Dallas — Risk Theater Initiative returns with the world premiere of Sherry Jo Ward’s autobiographical show Stiff. Ward was diagnosed with Stiff Person Syndrome a few years ago, a rare neurological disorder. TheaterJones sat down with Ward and her director, Marianne Galloway, who has severe bilateral sensorineural hearing loss and wears a hearing aid in both ears. The following conversation covers the creative process, Risk Theater, and working in the theatre with a physical impairment.
TheaterJones: Talk about writing a one-woman show for yourself, particularly for the FIT festival?
Sherry Jo Ward: I didn’t have a concept of how long my play was. I wrote a play that was 28 pages. I was kind of going by the “minute a page” thing. But I’ve learned that only works when you have dialogue and there’s a big space between lines. I had to cut almost half of the show.
That was when I had Jessica Cavanagh read it and I asked, “Did you miss anything? Is it still funny? Did I leave out anything that sets up something else?” The cut version is much easier to memorize, to stick the words in my head. I was talking to Dana [Schultes] from Stage West and she said that Ann, the one-woman, two-hour, two-act play was just 35 pages. If I had known that, shoot!
Can you talk about the history and return of Risk Theatre Initiative for those that aren’t familiar with it?
Marianne Galloway: For five years it was kind of a big deal. We started in a barn in Flower Mound. We did a production of Waiting for Godot and no one really saw it except for [former Dallas Morning News critic] Lawson Taitte, and he wrote a great review of it. So then we got a space in Deep Ellum, a bowling alley that had been converted. For five years we were hitting it hard.
In Dallas, there’s no sense of history of what’s happened, where theater companies have come from and gone to. Then I started having babies. You can either have your giant theatre company that is like a big baby or you can have real little people. So Risk has been sitting there as a vehicle for people like Sherry to come along and say, “I have this thing.” So let’s help you do that. That’s why it was founded, to develop artists.
SW: When the lineup for FIT was announced, there was some buzz about Risk again.
MG: Because people remember what the company was.
How did you start developing this piece?
SW: I started writing it last summer. I started it thinking I would submit it to the Out of the Loop [Fringe] Festival at WaterTower [Theatre], but then things turn over and change. We did have a read through at my house before that, a first draft that I felt I could share.
I’ve got to be proactive about creating something for myself. I don’t expect other companies to bend to my needs. I don’t expect to necessarily get cast a lot but I’m not ready to give up doing this. I just thought, I need to have a thing that I can do. And I decided to just write in those moments into the play where I have to collapse on the floor.
Hopefully the audience is with me in a way that’s not uncomfortable, but real. And it’s OK to laugh at me. It’s OK for everyone to feel comfortable. A lot of it too has been that this year I started teaching at [Tarrant County College] as an intro to theatre teacher. That gave me kind of a through-line to end it. Because I don’t know how this ends...
MG: It’s your story and it’s still ongoing.
SW: So the TCC job kind of gave me a way to wrap it up. So that was an unexpected helpful thing in the writing of it.
How did you two get connected to this project and why did you think that you would collaborate well together?
SW: Jessica Cavanagh said, “You’ve got to meet my friend Marianne.” And she just brought me over to your house. We just hung out all day. You were very pregnant and it was just the three of us.
MG: I do remember us talking about how difficult it was for us to be a woman in Dallas, with kids, and of our age range. We were just sitting there saying we have so much more to offer because of all these things we have that are sort of seen as detriments. We have so much life experience to bring to our work.
SW: We did the reading together.
MG: Jessica asked me to direct a staged reading of her work Self Injurious Behavior at Theatre Too and Sherry was in that. And that’s how we worked together for the first time.
SW: Jessica kept raving about you as a director. And you seemed to like me. So I was thinking, “Hey Jessica, do you think Marianne would like to direct my show?” And then we were like third graders passing notes to each other. Check yes or no?
What are your thoughts on working as an artist who happens to have a disability?
SW: I had to get past using my disability as an excuse to just "retire." I'm collecting disability so it's easy to just feel like I'm done now, which is depressing. So I figured the best way to be proactive was to create a piece for myself, which actually has my pain and my physical needs written in. And as Marianne was telling me, this is the first set of performances for a play that will have a life after FIT is over. Also, there's a sense of relief to be totally honest about what it's been like (in my experience) to live with a disability.
Why do you think it's important to have artists with a disability or impairment to be the playwrights, directors, and lead performers in theatre?
SW: I'm hoping this production will be successful in a way to show that a disability has no effect on quality. I feel, for me, that I'm responsible for finding shows and roles that are feasible for me to play. There are opportunities out there, I have to work harder to find them or I have to create them myself. Hopefully the end result every time shows it's totally worthwhile. And I'm hoping my show Stiff will let folks feel more comfortable to approach disabled artists with their curiosities or questions. When it's done respectfully, if a disabled person has put themselves on display with their work, questions are welcome. You know, we love to talk about ourselves!
Stiff opens at 8 p.m. Friday, July 14, following Bootstraps Comedy Theater's The Boxer.
Stiff is performed in the following blocks:
- 8 p.m. Friday, July 14
- 5 p.m. Saturday, July 15
- 5 p.m. Sunday, July 16
- 2 p.m. Saturday, July 22
- 8 p.m. Thursday, July 27
- 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 5
See more info about the 2017 Festival of Independent Theatres schedule here.