Normandy Sherwood is one of The Performance Project's 2015-2016 Artists-in-Residence. She is performing her new play Gentleman's Choice, which is about a pair of prickly, impossible nerds who inhabit a large house in a Jane Eyre-ish country of moors, secrets and dog races. Gentleman's Choice is set to open in historic Speyer Hall February 25-27.
We sat down with Normandy in order to gain some insight into her artistic process during her residency with US.
Q: Normandy! You are a theater artist who wears many (beautifully designed) hats! You are a playwright, director, costumer designer, performer and you also sing in a band "The Drunkards Wife" Phew! Where does all of this creativity come from? Is it in your family DNA? What is your artistic origin story?
A: Well, I do come from a family of people who make little worlds. My mother is a visual artist — lately she works with felt and metal, but she also draws and paints. Her work is sort of organic and abstract. It is also very ornate, it looks like the insides of things: what you'd see through a microscope or when you cut open a fruit. My sister is also a visual artist; lately she paints and makes art books. Her work is more on the edge of figurative — there are recurring figures like geese and hands and faces that come in and out of her work, but it also plays with the line where the figurative dissolves into abstraction (or, I mean, vice versa) — more like holding onto the edge of a dream. My dad builds things — he works with wood and structures. Instead of representing little worlds, he more makes one manifest. I think that even though we all work in different media there is a pretty strong set of shared aesthetic values — certainly visually, like: ornamentation, old looking things, curved shapes. Surprising materials.
Q: For Gentleman's Choice, you are wearing the hats of playwright and costume designer. Can you tell us specifically how the language of the piece influenced your visual design? Or conversely how your thoughts about the visual world of the play may have influenced your writing choices?
A: Andreea (the set designer) was making fun of me because in the play people talk about clothing and fabric — not what people usually talk about in a play. I think I often have the specific technical vocabulary of fabric and clothing in my head — it has come out in a number of my plays. The words and the design have to do with each other: the language in this play is mannered and restrained, ornate and kind of heightened — and so are the costumes, which I'm co-designing with Chelsea Collins. In rehearsal I was noticing that on the level of the sentences there is a lot of negation — I kind of want to connect that to the use of negative space in the design… I don't know though — that's still sort of half baked. The last thing I'll say is that I think when you are involved in writing and design, you write really specific stage directions, but then you also let go of them really easily if they don't look right in rehearsal.
Q: You have an amazing team working with you on this project including director Shannon Sindelar and performers Ean Sheehy and Jesse Hawley. Where do you pull your community of collaborators from and how important is collaboration in your artistic process?
A: Several of the performers are people I have worked with on past projects. For instance, I have been working with Ean and Jesse for the last decade in the context of the National Theater of the United States of America and on my own projects — we have an old rapport. But this group is a mix of old and new collaborators for me. It's my first project working with Shannon, though I've known her a long time, and she has brought in some performers and designers who are new to me. Most of the performers and designers on this show are part of what I guess we still call "downtown" theater community — a community that values experiment and scrappiness. Collaboration has always been very important to me — I started writing plays in the context of a collaborative group and I always think that the kind of relationships you build in a creative process informs the product. You create a new community with its own ways and lore every time you undertake a creative process with a group of people.
Q: As part of your residency at University Settlement you have been working with our 4th and 5th grade after-school students; describing, visualizing and finally creating their very own haunted houses. What has this experience been like? Has it informed your process of making work at University Settlement?
A: One of the most illuminating parts of working with the kids has been asking them to talk about what makes something seem haunted or scary. We looked at a lot of images (research I pulled and images the kids made) and it has been interesting to break down the qualities of haunted-ness. I think doing this work has helped me think a little deeper about what reads as eerie or scary, absent any violence or gore. I also think it has been really interesting to work with the kids in the space where we rehearse. It gives a different sense of the possibilities of the space.
Q: Gentleman's Choice takes place in a huge old fictional estate - haunted by the relics of its past. Speyer Hall at University Settlement - the theater that you are presenting Gentleman's Choice in - is turning 130 this year! How does the architecture and history of the room influence your production with US? Are the ghosts of University Settlement finding their way into your play?
A: The ghosts are very welcome. When I first saw the space I was very excited about doing this play here because the room looks so grand — it reminded me of an old fashioned courtroom because it is so tall and has big arched windows. It's an unusual theatrical space in New York City — the opposite of a black box. I felt like I could see the room as one of the vast rooms in this rambling, scary old house. We were really interested in being able to have physical distance in the design, and the sense that two tiny people are rattling around in a gigantic space — so it was perfect for that.