NORMA JEANE AT THE PAYNE WHITNEY PSYCHIATRIC CLINIC, a featured event at the 2017 WINTERFEST @ THE HUDSON GUILD THEATER, 441 W. 26th Street, NYC (between 9th and 10th Avenues), is Nancy McClernan’s riveting piece about a movie star, in 1961, committed to a Manhattan psych ward. The doctor assigned to her case tries to keep her “for her own good,” but the movie star herself tries to save her “mask” by using the doctor’s own forbidden secret against him, as she will sacrifice anything to regain her “freedom.” Marilyn Monroe was committed to the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic in February 1961. This play is based on a true story. McClernan’s drama about the turmoil behind accepting the truth about yourself is as timely today as the era for when it was written. The play stars Jenna Sander and Matthew DeCapua.
MCCLERNAN’s work has been produced in PA, NJ, NY, CO and Japan. Her play “Blessings of the Sun God” was directed by Obie winner, Oliver Butler, and her play “Julia & Buddy” won Outstanding Production of a Full-length Play at the 2014 Midtown International Theater Festival. She founded and runs NYCPlaywrights creating opportunities for playwrights in New York and around the world. Read about her… where? Right HERE (Julia and Buddy @ MITF).
With just days before her limited run begins (Monday, February 20 @ 6:00 PM, Friday, February 24 @ 9:00 PM, Sunday, February 26 @ 3:30 PM) we spoke with the author about art and artists…
What was your inspiration for writing this piece – other than Ms. Monroe?
I was thinking about the importance of beauty – women especially are told that if you only look good enough you will be happy. But then I thought about Marilyn Monroe’s life, which demonstrated that this isn’t true. And it’s important to recognize that Monroe worked hard to be beautiful, including getting cosmetic surgery. If you look at old photos from her magazine shoots you can see her face subtly changing over the years. And even after she made it big, she would spend hours with expert makeup artists before going out in public. Which was one reason why she was always late.
A major theme of NORMA JEANE AT THE PAYNE WHITNEY PSYCHIATRIC CLINIC is how much “Marilyn Monroe” was the creation of a working-class woman named Norma Jeane Baker. And in fact some have suggested that although Monroe was a fine actor (and singer – most people nowadays don’t know that she could really sing) her primary artistic accomplishment was the Marilyn persona itself.
Most women can relate to the idea that beauty is a lot of hard work. And now we have a president who has no qualms about rating the appearance of women in public life. This is still an important political issue.
What draws you to material as a writer … and how does that differ from your choices as an actress?
Usually what draws me to material is that there is something I find annoying or interesting and I want to bring people’s attention to it. In the case of NORMA JEANE – I had read about letters she had written, and they were fascinating. I never thought she was a “dumb blonde” but I had no idea how creative and clever she really was until I saw her own words. I read her letter to Lee and Paula Strasberg begging them to help her get out of the Payne Whitney, and another letter to a psychiatrist, after she was released, talking about what it was like being held against her will at the Payne Whitney and both were harrowing. I thought the contrast between how Norma Jeane presented herself, through the Marilyn persona, and the absolute crap that she lived through was so extreme, it was worth writing about.
I’m not an actress, but I’ve often thought if I was I would focus on playing some of Shakespeare’s roles for women – I maintain he is still one of the best male writers of women’s roles, right up to the present time. I’d also write work for myself – I know several former actresses who decided that rather than play the wife or girlfriend again, they would start writing good roles for women, themselves. Many of them write strongly autobiographical pieces because they have not seen many characters like themselves on the stage.
How does this play resonate in today’s world?
There’s the beauty aspect, with Trump running beauty pageants and rating women’s appearance, but also I think the contemporary term “mansplaining” is a handy way to describe how Norma Jeane/Marilyn was treated. This woman wasn’t only a creative genius, she stood up to the Hollywood movie system and started her own production company, and yet she was still expected to defer to men. She needed Paula Strasberg to be on the set with her – that was just the way she had to work, with a mother figure she could count on, standing by. She knew herself well enough to understand what she needed to do her best work. And she got constant grief from directors and other men in her life for it. And yet the result of Marilyn’s work was to make lots of money for these men – she knew what she was doing, she knew what she needed to get it done, and she had a track record to prove it – and yet men were still always trying to explain to her how she should do things. And none of those men had ever carried a picture all by themselves.
Tell me about your journey as a female entrepreneur (writer, director, actor, etc…)
I went to art school expecting to become an illustrator, but then I discovered theater. I saw AS YOU LIKE IT on TV and it blew my mind. Shakespeare had written about a female friendship – between cousins Rosalind and Celia – in this amazingly realistic way, in spite of the heightened language. And at that moment a lightbulb went on – “oh so that’s why everybody thinks Shakespeare is so great!” So I started writing plays, and joined a Philadelphia theater group at the Brick Playhouse and had some work produced and then I was hooked.
I never thought of myself as a director until I was sued by a director for producing my own work (ten years ago – I wrote about the lawsuit for the Dramatists Guild magazine back then) and decided maybe I would try directing myself. To be honest, I haven’t been impressed by many directors I’ve worked with except for Oliver Butler – he produced/directed a short play of mine about twelve years ago and one of the other pieces in the evening had dancing toilets and he made it work, and I thought, wow if he can make that work he is a genius. And of course nowadays he’s an Obie-winning director and he deserves to be successful.
Back in 2000 I founded a writers group, NYCPlaywrights. We met every week of the year for eleven years (we did cancel the meeting scheduled for right after 9-11) but as the membership grew I found I was spending so much time dealing with NYCPlaywrights meetings that I didn’t have time for my own work, so now NYCPlaywrights exists as a web site (www.nycplaywrights.org) which provides calls-for-submissions, ticket discounts and freebies and other theater-related goodies for playwrights.
One of the projects I’ve done recently through NYCPlaywrights was a call for plays on the theme “Women in the Age of Trump” – ten minute plays and monologues. I posted excerpts from the semi-finalist plays in between the calls for submissions on the NYCPlaywrights site. Many people liked reading the excerpts although one Trump supporter did not and wrote to me to complain about “whining liberal crap.” You can’t please everybody.
I always have four or five plays in various stages of completion at any given time. I am working on a play called FLOWERS FOR MOM about a woman taking care of her mother, who has dementia, but then the doctor offers a new experimental drug that cures the dementia – it’s pretty sci-fi, inspired by “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes. I am almost done, after multiple revisions and readings, a play based on Ayn Rand’s influence on Alan Greenspan and how that led to the financial disasters thanks to Greenspan deregulating the stock market (something Donald Trump wants to do again!) – Greenspan is basically haunted by the ghost of Ayn Rand, who is the opposite of the ghosts in “A Christmas Carol” – instead of telling Greenspan he should be more generous to others, she tells him he should be more selfish.
My newest piece is inspired by my love for Justin Trudeau, the feminist Prime Minister of Canada. It’s set in the future, when Canada has become the leading democracy of North America, by sticking to classic liberal values. It’s unusual for me because the focus of the play is on a man.
I’d love to join or form a Canadian-America theater association and plan theater field trips between Montreal and New York. Canada has been looking really good lately, for obvious reasons.