Interview: Jessica Dickey of NAN AND THE LOWER BODY at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Connects with Her Own Family History to Tell a Big, Deep, Humorous, Complex Story

The world premiere of her frank and funny play runs July 13 to August 7 in Palo Alto

By: Jul. 05, 2022
Interview: Jessica Dickey of NAN AND THE LOWER BODY at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Connects with Her Own Family History to Tell a Big, Deep, Humorous, Complex Story

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is continuing its 2021-22 season with the world premiere of Jessica Dickey's Nan and the Lower Body, an audience favorite from its 2019 New Works Fetival. When Pap smear inventor George Papanicolaou takes on a brilliant new assistant, Nan Day, he senses that she is hiding a secret. As Dr. Pap discovers the truth, he learns that she may hold the key to solving her greatest mystery.

Directed by TheatreWorks Artistic Associate and Director of New Works Giovanna Sardelli, this frank and funny new play strikes a personal chord for award-winning playwright Jessica Dickey, as the titular Nan was her grandmother. The real-life Nan Day studied vaginal cancer (though not with Dr. Pap) and Dickey describes her play as a "fantasia" imagining what it might have been like for them to cross paths and illuminating the truths of a women who accomplished scientific breakthroughs in a period where women weren't common in science labs. Through this work, Dickey emotionally reaches out to her grandmother, exploring her life and trailblazing work and, in a way, asking her questions she wished she asked during her lifetime.

Dickey is currently enjoying a prolific, hybrid career as a writer and actor. As a writer, her plays have been performed across the country and she currently has several projects brewing in the world of film and TV. As an actor, she has appeared on and off-Broadway and in acclaimed TV series such as Homeland and The Big C. I recently spoke with Dickey by phone while she was in town to attend rehearsals. We discussed her original impetus to write the play, what it was like to wait out the past two years of COVID-related delays, and how she found her path as a writer and actor. In conversation, she is warm and open, smart and funny, with an exceedingly infectious laugh. Perhaps that is at least partially due to her recent relocation to the south of France to join her partner there, which she assured me is every bit as romantic and wonderful as that sounds. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

What led you to write Nan and the Lower Body?

My maternal grandparents lived with my family my entire life in rural Pennsylvania in a little town named Waynesboro, and they were around our dinner table every night. They were very bright, very liberal, kind and quiet people from New England. And also very disabled. My grandmother had MS and in my childhood I found out that she had worked in a lab when she could still work, and my grandfather was a liberal United Church of Christ minister.

After my grandmother's death, my Uncle Mark told me that he believed one of her periods of working in a lab was working for Dr. Papanicolaou, who created the Pap smear, and I found that sort of fascinating, gutting, shocking. To be honest, I don't know if it's actually true. My Uncle Mark is gone now and my mother isn't sure, so I wrote the play almost as a way to dream that possibility into existence, and then to be able to step inside that dream and spend time with my grandmother and connect with her about that. Even though I had grown up with my grandparents and we were very close, I felt I still failed to really know them in their full spectrum of personhood and all their talents and phases of life. So the play was born of the need to ameliorate that gap in the knowing, of my grandmother in particular.

How old were you when your grandparents died?

I was 20 when my grandfather died and 24 when my grandmother died.

I can imagine looking back and thinking "Why didn't I ask more questions when they were still alive? I was old enough. I could have."

Exactly! Some people aren't lucky enough to get to spend a lot of time with their grandparents, and I was. And yet I think I was afraid of them in some way, or afraid of their frailty and that they were going to die. And you know we were taught, rightly, to not see them for the limitations they were dealing with, but to see them as whole people beyond those limitations. But in some ways, I fear that might have accidentally cut off what could have taken root as curiosity, to be able to ask them questions like "Do your legs hurt?" or "When did you first know that something was wrong with you, and how did that change your life?" So the play sort of was born of a need to heal that wound.

Once you'd decided to write the play, how did you go about turning what you knew of your grandmother's story into a work of theater?

Well, I spent some time at Sloan Kettering. I really like research in my writing process. I find it's almost how I cultivate the "right" to write something. Through research process I find the vernacular, the characters, the musicality of the language, and the themes and images and leitmotifs begin to emerge. It's almost like a petri dish starts to form.

And as I began to learn more - I mean I've been getting pap smears every year since I was 15 - I was really shocked and horrified and humbled that I didn't actually know what is a Pap smear, and how did it come to be. What's going on down there when my wonderful gynecologist is doing the test? [laughs]

And so I began to realize that the play had an opportunity to fill in two kinds of knowing. A personal one with my grandmother, and then a kind of larger, global medical one, which was this very foundational, in my lifetime, piece of medical care, the Pap smear. I realized it's a way also to ameliorate that culturally when many people don't actually know what a Pap smear is and certainly not the man who cultivated it and brought it in our world.

And I have to admit that as a man, I have no idea what's involved in a Pap smear.

Well, as a woman I had no idea! So that was part of the process of writing the play. I was interested in this young woman who's pioneering a technique that literally revolutionized women's health. I mean, ovarian cancer and cancers of the reproductive system were the number-one killer of women when the play takes place in 1952. And there was a crisis in the medical community, because before the Pap smear there was no way to discover cancer without a biopsy, and there was no reason to biopsy the cervix or the ovaries until there was pain, until it was Stage 4. The Pap smear literally revolutionized women's health so I was interested in this woman pioneering this technique while she herself was experiencing the onset of a mysterious malaise in her lower body, which turned out to be MS.

Interview: Jessica Dickey of NAN AND THE LOWER BODY at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Connects with Her Own Family History to Tell a Big, Deep, Humorous, Complex Story
Nan (Elissa Beth Stebbins) works with Dr. Papanicolaou (Christopher Daftsios), inventor of the Pap Smear
in Jessica Dickey's Nan and the Lower Body at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.

Nan and the Lower Body was part of TheatreWorks' New Works Festival in 2019. How helpful was that to you in the development of the play?

Omigosh, it was incredibly helpful. That was a developmental workshop, so we worked on the play for 5 days with actors (and some of them are in this production). It was an incredible opportunity to really massage the text and make sure it is serving all the moments, but the ultimate benefit really was to have the chance to put the piece in dialog with an audience. The audience at TheatreWorks is incredibly fun-loving, intelligent, educated, game and passionate about new work. The audience that came to see the readings of the piece were so overwhelmingly receptive and courageous and mischievous with the play. You know, it uses the word "vagina" a great deal by nature of the subject! [laughs]

TheatreWorks was incredibly supportive of the play and then of course COVID hit. Every time Giovanna Sardelli would give me a call I would think, "Oh... this is the moment when they're going to tell me they can't do the play anymore." Theater companies were trying to survive this cultural moment and we didn't know what would be on the other side. And I understood; it just felt natural that everything would fall apart. [laughs] And every time she called it was to tell me that the theater was still committed to premiering the play. It was so overwhelmingly moving - and here we are. It's an incredibly cool moment, for the play and the theater company and its audience that sort of met each other three years ago.

What was it like to be back in the rehearsal room after that interregnum?

It was incredibly moving. And it's something I discussed with our company at the beginning of the rehearsal process. It was so wonderful to finally be gathered. I mean, this is always true when you write a play, but with the whole change the world has been through, the reckoning that the theater community has been through, to find that this play spoke beyond my own private impulse to reach back through time and communicate and hold hands with my grandmother [tears up] and tell her you know maybe it took me 20 years to find a way to sit next to you and see you fully, to realize that could speak to something beyond that private reckoning inside myself was such an incredible testament to keep writing, that as a community we really do still need stories and that the personal really can evolve into the universal.

I'm also fascinated by your career as an actor. You've done a lot of theater and TV, including a recurring role on Homeland and you were on Broadway in Wit with Cynthia Nixon and Off-Broadway in Sam Hunter's Pocatello with T.R. Knight. At this point in your career, where does acting fit in vis a vis writing?

You know, I think of acting and writing as sort of like right hand and left hand. Things that I want to write, the work that I want to make, the work that I want to be a part of making, it's not really one place or the other. It's all impulse-based. It's about being able to be a part of telling big stories that really do speak to making the invisible visible, I suppose. And I've always thought that there's a temptation especially with hybrid artists to, and I've seen hybrid artists do it to ourselves sometimes, feel like you sort of have to starve the one arm to let the other arm be strong, or you have to pick which arm you really are. And I've always just sort of believed I'm gonna need both to really get what I want, which is to play in the sandbox of making work and find my clan of like-minded collaborators who are interested in the big, deep, funny, complex stories and truths that we can illuminate onstage or onscreen.

I'm sorry to answer that so philosophically, but I do honestly think of it that way. Each year it's really like where do I have room on the calendar and what is my heart needing next? And then I try to find ways to do that. Sometimes that's participating in incredible new work. I really am a new-play person, and I've gotten to be a part of so many wonderful new plays, like Pocatello by Sam Hunter, and Cry It Out by Molly Smith Metzler, and Mr. Wolf by Rajiv Joseph which Giovanna Sardelli directed.

I can imagine a lot of young women coming up in theater or TV looking at your resume and going, "Ooh, I wouldn't mind having a career like hers." Are you having the career you imagined for yourself when you started out?

Gosh, I don't know. I told my parents when I was 8 that I was going to go into the theater, but I really thought the theater was like a Madonna concert with like poems in it or something. [laughs] I didn't really know what theater was, but I did understand that it was multi-generational, and that appealed to me. I did dinner theater as a kid and I played a lot of sports, and those two things feel like how I come at theater as sort of the team sport of it - and TV, too. TV's like an enormous team sport.

But I didn't necessarily have my sights on being a writer. I went to Boston University and got my BFA in Acting, and then sort of immediately did a summer at Williamstown [Theatre Festival] and moved to New York. I think because acting went well early on, privately I had this sense of "Uh-oh. What's wrong? This is what I wanted to happen, to get to do TV and theater and yet..." Somewhere in there, I was starting to have the realization that that wasn't going to be a full enough meal. And that disappointment sort of festered into an impulse to, in tandem with the things that I was able to audition for and book, make work that was coming from whatever my heart had to offer.

I just felt like "Well why not open up a place for myself where I can explore what else I might be needing?" Then playwrighting emerged and it quickly took off from there, and then the question was immediately next, "So are you a solo artist? Do you write to act?" There were all kinds of weird questions, and I was like "What is all this?" I think now the industry is much more friendly and accustomed to the hybrid artist.

And so I guess the short answer is "No, I don't think I knew." [laughs] But it's been a really fun adventure, and it's only been getting more fun, actually. Now that I'm starting to write more for TV, I think of TV as the theater of the masses, so I've been very deliberately trying to extend the tenets that I hold dear in the theater to my screenwriting work. These are the tools I have to offer, which is a rather bawdy sense of humor, a little bit of poetic longing and a sense of rhythm, basically.

I think being able to make work and find wonderful people to make it with has become an addiction and it's really led to the right people and the right projects and a great deal of satisfaction. And of course having a very happy life outside of these things has helped as well, for sustainability, for longevity.

What's up next for you, either as a writer or as an actor?

I'm currently developing a pilot for ABC and 20th that's about a young, liberal female pastor. And I'm developing a movie about an all-female British stunt group with Sharon Horgan who, speaking of an incredible hybrid artist, holy shit, Sharon Horgan is like the biggest rock star of all time. She wrote Catastrophe and starred in it, she wrote Divorce on HBO. She's the producer of the movie, and Susanna Fogel, an incredible rock-star director and head writer, is the director of that project.

Also, my sister and I are publishing a book. She is a liberal pastor like my grandfather, and of course I'm a playwright so we wrote a book about being sisters and growing up together and the way our writing voices and our spiritual callings, as different as they are, have sort of dovetailed and nurtured our closeness. That's coming out with Pilgrim Press in 2023.

Nan and the Lower Body runs live onstage July 13 to August 7, 2022 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

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