Sherie Rene Scott: Fully Present and Accounted For


Written by Victoria Myers
Everyday Rapture excerpt by Sherie Rene Scott and Dick Scanlan

August 25th, 2015

Here are some things it’s probably good to know before reading Sherie’s interview: 1. “Do you consider yourself to be brave?” was the first sentence I typed into a Word document called “Sherie Rene Scott: Questions.” 2. Sherie’s newest play, co-written with Dick Scanlan, Whorl Inside a Loop, is currently playing at Second Stage and tells the story of an actress (played by Sherie) who goes into prison to teach a workshop on personal narratives. You should also probably know—before you get to the “in prison” references in the interview—that, 3. Sherie and Dick spent time in prison teaching with a program called Rehabilitation Through the Arts. I’ve been describing Whorl Inside a Loop to people as, “Kind of like Joan Didion meets The X-Files,” which seems a pretty clear description to me, but I’m told is quite confusing to others. Sherie and Dick previously collaborated on Everyday Rapture. I have a ticket stub from Everyday Rapture pinned up on the bulletin board above my desk. Everyday Rapture inspired me to sign up for a playwriting class and it was the first show that made me think seriously about the role of gender in the American theatre. The Interval probably would not exist without Everyday Rapture. Actually, I lied, I have more than one ticket stub from Everyday Rapture pinned up on the bulletin board above my desk. Sherie wrote and performed the cabaret show/performance piece, Piece of Meat, which she performed in New York, London and Australia. Sherie’s work is intellectually rigorous, fearless, and funny—and always has a complex female protagonist. Sherie is a writer, actress, singer, producer, and about twenty-five million other things. I sat in her dressing room between shows, and we talked about writing and storytelling and women and spirituality. Her work deals with big questions; her work is big. At one point I said that I thought, in a way, Whorl Inside a Loop was a coming of age story. I think maybe all of her stories are, because perhaps the real coming of age is the wrestling with the desire for a simple moral universe and the need for a more complex one, which is a theme found throughout her work, and addressed with humor, grace, and bravery. At any rate, I certainly associate her work with my coming of age. Also, she is from Kansas. Also, also, we didn’t have time, but I’d really like to know her thoughts on Joan Didion and The X-Files and about twenty-five million other things.

(i.) The Interview

I wanted to start by asking you about the essential nature of storytelling and writing, because it’s so interesting and important and plays a large part in Whorl Inside a Loop. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your interest in that and how it developed?
My entrance into theatre wasn’t passively sitting and watching theatre because there wasn’t any. As a kid, we had a [theatre] program—because it was cheaper than a babysitter—where we wrote our own plays. Theatre immediately became, to me, something that you create together with people you love and then you perform it. And sometimes you add music to it and sometimes you don’t. And in that, we were telling our own stories as kids. We didn’t know we were. We were just expressing things that were interesting to us. So I guess, to me, creating things with others has always been the most fun part of the process. Obviously, there’s a skill set of performing things many times. The idea of repetition is a beautiful thing spiritually and technically as an artist, but the most exciting part is the creative process. So, the storytelling aspect is some form of understanding that we’re always telling ourselves a story about ourselves—every day of our lives, we’re telling ourselves some sort of story to get through every day. And, at a certain point in time, everybody has to face what’s the truth of their story and what’s not the truth of their story. I think, to me, it’s always been a spiritual experience. To me, that’s like Judgment Day. Judgment Day isn’t something that happens when you leave the planet, it’s something that you do with yourself. And that only happens through sharing your story or stories that are interesting to you, which we’re doing all the time, especially on the internet—it’s just a different form of that. It’s a lot of sharing of information more than stories. In fact, I think it’s made us feel more disconnected and alone. I’ve eschewed an online presence in favor of an actual presence, which is what I’m trying to cultivate. So it’s a real balance. Writing has always been a way of life. I like telling an interesting, fun, entertaining, sexy story. It’s just something I like to do. Or, more importantly, giving it to other people to tell—being part of an ensemble and telling it, which is a dream come true.

Whorl Inside a Loop wrestles with the idea of who owns a story and an experience. What was it like exploring that?
Dick [Scanlan] and I didn’t go into prison to teach. We just went to hear [the prisoners’] work, and then facilitated them doing shows and editing their work. And we worked really hard on it. We had a great experience. This is a theatricalized piece that tries to convey the transformative experience that working with these men gave to us, and also what was going on in my life personally as we started to write this. I was coming to understand people’s stories—people’s stories that they tell themselves that aren’t necessarily true—in a way that I didn’t understand before. From the guys in prison doing work on themselves, I was shocked in the comparison to my world in the theatre and my personal life. People with every resource and every capability to get help or be honest about their story weren’t doing it, and yet these men in prison with nothing—no resources, no family—were really doing the work of being honest about their story. So, there were these two worlds that we thought couldn’t collide, but they were. Dick and I, our story that we wanted to tell, was prisons of all kinds that were happening around us—prisons of race, of sex, of sexuality, of marriages, of work, people’s own emotional prisons. We wanted to explore that. And also the world of addiction. I really believe that we’re creating a nation of addicts and there are all sorts of compulsions and addictions that are affecting lots and lots of people’s lives. I was coming to understand that in a way that I didn’t know before, and have compassion for people who were in prison that I wouldn’t have had compassion for previously, or even thought about, honestly. The ownership of the story came in because we wanted to dramatize the event, but there is an idea of how art is created… Even with our liberal friends, we found doing the work over several months in prison, and doing the show, that [people would say things like], “We shouldn’t be helping these people tell their stories, it’s all lies.” Or the other extreme, “They’re black men who are underprivileged and you’re taking advantage of them.” We had to deal with both those extremes in our lives and we decided to theatricalize that. Also, two people can have the same experience and have two different stories. That’s what this play is kind of about. Dick and I, as writers, are really interested in taking all the facts we have, getting as much information as we possibly can—from ourselves and factual information—and then subverting any of it in honor of telling the truth and keeping it entertaining, fun, interesting, and sexy. Then we trust that the bigger truth, the real truth, will come through, as opposed to having a political agenda with this play or a personal agenda. So that’s what we try to do in terms of ownership—we try to own our own version of storytelling as a team and, however that comes across, we’re not in control of that.

With writing, as soon as pen is to paper there’s no such thing as factual truth, only emotional.
Right. Unless you’re a journalist. And that’s what’s hard for people to understand: it’s based on a true story, but it’s theatricalized. The class was “Theatricalizing the Personal Narrative.” Those dudes in prison understood, as well as any great artist I’ve ever met, that if you want people to be interested in your story, you’ve got to make it be real and true, but not necessarily factual.

Something I thought was really interesting with this piece was the use of first person narration and perspective. Not only in terms of having the prisoners doing first person work, but also having your character as almost like a first person, unreliable narrator, which is difficult to do on stage. It’s a little like theatrical Joan Didion.
That’s great.

What was the interplay of form and content in putting it together in terms of narrative devices?
Dick’s friend who got us into volunteering, she went in [to work in prisons] as a calling—she was called to do the work—and our access of going in was through her. We thought we were going in just one time and that would be it, and it turned into several months over the course of a year and a half. When we did start discussing creating a piece about it—and we did have many discussions before we put pen to paper—one thing I knew that was important to me was that the character of this teacher did not go in for altruistic reasons. We found our way to see how to do that. We also wanted you to hear her narrative kind of through the guys [the prisoners], and the guys going into her life and the characters in her life. So, in a way, she never did her own personal narrative, but in a way, they were doing it for her—imagining what her life outside was like. And it’s because we have the great actors that we do that we’re able to do that. Also, in my personal life, to be honest, I had some stuff that was shocking. I had never had experience with someone who was capable of compartmentalizing their life to such a degree. I think when we knew we wanted this character to not be this altruistic creature, that we wanted her to kind of be the bad guy, ultimately, and because my personal life became more about betrayal, it became about healing for me. I couldn’t understand a person like this, so I had to write a person like this. And in writing this person who is able to lie and compartmentalize and justify lying, I was able to see how it was possible, and how in a lot of ways, it’s supported in an environment of success. You know, Kimmy, the producer [character], supports this “get it at any cost, do what you need to do” [attitude]. I had to write what I couldn’t understand. I had to write myself to a healing. I hope it is entertaining and fun too. That was part of the reason. It was a personal narrative to me, as a person, even though I have not done anything that character has done. I could see now how that could happen, whereas before I don’t think I would have had as much understanding as I do now.

It feels like a meeting of theatrical tradition and literary tradition.
Dick and I work very hard. We’ll work twelve hours without knowing. And we work a lot. People made fun of it: “What are you doing?” “How hard is it to put a play of monologues together?” That’s really what we were getting, and a lot of negativity from people. We knew we were trying to do something much bigger than this. We wanted everything to connect. We wanted you to be able to read it and enjoy it, as well as see it and enjoy it. We knew we had these amazing actors, but we didn’t want them shining stuff up; we wanted to make sure that it could be done and last. And also have nothing to do with me. The character is called “The Volunteer,” so anyone in the arts could play this part, and it can speak to people that aren’t in the arts. You can want all of those things, but you just have to create fun situations that are interesting to you as writers, since we had to live with these people for two years in our minds. So we wanted to create characters that we could hang out with. Then I think what was good as an actress, in terms of the literary aspect of it mixed with the theatrical aspect of it, is I know what it feels like to be inside something and do it over and over again, and when it starts to feel like bullshit. I can be a barometer for that as well. Like it makes sense on paper, but I’m fucking telling you there’s something we can do visually that can show this. And, of course, Dick is super, super, super smart, so my completely instinctual, feeling aspect of writing and his intelligent, organized, clear-headedness makes a good team, I think.

I’m the most proud of anything I’ve ever done in my life, outside of my son.

I also wanted to talk about the role of gender in the play. Going off of what you were saying before about wanting to create a female character who wasn’t altruistic and was morally ambiguous, I thought that was really fascinating. Especially since you’re the only woman in a cast of men, you have men playing women, and you have Hillary Clinton. There’s something that felt wonderfully subversive about the whole thing.
Thank you. It wasn’t like an, “Oh, I want to play the bad guy,” actress-y thing. None of it was, since as I was writing it I was like, “I’m not playing this.” I’m always writing things for other people in my mind until Dick and [director] Michael Mayer were like, “You have to play this. Are you kidding?” I said, “I want to write it so great that I’ll be heartbroken not to do it.” For me not to be heartbroken to not do eight shows a week, it has to be really good. When we started coming up with this idea of making these worlds collide in a beautiful and absurd way, black actors are never given the chance to play all of these colors—white and kids and women, convicts and lawyers, the heads of the prison—I feel the same for women. Women are like the teachers, the moms… we’re “so good.” We’re usually written not so complex, and if we are, we’re in really deep, deep shit and not likeable. So it just turned out that I wanted this character, with these prisoners, to be the one who betrayed them. So I could understand what betrayal is like from the other side, I think. And to write—women aren’t usually the ones to do that, and if we are it’s portrayed as like some deep dark film noir movie. And we wanted, with the prisoners, for you to like them. You like them, you kind of fall in love with them, and then you go, “Oh my God they did horrible things to get into prison,” and “Oh, it’s when they were kids but still…” You do the same with her—“I know her, I like her, she makes me laugh,” and then, “Oh, she’s lying to them, she’s lying to herself…” All of these things that you’re going back and forth with, that’s what we were hoping for. Women need to write for women. That’s my next goal. My dream is to write a play with music. One of them. One of the many. And to write for other people. So I hope this facilitates that for the next many years to come.

Something that comes up a lot in our interviews is the idea that we’re just learning what a female protagonist looks like. And the move, for female characters, from object to subject. Your shows definitely do that. Going back to Everyday Rapture, there’s really a female protagonist as subject—and in that case, even playing with the subject/object dichotomy. Is that something you think about in your work when you’re writing women?
All the time. It’s kind of all I think about. How to find the female empowerment and coolness and funness and sexiness rather than what I call the Sex and the City idiom, where it’s like you take on the traits of your oppressors to have power. So rather than show women with all of their complexities and sexual needs and wants and complexities, I think people who have been put down take on the traits of their oppressors to feel empowered, and I think we’ve done that as women. And we lose a lot of what’s specifically female to us. I hope in the piece you see that. And you see, just like a lot of women, a woman who knows the kind of bullshit you have to do. I always felt like you grow into your thought bubble and your body is part of that. You know the Ophelia Complex [from Reviving Ophelia]? Where girls are really active and all of a sudden they go through puberty and they’re not as active, and you see all around you what’s rewarded and what’s not rewarded. And you find a way of maintaining your integrity and still making yourself accessible. And I think this character, in this play, has definitely understood her accessibility—she knows where people can come meet her at—with her persona. I think that gets pulled away in this. And hopefully, there is an awareness that the actress who is part of writing this understands that there’s a thing that people want and expect of you, and how can you maintain your integrity as an actor, as an artist, and as a woman, and still not throw everything away as a reaction to that? That was the interesting thing that I felt in common with the prisoners—they had these personas that they had to drop when we were in the room. I think I grew into the thought bubble that I had drawn for me, and I filled it out to the best of my capabilities, and then my thoughts got bigger than that and so that got blown apart. I think it’s about women struggling to be viable, vibrant, sexual beings and still not be objectified. It’s really hard. Everybody needs to get on board with how we raise our kids to talk about women and how we treat each other.

That seems to connect with something that comes up in this piece, and your other work, which is the idea of duality—especially as it connects to morality. There is even something of coming-of-age to this piece. Your interest in that, how you navigate through the world, where does that come from?
Everyday Rapture was this person who was struggling with headlights on high beam, being center stage performing and being fully present and utilized for that, and the other half of her constantly questioning how far that was taking her from her relationship with God. Now we’re going to get all truly into where I live, but I don’t see my work as anything separate from my spiritual life. It’s always been painful, since I’m supposed to be excited about things I was going to do on TV for example, but I felt like they weren’t putting good things into the world. You could say that’s a judgment on my part. I’m really proud of the work that I’ve been a part of creating with Dick that’s entertaining and good and still addresses this inner struggle that I’ve always had. My connection with higher power is what I feel is performing is. It’s not me performing this stuff. So ideally, it’s all part of being part of a greater healing. I can feel it energetically when it feels right and it’s part of something greater, and then that feels interesting to me. I’ve been pressured like, “Well, it’s not enough for you. Standing center stage on Broadway singing. Why isn’t it enough?” I always want to bring it up to the next level. I want to make it transcendent. I want to create. My spiritual self and my work self, I’m not compartmentalized and it’s been difficult, personally. And Dick saw that as a real struggle. It wasn’t someone complaining. It’s a real, ongoing struggle. And if this is a coming of age, then that’s good. I don’t know what the next one is going to be. There’s supposedly a third one that we’re supposed to be making, Dick and I. I don’t know what it’s going to be. It does feel like a progression. We kind of wanted that character, who is struggling, to be going through something different and surprising. So you could say it’s the same character from Everyday Rapture and just taking a turn you weren’t expecting. Or you can never see Everyday Rapture and completely enjoy it too. So that was the dream.

When you first started writing did you have trouble getting people to take you seriously with it?
Yes. And still to this day. Dick’s experience too is where they keep questioning, “How do you guys write? Does Dick write? And do you just sit there?” And I know they don’t do that to male writer teams. They never ask them “Who is the real writer?” They always do it with Dick and I. He really notices it. It’s painful because we both write, and we write together and we write separately. I think this play is important to me because even in my personal relationships, I didn’t have support in doing this. It was kind of like a one-off, and like in the play, “Now get back to what you really do. Go out there and be as pretty as you can be, at least, and stand on 12 and belt a D. It’s what people like, and you can do it and other people can’t, so do it and shut up.” I would love to be able to do that and shut up, honestly. Am I the type of writer that Dick is? No. Dick can work on multiple projects at a time and I can’t organize my head like that. I like to work in partnership. I like to write alone too, but I like to bounce ideas off of people and work with others. That’s the kind of writer I am and I’m hoping… we’ll see how seriously people take me or not. I hope not too seriously. I hope they take me with humor and enjoyment.

Take the work seriously.
Yeah, take the work seriously, because it is all about the work. That was what was great in prison—it’s about the work, and how do we create the best thing we can in this time on this planet.

I know you work from personal experience, but when you actually sit down to write, will there be an image or question that keeps popping into your head? What is it that makes you go, “Oh, there’s a play in there”? What’s your writing process like?
Like I said, it’s a lot of discussion with Dick. I’d write separate ideas and it wasn’t until we both click into the same idea that we put pen to paper, and even then we talk about it a lot. And I always saw and we always just knew certain things. I knew she couldn’t go in to teach for goody-goody reasons, but I didn’t know how that would play, I just knew that’s what I saw. We both knew that we wanted to see the guys go into her world and play characters in her world. We didn’t know it was possible, but we saw it. We had to then write it. We did it in phases. We did a workshop that only went up to the cocktail party scene. Then it was like, “Oh my God, this can work.” Then we set about to write the rest of the play. That work allowed us to go into places and get very meta. I knew I wanted to have the guys ultimately take over the play. It’s this white woman going in—like another Michelle Pfeiffer going in to teach the black guys—and I wanted that to be switched on its head in a surprising way. Like I said, people were not supportive. They were saying, “Aren’t you just putting monologues together?” And that didn’t interest us as writers. We wanted to tell a story. Then things started happening in the world, where we had written about them months ahead of time. While we were in rehearsal, President Obama goes into a prison. Like it was so outlandish to write about Hillary Clinton, even the possibility that she’d go into a prison—there’s a picture of her and I together recently, she’s very supportive of the play—and two years before we were like, “What if I met Hillary Clinton at a hair salon and she’s really into it and what if one of the guys plays Hillary Clinton and what if she’s the one who’s coming to see the play?” It seemed fantastical. St. Louis used to be in the play because I’d experienced a lot of shocking racism in St. Louis like three years ago during the Presidential campaign, and this was well before Ferguson. And a lot of that is [cut] out. A lot of the writing process, as I learned from Dick, is over-writing. Write too much, and then you can see what works and what doesn’t work. It’s always there on the paper, you can always go back to it, but to not keep writing, to not be prolific is—it’s a waste of time. So we wrote a lot. I’d say we did eleven rewrites. There were all of things we tried, and they’d take weeks and weeks to write, and then, within a few hours, you’re like “Gone. Four weeks? Oh well.” At least we learned. Because we have this other section that’s really working, so we keep going with that. The guys [in the cast] will tell you, we’d rewrite from one day to the next and they’d get so many pages, and they were always up for it. Dick and I would stay working all night so we’d have the chance to try it. So that’s the writing process.

How much is making something creative just part of how you experience the world? Is an experience not complete for you until you understand the story in it?
I think I like to be a part of creating stuff that feels meaningful. I wish I could… I think I wish I could just accept things for what they were and not try to improve on them, but I also think that’s part of the creative process too—seeing something and seeing the potential in it. It’s also very a feminine thing to do. Some people take it as, “stuff is never good enough.” It’s natural for me to be making something. I guess everybody does it in different ways. I just found someone great to do it with who just really understands me. I have to say that—I don’t think there’s another man, that I know, that’s like Dick that would… I mean I don’t finish sentences, I assume people understand what I’m feeling. Dick was the one to hear me as a writer. From the first time we did the liner notes, from when we started the record label [Sh-K-Boom] and I did my first album [Men I’ve Had ] and I wanted to do these liner notes as a character named Sherie Rene who has actually slept with all of these guys—Kander and Ebb, Elton John—and everybody else was like, “She’s bonkers,” including people in my home, but Dick got it and was like, “That’s interesting. It’s harder work but…” None of this would have happened if Dick hadn’t heard me as a creative person and taken me seriously. Taken me seriously meaning taken me in an entertaining fashion.

Got it.
I love that it’s about women, but I’m talking about dick all the time. And it’s true. It is all about dick. Just so you know, that is like a big… reconciling that kind of power with our kind of power, that’s where creativity comes from, you know? It’s a sexual place. It’s all kind of the same: creativity, babies. So, recognizing that and making friends with that and loving that, it’s certainly been great. I mean it’s no coincidence that my writing partner is named Dick. Dick has influenced my life in so many ways. But I’m not ashamed of that. It adds to me being more of a woman.

I think it goes back to what we were talking about earlier with the female protagonist thing. We’re just learning what that is and what it means because we’re not used to seeing things from the female perspective.
It’s all part of creativity and life, and there’s this separateness, this slut shaming that people are doing. Or all of these intimacy issues that people are having, and being able to be online and then not actually able to interact with real human beings—I think that’s one of my character’s problems. I think these are all issues to talk about and discuss, and I think that what’s going to be interesting in the future with female writers is sexuality and finding our power through that, and equality sexually, equality economically. And these things that are being done to women. Look at what’s happening with ISIS and sex slaves all over the world. You could go on and on and on. It’s really the time for women to band together as sisters and lead by example and help each other.

Do you consider yourself to be brave?
I guess in the way that I consider I’m aware of being afraid. When I look back at moving to New York without knowing a single person and staying at the Salvation Army Residence for Women—and then here we are in this gloriously glamorous dressing room with people practicing Greek tragedy next door—I don’t think it was brave. I think it was life or death. I think in some people’s lives there’s nowhere to go back to, so you just keep moving forward. I definitely know that bravery is from people feeling fear, being aware of their fear, and doing the right thing. Doing the right thing is actually brave nowadays.

What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?
Well, I wish you could make as much money writing for theatre as a woman as you can on TV. A lot of female writers who are great are on TV, which is great for TV. So I wish we could make theatre as appealing for female writers. That’s what I think it should start with. Create jobs for women, and then you’ll start to have more equality for women.


(ii.) An Excerpt

We rarely include excerpts from work, but it felt important to include the following excerpt from Everyday Rapture. Those of you who follow The Interval on social media will know that we’ve taken part in the Stand with Planned Parenthood campaign, and how could we do that and not acknowledge one of the very few times reproductive rights have been represented on a Broadway stage? And perhaps this seems vital to us because this lack of acknowledgement is something mirrored in the experiences of many women who have managed to crack through glass ceilings. As Wendy Wasserstein wrote in The Heidi Chronicles, “I thought the whole point was that we wouldn’t feel stranded.” So, thank you Sherie and Dick for doing something brave on Broadway, where lots of people could see it.

Dear Ray,

I’m sure you were pretty concerned since I called you from that pay phone. But I received all of your letters. The postcards from Asbury Park were really cool. The Boss is a true artist. I’m sorry I haven’t written you back yet, but I’ve been really busy with my list, and I’m almost done. Except I still can’t find black horn-rimmed glasses. Topeka is very below par. Meaning Topeka sucks.

Number ten is the thing that you weren’t sure about me doing, and if you don’t want to read this, well, you don’t have to. But honestly it went pretty good. I drove myself to Kansas City, and once I got past the protesters saying stupid things, it went okay. And in our group we all talked before, and I met this woman with like three kids and she just couldn’t afford to have another one. And she said that when I’m ready to, later, I’ll be a great mom. And it didn’t hurt too bad. And I’m fine.

Afterwards, when I got into the car, I, of course, cried. I cried because I was relieved it was over. And kinda almost happy? And then I felt bad. But only because I felt bad for being almost happy. It was weird. Now it’s not anyone.

You probably don’t need to write me back. I know you think it’s a sin. So I was super surprised when you sent cash. I’m sending back half because it’s not fair, especially when you think it was wrong, which I hope you don’t.

I hope your magic is going well. And New York City too. I’m living to come back there. To live. So who knows? Maybe someday soon I’ll run into you at TKTS.

You do have to choose. Either/or. And I chose life. My own.

Photos by Robert Ascroft, courtesy of Second Stage