New York theatregoers probably know Joan Ackermann best from the well received comedy-drama, The Batting Cage, which gave Veanne Cox another of her patented neurotic, talks-a-mile-a-minute ditzy roles. Ackermann’s also a writer on the barbed HBO comedy series, “Arliss,” but if you’re expecting the playwright to be anything like her pointed pen, you’re likely to be disappointed. In person, Ackermann is friendly and folksy, more in keeping with her eight-month-a-year lifestyle in Upstate New York’s countrified Berkshires, than with her four-month L.A. writer’s life, or with the crazed activity of an urban playwright. That said, Ackermann’s “day job” isn’t exactly a breeze: she and her husband run the Mixed Company Theatre in the Berkshires, where her new musical, Isabella, will soon appear.
Playbill On-Line: You founded the Mixed Company 18 years ago; do you still have to do day-to-day fundraising to keep it going?
Joan Ackermann: We don’t do any fund raising at all. We survive on our box office -- and we charge $15 a ticket.
PBOL: Okay, what’s your magic secret?
JA: Well, “Arliss” helps pay the bills -- I could never afford to do a musical otherwise. Also, we have a cultural audience in the Berkshires, and they’re very supportive. A very grass-roots relationship.
PBOL: Is Isabella your first musical?
JA: No, we did a Christmas musical, Yonder Peasant, a few seasons back. And this one’s small, too. It has a “Once upon a time” feel, sort of in the style of The Fantasticks. Right now we’re working on doing a CD of the score of Isabella, it was recorded live, and then we’ll see if we can take it further. I’m just gonna have Discmakers do a disk of it, within six weeks.
PBOL: Are you also working on a new play?
JA: Yes, but there’s no title yet. Like all my plays it has comedy and a serious side... It’s about three men in the woods... And redemption. It’s due for a major rehaul -- thanks for reminding me! PBOL: Well, you were busy doing a piece for this year’s Humana Festival in Louisville. How did that work out?
JA: Backstory was an experiment for the theatre’s Conservatory. Usually they do monologues and scenes from shows, but this time, [artistic director Jon] Jory and Michael Bigelow Dixon came to me and asked me to come up with a “backstory” about someone turning 25 in the year 2000. I had to write the first and last scene, while 18 other playwrights would contribute individual scenes to it. [Note: the other writers included Eduardo Machado, Donald Margulies, Constance Congdon and Edwin Sanchez.]
PBOL: When did the theatre bug first bite you?
JA: I saw Oliver! in London when I was 12 years old. That was it. The next year I played Oliver in high school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After that I did acting in summer stock and moved to the Berkshires, where the writing took over.
PBOL: Your first full length play was Zara Spook and Other Lures, which eventually came to Off-Broadway -- which apparently surprised you?
JA: We did it in the Berkshires, and someone came to the theatre and sent it to my agent who sent it to Louisville. I wrote it for six of us to take to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival -- six specific, local actors -- and never thought of any grander plans than that. We just wanted to raise money for the trip. But Mary Harden [then with Bret Adams now with the Harden/Curtis agency] called and wanted to represent me. That’s when I knew I wanted to write plays. Robert Wuhl saw a play of mine in the Berkshires, and that’s how I got involved in “Arliss.”
How different is writing for television than for the stage?
JA: I don’t consider TV writing “writing,” really. Even for “Arliss.” It’s more of a parlor game. You have so many minutes to figure out so many things. Really, I want to write plays. When you write a play, you get completely transported into another world. You’re in a whole other realm. Obsessed. Writing for a TV show is a much smaller scope and more superficial. You have problems you’re solving in all kinds of parameters. It’s more like a crossword puzzle.
PBOL: As your writing career came along, did you get any helpful advice from teachers, mentors or colleagues?
JA: I always conscientiously avoided taking a playwriting class so I wouldn’t learn any rules. But a lot of people have said many helpful things, and I really liked those Southern writers -- Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty -- though my style isn’t directly from them. The process of doing is what helps you. I got my sense of humor from my father. He’s a retired professor of German of German literature and a painter with a wry wit. I also get my powers of observation from him. Even before I was writing plays, my ex-husband kind of helped me focus and think about voice. Oh, and Jon Jory said, “Never have it be longer than two hours.”
-- By David Lefkowitz