Susan Jackson On Ghosts, Grief, and Writing
Written by Hannah Meyer
When Susan Jackson’s father died she couldn’t stop cracking jokes, “He was well beloved! He was a joker! And people were kind of surprised!,” Jackson laughs, remembering watching her freshly-widowed mother perform in the small theater in Tryon, North Carolina. “A woman behind me whispered to her friend, ‘Oh my God! Is that the woman whose husband was killed by a train?! And she’s in a play?!’ And I turned around and said to her, ‘Yes. That’s my mother and it’s giving her comfort.’ And that shut them up.”
While the 3GT playwright cackles at the shock of the two onlookers, the interaction also brings up a larger question: what happens when the ways we express grief are limited? “Nobody has found the language to use at a funeral. Of course, the cliche is to say, “Is there anything I can do?” I’m sure other cultures and histories have found the language of grief. I’m sure it’s more profound in ancient cultures, but Americans, in particular, have a hard time dealing with it.” There are places that we can mourn, rules for how, when, and for how long, but after the initial grieving period, then what? In the same way that real-life Susan Jackson challenges the limits imposed upon grief, her characters also grapple with the complexity of tragedy. Jackson’s wit is butterknife turned blade in her 3GT Salon Series winning play, Swimming With Puppies, which follows a family through the aftermath of a mass shooting. Rachel’s husband and Phoebe’s father, Jack, has been declared a hero after he appears to have saved the life of a young woman, Sandrea Clemmons. But when the ghost of Jack starts showing up, Rachel’s memories begin to unravel and she wonders, did he actually die a hero?
Swimming With Puppies is Jackson’s fourth collaboration with 3Girls Theatre. Her first project with 3GT was Samaritan, which went on to be a finalist for the Henley Rose Competition for Female Playwrights. Since then, Miracle Lake and Hudson’s Wife have both been finalists in 3GT’s Salon Series program. Jackson developed Swimming With Puppies with dramaturg, Bill Bivins. The collaboration between a playwright and dramaturg is like a road trip, a playwright may think they are traveling to Michigan, but they’re actually on route to Wisconsin. Both states may be in the Midwest but they are not the same. The process of getting one’s bearings between the two is at heart of a dramaturgical relationship, which tracks and analyzes every moving part. Thematically, Bivins and Jackson explored what could be underneath the clean platitudes of the media. What happens to the grieving process when it’s possible that someone died a hero, but potentially didn’t act heroically? Jackson wonders, “...you can give them that level of responsibility and heroism even though there’s a possibility that they did not act heroically. And if given the chance would they fess up? Would they say I fought for my own life and pushed other people out of the way?” Jackson realized that she needed to invent her own language in order to encompass the psychological complexities of grief that are often left to fester untouched. While Rachel clings to her manic-fundraising, Phoebe funnels her emotions through psychological theories, “When you start using facts, people want to research them, or they want to correct you, and say, ‘Oh, no, no, no, that’s not Treble theory, Treble theory is…’ And whenever anyone says anything, I go, 'Careful! It’s not real!' You give it enough authority but you deviate enough to where you’re safe.”
Jackson’s own grief following the three-year decline of a family member drew her to playwriting. “ I wrote about it because it was a way of dealing with it. Because it was so wild. You had to laugh, otherwise you'd cry.” This initial foray began as a short story which turned into a monologue and transformed into a career in playwriting. Diana Brown acted in piece and she and Jackson founded the Southern Railroad Theatre Company. Soon, Jackson was teaching playwriting at the City College and her plays were performed across the United States. Across Jackson’s large body of work, she often explores the ways in which characters are haunted - by their own histories and the history that they exist within. In her writing process, Jackson succumbs to creative divination, “I let the character talk to me, and sometimes, they give me their names...I tend to be very rational and down to earth, but I’m intrigued by an aspect of the world that is unworldly and undefinable. I think ghosts serve to bring questions to the living. I think they serve to ask questions that need to be asked and help the living find answers, not in an angelic sense, to somehow guide them to find answers.”
Ghosts transcend the boundaries of what logic and psychology can explain, they ignite torch within the darkness for the lost and unhealed. Inspired by Tennessee Williams, “who wrote about strong women long before strong women were allowed onstage” and Sarah Kane, who connects isolated acts of violence to genocide, Jackson’s plays explore the complexities of healing from the past. Ghosts from Civil War America and Imperial China grace the psyches of 21st century families. By placing centuries in conversation with each other, Jackson grapples with the difficulty of reconciling grief while resolute in her belief that pain provides a necessary contrast to transcendent moments of joy. “I do believe that sometimes there is one moment that helps to change something, we usually think it’s dark, like a car crash, but there are moments of joy that transcend moments of sorrow. I do think that can happen with people. It gives you a healing that you need or a chance of redemption. People look at it as being unreal or unsubstantiated. But I’m going to say there it is! Grasp at it. Hold it. Don’t look down for a moment, people.”
3GT Playwright Susan Jackson received the Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Award for Best Original Play. Her works have been staged- read/produced in New York City–Off-Broadway, the Bay Area, Eugene O’Neill Foundation, William Inge New Works Festival, Sydney, Sedona, Guerneville, London and South Carolina. Her plays–finalists and semi-finalists: Fusion Theatre Company, Creede Repertory Theatre, South Carolina Centre Stage, and Little Black Dress Ink Women’s Theatre Festival. She’s a Resident Playwright for 3Girls Theatre Co, and alumni of Playground. Her first project with 3Girls was SAMARITAN, which was a finalist for the Henley Rose Competition for Female Playwrights. Since then MIRACLE LAKE, HUDSON’S WIFE, and (2020) SWIMMING WITH PUPPIES have been Finalists for the 3Girls Theatre Festival. She’s won Best of Capital Fringe and received a positive review for DEATH BE NOT LOUD! in the Washington Post. DBNL went on to be co-produced by 3Girls Theatre Company, and TBA recommended. Her works have been published by Smith and Kraus. She was invited to participate in the first William Inge Festival and attended the Mid-America Theatre Conference. WHEN YOU ARE CALLED (solo at the Marsh, co-written with Diana Brown) was also co-produced by 3Girls. Coming soon! WORTHY ENOUGH, the story of Lorena and Dr. Sylvia—PTSD after the election culminating in shopping for organic heirloom tomatoes at Whole Foods, Spring, 2020—the Phoenix. www.southernrailroadtheatrecompany.com
Hannah Meyer, 3GT’s Marketing Associate, is a director and dramaturg of new work with a background in marketing and public relations. In the Bay Area, she has worked with Magic Theatre, Playwrights Foundation, and SF Playhouse. Hannah is also a writer whose work has appeared in Points in Case, The Well Mannered Grump, The Baram House, The Haven and elsewhere. Her essay, which explores the politics of comedy in Rachel Bloom's banned song, "Period Sex," will be published later this year with Taylor & Francis. Hannah is passionate about the intersections between art, activism, and scholarship.