhaps I just enjoy playing intense people with robust emotional lives and working with excellent writing, and that can happen in any kind of piece. For instance, I've played Alison in "Fun Home," the German air hostess in "Boeing Boeing," and currently I'm playing nine Tennessee Williams characters who sing a variety of musical theatre tunes in a 70-minute show. There's so much I still want to do, but I count myself fortunate that I'm someone who has the ability and skill to morph across various styles pretty easily.
And now that I've said all that if I'm honest, there are few things more satisfying than making a whole room of people roar with laughter. That feels PERFECT.
What was the first Tennessee Williams you ever saw?
I think my first encounter other than reading some of the plays was watching the movie of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," and then the movie of "A Streetcar Named Desire," as I was a big classic movie nerd. The first time I ever saw Williams on stage, though, was a neighboring high school's production of "Night of the Iguana," of all things. Let's just say that I didn't really GET IT until I read it again years later.
If a person in a position to make it happen for you offered you a job playing the Tennessee Williams role of your choice, what would choose, and why?
Oooooooooh, this is a VERY difficult question to answer, I love so many of them!! My first impulse is to say Alma Winemiller from "Summer and Smoke." I think it's one of the most beautiful roles ever written, and I have a really deep identification with Alma and how she moves through the world on a level that might surprise most people. She's beautifully sensitive and so full of emotion that she doesn't understand how to run it through her body in a way that doesn't overwhelm her, and I very much understand and live with that in my own life. Plus, she's brilliant and quite funny. On the other end of the spectrum, I really would love to play Stella in "Streetcar." I only do Blanche in my show, but Stella is SUCH a great role, and one I think I'm particularly well suited to play. So earthy, sensual, grounded - a lot of things I get hired to do, just not usually in plays that are so well written! I'd love a crack at her.
After The Brass Menagerie, what can your friends and followers find you doing?
I'll be playing The Devil in Company XIV's brand new show, "Seven Sins," a sexy burlesque/cirque/dance version of the Adam and Eve story. I'll be doing a lot of athletic singing and wearing SO MANY FABULOUS GARMENTS - it's gonna be incredible. We open on Valentine's Day. I'm in every show, but I alternate the role with another performer, so check my Instagram (@amyjojackson) for info on which weeks I'll be playing which track!
Production stills by Michael Hull Photography.