On June 2 and 3 Vanessa Valliere’s 15-minute The Life and Times of Terry — the tale of one woman’s search for love through clowning, puppetry, and other media — serves as a curtain opener for Emmy Bean’s You’re His Child, a one-woman exploration of religion, family, and song. We asked them a few questions to try and suss out just what these two works had in common and what they might have to say to each other as a shared bill.
Martha Bayne: Both pieces are autobiographical to some degree, yes? Can you describe the personal starting point of the piece, and then the creative steps you took to develop it?
Emmy: I began with a recording that my dad gave to me — it’s a digital transfer from an old reel-to-reel of his grandfather, Henry Bean, singing hymns at his kitchen table in Missouri. My dad gave Henry the recorder one day and told him how to use it, and Henry did the rest. So I’ve loved this little family document for a long time, and have always wanted to make something with it. I began with an attempt to make something about him that was also something about me, and why we sing, and how we’re connected. Along the way I extrapolated very freely from it and enjoyed the speculative possibilities of my family history. So my process was much less about research and truth-telling than it was about fantasy and fiction that uses my family history as a starting point.
I wrote a lot and carved up a lot of other texts and songs in the process of putting this together, and I imagine that process will continue as I take this performance from one place to another — adding elements, changing the order of things, finding new connections. I might even throw in some actual facts about my family if I can find them.
Vanessa: My piece is actually not autobiographical, though I often share some essential characteristics with the characters I create. In most cases, my characters have a desire to get everything “right.” More often than not, the show comes out of their failure to do what is expected of them. The Life and Times of Terry is a little bit of a departure from that because the story is a bit broader. It’s less exclusively about my journey and it broadens to include other equally important characters.
I work with a Chicago Teaching Artist company called CAPE and I was working with some awesome high school students on their short puppet films. I think this is where some of the ideas for Terry first started. The films were originally going to be live performances with a document camera projected on the classroom wall. We eventually made them into films — but not before I had the idea to use the format in my own work.
Beyond that, I was hoping to figure out a way to involve the audience or members of the audience. I make all of my shows with Lindsey Noel Whiting, who is a co-conspirator/director/outside eye. I have a tendency to over-complicate things or get a little heavy handed and she is great at helping me stay out of the mire of clunky narration. We both like shows that create their own logic. There is more surprise available to us and to the story and to the audience if the logic is new. So we spend a lot of time brainstorming and seeing what delights us or makes us laugh. Often times, the things that crack us up are the things that lead us in the right direction.
Martha: Is there any other work you might reference as an inspiration for this piece?
Emmy: Brian Harnetty is a composer, sound artist, and writer who has worked a lot with archival sound. I love his work and feel a really personal connection to it — he was a huge inspiration for me in making this piece. His album American Winter gave me a lot of new information about how you can put together sounds and music in a collaged work.
Vanessa: When I made the piece I had seen quite a bit of Manual Cinema’s work, though I wasn’t working with them yet. I am sure seeing projected images jostled something in me that came loose here. Also, Lizi Breit is an artistic associate with Manual Cinema and she helped me dream up and create the actual Terry puppet. My friend Jon Steinmeier also makes really funny work, and while I wouldn’t say there is anything in particular that he’s done that inspired Terry, there is a comedic sensibility that we share that probably informed the work. He also composed the music for the show and does the hilarious voice over. I can’t think of any other direct references. Though I am sure I am pulling from all sorts of places every time I sit down to make something new.
Martha: Even if you haven’t seen each other’s work, what do you think your piece has to say to the other?
Emmy: I think my work has some elements of self-examination that probably hold a very funny mirror to Vanessa’s — although Vanessa’s work is definitely funnier than mine.
Vanessa: I admit that I read Emmy’s responses to these questions before I responded to this, and I saw that her piece started with a reel-to-reel and I was like: oooo. Gold. I don’t know if the content will necessarily speak to each other. But it sounds like we are both inspired by evocative objects or artifacts and a reel-to-reel feels up my alley. I think there is always self evaluation in my work — whether I mean it/like it or not. So in that way there may be some conversation between the pieces.
Martha: Pick three words that could describe your work.
Emmy: Gnostic, hopeful, sung
Vanessa: Unpredictable, short, unusual
Martha Bayne is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in many local and national outlets, and a senior editor with Cleveland-based Belt Publishing, which published her Rust Belt Chicago: An Anthology in 2017. She is also the author of Soup & Bread Cookbook: Building Community One Pot at a Time (Agate Publishing, 2011) and a company member with Chicago’s Theater Oobleck, with whom she has worked on many productions — most recently as lighting designer for Barrie Cole’s Reality Is An Activity.