By Jen Pommerenke, Wright
Growing up, I spent a lot of time playing make-believe: hours outside playing with the guys. I was the consummate tomboy. I wanted to play soldier, be the hero, save the day from bad guys: it’s not shocking I wanted to be Joan. Not St. Joan. SAINT Joan seemed like a superhero, not a human hero. And despite my make believe, the foundation had to be a hero that was attainable. I wanted to play Joan. The simple farm girl, with extraordinary courage and kindness, who led charges, rode horses, and relentlessly chased freedom for those she loved.
That’s always been my Joan. She was not this extraordinary human who was endowed with unattainable goodness in order to become a Saint. She was a simple farm girl, who, to me, just always made the decision that afforded her the greatest opportunity to love. Whether it was removing the English from her beloved France or speaking with great affection to those who shouted, stormed, and humiliated her to her eventual death, she always chose love.
But she wasn’t perfect. The story of Joan illuminates the deep humanity in these powerhouses of goodness. Shaw’s Joan is filled with stubbornness, pride, impatience, and oftentimes she shames the people around her–she is not what most people believe a Saint should be daily. Joan reminds us that we all can strive for Sainthood. Or, to put it more simply, we can all strive to be the best versions of ourselves. In every moment we can dare to choose to be courageously kind, compassionate, humble, and positive. And when we are the worst versions of ourselves, we can look to Joan and remember to dare and dare again. One failure, or several, does not a Saint in us undo.
Unique in our production is the opportunity to play several characters who all have wildly differing opinions, feelings, and strategies regarding the powerhouse that is Joan the Maid: several opportunities to be threatened or inspired by her love for the common folk (and their love for her), several chances to form an opinion on how to dispose or elevate her to reach a means, and a kaleidoscope of feelings as to the heart (s) she moves within. And you learn. Gracious, do you learn. I, who have always devoutly asked St. Joan to intercede anytime I feel I am going into a battle too big for me, who have always revered the Maid’s courage and ability to exquisitely communicate feelings and philosophies devoid of any education. I now play not one, but three characters who condemn her, one who abandons her, and one who feels powerless to save her. One learns to empathize with everyone, because everyone has a story bigger than you see. Everyone is fighting for something. And we all must dare and dare and dare again, to understand each other a little better, love each other a little deeper, and fight the battles that feel too big. The tomboy within still seeks to ride on horseback like Joan and save the day, but that delightful image has expanded…and sees that is doesn’t have to end there. There’s a greater adventure to be had. It’s rooted in love, and the new hero can and must be SAINT Joan.
By Ruth Nelson, Master of Dramaturgy
God the Father. The omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient divine creator of all things. It’s a fairly daunting concept to grasp, even theoretically; how, then, does one go about turning that concept into a character to be presented believably onstage? This is the task set to me by Jessica Osnoe, the adapter and director of Sweet Tea Shakespeare’s Paradise Lost, and I am grateful for the challenge—not because I have some sort of fetish for difficult challenges, but because this is the Story of stories, and it is an honor and privilege to share in this inimitable telling of it.
When most people think of “God,” I imagine some form of these two thoughts spring instantly to mind: “Man, he’s mighty” and “Man, he’s mad.” Wrath and power; terrible and everlasting judgment; impossible standards of perfection; these are the lenses through which most of us see the divine. It would be easy to play to these stereotypes, particularly in the context of Paradise Lost. The story begins with the fall of Satan and his angels from heaven and ends with Adam and Eve being driven out of Eden because of their sin; could God have any more reason to be profoundly peeved? However, I knew immediately that this was not the route I wanted to take. It is not the best route, nor is it true.
We have a saying at Sweet Tea Shakespeare: “Love is the strongest choice.” Looking at this story through the lens of love, we see that Adam and Eve—though they lose Eden—are not the ones who lose the most. Satan loses heaven, but he is not the one with most cause to mourn. This is a story about a father’s –THE Father’s—loss. He grieves over Satan and the demons as they fall willfully from heaven. He mourns over Adam and Eve as they freely choose the offered temptation over his present and promised provision. He laments over his beautiful creation, which falls under a curse because of mankind’s transgression. Every time we see God the Father, he is in mourning. There is anger, yes—but it is the anger that flows from a broken heart. There is power, certainly—but it is evidenced primarily in the increased capacity of such a heart to love, create, suffer, forgive, and continue loving.
This love and the pain that necessarily accompanies it have guided me as an actor through this unique process. And it is the victory of this love that allows the show to close with a spark of hope, lighting the way from paradise into the waiting everyday world.
I hope to see you there.
By Guest Artist Jessica Schiermeister
My name is Jessica Schiermeister. I am a dramaturg, director, actor, and scholar currently living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I hold two master’s degrees in Shakespeare and Performance from Mary Baldwin University in Staunton, Virginia. I have studied mainly Shakespeare for the last ten years. He is sort of my life, aside from my actual husband and living people with whom I interact.
This is my first experience with Sweet Tea Shakespeare. I am familiar with their work but, not being a resident of North Carolina, I have not yet seen any of their performances. I have known Artistic Director Jeremy Fiebig for just shy of ten years, and we both attended the same graduate program, so I have always had a strong idea of how STS operates. But I am so excited to be here and get to know the company and its members personally. Everyone is lovely! STS is an excellent local company.
When I found out that STS was producing George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan for their Honey Series, I knew I had to apply to direct. As a high school Speech participant, my coach compiled most of Joan’s lines into a massive single acting piece for my senior year. I did not advance far within the state Speech world, but that acting piece has stuck with me ever since.
I have also admired the Honey Series from afar ever since I heard of its inception in 2014. As a woman within the Shakespeare world, there is not always a place for me. The majority of roles in Shakespeare’s plays, and in his contemporaries’ plays as well, are for men. This is not to say that woman cannot play men’s roles, but it is to say that sometimes you do not want to. Sometimes you want to focus on the stories and lives of women, whether or not they’re associated with Shakespeare.
Saint Joan is strange in that it is largely about the way men around Joan interact with and react to her. It is technically her story, but told mostly from the point of view of men. She is one of two women in the script (the other has only a couple of lines and has been cut for the purposes of our production). By casting only women in this production, I hope to highlight the gender disparity while also reminding audiences that women kick ass. Joan was burned at the stake at the hands of men, but her legacy lives on long past any of her supporters or persecutors.
I am honored to be part of not only Sweet Tea Shakespeare but the Honey Series. Saint Joan is a small-scale production with a cast of only four actors total, all women, playing 24 characters. I am honored to have the opportunity of directing these four fine women in this production. I appreciate all of the hard work that Kaley Morrison, Jennifer Pommerenke, Hannah Duncan, and Jessica Perry are putting into this show.
While I am in Fayetteville, I hope you will not only see our production (in conjunction with John Milton’s Paradise Lost, adapted and directed by Jessica Osnoe), running the first weekend in March, but attend my lecture on gender on the early modern English stage and my workshop on rhetoric. More information on the shows, lecture, and workshop can be found on STS’s website or Facebook page.