Fort Worth — Less than two weeks ago, after a successful series of performances of her one-woman show Stiff on the Atlanta-area leg of its tour, local actress Sherry Jo Ward became aware that she was in the care of an Atlanta hospital, having experienced a sudden further progression of Stiff Person Syndrome, the rare degenerative neuromuscular disorder that has shaped her life and artistic work for the past four years.
Slowly, excruciatingly, Sherry began working to accept the realization of her current condition with its new limitations, hard realities, and unanswered questions. Reluctantly, she agreed to cancel that weekend’s Montgomery, Alabama performances.
“In my mind, I was going to get out of that hospital and go to Montgomery and do my shows,” Ward says. “It just ripped out my heart to have to cancel. From that moment of acceptance, her focus shifted toward her commitment to the remaining shows scheduled this weekend at the Fort Worth Fringe Festival, Sept. 7-8 at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center.
The weekend Sherry was in Atlanta, her husband Thomas Ward was preparing for the final weekend of Hand to God at WaterTower Theatre. Director Joanie Schultz and the team at WaterTower Theatre quickly made every arrangement necessary to relieve him of his role so he could get to Atlanta (Bob Hess took over the role of Pastor Greg). Within a few days, Thomas Ward was driving Sherry back to Texas. As they spoke during the drive, she began to create, devising solutions and brainstorming ways in which she might modify her show for her upcoming performances in Fort Worth.
Back home with little more than a week to prepare and despite looming uncertainties regarding her immediate needs for care and treatment, Sherry continued to collaborate with her director, Marianne T. Galloway: What lines must be altered? How could she adapt some of the physical demands of the show that were no longer possible? How would she alter both the beginning and ending of the show and utilize the element of surprise in light of disability that was no longer effectively invisible as it had been previously?
What else should we have expected from this life-loving spitfire area actor? Did anyone really think she’d gladly sequester herself to a hospital bed over a chance to take on new challenges for artistic expression?
Initially, Sherry was referred to in-patient physical therapy in the Grapevine area. I texted her soon after receiving the update: “I’m near Grapevine several times a week. What does a girl have to do to get on your visitors list?”
Sherry’s quick-witted reply: “Tell them we’re partners. Don’t have to say what kind of partners we are!”
Limitations, hard truth, modification, hilarity, resolve...this is the constant cycle Sherry faces in her life and in her physical body while dealing with SPS. It’s also an apt description of the changes gradually taking place in Stiff, the critically acclaimed original comedic drama she’s been performing across the country now for over a year.
Those of us who have seen her show have been given a glimpse of this often unpredictable existence. When I first saw the show at the Women in Theatre Festival in Plano earlier this summer, I was aware that I was witnessing a later version of her original artistic iteration, a performance that had already re-invented itself in step with the progression of her illness. As Sherry explained to me recently, she wrote Stiff knowing that the show would require gradual adjustments depending on her physical abilities at the time of each performance. For example, when her symptoms were still somewhat invisible, audience members entered the performance space to find Sherry seated in a comfortable armchair on stage, chatting up the crowd. When everyone was settled in and relaxed, Sherry began the show by wholeheartedly playing harmonica, stopping to remark to the audience, “I know what you’re thinking...” After powering through a few more cheery chords, she abruptly and hilariously completes the thought, exposing the audience’s innermost thoughts with a shrug: “...She looks fine!” This opening line met with big laughs and put everyone at ease; the audience understood in one moment that their denial and uncertainty—even their utter loss over what they should do or think—was normal, acceptable, and hilariously human.
Since this latest progression of her disorder, however, Sherry is once again modifying some of these lines and other aspects of her show in accordance with the changes in her body. Where Stiff once mined comedy from the invisibilities of her illness, it must now allow for laughter even though her illness has become unmistakably apparent. “From the beginning, I decided I want to perform this show for as long as I’m physically able to do so,” Sherry often says. “But I’m keeping it funny!” In contrast to other cities that have hosted the show at only one point in time, DFW audiences have the rare opportunity to witness a truly living and evolving work of comedic performance art and to experience its progressive effect on their lives. (It was first performed at the Festival of Independent Theatres in Dallas in 2017, then at Stage West in Fort Worth, then at the WIT Festival in Plano, and was performed for a group of doctors at Southwestern Medical Center; it has also been seen in St. Louis, Minneapolis, and Denver.)
Back home in Fort Worth between tour dates, Sherry has often described to me the hours she spends after each performance, speaking to audience members who patiently wait in lines for a few moments to express their own stories and gratitude for the ways in which her show impacted them. Before I saw Stiff, the idea of these post-show interactions made me feel slightly uncomfortable. Her description brought images to my mind of the lines of people I’ve witnessed in churches and at high profile events who wait to pay respects to renowned spiritual leaders or famous celebrities. What does it say about human nature, I often wonder, that we have this urge to deify those of us who are suffering and to idealize them as heroes?
Expressions of awe, wonder, and even worship can be signs of denial—cathartic offerings of gratitude to others for facing that which we’re not quite able or ready to comprehend. Ill at ease with life’s more perplexing questions, we deify those “heroes” who show resilience under the burden of life’s hardships as readily as we demonize those “monsters” who abuse life’s privileges (responses in the extreme that are all too prevalent in today’s polarizing public discourse). In doing so, we deftly evade the deeper examination that might show us something of each archetype in ourselves...something more human. As comedian Hannah Gadsby so devastatingly demonstrated in her recent Netflix special, Nannette, comedy is typically used as a similar device of denial, luring us toward difficult truths, only to release us to laughter just in time to avoid fully confronting them. Stiff is similar to the groundbreaking work of comedians like Gadsby or Tig Notaro, whose recorded set “Live” chronicles personal tragedies including her own cancer diagnosis. Over the course of her one-hour performance, Sherry Jo Ward defies the limits of comedy, inviting us to laugh out loud even as she reveals the scathingly sober realities of disability, deteriorating health, and even death. Once I saw her show, it became clear: her audiences line up to meet her not because they’ve found a hero, but because they’ve been given a chance to face their own humanity.
“Here’s what I’m trying to figure out again with this show,” Sherry explains from her living room couch where she’d been receiving visitors since her arrival home. “How do I help the audience overcome all the barriers of their own discomfort? How do I get them past all of that?"
This artist, burdened with debilitation and pain, is concerned with making her audience comfortable so that she can connect with them. For Sherry Jo Ward, performing Stiff in all its humor and poignancy and honesty and bad-assery isn’t about being an inspiration or a hero. It’s about connection. It’s about the art of self-expression and laughter. It’s about using your voice and your body while you may be heard and seen. It’s about being human.
I plan to be at every performance to witness it again.
» Jeni Roller is an actress and singer based in Fort Worth.
» Stiff, which runs an hour long, is performed in The Vault, a downstairs space at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center. The performance times are:
- 4:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 7
- 12:45 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 8
- 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 8
Below is the complete schedule for the third Fort Worth Fringe
To read about the shows, go here. Look for more coverage of the FW Fringe coming on ThaeterJones.
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 7, 2018
3-4 p.m.: Letters | Seth Williams (Fort Worth) | Sanders Theatre
3-3:30 p.m.: Two in the Bedroom | Denisov Antrepriza (Houston) | The Vault
3:45-4:15 p.m.: [T]iny [P]latform [S]hakespeare | Cloud Nine Collective | The Vault
4:15-5:15 p.m.: Mask Madness | The Maverick Theatre Company (University of Texas at Arlington) | Sanders Theatre
4:30-5:30 p.m. Stiff | Sherry Jo Ward (Fort Worth) | The Vault
5:30-6:30 p.m. Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something True | Linking Across Culture & Ages/Laca Bridges (Fort Worth) | Sanders Theatre
5:45-6:45 p.m.: Ashes to Ashes | DragStrip Courage (Fort Worth) | The Vault
6:45-7:45 p.m. Remembering Harvey | Lee College Theatre Department (Baytown, Texas) | Sanders Theatre
7-8 p.m. Oh, Jesus! Or, An Actor, a Cynic and a Savior Walk Into a Bar | John S. Davies (Dallas) | The Vault
8-9 p.m. Pichanga | La Criatura Theater Company (Chile) | Sanders Theatre
8:15-9:15 p.m. Smile, Princess | Tarrant Actors Regional Theatre & Proper Hijinx Productions (Fort Worth and Dallas) | The Vault
9:15-9:45 p.m. Ms. Delight | SceneShop Productions (Fort Worth) | Sanders Theatre
9:30-10:30 p.m. In Due Time, Pantomime | Charles Jackson (Fort Worth) | The Vault
10-11 p.m. Art of the Tease: Burlesque at the Fringe | Fort Worth Wild West Burlesque & Variety Shows | Sanders Theatre
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 8, 2018
11:30-12:30 a.m. Pichanga | La Criatura Theater Company (Chile) | Sanders Theatre
12-12:30 p.m. Two in the Bedroom | Denisov Antrepriza (Houston) | The Vault
12:45-1:45 p.m. Remembering Harvey | Sanders Theatre
12:45-1:45 p.m. Stiff | Sherry Jo Ward (Fort Worth) | The Vault
2-3 p.m. Letters | Seth Williams (Fort Worth) | Sanders Theatre
2-2:30 p.m. [T]iny [P]latform [S]hakespeare | Cloud Nine Collective | | The Vault
2:45-3:15 p.m. Two in the Bedroom... | The Vault
3:15-4:15 p.m. Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something True | Linking Across Culture & Ages/Laca Bridges (Fort Worth) | Sanders Theatre
3:30-4:30 p.m. Ashes to Ashes | DragStrip Courage (Fort Worth) | The Vault
4:30-5:30 p.m. Mask Madness | The Maverick Theatre Company (University of Texas at Arlington) | Sanders Theatre
4:45-5:45 p.m. Smile, Princess | Tarrant Actors Regional Theatre & Proper Hijinx Productions (Fort Worth and Dallas) | The Vault
5:45-6:45 p.m. Pichanga | La Criatura Theater Company (Chile) | Sanders Theatre
6-7 p.m. In Due Time, Pantomime | Charles Jackson (Fort Worth) | The Vault
7-8 p.m. Art of the Tease | Sanders Theatre
7:15-8:15 p.m. [T]iny [P]latform [S]hakespeare | The Vault
8 p.m. Stiff | Sherry Jo Ward (Fort Worth) | The Vault
8:15-8:45 p.m. Ms. Delight | SceneShop Productions | Sanders Theatre
9-10 p.m. A Night in the Quarter | Va Va Voom Cabaret (Fort Worth) | Sanders Theatre
9:15-10:15 p.m. Oh, Jesus! Or, An Actor, a Cynic and a Savior Walk Into a Bar | John S. Davies (Dallas) | The Vault
10:15 p.m. The Vintage and Retro Sounds of Aurora Bleu | Aurora Bleu | Sanders Theatre