BWW INTERVIEW: Shannon Cain's Interview With Jeanmarie Simpson - Previewing The 2020 Release Of HERETIC - THE MARY DYER STORY
Mary Dyer, hanged in Boston in 1660 for the crime of free speech, was the mother of eight children, six of whom survived infancy. "Her story is an astonishing part of American history that has never been widely exposed," says Jeanmarie Simpson,* actor and playwright of HERETIC, a one-woman performance about Dyer's life. "Yet its relevance is more powerful today than at any time since her death."
The June 2020 release of the filmed production of HERETIC, timed for the 350th Anniversary of Mary Dyer's execution, has just been announced. Although the premiere is a year away, it seems fitting that, coinciding with Mother's Day and the abiding relevance of issues related to free speech, we offer an exclusive interview with the author about the work and the person ("the mother of the First Amendment), conducted by her associate, Shannon Cain.
Full Interview with Jeanmarie Simpson: A conversation with Jeanmarie Simpson Interviewed by Shannon Cain
Shannon Cain: Let's start with the question we all need answered: what are your thoughts on the Drunk History episode about Mary Dyer?
Jeanmarie Simpson: The station wagon sells it.
SC: Thanks, I just watched the clip a dozen more times to find that car. It just rolls on by as they're leading Dyer to the gallows, ha!
I'm assuming your film version of her story will pay slightly more attention to detail. But really this is a brilliant bit, isn't it? The drunk narrator is so sincere and impassioned...!
JS: She is heartbreakingly sincere. She reminds me of me. And she's wrong about pretty much everything, which also sometimes reminds me of me.
In the Drunk History episode, an inebriated feminist explains that Mary Dyer was a really nice person and visited Quakers in jail in Boston and then championed their cause. But in fact there were no Quakers in Boston before Mary herself became one. She was one of the very first Quakers - Mary met George Fox over in England when she went back there shortly after giving birth to her youngest child. She was a mother of six and left her children for years on end. That's all but unheard of today, but in the 17th Century? I'm convinced that she had profound postpartum depression, probably had it for a long time before baby Charles was born, and that when she went off on her own, it was an act of desperation. She was a seeker in the informal sense, and was bitterly disappointed in the draconian style of the Puritans. There was an emerging movement back in the old world, called Seekers, and it was from within that community that the Quakers sprung.
SC: I remember when you first told me you were working on a play about Mary Dyer. It seems like yesterday, but it was 2010. We've been friends for ten years. How's that even possible?
JS: We met in '08, worked on another solo show together, which is so weird. I never wanted to do solo work. It's so lonely!!! I started writing Heretic in 2010 and you started work with me on it after the first several readings, in 2011. I know you don't need me to tell you this, but it helped me get oriented. I haven't been sleeping worth a damn.
SC: Drink some chamomile, honeybunch! And try to quit worrying about the abysmal state of the planet. Actually, I did need your reminder because I seldom remember the passage of years. But I do remember moments: I remember that you and I met for the first time at a meeting of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom in Tucson. I brought Powder, the book of writing by women veterans I'd co-edited, and did a short reading for the group about a Marine who worked in the mortuary and when I was done, you and I locked eyes and you said, "this needs to be a play," and I said "hell yes," and that's how Coming in Hot was born. And then you asked me to be the dramaturg for Heretic, and I had the great pleasure of writing the audience notes for the program.
JS: Yeah - but you skipped right over the main thing. As dramaturg, you questioned every historical detail, to ensure as much accuracy as possible, but you also functioned as an editor. I worked you like crazy - you went through the play line by line with me several times and then I made you do it backwards. It's as strong a text as it is because of you.
SC: Your passion for Dyer's story is undeniable. When did you first learn about her and why were you so drawn to write a play about her life?
JS: A Quaker woman approached me after a performance of A Single Woman. She told me about Mary Dyer and that she thought I might want to create a show about her. I'd never heard of her, but I wrote down her name and put it in my notebook with other ideas. I forgot about it for several years until I was in Boulder and had been attending the Quaker meeting there. They've got a great library and I came across a biography about Mary Dyer. I recognized the name and took it home.
At the same time, I happened to be listening to Brooke Shields read her memoir, Down Came the Rain. It's about her postpartum depression that went untreated for a long time and developed into postpartum disorder. My mother had given it to me for Christmas, which sounds weird, but she understood my appetite for dark, true stories and she knew very, very well that I had experienced postpartum depression after my youngest was born, and that it went undiagnosed for years. I related to Shields' description of the dullness, the numbness and the suicidal thoughts that followed her childbirth.
SC: How did you get from Brooke Shields to Mary Dyer?
JS: I was listening to Brooke Shields and writing the first draft of the one-woman show now titled Heretic. It occurred to me that Mary Dyer must have suffered postpartum depression at some point, considering she gave birth eight times, and that she couldn't have been treated for it in that Puritan culture. To even admit those kinds of feelings was to be accused of trucking with the devil. The trajectory of Mary's life and her radical choices made sense to me then, and I was hooked.
SC: Why is it important to you to bring Mary Dyer's story to film? As the creator of this one-woman show, talk a bit about your artistic vision for the film version of Heretic.
JS: It's important to distinguish the difference between a "film version" and a filmed performance, which is what this is going to be. Actually, we will film three performances and also get close-ups and other coverage without an audience. I've been performing Heretic as a reading for 9 years, and I am ready to put her words and thoughts deep into my tissues. It's a much richer experience, for everyone.
SC: Not to mention an experience that many more people can access! The theater company sponsoring this project, Arizona Theater Matters, is particularly focused on accessibility to the arts for performers and audiences. A filmed performance of Dyer's story will reach a much wider audience than any one-woman stage show could ever hope for. As a peace and justice activist deep in your bones, talk about why this is important to you.
JS: That is desperately important. My activism has been manifest in storytelling, especially since September 2001. I may be hopelessly naive, but I strongly feel that if people grok Mary's story, they have a chance of appreciating how hard-won are the rights we are afforded by the First Amendment. And maybe they'll want to defend those freedoms - to speak, to report, to worship, to assemble and to demand redress of grievances. In my view, those are the defining points of civilization. Indoor plumbing is nice and all, but that's not what it's all about.
SC: What are your plans for filming, post-production and distribution? Are you looking for backers?
JS: We're looking for supporters - we're a non-profit and donations are tax deductible. When I perform the play, the admission is "Pay What You Can." When it's filmed, it must be an outstanding translation that is made universally accessible - via the internet.
Excellent filmmaking doesn't come cheap. We're looking at a $20,000 budget, which is nothing when you consider that we have engaged a stellar film crew. The attention to detail with the film itself and then the study guide, translation services, and the pressing and packaging of DVDs for libraries, schools, etc. - it's a conservative budget, and the team is determined to make it work.
We do need financial support, and the subject needs attention. The more the community is involved, the wider goes the circle and the more powerful becomes the force field protecting the First Amendment.
SC: You refer to Dyer as the Mother of the First Amendment....why?
JS: I call Mary Dyer the Mother of the First Amendment, because I can see a straight line between her and that most vital of addendums to the Constitution of the United States. Roger Williams, the European who "founded" Rhode Island did so on land granted to him by the Narragansett people who already lived there. Williams knew he was a guest, and behaved as such. Mary and William Dyer, along with 75 families banished from Boston, followed Williams and lived and worshipped freely.
Meanwhile, Massachusetts was digging in its Puritan heels and had become increasingly totalitarian. When Mary Dyer eventually returned to Boston, as a Quaker, she was jailed and her husband made to promise, in order to secure her release, that she would never return. But return she did, time after time, and was threatened with hanging if she didn't keep her upstart self the hell out of Massachusetts. I am convinced that Mary saw the straight line between her execution and the changing of the law. From the last moments of Heretic -
Our point of faith, we Friends, is that the Truth makes men tender. Here is my choice, then. Either I expose the immediate truth - that the powerful in Boston who wield the sword will strike me down for defying their banishment decree - or I return to Rhode Island and let the mean world sort itself out. My banishment is imposed because of my thoughts and words. I have broken no commandment. I have taken nothing away from anyone, but refused to bow to that human authority I cannot recognize.
When Charles II learned that Mary had been hanged, he commanded that all executions of Quakers cease, and he revoked Massachusetts' charter. Rhode Island's charter was signed just three years after Mary Dyer's death, and the First Amendment was submitted to the states for ratification in 1789, and was adopted along with all 10 amendments in the Bill of Rights in 1791. That may seem like a long time after 1660 when Mary gave up her life, but it looks like the speed of light when you consider that women didn't win the right to vote in this country until 1920.
And when you consider just how radical was the right to speech and worship, to freely assemble and for a rambunctious free press, it feels miraculous. Now: consider that following the adoption of the Bill of Rights, we had Andrew Jackson's campaign against the Native peoples of this land. We had their children incarcerated and indoctrinated in "boarding schools," where their culture was beaten out of them - both literally and figuratively. We've had "Judeo-Christian" language etched into our national consciousness.
Of course, I'm barely scratching the surface, but - thankfully - out of this disconnect the country birthed the American Civil Liberties Union, which exists entirely to defend the Bill of Rights, and is forever under attack.
...and they wonder why we march.
SC: They called Mary Dyer a wicked woman. How do you use this "wickedness" to inform her character?
JS: That's an interesting question. They called her wicked because she wasn't obedient. She was a radical spiritually and, by extension, politically.
SC: I love the title of this play. It means what it says.
JS: Yes. She was a heretic. Not long after I'd begun working on Heretic, I looked up the etymology of the word. It means "one who holds a doctrine at variance with established or dominant standards."
SC: I guess that makes you and me and all our friends heretics.
JS: It does, and what's even more interesting is that the word comes from the Old French 'eretique' and from the Church Latin 'haereticus,' and even better, from the Greek 'hairetikos,' meaning "able to choose."
SC: She chose. Choice was a crime worthy of capital punishment.
JS: Speaking of choice, there was no legal self-determination for women in the Puritan world. They had baby after baby, and were judged based on the conditions of their children at birth. Aside from her first child dying just a few days after he was born, Mary Dyer's third child was anencephalic and stillborn. The Puritans took that as a clear indication that she was in league with the devil. If she hadn't been banished, she'd probably have been hanged much sooner.
SC: Where will the performances be filmed? What's the setting?
JS: The location is a beautifully verdant, peaceful country meeting house in North Carolina. It's called the Spring Friends Meeting because there is a natural spring there. The interior of the meeting room is Quaker-chic, meaning simple and beautiful. There's no backdrop, no set or props. So the entire visual consists of me, in costume.
SC: Tell me about the costume!
JS: The absolutely brilliant Virginia (Gini) Vogel is designing and building my costume. She was a professor of Theatre (all things costume) and Museum Studies for some 40 years. There's no one in the industry who knows more than she about historical requisites of period dress, and no more talented designer. She read the script and came back to me with her ideas - cherry red riding suit (distressed from sleeping on the jail floor for three days). This will include all the undergarments - the corset, chemise, bloomers, petticoats - and the wig/headcover. Everything Gini has ever built for me has fit like a glove, and the silhouette is always perfect for its era.
SC: Aren't corsets horribly uncomfortable? They're not sexy like bustiers, right? They're seriously confining.
JS: "Horribly" is an apt description. But vital. The costume simply doesn't work without the structure beneath.
The confining nature of corsets is a metaphor for the centuries during which women had no choice but to wear them. And you're right - they're not flattering lingerie. They restrict movement, restrict breath. Once, when I directed a production of As You Like It, our Celia passed out shortly after being laced into her corset at the first dress rehearsal. I always take a huge breath out and hold it, rather than the usual custom of letting out all the air and sucking in the belly. I want to make sure I can take a deep breath - some of the phrases I need to say are long and require full breaths. And I'm claustrophobic, anyway. But even with a relatively "loose" corset, I can't bend at the waist. I can't arch my back or stretch side to side. It really is an illustration of the imprisonment of women in their own lives.
Gini told me she's struggling with keeping Mary separated from the Puritan look and yet giving her the "simplicity and power that she needs." Collaborating with an artist of Gini's caliber is priceless. Her work is exquisite, and her influence elevates the entire project.
SC: Wow, this sounds gorgeous. And essential, right? For such a stripped-down performance, costume is everything. To go back to the Drunk History episode, one can't help notice they've got Dyer dressed like a pilgrim. Which isn't exactly accurate either, is it?
JS: Mary Dyer never strictly adhered to the Puritan dress code, but once she'd become Quaker and returned to New England, she really let it go. When she was hanged, she wouldn't have been wearing that get up worthy of a middle-school Thanksgiving skit.
The vibrant color of Gini's costume will film beautifully in the simple space, and the clothing alone projects the story of the time in which she lived and her rebellion against Puritan mores. Actors will tell you - and maybe you've experienced it yourself - when we step into costume and look in the mirror, we fully meet our characters. Add hair, makeup and lighting, and we're in another world.
*Jeanmarie Simpson is the Founding Artistic Director of Arizona Theatre Matters and the Nevada Shakespeare Company, from which she retired in 2008. She is a retired member of Actors' Equity Association, Screen Actors Guild/AFTRA, the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers and the Dramatists Guild of America. In her long career, she has appeared and worked with luminaries including Hume Cronyn, John Gielgud, Diana Rigg, Estelle Parsons, Tom Bosley, Mary Wickes, Zakes Mokae, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Nimoy, Patricia Arquette, Martin Sheen and Judd Nelson.H
HERETIC follows Jeanmarie's other original plays. She wrote and performed A SINGLE WOMAN, a play about the life of the first U.S. Congresswoman and lifelong pacifist Jeannette Rankin, which ran more than 300 times (including a run Off-Broadway) in 54 countries; co-conceived (with Shannon Cain) the 2009 play COMING IN HOT, based on the anthology Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks, from Vietnam to Iraq. (Kore Press, 2008); and created LIBERTY's CHILDREN, a 2014 performance mosaic created from interviews with Dreamers for the Be the Change Project.