PLAYWRIGHT JOANNA PICKERING INTERVIEW —
NEW TRILOGY OF PLAYS TRUTH, LIES AN
By Chloe Fry
Actress and writer Joanna Pickering has teamed up with Next Stage Press and joined their catalogue to present her brand new trilogy, Truth, Lies and Deception.
Truth, Lies and Deception consist of three one-act plays, Beach Break, Cat and Mouse and Sylvie and Sly — all strong themes of female agenda from assault, sexism, ageism, to the dark side of the movie business.
To celebrate the publication of her plays, we’ve spoken with Joanna, who is currently in Paris, about the pieces and about her hopes for the future of the industry.
For those who may not be familiar with your work, could you tell us a little about yourself?
I am an actress and writer. I began writing plays for Primitive Grace Theater company under the artistic directors’ Paul Calderon and David Zayas. It was pivotal for me as the theatre’s mission was to perform work possessing Duende — in the Garcia Lorca sense of Duende, which is a heightened state of emotion, expression and authenticity. A force I am still delighted to associate with my work and artistic being. I started writing female driven stories but exploring women who can behave as badly as men set against feminist themes. When women behave as badly as men, the consequences, due to gender inequality, are often far worse. In these plays, the characters are messy and flawed, almost their own worst enemy, but they are reacting to circumstance that is stacked against them. It’s not only about feminist or activist agenda, it’s about theatrical drama and conflict. It’s about real, strong, complex and conflicted women trying to survive. I like the anti-heroines. I think that’s the best way to tell you about myself. I’ve always liked the anti-heroines.
Can you talk about some of these themes that are prevalent in all three plays?
In Beach Break, I wanted to explore the non-credible victim. Everything happens because of the actions of men, yet I didn’t want to show another rape scene or assault which sexualizes women further via gender violence. I wanted to see the breakdown of the female characters, in their issues, but as a result of male dominance.
In Cat and Mouse, there is a definite moral ambiguity between all the characters. It is not black and white, and the power dynamics swing. Jade is a character who is exploring what happens if she sleeps with a powerful director for a role. And we see that at the end, or you know — do we? I like it when my plays don’t give answers but provoke questions.
In Sylvie and Sly, Sylvie is a 60-year-old actress photoshopping her body to get a role,seemingly vain, superficial, but we soon find out — she did not sell out and made movies of integrity, and why she is now down and out, with no money, battling sexism and ageism in a tragedy of circumstance.
Congratulations on the publication of these plays — they are wonderful to read!How did the idea for Truth, Lies and Deception initially come about?
I had written a lot of one-act plays that all had something in common — not only female narrative, female agenda, but characters suffering, badly, under the impact of coping in an unequal world. All these plays centre on manipulation of other characters, abusive and co-dependent relations, and distorting or gas-lighting of their reality. They all explore a grey, murky line where reality, or who is right or wrong (or both) is not so easy to define.
They are early plays for me. Many of these characters, especially in Beach Break and Cat and Mouse — the females are lost souls, still rebelling in youth. I am also excited to publish some of my newer work. My latest screenplay is about a journalist based on a real forgotten feminist.
The plays were originally adapted and showcased through Zoom in 2020. How did you find the process of creating content for a virtual audience?
You lose spontaneous, organic energy. However, creative artists are great at solving problems. We overcame the issues with incredible results. I owe so much to my three directors — Amanda Moresco (The Actor’s Gym), Lorna Peress (Multistages), and Susan Izatt (Actor’s Studio Playwriting and Directing Unit). They are vastly experienced directors, and we used the medium to adapt the writing for more of a radio broadcast, and the directors made use of the camera for depth as on film. I then had the greatest acting talent (including Broadway actors Dan Lauria, and Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Caroline Aaron). We all created the best showcase for the work in the worst of times [COVID-19 pandemic] and I finished crafting the plays.
As the theatre world begins to slowly reopen, do you think the industries newfound digital creativity should adapt to coexist alongside live theatre (and why)?
I do not have the answers. Digital theatre means we could get theatre experiences to more people around the world, especially those who cannot afford expensive theatre tickets, but my instinctive answer is no. I went to Avignon Theatre festival in July (and also performed Sylvie and Sly when in France to a small audience) and both these experiences, after almost two years in lockdown, impacted me in the way live theatre is supposed. I cried. I came out of Kata Weber’s phenomenal Pieces of A Woman — the first play I saw on stage in two years, and I cried. It was a superb performance and play, but it was more than the work, it was the experience. I was alive, overcome, in the exchange of energy. This is how storytelling is meant to be communicated on stage — a live and physically impacting experience. We need to focus on getting people back into the theatre, otherwise make a movie.
In 2020, you were accepted as a member of The League of Professional Theatre Women, as well as The International Centre of Women Playwrights. Could you tell us a little about these organisations and what their initiatives mean to you?
In all my theatres, my work has always been taken seriously. But fact is, in a female focused theatre, female narrative work gets produced quicker. Marcina Zaccaria at The League of Professional Theatre Women gave me a wonderful opportunity. She opened a door to collaborate with Christine Cirker from the Barrow Group to showcase these plays. I had been a member-only two weeks — seriously — the next thing I knew, I hadthree female directors, and we were casting Broadway actors to read. It is often imperative my work has female directors. My first experience with a male director was a lack of sensitivity needed for an assault story that the actors had to perform. It was challenging. The League and ICWP’s main mission is to produce female writers and connect with female directors. It is all about finding a good team for the themes of the work — and getting a platform as the priority.
It’s so frustrating to see the glass ceiling still resting over so many female heads, but more and more women are thankfully speaking up and challenging the “limitations” set upon them. Are there any particular comments or rejections which help to keep you motivated along your journey?
I have definitely been hurt in the theatre industry by prominent male figures, as most actresses have to handle at some point. The casting couch is alive, if not a relentless sexual agenda to seduce actresses, as in my play Cat and Mouse. The problem being, actresses are often then cast once enticed into relations off stage, as we see with the character of Jade. In reality, when you stand up to this way of doing things, you risk everything. Male directors have carte blanche, even after The Me Too Movement, to do what they want, and they seem to want a lot of power games.
It keeps me motivated to remember I don’t need anyone but myself. I address the issues I want to speak out about in my work. I don’t need a prominent director to cast me. I write the roles I want to play as an actress — exactly why I started to write for stage in the first place. I am the powerhouse. People flock around power in our industry, which is the problem, but they forget the people you underestimate today, are often the ones you want a job from in two years time.
I know so many young writers are going to be inspired by your work, but was there anybody in particular who inspired you to find your creative voice?
Thank you for you those words. That means a lot to hear. My creative writing voice was not inspired by anyone — I have been writing non-stop in my mind since a child — narrative, dialogue, a lot of noise. It was unordered and not processed. I read Ernest Hemingway’s short stories and that made me a writer. The simplicity and accuracy with which he magically describes situation and environment, I understood it. It was as perfect as pure math, which I studied at university. It gave me the confidence I could craft sentences and write my own short stories. I did. They became my first published articles and my first praise as a writer. Hemingway’s short stories gave me the tips and clues to know how to start writing. Once started, it opened the door to more and more empowerment. I did not stop.
What message would you give to an aspiring female-associating writer looking for a little advice as she finds her feet in a daunting industry?
The best advice I can give — for all the wonderful men who have unconditionally helped me — it just takes one malignant force to bring you down, so my advice is go to females in power for mentorship. Mentorship is a power dynamic and it needs to be carefully executed. It must be a guarantee not a gamble. Find your people — the one’s who share a similar voice and theme. If they share your voice they will fight for you.
What small steps can we all take to help in leveling the playing field for females in the industry?
I’ve spoken on female panels about this and many articles online. The biggest thing you can immediately do yourself — males and females — is to leave doors open for other females, and keep introducing and sharing network, instead of coveting it. This is how we remove the issues at gatekeeper and entry level, which are mostly controlled by powerful white men. I went for advice to one male playwright who told me not to work with another male playwright. Roll on months later they were working together. There is a divide and conquer mentality with many males, and it’s not about a work agenda. It should be about work, and about uniting and conquering together. Choose to work with those that stand for others. Gene Kato at Next Stage Press is publishing so many female stories and playwrights, as well as branching out with Honor Roll for women playwrights over 40. I could have taken my plays to a bigger named company, but I want someone who is fighting for me in the long term.
I know there are probably so many, but what are your main hopes for the future of female writers in the arts industry?
More female narrative, more female stories, more complex female characters, more older female roles on stage, more female directors. The future is female. They’re multihypenated, super smart, and not afraid to get in your face and call shit out. My only hope is these women get the resources they need to shine, and on the biggest stages.
Photographs by Daniel Waks, Paris. Craig MacLeod, NYC & Rhoderic Land
Plays are available on: https://nextstagepress.net/truth-lies-and-deception/
Google Books Truth, Lies and Deception.
www.joannapickering.com Instagram @joannapickering