IN DIALOGUE: Toothy Divinity in Jessica Dickey’s The Convent
Jessica Dickey, whom I met (ironically given the theme of this latest work) at a writer’s retreat, has written a moving and poetic new play called The Convent about—yes—women on retreat. Like all of Dickey’s plays, it is a fierce combination of intellect and emotion, a gathering place for smart, interesting people stuck in difficult circumstances to make choices that will break their hearts, and ours. Every time I read, or see, one of Dickey’s plays, I am struck by how darkly funny they are, and by how much space and love she gives to her characters, despite their faults. I can attest that this is the way Jessie is in life too—darkly funny and exceedingly generous, without judgment. (For instance, she doesn’t seem to mind that my husband repeats over and over again the line “sicko sicko sicko” from her play The Amish Project whenever he sees her. Why? I could not say.)
The Convent is going up this winter in New York City. I was lucky enough to be able to ask Jessica Dickey a few questions about it over email. This is the conversation that ensued.
Anna Ziegler (Rail): In the play, the women on retreat are assigned a Nomen: “a female mystic from the Middle Ages…who despite grave risk heard a voice inside themselves…its divinity undeniable.” The women are told to study their Nomens and view them as their spiritual leaders while at the convent—the surrogates who will channel the divine for them until they can do it themselves. I realize this might be making a metaphor of a metaphor, but to me a Nomen also sounds a bit like the voice inside an artist that propels her to make art. And so I’m curious: do you have one? What gives you the nerve to start writing something new? What prompted you to write this play?
Jessica Dickey: Oh gosh. Well, I guess the most honest thing to say is that I wrote The Convent at the moment when I heard my Nomen. Or more specifically, when I heard that inner voice whose divinity was undeniable, and she spoke some pretty big truths about what was what in my life at that time. I went to Europe with the articulated goal of recharging my battery, and I knew it was important to go alone. And while I was there a very deep, very frank truth teller started immediately speaking. And by the way I felt euphoric. So despite the fact that this inner voice was giving me some very hard news, that voice was so undeniably me, it was a joy to hear. I felt relief. In other words, The Convent was conceived from inside the chaos of a massive pivot in my life.
Rail: This play is all about escape—women escaping themselves because there’s something in their identity with which they cannot make peace, women escaping difficult marriages or choices they wish they hadn’t made, women escaping modern life in favor of something simpler. Was the act of writing the play an escape for you in any sense?
Dickey: I actually don’t think of the characters of The Convent as escaping their lives. I think sometimes we need to step away from our lives—literally lift off into another space where the usual tethers of who we are and the roles we play are not as present—in order to examine our lives on their own terms. And I don’t think this has to lead to a massive upheaval of our relationships and social contracts, but in my case it did, and I think at the very least it can be a chance to evaluate, tenderly mind you, where we are in our lives and how we really feel about them in order to re-true our inner compass and proceed with whatever is next. I don’t think we have a lot of sanctioned ways in our current culture to do this. We have a ton of quick fixes, like self help books and fad diets and such—maybe therapy is the closest current space where we evaluate and re-evaluate what’s happening and what it costs us and what we’re gaining, but therapy is deliberately inside one’s life and all the noise therein… Whereas the ability to step away and get quiet and listen closely? That’s rare. The fictional retreat of The Convent is posited as just that—a retreat (in this case for women) to admit whatever needs admitting, and evaluate how to proceed. Since women are strongly socialized by their familial roles (mother, daughter, wife, friend, etc.), sometimes we need to isolate ourselves in order to hear that base layer beneath, which is really us. Of course I also find retreat culture and belly-button gazing to be the stuff of wicked humor! So The Convent also has some biting wit. I’m always interested in human folly. But I think the humor of The Convent is my favorite kind, in that it’s born of truth-telling.
Rail: I presume you started writing the play a few years ago, before the #MeToo movement, and yet it’s a distinctly feminist piece—the ensemble is made up entirely of women who are coming to understand themselves in new ways as they liberate themselves from certain strictures of self or society. Do you see it any differently now that there is a new lens through which we’re viewing things?
Dickey: In terms of the #MeToo movement, it’s true—the play was written before all that, and way before Trump—and at first I worried how that would square. But the more I hear the play and we find our footing as a company, I realize the play isn’t necessarily interested in this current moment. The play is trying to talk about (and to) something else, something on a much longer timescale. I’m currently writing a television show about a young female pastor (this is for Tom McCarthy’s company Slow Pony and with Paramount TV)—so I am definitely in a female divinity phase! For me all of this has to do with inherent sovereignty.
Rail: Can you talk more about that? About inherent sovereignty as a concept or about how its intersection with your own life resulted in the birth of this play?
Dickey: In regards to my own journey that fed the origins of the play, I was really searching for the sovereignty of my own life and my right to make decisions for my life. This also meant taking responsibility. HARD. Nothing I’m saying is new, but it was difficult to do, involved tremendous loss, and I can say has lead to huge happiness. For now. Who knows—another pivot may be in store! But for now, as we prepare to premiere The Convent and I reflect on the tumultuous circumstances in which it was conceived, I feel deeply grateful that I heard that voice and had the courage to listen.
Rail: You are right now living your life in two places—here in Brooklyn, and also in France, where your partner lives. Can you talk a little bit about the contrast of those places? And about going back and forth between them, between the old and the new (the old country and the new country, your old life and your new one), and what that does for you as a person and/or as a writer?
Dickey: Yes, my partner and I travel back and forth between France and New York. I find this kind of adventure suits me very well, and suits my writing. When I’m in France my time is slower and I enjoy longer stretches of uninterrupted writing. But New York is my home, and my work and my community are here. So I feel full and happy in different ways in each place. During this barbaric time in the United States, it is a relief to be in Europe, which saw some of the worst atrocities against humanity in recent memory. We don’t yet know how bad it will get with Trump or what has ignited beneath him, but to see that recovery is possible and that ideals for taking care of our citizens can be put into law and practice after such atrocities is a comfort right now. Not to be Pollyanna—Europe is struggling with many of the same problems we are—xenophobia, racism, elitism. But it is inspiring to see the ways in which France and Germany and other countries have learned to provide for their citizens more equitably than we have (particularly with education, health care, gun laws).
For my creative life, I healed my heart in the cobblestone streets of France. I liked looking up at monuments and statues and realizing that they had been there for hundreds of years—that human beings had been surviving heartache for hundreds of years. And making art about it! This helped me keep my sadness and disorientation in perspective, and to see it as a gift—the welcome cost of claiming the next chapter of my life.
Rail: The Convent is, like all of your work, beautiful, poetic and distinctive. And like many of your plays—Row after Row, which is set during a Civil War reenactment or Charles Ives Take Me Home, which takes place both in the present day on a high school basketball court and also inside the mind of the composer Charles Ives—The Convent also seems to have been inspired by an incredibly unique setting/situation. Can you talk a little about how you landed on the European medieval convent-as-contemporary-retreat-for-women-in-search-of-themselves as the physical and psychological landscape of this play and also, generally, how you come up with your plays’ locations, (which might be another way of asking how you locate, or find your way to, your plays)?
Dickey: I don’t know that I usually start with setting. I honestly think I write my plays to speak to my own life. It’s like I’m writing what I myself desperately need to hear. I don’t know what that is when I start the play, by the way! Maybe writing a play is kind of like giving myself a retreat—a way to immerse myself in something foreign in order to recognize something right in front of me. With The Amish Project it was about how to stake my claim on spiritual ideals in the face of a brutal, violent world (and how my profession would be a part of that). With Charles Ives it had something to do with liberating my desire and going for what I really wanted—the courage to devote myself to the task and dive for the ball. With Row After Row I think I was figuring out how far you go for someone else, how to choose your cause, and how your cause might mean you lose someone else. The Rembrandt (recently at Steppenwolf) was a zoom out on the frailty of a human life and the enduring power of a work of art. And The Convent…? Well I guess I’m still in the middle of that one. I know I wrote it to talk to myself about my own sovereignty. And I think as we proceed with our incredible team of actors and designers and producers, led by fierce director Daniel Talbott, I’ll discover what I need to learn