In discussion with: Jillian Sweeney

As the inaugural interview for my archival dramaturgy project, I spoke with Jillian Sweeney about her recent project: This could be it, which was created in collaboration with director Jeffrey Cranor.  The piece premiered at The Chocolate Factory Theater in September of 2009 and featured lighting by Chloe Z. Brown and sound/video by Brian Rogers.

SM: What was your focus with this piece?

JS: The idea of time.  I was interested in how people would experience the sixty minutes of the piece, and I’m interested in our ideas of past, present, and future, and how those things can collide.  The way I used media had a real purpose for that exploration.  I wanted to use the sound as a recording; I wanted to use the video as a recording.  I wanted to say, “That is past, and this is now, and I’m wondering what’s going to happen next.”  Putting those things near each other was a really good experiment for me to understand something that I can’t really grasp.  I think the experience of time will continue to be an exploration for me always.  During one part of the piece, I used my iPod to listen to myself give myself notes during the performance.  I didn’t care that people didn’t know that.  It failed, and it succeeded.  I liked that.  I was telling myself how to dance: what the moves were and when they happened.  I was thinking conceptually about hearing myself in the past.  I felt reassured by what I had already done, but also I had something to work with in the present. 

SM: What still really sticks with me from the piece is your exploration of horrific violence. 

JS: That story of Elizabeth Short was the crux, script-wise.  Through working with that story Jeffrey and I realized that I was attempting to explore a separation from myself.  I was curious about that duality: What does it mean to actually leave yourself, and then, what does it mean to really feel like you are a part of the body?  Also, what happens when you are looking at horror – specifically, looking at the picking apart of the female body on its most gory level?  For some reason that interested me, and I still don’t quite understand why that is.  I’ve been obsessed with the story of Elizabeth Short since I was 19.  I still think about it.  It’s kind of embarrassing that I’m obsessed with this.  I was reading one of the biographies, and I lent it to my roommate. She had to give it back to me with a little post-it note that said, “I can’t handle this; I’m giving this back to you.”  It’s weird when you have an excitement about an idea and it’s a very horrific idea.  In the piece I was looking at those feelings that I had – why did this interest me so much?

SM: Is it something that you had thought about working with in a performance previously?

JS: No; never.  It was always just that “reader” part of me; I like reading true-crime stories.  Maybe I like scaring myself to feel something.  My mom is a mystery writer, and I was around a lot of forensic specials as a kid. 

SM: I probably wouldn’t choose that material to work with as an artist because it would freak me out too much, but as an audience member it was very interesting to have to face it.

JS: Speaking directly to the audience to tell that story was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done as a performer.  I’ve always talked in my work, but I’ve always found ways to work with movement and talking, so I wasn’t so exposed. But in this I had to actually talk about something horrific that I actually care about, and I didn’t want to go to an overly sentimental place with what I was doing.  As an artist, you want to find those things that hit for you and try to share that part with the audience, which is why I made the decision to use bullet points for that section.

SM: It’s one of the things I love about you and your work: you will take a bloody mess and turn it into a PowerPoint presentation!

JS: It was hard to be frank at the same time because I like to be able to go into a character to be able to deal with things.  It’s a way to separate yourself from your audience to become a character, but this was literally me sitting 4 feet away from the audience, looking into their eyes, saying the things I had to say, and actually feeling them internally.  It was a lot to deal with.

SM: I thought one of the things that was most affecting about that section were blanks in the text, the things you edited out –

JS: That came out of a conversation with Jeffrey.  I know all the gory details, but my inability to express them with people was an interesting way to create tension.  Jeffrey asked me, “What if you just left the details out and you dealt with the space?  What if you let people make their own sense out of it – let them use their own imagination?”

SM: It created a very interesting tension of deference to the human who had actually experienced this situation.  While watching the piece I couldn’t separate from it because of the blank spaces.  Those were what reminded me that this had happened to a real person.  If you had just been talking and badgering me with the details, I would have shut off from it, but I had to fill in the blanks, so that made me engage, even though I wanted to pull away.  It was also such an abrupt departure from the rest of the piece.

JS: We created the piece in modules.  Towards the end of the process, the through lines that emerged were ideas of separation:  from the self, from the audience.  It was a really quick process to try to do that.  If I were to go back and do it again, I would have wanted more time to fill out some of those sections.  I liked that they sat beside each other differently, but I feel like the material was rich enough to go farther into the direction of it.  The end of the process was so quick.  Maybe that’s just how the creative process works.

SM: It always seems that not matter how much time you have leading up to it, the last week is always too short, and you just can’t start that last week earlier, no matter how hard you try.

JS: You can’t!  We just had so much material, and we were working so hard to find ways to simplify it and not be overwhelming with it.  The other conversational section, the one towards the end of the piece didn’t come together until the very end.  In real life, we often have conversations with people where we go in and out of what they’re saying.  We leave the conversation, and then we come back to it, and that’s what we were trying to do with that scene.  So, the goal of that scene was hard from an audience perspective.

SM: It’s tricky to put the audience in your head – unless you are writing a novel.

JS: It’s very tricky.  Plus who wants to listen to someone wander off and back?  How do you go from talking about a really horrific event to some girl chattering on about how she really enjoyed some movie?  I don’t understand why that’s interesting – those two ideas side by side. I think they were in the right place together, but theatrically, I’m still thinking about it.

SM: It seems to me that the material itself is less interesting to you than the structure, or the use of that material.  You didn’t read about this murder at 19 and think, “I need to make a show about this.”  It was only later when that content seemed to fit with the tension of this structure you were creating that you decided to use it.

JS: Content is definitely a puzzle piece.  I’m more interested in the mechanism of something than the content of something.  With content, I find myself getting stuck in ideas. I cycle the same idea in my head consistently, until I get sick of it.  I think the Elizabeth Short story was like that for me.  I got so obsessed with it, but it’s only later when I found a mechanism in which I could use it, that I found a way to pulverize the emotion, so it didn’t have to be so sour.

SM: Is the idea of a “mechanism” then something that fascinates you inherently is or it something that you use as a tool to create distance from your content?

JS: It shifts around a bit, but it’s more about creating distance from content.  The performer and the audience are more important than the content for me.  It’s also not one of my strengths to feed people content.  It’s not how I think.  I think more about relationship to content, and then I can find a mechanism that highlights that communication line.  That becomes interesting; it becomes a way to converse with the audience.  As I perform more, I’d like to work more with direct communication with the audience.  That’s something I’m too scared to do right now, which is fine.  That’s where I am.

SM: If direct communication is the ultimate goal, why make a show?  Why not simply have conversations?

JS: Because I’m interested in technique.  I’m afraid to say this because it sounds too ambitious for me, but I’m interested in exploring the virtuosity of my own way of moving.  I get very frustrated with myself in a technique class because I’m not a phrase-learner.  I haven’t been able to find a way to work on those parts of my body and my rhythm in a learning environment.  Solo work and choreography have been ways for me to do that.  They’ve both hindered and helped me.

SM: You get better at the things that you do, but you get more entrenched in the things that you do.

JS: Exactly.  Which is why, now that I’m thinking about a new project, I’m thinking about the things that I didn’t do that I would love to work on.

SM: What are some of those things?

JS: A different use of space – circularity.  With this last piece there was a purposeful “boxiness,” and I want to know what it feels like to be more “panning.” 

SM: I was really struck by the refracted classicism of some of the movement towards the beginning of the piece.  I was curious if that element was just a factor of your training, or were you intentionally investigating classical vocabulary?

JS: I was reflecting on past training that I wanted to bring back, that I hadn’t been working on in a while.  When I looked back and watched my previous solo piece, I was so irritated by the fact that I had no line.  It was fine, but watching it I wanted something moving in space, and I wanted to see if I could do it.  It was a test.   

SM: It sounds like performance-making for you is a series of challenges, an obstacle course.

JS: It is!  I do it for myself instead of for somebody else, which feels really good.  I imagined that the bell sounds cues were made by me.  I was my own director in that particular section.  When I watch it on film, the timing feels more foreign than it felt while performing.  I don’t recognize what it looks like from doing it.  I was a kid who grew up dancing with mirrors all the time, watching how my dancing looked.  Creating an aural direction cue was a great way for me to stop looking at myself.  Solo work is hard in that way.  I also tape myself a lot. I hate it, but it helps. Watching myself on tape is what made me go towards the classical elements of the movement.  I had done a lot of rhythmic things (which will probably end up in another piece), but watching myself on tape, I was drawn more to the lines.  The filming helped me make a choice, but I didn’t re-create what I had done from the film.

SM: Again if we’re talking about mechanism over content: it’s not what you made but how you made it that you want to replicate.

JS: I create a theatrical tool to help me get that back.

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