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WHEN CHURCHYARDS YAWN to Have Reading in Tucson

The reading will take place on Saturday, July 16, 2022.

WHEN CHURCHYARDS YAWN to Have Reading in Tucson

In Christian tradition, Purgatory is a place where dead souls go to atone for their sins. It is neither heaven nor hell. It's a seemingly endless state of waiting, where time is irrelevant and your ultimate fate is obscured. After a year of quarantine lockdown, playwright Jeanmarie Simpson felt like she could relate, and it got her thinking about who else might be in limbo with her.

"I watched - just because I love the film - Franco Zeffirelli's Hamlet," Simpson said. "And as I watched it, I was just locked down and stuck, and I thought, 'Oh, Hamlet in purgatory, what a great idea.' And I just started writing it like crazy, and it kind of wrote itself."

Her resulting new play, When Churchyards Yawn, will be revealed in a public reading Saturday, July 16. In it, Simpson imagines the famous cast of Hamlet having spent the 40 odd years in Limbo before graduating to Purgatory and traversing the seven levels of Dante's hell while confronting the cardinal sins of each level - and their own past deeds.

"They have to rehash all this stuff, so that gave me a construct where the characters could have the arguments that we as actors have when we do the play," Simpson said. "Like the things Gertrude puts up with from him - the way Hamlet treats her. When I first performed in Hamlet, I thought, 'Well, it's Hamlet's play. He's the good guy.' Boy, I have a different attitude about it now. ... He's no hero."

WHEN CHURCHYARDS YAWN to Have Reading in Tucson

(left to right) Carlisle Ellis, Denise Blum and Ina Shivack featured in WHEN CHURCHYARDS YAWN, July 16th in Tucson.

Simpson has portrayed Hamlet's Mother Gertrude onstage twice and directed Hamlet twice. As one of the co-founders of the Nevada Shakespeare Company, she is intimately familiar with the Bard's works and believes that even Shakespeare should be subject to contemporary reckoning, with his use of harmful cultural stereotypes and his depictions of women.

"With this play, we get to take on the way Ophelia is treated," Simpson said. "We get to ask the questions flat out, full-on, full bore, top of our lungs, ask the questions that actors have been asking since the play first came out. [It's like] you're watching a movie and you can watch it for the 17th time, and you're still going, 'Why are you going in there? Why didn't you do this other thing? Why did you make that choice?'"

Still, Simpson calls When Churchyards Yawn more of a reflective play, not an overtly political one-even if some of her previous works have been. A lifetime member of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom among other activitist ventures, Simpson is pursuing social justice through her company Arizona Theatre Matters in Phoenix.

"For me, with my company and producing this play, a big part of the challenge is figuring out how to make it accessible to deaf and hard of hearing patrons who speak sign language, and blind patrons who need a describer there," Simpson said.

ATM pioneered a fully accessible production on its YouTube channel-a one-woman production of Simpson's Heretic: The Mary Dyer Story-which features on-screen signing and is translated into 110 languages. She has struggled to find any signers who are willing to translate her play and Shakespeare specifically.

"Sign language is not word-for-word translation," Simpson said. "If you watch Heretic, it's great because you can see she's basically paraphrasing into sign language. But with poetry, signers are reticent. They say, 'I am not going to put myself out there and presume to paraphrase Shakespeare.' So, that's an interesting challenge, but art - in my view - art is problem-solving, and by the time the show is fully staged, come hell or high water, ASL will be integrated."

When Churchyards Yawn will feature stage direction read aloud for blind patrons, but will not feature a signer. After the July 16 reading, Simpson and her company will move forward with a full production, once all pandemic measures are fully lifted-a hopeful and cautious measure that echoes the play's overall message:

"We can either all go to hell together or we can make it to heaven together, but we can't do this separately," Simpson said. "We are a species, and we are all in this together."

Saturday, July 16, 2022
Desert View High School, 4101 E. Valencia
FREE ADMISSION (donations gratefully accepted)
Please arrive by 5:00 p.m. Reading begins at 5:15 p.m.
Complimentary food and drink provided, and the reading will be followed by a discussion with the audience.

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