Thursday, July 9, 2009

Diana Slickman Part One

Diana Slickman, it is my belief that Slickman is one of those fairytale orphans found by a nice family of common folk, and then somewhere down the line we find out that she is of royal blood, that she is a princess. But along the way of hardship, and the kindness of the family that raised her, she has learned how to be compassionate yet tough, how to survive on her own funds on her own terms. She is one of the few that can criticize and praise simultaneously inspiring you to make "something" better, the world, or at least a small part of it. She is rational and logical in her approach to her life, yet all life seems to float around her in a romantic haze. Her pragmatism has helped keep afloat some of the most scatterbrained companies in Chicago, including The Neo-Futurists and Theater Oobleck. I give you Part One of a woman most often referred to just as "Slick."


JP: alright, so, Diana Slickman. Where were you born?

DS: I was born in KC, MO in 1961. August 31st is my birthday. And lived there until 1985 when I moved here.

JP: Were you one of those kids who enjoyed school?

DS: I was one of those obnoxious children. That’s what I was. One of those obnoxious children.

JP: What do you mean?

DS: I had a neighbor when I was very small who used to say, “you wanna be a movie star when you grow up!” and I was like, “Yeah! That’s exactly what I wanna be! I don’t wanna be an actor, I wanna be a movie star.” And I was like, five. So I was one of those children. Attention seeking, unpleasant. My mother tells a story about herself that when she was a child she would make her classmates gather around her on the playground. She would stand on a tree stump and sing Shirley Temple songs. And wouldn’t let them leave. That’s the kind of child I was. Very unpleasant.

JP: As a child were you aware that you had this quality in common with your Mother?

DS: I didn’t know it at the time, but later when she told me that, I was like, “Oh Jesus Christ, that’s me.” But at the time, sure, I liked attention. I’m the youngest of 6 children so I had to fight for attention. And I got a lot of attention because my older sisters were much older than me so I was their doll. I was there for entertainment purposes in some way. Until I did something they got blamed for. Yeah, especially my two oldest sisters. They’re quick to praise me for any bit of creativity that I show. There are pictures of me in a beehive hairdo standing on our front lawn looking miserable because they’d ratted my hair, made my hair look “pretty.” So they paid a lot of attention to me, so I think I got a taste for that early. But I’ve always been a smart-ass and a wise-cracker so that’s how I’ve always asserted my personality. Through being funny. Or trying to be funny.

JP: I’ve noticed that a lot of Neos I’ve talked to: Scott Hermes, Heather, Dave Awl, David Kodeski—a bunch of people tend to come from smaller areas or at least smaller schools. Do you consider where you grew up to be small?

DS: I wouldn’t say it’s a small town, but it’s…as Midwestern towns go, it’s pretty big. I think the metro area probably has a million and a half people. So it’s not like, Carbondale. It’s a pretty big city. It’s as big as St. Louis, maybe?

JP: So, you had friends that lived close? Scott tells me his closest friends lived like 2 miles away.

DS: Oh no no. I played with the Martinis who lived just across—you went through the Singleton’s driveway to get to the Martinis’s house. I went to Catholic grade school and Catholic high school and there were a lot of kids in our neighborhood. It’s actually a nice town, Kansas City. Pretty; hilly. And in the 60s, you were pretty much left to your own devices as children. I didn’t have any afterschool activities, I didn’t play sports. Nooo. There wasn’t the regimentation there is now. You would come home and you just played. My brothers were in football, but my sisters and I didn’t have anything like that. And I played by myself a lot as a child. I liked to talk to trees. We had a big garden in the backyard and that was my house. Certain rocks were certain rooms and any time I went to a big building, that was my house too.

JP: Did you have specific or reoccurring imaginary friends?

DS: No, my brother did. My brother had 3 very specific imaginary friends with names. I’d talk to mannequins, I’d talk to trees. I really didn’t have anything specific. It was just whatever was handy. And I had a couple of really close friends in grade school. Alise Martini was my very best friend. Yeah, through about 8th grade. Then I went to a different school and she went to a different school and that was that. I was one of those kids that didn’t—this may be revisionist history—but I didn’t clique very much. I wasn’t somebody who ran with a specific crowd. Or like, to the exclusion of-- everybody kind of claimed me even though I didn’t always claim them. Especially in high school, you know, all girl high school, St. Teresa’s. I was funny, so everybody liked me. I like to think. Maybe everyone was just pretending and every one hated me, which is rude.

JP: You wanted to be a movie star when you were younger. Did any of that energy transform into actual performances? When did you first start acting?

DS: The first thing I would say I remember being in was, of course like many of us, the Christmas pageant. You know, classes sang Christmas carols and I think probably in 1st grade I got to be in the Christmas thing. We sang a carol called “The Huron Carol.” I don’t know where it really comes from, but it’s supposedly a Christmas carol as composed by Native Americans. I don’t know. It’s dumb. And I got to play an Indian squaw and that was GREAT. I fancied myself as part Indian anyway, for some reason. There’s no one in my family that has Indian heritage, but I decided that I was Indian because I had long brown hair that I wore in braids a lot, so that’s probably why I was an Indian. And I got really tan in the summer. But that’s really the first theatrical performance I remember being in. And in high school I was in as many plays as I could be. We did a play every year. I don’t think I was in a play freshman year, and then sophomore year I was going to be in a show but then it got canceled because our teacher got lupus and she couldn’t direct it. And then I was in a production of Our Town, of course. Like everybody is. And then senior year I was in You Can’t Take It With You. I played Penny Singleton.

JP: I don’t know if you know this, but there’s Phil and Greg's Father—

DS: Everybody’s been in You Can’t Take It With You. It’s one of those things that’s done in high school a lot. Especially high school of a certain era.


JP: How did theater work at an all girl school. Were there boys in your shows?

DS: Yeah, we did partnered performances. There’s a brother school to my high school, Rockhurst High School, and it’s an all boy Jesuit high school and we would often draw upon their talent pool for our male cast members. And I performed in a couple of shows over there. But for some reason I ended up being in a couple of sort of oddball student written productions. There was this really funny thing written by Ned Shine. I don’t remember what it was about, but I played Sister Mary Ellen Rogers. Now, Mary Ellen Rogers was Wally Cleaver’s girlfriend in Leave It To Beaver, so he’d written this play that was all sort of characters from television and it was about heresy. Now, how it got produced at this all boys Catholic school was, I have no idea but it was really funny, as I recall. But yeah, we traded cast members back and forth. Then my senior year we had the guy who…one of the few male teachers at St. Teresa’s at the time, he was a recent graduate of Catholic college in Kansas City, also called Rockhurst.. And he had guys that were friends of his, or guys that he knew from college? [You will notice that throughout this interview Slickman will make a statement into a question. In print it sometimes looks like she is unsure of what she has experienced, which may be true, but in "real life" she is just making sure you are following what she is saying. She is motherly in that way, wanting at all times to make sure that you are comfortable and understanding what she means.] So there were some college guys in our show, too. In You Can’t Take It With You. We didn’t have female performances in drag or anything.

JP: I often wondered what it would be like to go to an all boys’ school or Catholic school. I mean, obviously there was interest in boys. Did you look at these as opportunities to…

DS: Oh yeah, totally. Opportunity to be in close proximity with the opposite sex? Yeah. But you know we had that anyway. It’s not as restrictive as it sounds, I don’t think. At least it wasn’t then. I am all in favor of same sex education, I’ve gotta say, as a product of an all girl Catholic high school. I think if I had gone to a co-ed school, well, I wasn’t a very good student to begin with but I would have been worse. I was a terrible student. Until I got to college and then I got steadily better. Because I started taking things I wanted to take. I didn’t like being a child because I didn’t like people telling me what to do. Hated it. I still hate being told what to do. So I didn’t do well in school because I didn’t like them telling me what they thought I should learn, or doing it on their time schedule. I didn’t like deadlines. I’m kind of an obnoxious person. So when I got to college and I could take things that I wanted to take and I could make my own schedule I did a lot better. But in high school I would have been an even worse student if there had been boys on the premises. But you know, they’re Catholic so there are large families with boys everywhere. And my grade school, that was co-ed so I knew a lot of guys from my grade school that I was friends with throughout high school because they all went to Rockhurst. And there were dances and parties. It was just when you were on campus you didn’t have any guys. It was hilarious, there was this circular drive in front of St. Teresa’s and some guys in a convertible would drive around the circle. Honking. And you would think that Jesus Christ had arrived on the green because girls would rush to the windows, scream. And I’d think, I’m gonna see them later on this evening. I don’t understand why we have to do this now. And you know, girls are catty. So there were a lot of cliques and a lot of in-fighting. It wasn’t terrible. Not the way it’s sometimes portrayed. But I was sort of oblivious. I was apolitical sort of, in terms of who I hung out with so there wasn’t a lot of meanness that went on around me. But I think there might have been for other girls who were more popular or more concerned about their status. I remember it as being a sort of benevolent experience. Nobody really cared enough about me to snipe about me.

JP: You are a very intelligent woman. During this hardship in school did you already know that you were intelligent? Did you ever question it?

DS: Oh I liked to think I was real smart.

JP: So there was some hubris involved?

DS: Oh yeah, that’s partly why I still don’t like being told what to do. I think I know better. And I certainly thought I knew better in school. And I’m lazy. That’s the other thing. That’s the other thing that made me a bad student, I’m lazy. So people tell me I gotta do these workbook pages between now and tomorrow at 2? Uh, I’d rather not do it. So I got bad grades.


JP: Were there other artists in your family?

DS: Um…you know, not really. I mean, I’m considered the odd one. I’m the “fancy” one, I’m the creative one. My mom was a very forceful personality. She liked to paint but wasn’t very good at it. Probably could have been better if she’d had more training and time to work on it. And she had a flare, you know, to say she had a flare for the dramatic makes it sound unsavory, but she had a very lively and extroverted personality, and I think she was the closest thing we had to someone very creative in our family. My dad was a doctor and very practical and mathematically inclined. My eldest sister is a nurse and also very practical and has a good mind for science, I think, and probably would have been a doctor if my dad had permitted her to go to medical school to be a doctor. My sister, Pat, is really…she’s got a lot of energy and a really great…she’s got a lot of personality on her though she might deny that she has any creativity about her. And both of my brothers in their very different ways are men of action, but neither of them “creative.” Though my elder brother, Drew, has a great way with words. My brother, Dan, likes to tell a story in a very detailed way. You dreaded him coming home from the movies because he was always going to recount every single scene of the movie in vivid detail. Which he could remember. And then my sister, Laura, knits these amazing things. I think she took art in high school, and she probably did okay. But none of them are performers or theater people and they think I’m a freak. A good freak, but yeah, none of them have that outward facing creativity, you know what I mean? They’re creative in their work or in their homes but their creativity doesn’t face out if that makes sense.

JP: That does makes sense.
[I catch myself using the word "creative" to mean people who write and perform instinctively, but I am constantly reminded that any pursuit, job, that requires you to use some small part of your imagination is tantamount to being creative. Often this is not acknowledged, and leads people to say that they are NOT creative.]

JP: So you chose to go to an arts college. Last part of high school, what lead you to make that choice? Was there any sort of epiphany?

DS: No, it was really the only thing I ever wanted to do. And in some ways I felt like it was the only thing I was suited for because, at the time, I didn’t feel like I had any practical skills. I was good at drawing attention to myself and that seemed like a good place to start. I can’t remember ever wanting to be anything other than a performer of one kind or another. Anytime I had an opportunity to take any class where I could perform something, any oral interp or debate, I took. But I really thought…I really was aiming for a traditional theater career. Yeah, career I guess, for want of a better term. I wanted to be an actor. I wanted to perform onstage as other people’s text as an actor. And that’s what I did in college although, it’s a big school, the University of Missouri at Kansas City. And a pretty big theater department at the time. I was a declared acting major from the time I walked into the building. That was my trajectory, that’s what I wanted to do. I found out late in my senior year that the department head and a couple of other key figures in the department thought I was a tech person. Which kind of explained why I had not been cast as much as I thought I should. And I was stunned by that information, and infuriated because then I realized I had lost opportunities because somebody somewhere just hadn’t noticed. I don’t know where they got that except that I hung out with the tech people all the time, I LOVED the tech people.

JP: You’re a great actor, Diana. In fact, some of the people I’ve interviewed have said you’re one of the best actors that they ever met. But you don’t come off that way!

DS: I seem normal?

JP: No, it’s not even that. You seem, too intellectual. You feel more to me like the George S. Kauffman of the Algonquin Table with the sardonic wit and incredible writing ability.

DS: Yeah. Yeah. And, you know, I’m trying to think…I’m trying to think…isn’t it funny? I don’t have any friends from—I do have some friends from college still. But most of the people that I see from Kansas City when I go home for the holidays are friends from grade school. But I don’t…you know, I lived with a lighting designer. I lived with a stage management student. One of them I still keep the in touch with, the other one, I don’t know what happened to her. I can’t find her anymore. But I didn’t hang out with, in fact I didn’t befriend actors that much. Which is sort of odd looking back, it’s kind of an odd thing. Why I didn’t identify with those people, why I didn’t seek out their company, they were too…well, probably because they took attention away from me! I guess. I don’t know… I still sometimes would love to be an actor. A regular actor.

JP: They were around all the time.

DS: Yeah. Yeah. And, you know, I’m trying to think…I’m trying to think…isn’t it funny? I don’t have any friends from—I do have some friends from college still. But most of the people that I see from Kansas City when I go home for the holidays are friends from grade school. But I don’t…you know, I lived with a lighting designer. I lived with a stage management student. One of them I still keep the in touch with, the other one, I don’t know what happened to her. I can’t find her anymore. But I didn’t hang out with, in fact I didn’t befriend actors that much. Which is sort of odd looking back, it’s kind of an odd thing. Why I didn’t identify with those people, why I didn’t enjoy they’re company, they were too…well, probably because they took attention away from me! I guess. I don’t know… I still sometimes would love to be an actor. A regular actor.

JP: I feel the same way. I was always more attracted to the tech people. I preferred their company and their smaller parties. Even now I’m often more fascinated with the snack people than the people I’m in the show with.


DS: It’s funny, the show that I’m in now I play bearded lady. [The Art of Unbearable Sensations] And I’ve got this fabulous costume—my tits are all pushed up, I’m very open in through here. I’m told that I am “absolutely mesmerizing,” never more attractive than I am with a beard. Now I was thinking about that the other day and thinking what—it’s odd because I’m not usually objectified in that way? You know, I don’t think there are many people who, when they think of me they think, “ooh, sexy.” But now in this show with my beard, I’m this person. And I was thinking, well what do I think I am? I must think I have some appeal. What is the appeal that I think I have? And I decided that I think, I want to be seen as attractive for what I can do, you know? If I imagine myself as a person who is attractive, or sexually attractive or sexy, it—for some reason I want it to be for the things I can do. My efficiency! Which nobody finds sexy. For being capable. My capability is what I think is going to make me attractive to men. It’s like, um…not really but that’s okay. So I think that sort of fits in with my…I think where I was going with that thought is that sort of fits in with why I liked to hang out in those days with people who did things. These people have skills that make them useful, or make them valuable to the theater which seemed to me more valuable than being an actor who, we’re a dime a dozen. We’re—everybody gets paid before we do. The musicians get paid before we do. The house manager gets paid before we do. You know, I think there was a little bit of that in my rejection of actors, because they felt sort of superfluous. Even though the show cannot go on, literally, cannot go on with out us—I don’t know, there was less value to being an actor to me, I think, at the time.

JP: It’s hard to put a value on this, but is this really what you were feeling at the time?

DS: No, I definitely didn’t consciously think about it at the time. Although there are definitely personality types that I don’t like. I don’t like divas, I don’t like people who, you know, make a big fuss for no reason and demand special treatment because they are what they are instead of because they offer something that is essential or needed. And there was a lot of that in my—in every theater school—there’s always a lot of drama. Personal drama. And I didn’t care for that.

JP: I went to Columbia College here in Chicago, and the social habit I was known for—there were always parties going on, and I had [and still have] mixed feelings about going to these parties. I would literally get up to the door about to knock and then decide not to go. Sometimes I would just pace in front of the party until I walked away or someone made me go in. I wanted to be part of the drama in some aspect but I just couldn’t do it. Like, something in me thought, it’s not my world. I feel out of that. I felt more comfortable with the late night people in the kitchen talking quietly rather than being an integral part of the drama.

DS: It’s funny because Rachel’s [Claff] piece in the show we’re doing now, the BoyGirlBoyGirl show, is about that manufactured drama, the manufactured intrigue and that that sometimes surrounds the theater. Being catty for no reason or deciding that something is a big deal when it probably isn’t, but wanting to live at that sort of heightened state. Which I probably did on some level, and not only wanted to but probably did? I mean, I know there was a lot of drama in my life, things that I got really worked up about, but you know, I don’t know. They weren’t…I don’t know, I maybe…looking back maybe through filtered glasses, but I didn’t like the actors much. I think maybe that makes me a bad person. My best friends are actors, you know! It’s weird. It’s weird to be a theater person who—although, you know, most of the people I like don’t like actors, either. Even though they are some. And act like that, you know? It’s weird.

JP: I think some of this stuff is not talking in black and white. It’s grays, but I think what you’re saying is true about yourself. There’s always those perceptions.

DS: Oh yeah. I was young once, and foolish.


JP: Were you introduced to anything performance styles other than traditional theater when you were in college?

DS: No. Un-uh. We did plays, you know. That’s what we did. We took other people’s text, we performed them. I didn’t take any writing classes. I had a theater history class that was taught by a fantastic teacher, Felicia Londré, a woman who still teaches there and she was - maybe still is - the dramaturge for the theater there. She’s also a scholar - she’s written books about Tennessee Williams and productions of Hamlet in different countries and so on, but she had a theater history class that everybody loved. Everybody loved taking Felicia’s class and because it was a requirement, I think, she knew she had a lot of people in her class who were not going to go on to become dramaturges or theater historians or whatever. The way her classes were structured were you could turn in five projects—five short projects, like one or two page projects throughout the semester, or you could write a big paper at the end of the semester. So what I did—

(Bob enters. he forgot Diana was doing this thing. he got a haircut. it is short and nice.) [Bob Stockfish is Diana's partner and the inspiration for a character in Greg Kotis' Urinetown.)

So the things that you could do for your little projects would be, you could write a short, surrealist play or your could make a slide presentation about the Fauvists, you know. All these sorts of things that clearly geared for the actor or the lighting designer or the playwright. You could pick and choose these things. So I would always choose those things instead of the big paper at the end of the semester because that bullshit I didn’t like. Oh, and turning in two pages was much easier for me, and doing something creative. So I did get a little bit of a taste for things like writing short things based on a theme, or short things based on a style. I wrote a Dadaist play based on a painting by Salvador Dali. Well, okay. Not sure how that furthered my education, but I did. So I did get a little bit of a taste for that in a theater history class, which is ironic to me. My last semester there I took an independent study under her direction and I wrote a fifteen-minute play. But I guess I wrote another couple of things, too, because one of them was produced right after college, come to think of it. But I didn’t perform anything that was sort of out of the ordinary. You know, undergraduate playwriting class projects.

JP: It’s funny, there’s a lot of people who go to theater school and don't get any introduction to Dada, The Futurists, Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, Happenings, etc. They are considered visual artists but these individuals and movements began to blur the line between theater, music, and art. They helped to create "performance art."

DS: Felicia's class was great. There were two sections of it, one was up to maybe 1850 and then the rest was there to modern. Everybody wanted to take her class. She was a great teacher. Really made things come alive. And she was—still is—very tall, sort of bony and very sharp looking and if you met her in the hallway she would always sort of look shyly around and say, “hello,” in a very timid sort of nice-to-see-you sort of way. But in class she was really dynamic, and she would read—I’ll never forget—she read a passage from…Phaedra? the Racine play? In French. In the class. None of us understood French, but just so that we could hear the language of the play, the poetry of the play. And she was a completely different person. I think that she is actually a closeted actor that lacks the personal…you know, whatever that impulse is, that extroversion to put herself in front of an audience. But she did it every week in class. She was so much fun to be in class with, because she knew so much. And she was always excited about theater history - you know, we all have our own enthusiasms. But I really liked her, I really learned a lot in her class. Probably more than in any other class I took in college. But most of the acting I did was straight up theater.

JP: We're nearing your graduation. What are you thinking? What's next?

DS: Well, I applied to graduate school all over the place. Nobody wanted me. I picked five schools, auditioned for all of them, applied to all of them. Nothing. So I thought, well, I’ll just move then. I lived in KC for another couple of years after that, I think, and did a couple of shows with some small theaters there and had a great time but I didn’t wanna stay in KC. Because at that time, there wasn’t a lot of theater there? And what there was, there was dinner theater and community theater but not a lot of professional theater besides the big one at school.


JP: So were you working a lot of odd jobs in KC then?

DS: I worked at the public library all through college and then I worked at the Westport Cash Saver the two years after school, which we called Fellini Mart because it was just crazy there. And sometimes it was Diane Arbus day at Fellini Mart and that was really crazy. It was just a circus. Everything but dwarves was what we had. Oh it was quite a place. Still is, for all I know. Every day was some kind of new drama there. But, yeah, I just decided yeah, I’ll move then. So I picked five cities and did some research and narrowed it down and narrowed it down and finally decided on Chicago. Mostly for the theater. And that was 1985 and about a month—it must have been like the month I moved here, there was an article in Time Magazine about how Chicago was THE city for theater and if you wanted to be an actor you should move there. And EVERYBODY did. EVERYBODY DID. And I’m not saying I was ahead of the curve but I was just ahead of the article. So then within six months, I would say, there was a HUGE influx of actors in Chicago. Steppenwolf was very hot at the time, the Goodman’s profile was very high.

JP: Were there other elements that sold you on Chicago?

DS: Yes. It wasn’t as expensive as New York, it wasn’t as cold as Minneapolis, it wasn’t as rainy as Seattle, and it wasn’t that far from home. Seemed affordable. Somebody I knew had moved here. You know, like a lot of cities in the Midwest and the Rust Belt, Chicago is the next step up. The next biggest city. Part of it was climate, although I regret it now. Every single day of the winter I regret moving to this frozen, northern wasteland of a city. [Diana begins to let some of that quickly building stream subside. She is incredible at bringing comedy and venom together and then letting it dissipate into a cutesy smile.] And because it was starting to get a reputation for being a really good place to do theater.

JP: Did you jump right into auditioning?

DS: I had to acclimate to where I was. I don’t remember stepping into auditions right away. But not long after I moved here I started working with the Chicago Shakespeare Company, and I think they were formerly The Free Shakespeare Company. They needed somebody to be a board op or something. So I started doing that and eventually started getting cast with them. If they needed an extra body here and there they would put me in. Then I started saying in earnest that I wanted to be in the next show so they started casting me in stuff. I’d say about 4 or 5 years I worked with them. And we did, you know, not very good productions of Shakespeare. Not VERY good. Some were better than others, and I did some—you’ll discover a pattern—I started working there with ambitions to be an actor, and then I decided that maybe they needed somebody to be a company manager, to do some of the administrative tasks. Because nobody was doing them and that drove me mad. I ended up doing the bookkeeping. I didn’t know anything about bookkeeping—well, I knew a little because that’s what I did at Fellini Mart. I abhor an organizational vacuum. Apparently. I can’t help myself. So I ended up being more valuable that way than as a performer, I guess. And I was miscast in a lot of things, but there were a lot of things that I loved being in. I was in a production of The Winter’s Tale that—I played the role of Paulina and I loved playing that role. Because she’s right all the time, and I love being right. And she got to be indignant, and that was fun. Never liked playing ingénues, never liked that. They made me do that in KC a couple of time and it just—even when I was one, it wasn’t a good situation. No, they’re boring. Nothing’s more boring than an ingénue. I played Hero in a production of Much Ado About Nothing in Kansas City—Hero doesn’t do anything in that fuckin’ play. Except stand around and look—and be hurt. And faint. That was the most fun I had all day. I can’t wait till I get to faint, because then I get to do something. Mostly I just looked wounded. I hated it. But no, I love the characters of action. Paulina was a character of action. She moved the play along, she makes things happen, she yells at the king. It’s good. It’s fun. So I liked doing that. They cast me as…Olivia? In Twelfth Night? Who’s sort of an ingénue? I wasn’t good at it, I wasn’t sexy enough, and they said so, and recast me. I was like, wow, that’s not nice. But that’s okay, I got over it. And I played Mariah instead, who is lusty and earthy which I also am not. So I was miscast again but in a way that was more acceptable. But you know, I sort of enjoyed doing stuff with them. I got cast in men’s roles a lot. In Measure for Measure I played the provost, the guy who’s in charge of the prison. The administrator. I like that. I played the apothecary and Mrs. Montague, you know, Mrs. Montague has no lines. She basically says, “Oh!” at one point, somebody dies and she gets upset and then she perishes. But I got to play the apothecary, that was fun. I was a fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I was Hippolita and that was good. I can get behind being an Amazon. That was fun. But, on the whole—oh oh oh! And I played the Duke of Venice! I played the Doge of Venice. And I had a great costume. But I—always as women in these men’s roles.

JP: Scott and Phil talk about being at Goodman and the teachers and directors just didn’t know what to do with these guys. Did you feel similar ways during the earlier part of your performance career? It sounds like you got a lot of roles but did it feel like you weren’t coming into your own in these performances?

DS: Well, I’ve definitely fancied myself as lead material. I would like to have played…I, of course, always thought I was a better actor than whoever they cast or whatever they wanted. I don’t feel that way anymore, but at the time I would often be indignant that they gave the role to someone because that person had been around longer or complained more loudly or put themselves forward in a way. The thing I suffer from, if I suffer from anything in my “career”—in quotes—I lack ambition. I don’t put myself forward as often as perhaps I ought to. Or perhaps my career would have taken a whole different path if I had been more aggressive about pursuing theater work, I think. I’d probably be doing straight theater at someplace like Great Lakes Rep or something. I’d be playing Mrs. Capulet now somewhere. But I didn’t…I think that’s why I didn’t figure out until my senior year that they didn’t know I was an acting major, because I never went into the office of the department head and said “why am I not getting cast?” Well, I’m not getting cast because there are other people in the department who are better than me or, whatever. And at the time, in the Shakespeare company, I really did think that I was not being utilized well and that I would have been better than some of the women who were being cast in the roles that I wanted. And I don’t know that I ever expressed that out loud because theater is so political. I was sort of new to the company. The company had been around for awhile—Jane Lynch was in that company. Jane Lynch, who’s in all the old Christopher Guest movies now. There’s a person with force and ambition and personality. And talent. She’s very funny and a good actor. But she’s the kind of person who would put herself forward and say “this person should have this role. I should have this role and here’s why.” Whereas she would say that, I only thought it. I’d complain to someone on the side, but I would never say something to the company at large. Although I think I may have done that once or twice and been shot down. So, you know, I was relatively young at the time. They didn’t know me from Adam. They knew me as the person who came in as a board op. But they knew I was also an actor. I don’t know, it’s interesting.


JP: I don’t want to keep pushing for a revelation that you may not have experienced, but how did you get to where you are now? What was going on with you? I mean solo performance and Neo-Futurism is a very different world from what you were experiencing in Shakespeare.

DS: Here’s what I was doing. When I left the Shakespeare company, I did some auditions. I auditioned for The Goodman a couple of times, I did some commercial auditions—never got anywhere with that. I half-heartedly started going to agents. Again, my inability to put myself forward as a product of course completely hindered my ability to get any work through agents because unless you basically punch them in the face every day with who you are and what you are and what you do, they’re not gonna get any work for you. It’s the total squeaky wheel gets the grease syndrome. So I backed off from that because I just didn’t have that kind of energy. I was looking through The Reader one day, like you do, and I always looked at the audition notices and the Wanted notices, and there was an ad looking for women who were interested in writing to start a women’s theater collective. Well I answered that ad. I’m a feminist. I answered that ad. That’s how I met Anita [Loomis]. A bunch of women started to meet on a regular basis and we would write things and read them to each other and talk about feminist issues and talk about issues of the day and it was kind of a reaction to the—whether it was real or perceived—this sort of guy…theater was very much a guy’s game in those days. Steppenwolf was full of guys who were walking around naked five feet from the audience and spitting on each other. It was in reaction to that because we didn't think women were getting enough work in theater, we didn’t think women were getting enough attention as performers or writers. So we would meet regularly. And we wrote things for each other, we’d give each other assignments, and the next time we meet we’d read them. And that’s what we did. It was fun. We put on several shows together. Stand-up comedy in those days was HUGE, and was completely a men’s game. There just were no women in stand-up comedy, certainly on the local level, very few on the national level. And that was very interesting to me, as someone who is funny, who thinks she is funny. I thought that was a good fit for me. So I wrote—I was writing stand-up for myself. And then we put on 3 or 4 shows. That was when I started writing because I had never written anything before, aside from the assignments at school, I had never thought about myself as a writer.

JP: Comedy was just not at all inviting to women.

DS: Yeah, women aren’t funny. That was still the…you wouldn’t think that as late as the early ‘90s that there would be that sentiment that feminism negates humor. Nothing could be further from the truth in my experience. But that was a prevailing sentiment, women are not funny. And that’s because the guys were performing at Zanies every weekend didn’t want chicks around unless they were fucking ‘em. They didn’t want that competition. They had enough competition within their own ranks. And they did not—I have to say, in 1992 I was crowned the funniest unemployed person in the greater Chicagoland area. I was in a competition and I performed, I think it was at Zanies. And to his credit, there was a guy who was on the comedy circuit. I don’t think he was headlining there but he came up to me after the show and he said, “You’re really funny and you need to pursue this. Because there are not enough women doing this in the world.” And he gave me his name and his phone number and his address and, you know, I never got in touch with him. Again, my total lack of ambition. I think he must have been the only man on the planet who was doing that in that world, who was pursuing—he said, “you’re looking at things the right way out of the corner of your eye. You’ve got the right attitude and you should pursue it.” And, you know, I didn’t. I didn’t like it much.

JP: No?

DS: Yeah. I mean, I love it for all the same reasons I love solo performance. If you do well, it’s all you. If you do bad, it’s all you.

JP: Were you good with an audience?

DS: I think I could have been. It’s intimidating. Yeah, like, working with a microphone is very odd for me? And not something I was used to from my years at school? I was taught to stand and project. So that, and I think a lot of—I know it sounds ridiculous—but a lot of comedy is how you use the microphone.

JP: Music is that way, too.

DS: Yeah. It’s a skill. And I was intimidated by that. I think there are a lot of stand-ups who write that way. You know, everything is planned. Steve Martin is one of those writers, I think. There’s no improvisation in his act. But then I think the people who are really brilliant are the people who have it scripted but do have room for improvisation. Which I don’t think I have.

JP: One of my all-time is Paula Poundstone?

DS: Oh my god!

JP: She was amazing!

DS: She’s still hilarious. She’s on Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me! every now and then.

JP: But she was—male or female—the best I saw at using an audience.

DS: Yeah, yeah. Knows how to work a room. Yeah. She’s great. I would have liked to have been her. Not gonna happen.

JP: So did this group have a name?

DS: Yeah, I would say after about five meetings of deliberation, came up with the EXTREMELY creative title of The Feminist Theater Collective. Oh, that makes me wanna go see their shows! Although, we actually did have a little following, after 3 or 4 shows. And you know, it didn’t hurt that there were about 18 of us in the group and we all performed and we all had a couple of friends and we performed at Club Lower Links. I loved Club Lower Links. Lower Links was so dark, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face down there. But along with the people I met in that group, I went on to do other stuff. So, Anita, my friend Barbara Babbitt. I can’t remember if Susan Booth, who is now the artistic director of the Alliance Theater in Atlanta, at the time was working at Northlight, was in the FTC or not. We started sort of another theater company—well, “theater company” makes it sound like we were in any way organized, which we weren’t. But I started working on shows with these other gals, or the some of the gals from Feminist Theater Collective, and we started doing…in some way the same thing that we do now with BoyGirlBoyGirl, which is to take a piece of found text or an idea—mostly found text—and then create a show out of that text. And when we finally had to put our name on something, we came up with the name Matchgirl Strike which was…apparently there was a strike in New York among matchgirls, literally, girls who sold matches and it was a big deal. You couldn’t buy matches on the street anymore because there was a strike. It was a sort of labor movement. Early feminists unite. And we thought it was a cool thing, so that’s what we called ourselves. Matchgirl Strike!

JP: That's a very punny title. Very witty.

DS: Yeah! Look at that! Look at that! You see how it resonates. We did two or three really fun shows even if I do say. The first show we did was called “A Different Kind of Blow Job,” We took the transcripts of the 1983 Minneapolis obscenity hearings, which was trying to decide on an obscenity ordinance for the city of Minneapolis, and we made a show out of those transcripts. Sure. That sounds like a lot of fun. That was actually pretty fun, we performed that at Club Lower Links. We did a different show called “Women’s Day: A Living Magazine.” We did a living newspaper treatment of a single issue of Women’s Day magazine. We did both of those shows through the old Zebra Crossing, and that was really fun. We took an issue of Women’s Day and sort of deconstructed it, poked holes in it. We would have run it a lot longer but the guy who was one of the duo who ran Zebra Crossing worried about the copyright issues, called up Women’s Day magazine and said “we’re doing a feminist deconstruction of your magazine. Is it okay if we do that?” He identified himself and what theater company he was from and basically we had to shut down before they sued us. So that didn’t work out. The third and last show we did was called “An Act of Obscenities,” and we chronicled obscenity law from the beginning of the country to present day based on a book called Girls Lean Back Everywhere, which is a history of obscenity law. And that was fun, too. That was me and Barbara and Anita. Susan directed it.


JP: Around this time you were introduced to the Neo-Futurists. Is that correct?

DS: I was in the Feminist Theater Collective and we were performing our first show, “Wild Women Get The Blues?” I had written 25 minutes worth of stand-up material about female protection. Which was fun. Greg Allen came to see that. There was a woman in the cast who was roommates with Miriam [Greg Allen's wife to be at the time, now ex-wife] He introduced himself and said who he was and it didn’t mean anything to me because I didn’t know anything about Too Much Light. It had been running 2 or 3 years by then. He cast me in something. Lexus Praxus at Zebra Crossing. In this series they would take non-theatrical texts and adapt them to the stage. Greg had adapted a short story by Richard House called “Milk,” with Chet Grissom who was Karen Christopher’s first husband. The Neo-Futurists had been not long in the Neo-Futurarium? This must have been ’92 so they had just moved in…or they were renting space from Oobleck. So that was how Greg and I got to know each other. And then in late ’92 I was at work at the Actor’s Center, minding my own business, and Greg called me up and said, “what are you doing?” and I said, “well, I’m working.” And he said, “The Neo-Futurists are having auditions tonight,” and I said, “Oh.” And he said, “Well, do you want to come by and audition?” and I said, “Well, okay.” and I said, “What do I have to have?” and he said “You have to have 2 minutes of original material.” And it just so happened that I had about 4 minutes of original material that I had written with the gals, with The Feminist Theater Collective. So I said, “Well, okay.” I didn’t have anything else to do. I don’t think I’d ever seen the show— I knew about it, but I’d never seen it. Or if I had—I don’t think I’d ever seen it, I’ll say that again. I’m pretty sure I didn’t know what I was getting into. So I went and while I was going there I was cutting and cutting and cutting from this piece that I had. And I was imperfectly memorized, I’m sure. But I went and I auditioned and it went okay. Everyone was very friendly and spoke to me afterwards and the next thing I knew, I was trapped. And then I started in January of 1993 in Too Much Light.

JP: Did you come in with other people?

DS: Lusia and David (Kodeski) and I were cast all at the same time. And Lusia and I started the same week. David started about three weeks later. It was fun.

JP: Okay, we’re there now.

DS: Yeah, it took long enough! Yak, yak, yak.

JP: You had never seen it before, but do you remember…what is your first memory in the show? Just being in it?

DS: I remember getting my nametag. Barbara Babbitt and I went together, I think, right after I got cast. And that’s all I remember getting my nametag and thinking, that’s bullshit. And then sitting—I think at the time you had to be interviewed—back, ooh, way back in the day.

JP: They still did the interviewing of the audience when you started?

DS: Oh, oh yeah. I talked to people. I still think that’s a good idea. We also had the audience write whatever they wanted on the back wall with chalk [This was before we even had a chalk board on the back wall. They were just writing on the wall itself.] This was a pain in the ass because every night you had to wipe it down and start all over again.

JP: Did you like it?

DS: Yeah, oh yeah. I thought it was a good idea or I wouldn’t have said yes. It seemed like fun. It is what it is. It’s fast-paced and clever, the people seemed interesting, it obviously had an audience. There were a lot of people there who had, some of them, had obviously been there before so I knew that it had a following and it was an exciting thing. There wasn’t—and still isn’t, as far as I’m concerned—anything else like it. It was absolutely filling a niche at that time. There was no late night theater. There was very little late night theater, I should say. There was comedy clubs…and that was about it, really. Comedy clubs. You had to be 21, you had to buy drinks to go. Nobody was doing that. Nobody I knew could afford to do that, was interested in doing that. So this was doing something that nobody else was doing, you know, for people who were under 21 or theater people. There was a real—in spite of the fact that there’s that lack of theatricality about it—these were clearly theater people. This was clearly put on not by comedians but by people who were theater people. In the best sense of the word. Who cared about connecting with the audience. And I liked that it wasn’t all funny, that there was room for—because I was a little more serious in those days. I was sort of going through a phase where I didn’t wanna be funny all the time even though I was doing stand-up at the time. I liked that there was a range of tone and a range of intent behind what was being presented. And I thought the people who were in it were smart, funny—and that was a big draw. That made it really appealing. There were people who were clearly smarter and more talented than I was working on it.

JP: You came in right at the beginning the only time when the show had a consistent cast for over a two year period.

DS: Yeah, I started in January of ’93. And they had been I think a fairly stable cast for a while. And I can’t remember who we were brought in to replace. I think Tim Reinhardt was quitting. I think Betsy Freytag was quitting, and I think Spencer was on her way out. That sounds about right. I think that’s actually who we were replacing…you know, not replacing, but we were filling those empty gender slots. Yeah, I was in the show with Greg Allen, Heather, Scott Hermes, Ayun Halliday, Dave Awl, Greg Kotis, me, Lusia & David. Us 9. For two years. It was great. It was great. Everybody was good. Everybody carried their weight. Everybody brought something different to the show. We didn’t always get along, in fact, we almost never got along. Rehearsals were fraught. But it was because we all wanted to make the show the best show that we could make it and we often disagreed on what that meant. Everybody had a different way of challenging each other, whether they knew it or not. Scott Hermes told me that—and I’m sure he’s said as much in his interview—that his goal was to get 100 plays in the show every year. That’s ENORMOUS. To get that many. Considering the show was only running 50 weeks a year and you were maybe performing—we had to make people take vacation—you were maybe in the show 48 weeks a year. That’s more that three plays a show. That’s a lot!

JP: Which meant he actually had to propose more than that.

DS: Oh my god. The man was a generator. He would bring in 5 plays a week. They weren’t all successful, but 3 out of 5 were pretty good. Good enough. And Kotis every week challenged himself to bring in something different or he just explored so many different kinds of styles. Even though he has a very distinctive Kotisian style. That overly formally, declamatory style that suits him so well. But he just used to bring in things that made you laugh so hard you couldn’t breathe or took your breath away, they were just so beautiful. Or strange, or looked at things in such a funny…or were just hilarious. Or all of those things. And Lusia just brought that Lusia energy. She just had something. That…her writing got better over time. I think all of ours did in that group. But she always had that magnetism onstage. You couldn’t take your eyes off of her. There was a sexual tension to her interrogation plays that wasn’t always savory. And Heather, always the master of the mundane couched in the extremely odd. Wonderful strange stuff. And Annie just has a cock-eyed way of looking at things and a way with language that’s really fun.
She would bring a very personal take on a hot button issue for want of a better term. Her plays about abortion or racism or gun control were always…sometimes you didn’t know what she was saying. You didn’t know whether she was coming down for or against, but they were provocative in a personal way. She always brought a very personal and personally revealing take on issues of the day, things that other people might not be comfortable revealing about themselves. She also is the master of reduction. She would take whatever movie everybody was seeing at the time? She would reduced it to two pithy and very pointed minutes.

JP: That’s something I’ve always admired that I just don’t have.

DS: Minutiae. She has a real gift for that, stripping a piece of popular media down to its ridiculous bones so that you can see the ridiculousness of the premise. Like The Piano. It’s a stupid movie. But she really showed you how stupid it was. But I don’t think anybody thought it was stupid. “Oh no, it’s a great movie!” She was like, “No. It’s stupid, and here’s why.” The audience loved Annie. The bagel was her thing and people, I’m sure, who have no other recollection of her know the bagel. Know that she’s the bagel lady. And, you know, she was beautiful without artifice onstage and I think that made people…she was really attractive to people and they would listen to her say things that they might not listen to other people say.

[Here I tried to phrase a question about the relationship between Greg Kotis and Ayun Halliday. They met in the show and got married, moved to NYC and started the first Too Much Light show there back in the mid 90's. I never solidified a question but Slickman took what I gave her and expounded.]

DS: It’s interesting about them because they’re very different kinds of writers? Annie’s got a lot of output—so does Greg—but Ayun just sorta puts it all out there, and Greg is a little more judicious about what he puts out there. Not that Ayun’s things aren’t crafted well or written well, but they’re a little more effusive, maybe? And Greg’s a little more reserved? And I think they’re a little like that personally. Greg is a much more contained and she’s just all out there. So they’re kind of an odd couple in that way? But they work together. I don’t know if they collaborate at all. I don’t know if any of the stuff that they’ve been working on in New York is collaborative or not, besides Greg writing and Annie performing in. But at the time they seemed…they were a well-matched, odd couple. And the first Neo-Futurist couple that stayed together and worked together.


JP: Well now that you look back, in retrospect, What in your career as a performer did that show nurture for you? And what do you think you brought to the show?

DS: It turned me into a writer. I never wanted to be a writer, I never set out to be a writer, I never studied to be a writer, I never thought of myself—still sometimes don’t—think of myself as a writer. But I had to. I had to write every week. I loved the idea of the economy of it. I liked that…I thought I could write things that were short because I’d done that before. I liked the constraints of Neo-Futurism, I liked being able to work within those confines. And already performing as a stand-up or as someone who had read things that I had written, I was comfortable with the idea of being myself onstage, it didn’t bother me that I wasn’t going to play a character. What did I bring? I don’t know. I don’t know what they saw in me, frankly.

[I sometimes feel Diana is hard on herself purely for the comical, I hope she doesn't really question her talent in Too Much Light. Sometimes when you hear a good singer, you feel that shiver up your spine, when Diana speaks her text I am immediately in a vortex of tears, happy, sad, joyful. I quite frankly don't completely understand her power, it seems so natural yet meticulous and shocking.]

JP: Did you ever feel like you battled the aesthetic?

DS: It took me awhile to figure out some of the parameters of it. I understood it intellectually but would lapse, if you will. I’m not good at creating characters, I’m not good at making up plots, I’m not good at making things up, necessarily. But I’m good at telling you…at looking at things from a different angle and I’m good at showing you what I’m seeing. And so the aesthetic worked for me in that way, because I could show you what I was seeing. Because that’s all that was required. To present a point of view or tell a story without any artifice.


JP: I think of you and Heather in the same way I think about…Chrissie Hynde in The Pretenders. The way I saw her in music is the same way I saw you in theater. You didn’t even have to talk about feminist issues. It was so prevalent that you were past the point of having to fight and were just being a human being onstage. I imagine you had to go through a process to get as confident as you appear. Do you feel that you went through a struggle to be a strong "performer."

DS: All that time I spent with the Feminist Theater Collective, we talked about this stuff very concretely. And we were up in arms about it. Even now, I think it still exists. I think that theater in Chicago, in particular, is still a boys game in a lot of ways, although that’s changing and has changed a lot since I first moved here. But yeah, I mean it was very explicitly my agenda, to move women forward in the arts in Chicago. Because, again, it was…Steppenwolf was…and Sam Shepard and David Mamet—it was all guys stuff. Not that it was bad guy’s stuff it was just…there was no place for us, for women who weren’t objects or ingénues or grandmothers. There were no adult women in theater, it seemed like. And if there were they were in service of these very male plays. And so I really did, that was a very conscious thing that I went through. And I still think that in the show I brought some of those issues up without…without being sledgehammer-y about it.

JP: It’s difficult and I think that’s why I admire you, too, because when I came in I don’t think I ever really heard plays that were about that specifically. I think you just probably grew to the point where you realized I have to face issues and not just complain about the situation.

DS: Well, yeah, because complaining gets you—to some extent—nowhere. You bring the issue up and you throw the penalty flag and you explain the penalty and you go on. You know, the game goes on. And whether people continue to commit that penalty or not is up to them, but you keep throwing a flag at it. I think that by the time I got to the show, by the time I got to Too Much Light, I was kinda through that. I was kinda like, well, I’m just gonna be a strong woman in the world. I’m just gonna be what I am. Or try to live up to that ideal for myself and people will either accept that or they won’t but they’ll see the example, you know. I will live those ideals rather than talk about those ideals. And that was the nice thing about the show, too, in that context, was that seeing it, clearly women’s contributions were valued. There were at least as many women in the show as there were men. Or close to it. They got equal time, there weren’t censored, they weren’t subjugated to…you know, we weren’t all in men’s plays. It was ideal for me in that way. I don’t even know if I thought about it consciously, but it was a good fit.