Interview: Jessica Dickey of SISTERING: THE ART OF HOLDING CLOSE AND LETTING GO Explores the Joys and Sorrows of a Sibling Bond That Sustains Her Life in the Theater

Dickey and her sister Danielle Neff have cowritten a captivating book about maintaining their unusually close relationship while pursuing wildly different paths in life

By: Sep. 21, 2023
Interview: Jessica Dickey of SISTERING: THE ART OF HOLDING CLOSE AND LETTING GO Explores the Joys and Sorrows of a Sibling Bond That Sustains Her Life in the Theater
Interview: Jessica Dickey of SISTERING: THE ART OF HOLDING CLOSE AND LETTING GO Explores the Joys and Sorrows of a Sibling Bond That Sustains Her Life in the Theater
Danielle Neff (L) and Jessica Dickey (R)
authors of Sistering: The Art of Holding Close and Letting Go

Acclaimed playwright and actor Jessica Dickey has written a fascinating new book with her sister Danielle Neff, appropriately enough called Sistering: The Art of Holding Close and Letting Go. While their lives have taken them on what could be seen as almost diametrically opposed paths – Dickey has made a life in the theater and recently relocated to the South of France while Neff is a United Church of Christ pastor here in the States – both are born storytellers and the pair have maintained an intensely close bond since earliest childhood. Even living on different continents now, each still serves as first reader and sounding board for the other’s plays or sermons, and they talk every day on the phone. Their book is structured as a series of essays, often written in a call and response format, where they excavate signal events from their shared history and reexamine them from their individual perspectives.

Published by Pilgrim Press and also available on Amazon, the book is quite a compelling read – fresh, funny, wistful, sometimes very sad, and clear-eyed throughout. While countless books and plays have examined parent-child relationships, romantic partnerships, enduring friendships and even mentor relationships, much less has been written about sibling relationships. And let’s face it, for those of us fortunate enough to make it to old age, our sibling relationships will likely be the longest-standing and positively most profound bonds we have in our lives.

As much as Dickey and Neff admire each other’s strengths and talents, there is also an acknowledgment of the disconnects in their relationship and a wrestling to reconcile them. While earlier chapters of Sistering explore their smalltown upbringing in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania and Dickey’s certainty from the time she was a child that she would make a life in the theater, the book also delves into more emotionally treacherous waters such as an unanswered phone call in a moment of crisis that could have easily led to a permanent rift between them. It is hard to describe the darker chapters in the book without unintentionally sensationalizing the events they address, so suffice it to say that the book doesn’t shy away from exploring the sorrows and shadow areas of their lives.

I recently caught up with Dickey by phone from her home in France. She is incredibly easy to talk to - warm and open, with a penchant to articulate complicated responses in her quest to get at the truth. Even the simplest question will engender a nuanced answer that acknowledges both the joy and pain of being alive in this world. When describing her own work, she tends to use adjectives like funny, achy and feminist, which will surely sound about right to anyone familiar with her plays such as The Amish Project, The Rembrandt, Charles Ives Take Me Home and Nan and the Lower Body.

Dickey spoke about the genesis for Sistering, how as an avowed agnostic she is still able to offer her sister helpful feedback on her sermons, where her sister shows up in her plays, what it’s like to live as an expat, and her excitement about a new play she’ll be workshopping at New Dramatists in New York in November with the rather enticing title of The Door (the Senior Sex Play). We had a rollicking conversation frequently punctuated by laughter, and her deep love for her sister and intense passion for theater were evident throughout. The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How did the idea to write this book with your sister come about?

Well, we’d always joked “Oh, that’s for the book someday.” But hands on heart, we had never really thought we were gonna write a book. When we were separated by the pandemic, I was in the shower (which is kind of cliched) and I was like “Oh, maybe we could write about being a pastor and a playwright, and going into these really separate paths that have at times throughout Western civilization been pitted against each other - the arts and theater and religion - and yet are really quite linked in terms of calling, and see what comes up.”

My sister and I have been sharing our writing for a long time and we write in very different lanes. I always send her my plays, pilots and screenplays. She’s my first reader and every morning we do a little power meeting when she’s done driving her kids to school and driving to church. We check in about our day and that usually includes what we’re working on that day, what draft we’ve read recently that we’re giving each other thoughts on.

She’s a pastor, she has to write a sermon every week, so that requires a lot of background reading. She usually reads some commentary and I’m gonna screw up this word probably, but there’s a word that’s something along the lines of “exegetical,” like things that tell you the background of a scripture, historical context, the translation questions that have come up, the epochs of the texts that have been found, and I find this Biblica stuff fascinating.

So she has her very particular world and she’s trying to translate that into something that will meet the human moment with her congregation that week. She’s very good at it and always needs a reader to just make sure it makes sense, that the logic of it follows. Is this section too long? I need a joke here – help! Is this anecdote too weird or does it work?

Following on what you said about religion and the arts often being pitted against each other, I have to admit that when I first heard that you’d written a book with your sister who is a pastor, I had some hesitation about reading it, you know?

I know! Sure, sure.

I grew up in a very churchy family, but am not at all religious, so one thing that put me at ease was how you state early on in the book “Now let me be clear. I’m an agnostic. At best.” When your sister sends you her sermons for feedback, how do you get past your own qualms about the church?

You know what? It’s really strange, but I don’t find that difficult at all. Because when I’m reading them, I know Dani’s voice and I know her humor and the map of her heart, so I’m reading with a specific lens on the text itself. But also I’m not allergic to God or church. My belief system doesn’t line up with it, but at the same time I am ultimately interested in the same questions, like how do we make a good life, what do we choose to fight for? These really interesting, subtle mysteries of being alive, being a shimmering being for a very specific amount of time on earth - there’s something spiritual inside that.

And I have to completely give Dani credit as a writer. When I’m reading her sermons, I’m led on this journey that allows me to be holding those questions, and holding whatever the liturgy of that week is asking. It’s kind of like watching a puzzle unfold because my sister will send me the scripture and I’ll be like “Oh, Christ – what could you possibly write about that?!” [laughs] Then I get to turn the page, so to speak, and see how Dani found a crack in that text to bring it to the contemporary human level that speaks beyond the usual political divisions and difficulties that religion often gets mired in, at least on the broader public stage in America right now (maybe everywhere). It’s delightful to discover that, and it’s also about how to get to the spiritual truth she’s aiming for in the most well-crafted way in about 7-10 minutes.

It's a really interesting medium, and I also think that’s about Dani’s style. It’s a very generous, open space that she holds as a spiritual leader, where there is so much room for an abundance and diversity of feelings and perspectives and points of orientation toward faith, or toward doubt and the tension between them, and that translates to the person reading her sermons or receiving them. You feel room, you feel there’s space inside what she’s saying for whatever questions or doubts or disagreements your heart might hold while you listen.

Sistering sometimes delves into some pretty difficult territory. I mean, it’s not all slumber parties and braiding each other’s hair. Was anything off-limits?

No, but Dani and I really do have a robust dynamic. We’re very salty with each other, we’re truth-telling and we’re holding a long archive of story, of each other’s lives and ache and pain and victories, etc. It was in some ways incredibly healing and challenging and endlessly interesting to wade into those darker, harder waters together in this new way.

Some of the things we write about in the book, like the phone call I didn’t take [from her when she was in crisis], we had never really talked about. It’s a very clear piece of real estate in our history as sisters, but it’s not something we wade through in daily conversation. And we were both immediately like “Oh, we should definitely write about that phone call.” We had that same instinct, so I guess we’re two people that like that kind of rigor.

It was very difficult and very, very painful, but I felt so grateful to read every single word. I was dying to know what Dani would write. Even the funny things and the light things, I secretly I felt like I was cheating because I would write because I really wanted to read what Dani would write [in response]. Because I admire the way that she sees the world and the way she sifts through experience and makes meaning out of it.

Interview: Jessica Dickey of SISTERING: THE ART OF HOLDING CLOSE AND LETTING GO Explores the Joys and Sorrows of a Sibling Bond That Sustains Her Life in the Theater
Neff (L) and Dickey (R) as kids on their swim team in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania

It seems like the two of you have always been really close. Didn’t you ever go through any rough patches?

Probably compared to most people’s rough patches, the answer is “not really.” Like our version of a rough patch was probably not that rough. [laughs] But yes, of course, especially those first years of moving to New York I felt like I had to almost wrench myself from my family of origin and push myself out into the world to make a career in the theater because it requires such a wholehearted commitment, a real boots-on-the-ground-effort, to fight for a life in the American theater.

That period was painful because it was a period of individuation. Dani writes about this very well, when I went to college and then moved to New York. And of course, having a French partner and a huge part of my life now be in France, the directionality of our relationship is very clear, like our lives are really different. We discovered that while we were writing deeper into the book there are so many happy endings that we’ve been lucky to receive in life, but we’re ultimately moving further and further apart in terms of where we live, how we live, what our lives look like, and that was very painful to name also.

At one point in the book, Dani describes you as “our wildflower-breezy-creative-honeysuckle.” Does that sound about right to you?

[bursts out laughing] I have no idea what I think about that!! On the one hand, I think she’s making fun of me a little bit there, and she has the right to because she knows me more than anyone else. But in terms of when I’m seated next to my brother and my sister, who are both in charge of hundreds of people and very good at their organizational and leadership skills, and then I’m over here in my floaty-artistic-associative thinking space, in the context of my siblings and my family patchwork, I think there’s probably an aspect of that that’s very true. But I don’t walk around feeling like a fuckin’ honeysuckle, no! [laughs again] I remember when I read that draft, I laughed like “What a bitch!” And of course it made me cackle, because that humor is so Dani and she loves me more than anyone else so … It cracks me up.

Interview: Jessica Dickey of SISTERING: THE ART OF HOLDING CLOSE AND LETTING GO Explores the Joys and Sorrows of a Sibling Bond That Sustains Her Life in the Theater
Dickey at the opening of her play The Rembrandt
at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago in 2017

She also says you’re “one of those people who finds everyone interesting.” Could that be at the heart of why you’re a playwright?

Yeah, it probably is, like being compulsively drawn to explore story - “story” being whatever people are holding and how and why, and being interested in how people are really feeling in this dinner or at the museum or wherever we are. That rich tapestry that really is alive in every single person walking the planet is such a treasure trove. There’s so much there that’s just achy-delightful-rich-complex-surprising-mysterious that I’m addicted to somehow willing people to share that with me. That’s something that really drives me, and of course that’s not altruism entirely. That’s also about being interested in my own inner landscape and allowing the things I learn from other people to then sort of swim around in my own stuff and reveal new things in the soup.

How does your sister show up in your plays?

[long pause] In quite a literal way in The Amish Project, which was my playwrighting debut. The sort of central triangle in that play has to do with the gunman’s widow and then these two Amish sisters that were in that schoolroom. There’s a detail from the real shooting that the play is based on, where one sister offered to be shot first and the other sister offered to be shot second. There was something about writing that play and kind of feeling like I understood the intimate triangle of those three characters that was absolutely Dani, you know? Me holding Dani and thinking of her as a small vulnerable being in a dangerous situation like that and wanting to protect her, and also knowing her character and that she would be very brave. She is very brave, generally, as a trait.

So that’s a very literal response. And then I would say it’s almost like asking me how I’m in my plays, because in some ways Dani is so much a part of the lens through which I see the world and the touchstone I return to every day literally on the phone, but also in my heart, to understand the world and to make choices and decide what I think is right and how to conduct myself. It’s hard to find her specifically because she’s so much a part of my own vocabulary of being a person.

And to be very literal again, of course she’s probably read the play and given me notes so she’s quite in there as a collaborator, being like “I didn’t understand that part.” or “I feel like you’re tapping on this and it falls out here and then you pick it up again here so how do you connect that?” She’s really good at seeing the whole ecosystem of a play and also because she knows me so well, she understands my value system in how I write and what I’m really after. So she’s all over my work. I could probably go back through each play and be like “Oh, yeah, that never happened to me, but something like that happened to Dani.”

In the book you write “I’d always been certain I’d make a life in the theater.” I interview theater folks all the time and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say that. What do you think gave you that sense of certainty that you would have a life in the theater?

God, I don’t know… but I did. I’m really surprised to hear that no one else felt that way! That’s really interesting to me. I mean, I probably had no idea what the theater really was. [laughs] I make fun of myself a little bit for that in the book. I think I was picturing something like a mélange of some kind of concert and … a story or something? I don’t know that I understood it at all, but I understood something about live performance and the power of sitting in the dark and watching something that’s different than watching a movie. Which is interesting because now I also write for TV and films.

I have to give my parents a lot of credit. I think deep down they were really mortified when I said that and definitely hoped it would wear off. But they didn’t say, “No, that is not what you will be doing. You will be a teacher like everyone else in this family.” Or whatever. When I wanted to audition for the local dinner theater over in Maryland they let me and they drove me to those rehearsals. I mean, they didn’t want me to be one of those lost people that gets sucked into the local theater scene and then stops doing high school things. I had to keep up my grades and do sports and be a member of my actual community where I went to school, but they really did stand by me.

But honestly, I have no idea where that came from, why I thought “Yeah, I could do that.”

You and I seem to be among the few Americans left who still spell theater with an “er” at the end instead of an “re.” Since that word shows up a lot in the book, was it ever a question how you would spell it?

Probably it was. I feel there’s something a little bit pretentious the other way. Because I actually have made my life in it, I find myself often trying to dismantle some of the misunderstandings from other people about what it is to make a life in the arts. I’m inclined to be slightly repulsed by anything that feeds the fire of misunderstanding about being in the arts, especially in America.

It’s just so easy to sound like an asshole when you write about anything in your own life, and certainly something as vulnerable and genuine as your ambitions as a professional artist. There’s just such a danger zone there to sound like a puffed-up person who is not in the real world, and that’s so the opposite to me of what it’s like to be an artist - even as I admit to and laugh about being a “breezy honeysuckle” or whatever. But in the end I didn’t want the book to feel self-congratulatory… and there’s something about maybe the spelling of theater that somehow felt central to that.

No shade against the people that want to go the other way, like they should do them, they should go for it. But in terms of my relationship to theater and where I’m from, like being from Waynesboro, Pennsylvania and some of the values and priorities that are instilled from that upbringing, that’s what felt more true. What’s it about for you?

For me, it’s that theater should be a very approachable thing and I feel like as soon as you change the “er” into an “re” it reads like you’re trying to make it European or more highbrow.

Exactly - like you’re trying to be British. Is it almost like the more endangered theater is, the more we have to tell ourselves it’s important or significant, or shroud it to protect it in a sort of blanket of higher ideals? Which also I could easily spout long passages about because of course I believe very deeply in the theater and I worry about it.

Speaking of Europe, you currently live in an almost impossibly picturesque town in the South of France with your neuroscientist partner, so your life sounds pretty darned idyllic. Just so anybody reading this doesn’t resent you too much [laughs], can you offer up anything bad about living in the South of France?

Are you kidding me?! I could talk about that ad infinitum. It’s really, really hard to live in a foreign country. I’m not sure if this is extra hard or if my particular way of living here is the only way I could live here, which is I go back to the States all the time because I work there.

This is sort of the way world events took us, and it has very wonderful aspects, but I feel like I’m just constantly off my game in France. Not that I don’t have my fair share of social anxiety – of course I do – but at the same time I’ve always grown up with a sense of like “chances are I can navigate whatever’s gonna come up with my words.” My words were my friends, and really here they are not. I’m learning how to speak French and I find it endlessly humiliating. People don’t believe me when I’m like “No, I’m truly shit at French.” But I am. Of course, I’m getting better, but if I work very, very hard I will just finally sound like a three-year-old. It’s horrible for a person who really navigates the world with her brain and her mouth.

And also – culture is profound. I’m very American, so I’m loud, I’m too forward. I mean, I like these things about me, but there’s a strange mirror around me all the time now that I live in a foreign fish tank. I have to confess France makes me feel like such a country bumpkin, even though I lived in New York, and still in my industry I live and work in New York and LA. Those are not shabby places, but I find myself constantly feeling a little bit of a fish out of water. It can take its toll strangely, like it’s been very interesting for my confidence at times.

Yeah, I love the South of France and I’m sure that living there is amazing in so many ways, but I figured that wasn’t the whole story.

No, and I would even say grappling with the good fortune of it is also difficult. It’s embarrassing, you know?

What other irons do you currently have on the fire?

I’m a very proud member of New Dramatists and it’s my final year as a member. I’m going to be workshopping a play of mine there called The Door (the senior sex play) in November in New York. I wrote it just before the pandemic and it has a large cast with multiple generations. It’s very funny and achy and sort of looks at how weird it is to be a person inside a body. Like what is age and what does it mean to be a soul inside the body that exists in time?

I am also developing a series for Netflix. Well, at the moment I’m not because we’re on strike, but that’s a job I will be returning to when the strike is over with a just outcome. [laughs hopefully] And then I’m writing a movie for Searchlight about an all-female British stunt team. It’s based on a real story from the 1970s, and it’s a delicious ensemble movie that will be funny and achy and feminist.

And - Dani and I are going to record the audio book of Sistering, which should be out by the end of the year. We’ve been preparing ourselves for that, and I have to be honest - writing those essays was very difficult, but saying those words out loud in preparation for recording the audio book was a level of painful that I was not expecting. I really had to stare into a profound abyss of sadness to say some of those things out loud. It’s like you write something and that’s in and of itself a journey, but it doesn’t stop there. Now the writing goes out into the world and other people read it and are holding that, and it’s mingling with their own experience or desperate phone calls that weren’t answered - or were. My god, it just keeps going, you know?

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