Jessie Dickey is a Brooklyn-based, award-winning playwright. Her most recent play, The Convent, a dark comedy about a group of women who try to live like nuns in the middle ages, premiered Off-Broadway this year in a co-production by Rattlestick and Rising Phoenix and WeatherVane. Other plays include The Rembrandt (about a museum guard who decides to deliberately touch a Rembrandt painting), which had a sold out run at Steppenwolf starring John Mahoney. Jessie’s three other plays have been produced Off-Broadway in New York and around the country -- The Amish Project, about the 2006 Nickel Mines school shooting in an Amish community; then Charles Ives Take Me Home, about a violinist father and his basketball star daughter; and Row After Row, a dark comedy about Civil War re-enactors. In television, Jessie is developing a show for Paramount TV and Tom McCarthy’s company, Slow Pony. She is a member of the exclusive New Dramatists and a recipient of the prestigious Stavis Award. The New York Times hailed Jessie’s writing as having “freshness, economy, cheeky vulgarity, with a fine measure of poetic insight”, and the New Yorker described her writing as “funny, smart, deep and sad”.
IN PROCESS: Talking with Jessica Dickey
SCE Commissioned Work: A play about the sex lives of senior citizens.
TP: Can you describe the inspiration for this particular play?
JD: Oh, some magical combination of the following: my grandparents (who lived with family my whole life); my parents' relationship to their bodies and each other; the man I love; my own curiosity and sensuality - mixed with a little outrage that the elderly are often unheard (like older actors, who have more to offer than ever, have so little work available to them in our field). And the fact that at key moments in my life I’ve written a letter to my 85 year-old self and asked her questions about my choices and my path. She’s always written back.
TP: You recently told me when people ask what you're working on and you say "a play about the sex lives of senior citizens", they light up, Why do you think that is?
JD: Well, we are all sexual creatures and we are all going to get old, and yet the intersection of these two things is a mystery, so it feels like peering into the future. There is such intense privacy around our sexuality and our aging - they are both subjects that expose our interiority in some way, and yet both are hyper-externalized in our current culture. So I think the subject awakens an intrinsic curiosity and vulnerability.
TP: Are you or will you be conducting any research in conjunction with this piece? If so do you have specific questions or lines of inquiry you want to pursue?
JD: I’ve been doing a lot of reading, and there is some wonderful literature out there - Atul Gowande’s Being Mortal is a profound work on becoming frail and our communication around it as a culture, as well as with ourselves and our loved ones. But more specifically about sex and the elderly, I’ve enjoyed an assortment of wonderful authors, including Jane Juska and Joan Price. And of course periodicals and medical journals. But I’ve also been talking with senior citizens about their sensual lives and how they feel about it. I’m currently in a dialogue with a wonderful woman, age 82, who was a sex therapist in her career and now writes poetry and essays; she is absolutely incredible. I feel very privileged to discuss this subject with the people I’m meeting.
TP: What stylistic or thematic elements in this play do you see as being consistent with your body of work? Conversely, does this piece in any way represent a departure or unique challenge to you as a writer?
JD: All plays feel like their own ecosystem, and how to best work within that ecosystem is a question I’m constantly asking myself. But along the way major themes do keep coming up. Most of my plays are interested in death and time and the body, and the poetry of the body. And our deepest yearnings and what they reveal about who we are. And a relish of language and human folly.
TP: On a personal note, the late, great John Mahoney made what sadly turned out to be his final stage performance in your play THE REMBRANDT at Steppenwolf last year. Do you have any special memories of getting to work with him?
JD: Just that he was very loving and admiring and respectful of the text. And of all art! THE REMBRANDT is about a museum guard who decides to deliberately touch a famous Rembrandt painting. So one day during rehearsal we realized that you could divide all people into two categories - those that would touch the art, and those that wouldn’t. So we went around the room and asked everyone if they would touch the art, and I think most of us were a yes, but John Mahoney was an “Oh my, no!” When we pressed him further, he said with his mouth wide open, eyes alight, “Oh, I could never touch a great work of art. I just wouldn’t dare!” He said it with such certainty and humility. I thought it was a wonderful window into who he was.
Jessica Dickey on THE REMBRANDT