Theater : Amy Brenneman performs at The Yard
Martha's Vineyard Times File Photo
This weekend, Amy Brenneman, of television and movie fame, and longtime collaborator Sabrina Peck, will present an original work, "Mouth Wide Open," based on writings of Ms. Brenneman's in which, with humor and characteristic verve, she chronicles recent events in her life. The four-actor piece deals with Ms. Brenneman's life in the limelight, her recent illness and recovery and, mostly, with an ongoing spiritual quest that has led her to locales as diverse as an evangelical church in the Mississippi delta, an Indian reservation in Maine, and a Buddhist monastery in Nepal.
"Amy has always been a spiritual seeker of sorts," Ms. Peck says. "She is one of those people who sees a bit of the divine in places all around her." Those places include a hospital room where some of the performance's action takes place, and red carpet ceremonies, which are revisited throughout the piece.
Ms. Brenneman, who studied comparative religion at Harvard (where she and Ms. Peck met), comments on the red carpet scenes: "In the present day the makeup chair, where I spend a lot of time, becomes a sort of confessional." She adds that she views award ceremonies as a sort of necessary evil associated with her profession. "Red carpets are absolutely bizarre. It's a Kabuki ritual. I will never fully get used to being a part of it. It's a performance to the highest degree."
The material written by Ms. Brenneman, which has been theatricalized and is directed by Ms. Peck, represents about a year's worth of blogs, journal entries, essays, and other writings. During the course of the writings, Ms. Brenneman experienced a crisis related to a chronic illness and realized that she needed to incorporate the experience into the piece.
"Ultimately that physical trial becomes its own spiritual journey that she takes," Ms. Peck says. "All this is set against the hilarious and surreal life as a celebrity. The red carpet becomes an interesting metaphor — this balancing act between the internal and the external. The press and public are only interested in the external."
Says Ms. Brenneman about the process from individual autobiographical pieces to a fully realized show, "I was very vaguely noodling around with it last fall here on the Vineyard when I realized I had to have surgery, so it was mentally tabled for a while." Once the uncertainty of her illness was not all-consuming she picked up where she left off, adding her recovery process to the piece.
"There were things going on in the hospital that were just too juicy," she says. Friends of Ms. Brenneman were skeptical about some of the dialogue in the hospital sequences, saying that it seemed over the top but, assures the actress, "I had a surgeon who was brilliant and such a character. I wrote down exactly what he said." Ms. Brenneman has since had a second surgery and is doing well.
Previously, Ms. Peck and Ms. Brenneman, who have been collaborators for many years, worked together at The Yard when Ms. Peck was here on a choreography residency. Ms. Peck enthuses about her time spent working at the dance colony: "The Yard for me is one of those idylls. There are just a handful in this country. The work has been so enriched because we have been living and working together. People bring so much of themselves in a way that they don't do elsewhere." She adds, speaking of Yard performances in general, "Audiences on the Island are lucky to get this close to the process. Being here where it's created and where it's performed is a visceral experience."
Ms. Brenneman is best known for her TV show "Judging Amy," which was loosely based on the life of her mother, a Connecticut superior court judge. "I'm a big believer in people just telling their stories," she says. Discussing a few of her favorite writers she notes, "They are people who write about day-to-day life with an eye toward the absurdity, the humor, and the soulfulness."
Ms. Peck expounds on what makes her friend and collaborator such a good chronicler of her life and others. "She's someone who listens well as much as she speaks well." She adds, commenting on the upcoming show, "She's an extraordinary performer. She has so much heart and wit, and she's scathingly funny and brave on stage."
Ms. Brenneman, who co-founded the award-winning Cornerstone Theater Company while in her 20s, and has continued to work in theater throughout her career, expresses an equal affinity for stage and screen. "They do different things but they're both pretty miraculous storytelling tools."
YardArts!: "Mouth Wide Open" 8 pm, Friday, July 9, The Yard, Chilmark. Journey Through Hollywood, Hospitals, and Holy Hotspots by Amy Brenneman, directed by Sabrina Peck. Dessert, champagne follows. Also Sat. (4 and 8 pm); Sun. (6 pm). 508-645-9662; dancetheyard.org.