Interview with Normandy Sherwood

By Jené Gutierrez

Jené graciously agreed to step in again for Paul Adams who has been traveling. Following is her discussion with Normandy Sherwood. We’re happy to hear about her evolution into plays, her writing process, the artists that inspire her, crafting, and what she's up to now.

When did you first start writing plays?

I think I was writing plays when I was a little kid—I was always interested in creating little worlds and imagining the conversations that would happen inside them.  But the way I started writing plays as an adult was through my association with the National Theater of the United States of America, a company I started working with when I was in 2000, when I was 20.

Have you always been a writer, prior to that? Or a creative, more generally?

I did always write...and my mother and sister are visual artists—there was always an emphasis on making things in my house growing up.  When I was in high school I was really involved in modern dance, which at my school was weirdly the cool thing to do. We modern dance kids thought theater was lame—way too literal. When I got to New York, I started seeing theater I could get into-- that was more formally experimental and playful. 

Which writers/artists/playwrights have been the most influential for your work?

I'd have to say I've been influenced by two of my teachers:  Mac Wellman and Eric Ehn—their plays and their teaching have been very important to me. But also: I've been really influenced by peers. I spent the 2000s doing most of my work as a part of a collaborative group and a lot of my expectations and ways of judging were formed by specific relationships with people in that group, particularly Jesse Hawley and James Stanley. There are also playwrights and performance groups—friends and acquaintances—whose work I feel is always working on me in some way: Sibyl Kempson, Kristen Kosmas, Half Straddle, Radiohole. And also: there are people I've never met—visual artists—whose work has been important to me in weird, sinister ways: Shary Boyle and Monica Canilao.

So it was kind of through breaking conventional expectations of what theater can be that you began to write plays. What do you think theater does for you, your work, or your audience that other art forms don’t do as well?

I think it's about spells. A play is a spell you can do that will do something to people, for a time.  It will give them an experience of a space made of language. It's also a place where people can be together, have an experience together—every performance calls together a collection of people that may never be in the same room together again. That's why I'm more interested in making theater (rather than film or TV). But yes, as to the formal experimentation: I'm attracted to theater that pays attention to its special features. Community and theatricality, I guess.  

I’ve always appreciated that about theater—the way it demands layers of presence, and what the audience also brings to the performance. Do you typically have an intended or ideal audience for your work?

I want friends and strangers to see my shows—some of both, all the time. Hmm, other ideals would be people who are willing to spend some time in a space of ambiguity. Who find that fun. I find not knowing and then being surprised by what happens to be the most fun—I find the experience of the uncanny and inexplicable to be gleeful. Some people do not.

The act of singing seems to be an important aspect of your work. Has it always been an important part of performance for you? How do you think it informs your work? 

I think I’ve been interested in songs more over the past five years ago—I started singing with a band around then (The Drunkard’s Wife—then in its band incarnation) and it dawned on me how exciting it was to make songs up. I like the presentational, entertainer-y aspect of the character of a singer.  Song is in itself heightened language, it is a particular texture, and it can be used to leaven or to distill.

Could you tell us a little bit about the theater companies you co-direct—how you became involved, their missions, how they're doing, etc.?

The company I’ve been with the longest is The National Theater of The United States of America (—I started working with them in 2000 on their first show, and then became a member shortly thereafter.  The company works collaboratively, which means that we decenter the hierarchy of roles that is traditional in theatrical productions (usually that the writer/director/producer have central control and that all other roles—designers, performers, musicians, techs etc.—are working in service of this).  We all take on several roles: I write, create costumes and scenic elements, and sometimes perform. Though we do now have dedicated directors and writers for each project, these roles involve a lot of input from the rest of the group.  For example, in The Golden Veil, I was the writer, but I was developing the ideas of the piece with composer/lyricist Jesse Hawley and director James Stanley from the get-go. The three of us also collaborated on the scenic design, which was being developed at the same time as the script and the score. This is not usual—would be considered more of a “devised” theater method because most theater starts with a script of some sort, and the other elements come later.

This company has made 8 full shows over the last 15 years—one of them, Chautauqua!, toured around the US to The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the ICA in Boston.  We also perform at The Public Theater, PS 122 and The Kitchen in New York—that’s where we produced The Golden Veil. In terms of content, the company has been interested in creating immersive environments and in exploring theatrical forms that come from the history of American popular entertainment—game shows, vaudeville, travelling lectures, nightclub floorshows, parlor entertainments. We’re interested in the place where avant-garde art and entertainment meet, or have met: a kind of troublesome place.

I also started a theater company with my husband, Craig Flanagin, called The Drunkard’s Wife. It actually grew out of a band he started with the same name. I began singing with it, also making costumes and writing some songs. (Here’s our album: Then, in 2012, we produced this kind of musical I wrote about a battle between a backward village and some cannibalistic forest beasts. We produced the play at a space we were running in Long Island City called Uncanny Valley. Craig wrote the songs and did the musical direction, I directed and made costumes, and we had amazing design by artists we knew: cardboard sets by Yung Oh Lepage and props by Lisa Ludwig. We decided the band should become a troupe—and we occasionally make other shows/play gigs. Our last big show was in July 2014 at the New Ohio Theatre’s Ice factory festival in New York—it was called Feather Gatherers—a re-envisioning of a Stravinsky piece called L’Histoire du Soldat that interpolated Shakers, Rechian orgone energy, and a brigade of urchins.

Do you perform in any of the plays you write? How do you decide whether to perform or direct or both?

I used to perform quite a lot, but in the last 5 years, it has tapered off.  Partly because when I started singing with my band I felt like it took care of my need to be onstage, and partly because I am much more interested in looking at and making the world of the play. I like directing, but I feel like it’s interesting to work with other people—I’ve been trying to direct my own plays a little less. Mostly, though, I’m interested in writing and making.

What's your favorite part of the creative process?

I can fall into a compulsive making/crafting zone in which I will spend hours gluing things to other things and arranging objects—it’s satisfying like solving a puzzle or scratching an itch. I just made this assortment of medals, badges, unicorn horns, and diadems to hand out at an open studio and the making part was this blissful, out-of-time stretch where the hours passed by like a moment, but this usually only happens with my visual work, not as much with writing. In the writing process, I’d say I like the early generative phase, I struggle through editing and revising: it’s occasionally fun but usually maddening. Then I see the work anew when I hear people read it out loud.  You kind of don’t know anything about a play unless you hear it out loud—it almost doesn’t exist until then. It becomes fun again in that moment. In terms of writing, I find I often write the first 2/3 of something really quickly, and then it takes me forever to finish out the final third, sometimes years.

How do your creative outlets influence each other?

Sometimes I try to make analogies between the two ways of working—thinking of text like texture in order to think about how to arrange it/make patterns. Or I think about building garments and the way that pieces fit together or are structured so they are functional. I think a lot of times I go to visual work when I’m at a snarly place in writing and vice versa. I was having a conversation with an installation artist I met at an artist colony, and she said that she always thinks that actually she’d like to be a writer, which I thought was funny because I always think I would actually like to be an installation artist. 

But I’m answering this question a little narrowly. I think that if I get interested in something with the band, it will bleed into my writing (hence the songs in Permanent Caterpillar) and if I get interested in a particular visual artist, images from that artist’s work will exert influence on my writing. A newer project of mine, Spiritual Things, is totally under the influence of Monica Canilao, an installation artist whose work I feel really powerfully. And it works the other way too—I’m inventing the words for songs, descriptions of objects and scenarios all the time.

What's been the most frustrating part of your career in the theater scene and/or the biggest challenge you've faced? 

I’d say, especially over the last 5-7 years, the biggest challenge is space. When I first started making theater in New York, there were more opportunities to have autonomous spaces to make work: space was cheaper. Money is tight all over the arts, certainly in theater, but space is the key. I have close friends who have families though, and I can see how time becomes a similar challenge.  In an ideal world, I’d have a storefront to something to put shows on in. In this ideal world, I wouldn’t have to spend 70% of my time doing arts admin to keep it open. I miss messy, non-professional spaces. I stay in NYC because of the people—I have a pretty strong community of theater artists here and that has been so crucial to my work happening at all.

How do you develop confidence in your visions?

Surrounding yourself with smart, intellectually and aesthetically simpatico people is important. Reading a lot. I think it’s important to please yourself first—crack yourself up, because if you don’t find it funny or exciting, other people probably won’t. A crucial step (for writing anyway) is hearing it out loud, read by another person.  Because even if it’s kind of bad, it’s real at that moment, it’s something to work with. 

It’s a funny question, something I haven’t thought about in this way. The way I’m understanding it is kind of like you are asking: how do you know when you have a good idea?  You sort of just do, but I guess you have to be in a physical/mental space where you can entertain a lot of different ideas until you hit on one that tickles you, that you keep coming back to.

I’m a bit of a compulsive envisioner (as well as crafter). I feel like I can come up with page after exhausting page of little kernels of ideas and snatches of conversations and design ideas—what about this, what about that.  The discipline for me is figuring out what’s sticking, honing in on one thing, creating coherence.

What's the last piece(s) of art—any kind, writing, visual, performance, etc.—that you engaged with and were blown away?

Ok I have three:  I saw a show during the end of June in New York that was produced by Target Margin Theater—John De Gaudio’s I Made a Mistake, which is based on a Gertrude Stein play. I was blown away by the low tech and fully satisfying stagecraft—it was in this old proscenium theater in the East Village with a wraparound balcony. The audience sat in the balcony, the action took place on the riders and the stage, and there was a giant ramp made of cardboard connecting the balcony to the stage, down which the audience were invited to pour many round objects—ping pong balls, cans, sponges.

It was a delight.

Then the work of Valerie Hegarty—another visual artist who does installations and paintings.  Look her up!

Then, OK, two works of fiction: Ursual K LeGuin’s Always Coming Home and Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching.

What are you working on now? 

I am at the MacDowell Colony mostly working on Spiritual Things, a piece which presents guided visualization as performance.  It’s very loosely inspired by Shaker religious visualization practices, and the show takes the audience through an ornate inner landscape, guided by three witchy speakers and a mysterious presence.  

These guides enact a kind of initiation ritual that asks the audience to rethink the way they relate to material objects—especially gloves—in order to access the nonmaterial. I have been developing this project through the New Georges JAM—a writer/director group.  We’ll be doing a showing in October 2015 at the Prelude Festival in New York.

Purchase a copy of her play below. To see video samples of her work, go to her page.

Jené Gutierrez is a writer living in Austin, Texas. She's the host of The BodPod, a podcast about bodies and how we live in them.