The Demolition of Cast-Types & Genre: A Conversation with Jessica Anne

I used to work in a bookstore alongside a cast of brilliant artists and writers from nearly every genre. We often had mutual friends or made introductions through the others’ social circles, but I was the last one to meet Neofuturist Jessica Anne. Everyone was always asking me, “Have you met Jessica Anne yet? She’s brilliant. You would love her. She writes poetry.”

The first time I saw Jessica perform was in her husband, Kurt Chiang’s, intoxicating play Analog. Seated atop a literal pedestal, she fired off a first-person lyric piece about her origins: her birth through betrayal, and her family’s life-long assumption of her perfection and goodness.

Her style of performance/writing is unapologetic, to say the least. Jessica is not only unafraid to confront stereotypes about her feminine appearance, but actively destroys every single preconception through smart, original verse paired with performances that often embody power and rage in its most unbridled form.

Her approach to genre is similar, too. Although others are always quick to label, Jessica’s work fundamentally defies notions of boxing up entirely. After the show, I tried desperately to convince her to come to a poetry slam or open mic. It was a little naïve on my part, but I felt certain that what she was able to achieve as a performance writer is important, groundbreaking, and needs to be seen by the world.

Maybe I should have paid more attention to the symbolism of the pedestal. Nonetheless, Jessica Anne’s work remains some of the most unique and riveting I’ve seen from any Chicago writer/performer. Now that she’s transitioned to an inactive role as a Neofuturist in order to focus more on her literary career, I’m certain she’s a Chicagoan to watch. She’s one of the most original and thoughtful performance writers living in our city today.

My coworkers were right. Yes, I love Jessica Anne.

I’ve heard you described your work as poetry, but in very interesting terms. For example, the first time we met, I remember you saying that you write poetry, and “I guess that’s what you’d call what I do?” But I’m interested in why you choose to describe your work as poetry. What led you to adopt this label for your brand of performance writing, and do you identify as a poet?

I think when last we spoke I hadn’t yet learned the word “hybrid.” I thought my only options were prose or poetry. And I definitely didn’t/don’t write prose, so I called myself a poet. Plus I was looking at MFA programs at the time, and I sure as heck wasn’t going to get an MFA in acting, or playwriting. I’m a writer! But, what do I write? Monologues? Yeah. But, are they linear short story looking monologues? Nope. So, concentrating in fiction or non-fiction seemed weird. But, poetry felt like a good fit. Or the best fit. By process of elimination. My plays are short. Poems are short. My plays are, you know, lyrical? (Stupid buzz word.) I use a lot of dashes and human charm bracelets. Poems do that too! Right? I make shapes.

But, so this is all in an effort to find a genre for my writing outside of performance, within the literary community at large. As a performer I just let her rip. I say what I have to say under the vague sloppy live lit/performance art/storytelling umbrella that is Chicago store front back of a bar corner of a book store dry land. I identify as part poet part get me out of this cage. Hybrid. I fuse. Fuse I am.

I want to ask you a few questions about The Neofuturists. Firstly, how did you first come to Neofuturism, and how long have you been involved with the theater?

I came to the aesthetic of Neofuturism when I came to the Neofuturarium to take classes which was about a year before I became a Neofuturist ensemble member. It was 2005. I had spent the last four and a half years in a cornfield in a BFA Acting conservatory program and I was miserable. I loved theatre, but I was (to put it mildly) struggling with my type. I had made my way through the conservatory (with my head down) but needed another semester to complete all my Gen Eds. And when you’re twenty-two years old, fifteen more cornfield weeks seems like an eternity of bloody blue ball shame. I was like, get me on a Greyhound bus- maybe I’ll come back maybe I won’t I have to clear my head. Plus my friend Kurt was moving to Chicago from Maryland. He had a nice normal BA in theatre from a respectable University. And he wanted to go to a friendly fringe place to make stuff. And he picked Chicago because he wanted to hang out with the Neofuturists. And I was like oh, Neofuturists, I think I’ve heard of them. Meet you there. And he was like yeah hi I’m taking their intro class. And I was like let me see. And he was like look; the first assignment is to tell your autobiography in three sentences with a prop and a repeatable gesture. And I was like, I can do that. (The brilliant throat tightening truth is that anybody can do that. Successfully.) So I took the class, and then I took two more classes that same year. And then it just so happened that the company was auditioning women in the fall of 2006. And I auditioned. And I got in. I had a good understanding of the aesthetic from taking those classes. And I had a theatre background. (Not that either of those things guarantee to work in your favor.) Mostly it was a crucible of luck and timing that I was able to hop on the mechanical bull that is Too Much Light… Kurt joined the ensemble in 2008. We got married in 2011. I went inactive from the company in 2012 to concentrate on school. Kurt is still way active. So active in fact that he’s currently serving the company as co-artistic director. It’s a big part of our life. I’m an alumnus but I still feel very engaged. I collaborated on two prime time shows last year. And this summer I’m doing a four-week run in Too Much Light… I don’t think I’ll ever be active again. I love it, but I had a good run. And now I want to write books. But, I’ll always be around. It’s my most fun thing.

One of the reasons I’m fascinated by Neofuturism is because I associate it with slam poetry in many ways, mainly because they were both founded in Chicago in the 80’s. More significantly, they’re both based in populism, so it’s really interesting that both these artistic experiments started at the same time in different genres. What do you think Neofuturism was responding to, and why has it continued to be so successful?

Yeah girl. Me too. I first heard about slam when I met Mary Fons. Mary was the other woman cast in 2006. We came into the company at the same time, so we have a special bond. Mary is kind of a huge deal in the slam world. I was like what’s slam? And then she told me. And I was like, so kind of the same as TML… Yeah girl. Same guts. Same blood. There’s cool notes on the Neo website about the birth of the company. I was six years old at the time, living on the corner of Sheffield and Armitage in a basement apartment with my very skinny mother. I was born the same year slam started at the Green Mill. 1982, right? Oh, to be twenty-five in 1985! Wouldn’t that have been cool? Too like see it all come shooting down the canal? I totally would have made out with Ira Glass like seven times. With my clothes on. I think Greg saw some slam at the Green Mill and Marc saw TML… Probably. It was before Netflix. People left the house. I think beautiful angry people were coming of age during a plague of Reagan and Bush. I think for the same reason I got on a Greyhound bus and left my rehearsal skirt, handkerchief, and corset at the bottom of a very shallow river. You know, the truth is I just wasn’t a very good actor. But, that didn’t mean I had to get off the stage. I think Greg Allen and Lena Dunham both went to Oberlin. I think you should always be stealing something. And elbowing someone. I think it’s cheap and nasty and thrilling all at the same time. Young people eat it up. That’s all you need to live forever, hungry packs of high schoolers. My favorite week to do TML was prom week. Kids would come to the show after prom in their big poofy dresses and rented tuxedos. And they’d sit in the front row holding hands. And one year one of the girls was even wearing a crown, because she was queen. And Jay pulled her up on stage to slow dance at the end of some gut-wrenching monologue, and the crowd went freaking wild. Because we were doing it, you know? Winning.

Last year, you co-wrote and starred in a show called the Miss Neo Pageant, which was a twist to a traditional beauty pageant that “walked the fine line between female rivalry and alliance.” The show was also significant because of its all-woman cast and its open confrontation of feminism—particularly regarding beauty standards, stereotyping, and the idea of female camaraderie. How did your experience as a woman in theater inspire this show?

Well, like I said, I struggle with my type. I’m petite. I have a Sarah Vowell-esq set of pipes. I’ve allowed the way I look to hold me back socially, professionally, and creatively. Certain things would definitely be easier if I were a (petite) man. So I used Miss Neo to deconstruct my desire to be taken seriously, as an equal. I explored my gender. I explored my embarrassing instinct to trivialize the entire struggle. So there was all that type casting darkness. Then, on the other side of the coin, Megan (the creator of Miss Neo) looked around TML… and said hey, we’re all awesome. And it was kind of true, we were doing good stuff. And we wanted a show about us, by us, for everyone. I think in acting college, and in traditional auditioning all the time theatre, female relationships can sometimes get pretty nasty. There’s no autonomy. And you’re constantly in hallways with twenty other girls who look exactly like you all waiting for your number to get called. So, when it doesn’t get called, you have to cut a bitch just to feel like you did something productive with your day. So, all of that influenced my Miss Neo journey for sure. But, happily, where I’ve made my artistic home, everyone gets a crown. Everyone wins. But, then there’s the world. Or is there? How do you win past the corner of Foster and Ashland? I’ll get back to you on that.

For TMLMTBGB cast members, being able to write and produce work is very important. I know being a part of the play means constantly producing work, and it’s also a key element to the audition process. So I want to know how you first came to writing – was it before or after you came to acting? And when did you start performing your own material?

Yeah. You’re hired as a writer/performer/director. That’s your job title and that’s what you do all of the time all at once. Note: The show is Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, which is thirty plays in sixty minutes. I didn’t have any formal writing experience prior to joining the company. Just those three classes I took right before I auditioned. Boom. Whoosh. Writing all the time. Speaking those words that I just wrote in front of lots of people all of the time. I was obsessed with being a famous actress. Then I was frustrated. Then I was a Neofuturist. Then I was a writer slash performer. Now I’m a writer. I’m a writer! (But, I always kept a journal and wrote letters to people I loved.)

I know you almost completed your MFA at Roosevelt, and it ended up being in Fiction, although you wanted to pursue poetry. What made you decide to pursue an MFA? I’m also wondering how it benefitted your work overall, particularly since you were thrown into a completely new genre.

I’m finished with course work, and I’m in my final semester of thesis. I have to finish that sucker this fall, then get it approved, probably do like seven re-writes, then graduate in December. Not necessarily in that exact order. I’m at a beautiful magical place called Roosevelt University. I just kind of picked it. But, behold! I have loved every second of it. I applied for poetry. They had a poetry concentration when I applied. But, then I got accepted in the form of a very long, very thoughtful e-mail explaining that poetry is no longer a concentration at Roosevelt, but you had some prose in your portfolio, come for prose Jessica. And I was like, that’s prose? OK. Then I met all the teachers and I was like double OK. They got Christian TeBordo. He runs it. He’s awesome. Kyle Beachy. He’s the bomb. Kathleen Rooney and Billy Lombardo were visiting professors while I was there. So cool. Suzanne Scanlon. Love her. Janet Wondra, she does the magazine production. She’s an aviator. Regina Buccola! She took a group of us to England! She’s all things performance studies. She’s the scholar in residence at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. What? Google these people. They’re the shit. They all have books. Out. That they wrote. I wanted an MFA for my own personal karmic contract. My cornfield tenure was so abysmal. But, then I finally finished my undergrad at North Park University in the form of a BA in English with a creative writing emphasis. And I also had some life altering teachers at that place. So, I was like, I’m on a role bitches. Lets make this terminal. It’s a challenge SITTING DOWN to write something for a fiction workshop. Ah! But, then I write it. And it’s still me. Writing is writing. I’m still writing poetry. Just in paragraph form. This has all been a journey. Freebird. Free the birds.

So we’ve reached the end of the interview. Thanks for hanging in there with me. I know I asked a lot of questions that were actually two or three questions in disguise, but I really wanted to pick your brain. To close out, let us know what you’ve got coming up and how we can get more involved with the things you’ve mentioned.

Thank! You! For! Talking! To! Me! I love people.

If you’re free come hang out with me July 4th-July 27th. I’ll be writing/performing/jumping in TMLMTBGB.

I’m also doing TML… at Theatre on the Lake July 30th-August 3rd.

And I semi-regularly contribute to The Paper Machete (Green Mill, Saturdays.)

And Write Club (Tuesdays, Hide Out.)

Go to those places all the time. Always a good time.

The Neos have a book, just published it. Kurt was one of the editors. It’s called The Neo Futurist Body. The release party was on Tuesday. They’re calling it a flesh rave. Come over. Or get the book on line.

IMG_0023JESSICA ANNE has made the Neo Futurists her artistic home since 2006. She’s also worked with The Hypocrites, The Paper Machete, Write Club, The Drinking and Writing Theatre Brewery, and Shattered Globe. She is currently an MFA Creative Writing candidate at Roosevelt University.

headshot2STEPHANIE LANE SUTTON is a poet, performer, and educator living in Chicago by way of Detroit. She has represented Chicago at three international slam competitions, including as a semifinalist at the National Poetry Slam in 2013. This article is part of her June residency for Chicago Literati. Read more about her project here.