The Rural We: Joan Ackermann
Originally from Cambridge, Mass., playwright Joan Ackermann now makes her home in the Berkshires where she and co-founder Gillian Seidl have run Mixed Company, a theater in Great Barrington, for the past 36 years. A special contributor to Sports Illustrated for many years, Ackerman has also written for Time, The New Yorker, The Atlantic and other magazines. She’s penned more than 20 plays, one of which she adapted into the film “Off the Map,” directed by Campbell Scott and starring Sam Elliott and Joan Allen. Her young adult novel about a teenage boy from Pittsfield, “In The Space Left Behind,” was published by Harper Collins in 2007, and she spent seven years as a head writer on HBO’s “Arli$$.” Ackermann lives in Mill River (New Marlborough), Mass. and, when not writing plays, can be found teaching a weekly Tai Chi class at Canyon Ranch in Lenox. This weekend, Friday, March 17 – Sunday, March 19, Shakespeare & Company in Lenox presents staged readings of six of her most beloved plays and, on Saturday at 4 p.m., three songs from her musical “Isabella.”
I started writing poetry when I was a kid and wrote all through my teenage years, then I wrote for Sports Illustrated, Time, The Atlantic and others as a freelancer for many years. But I’d always liked to act when I was a kid, so when I moved to the Berkshires and met Gillian, we decided to put on a play. We never thought we’d start a theater, but we found a space and put on “Bedroom Farce” by Alan Ayckbourn. Gene Shalit said it was the best thing he’d seen in the Berkshires that summer. It was a success, so we kept going.
I’ve always loved voice and dialogue, so I wrote a play called “Don’t Ride the Clutch” and took it to the Edinburgh Festival. Then I wrote another one so we would have a play to take the next year. Someone sent it to an agent and she wanted to represent me, so then I was writing plays. Campbell Scott came to see my play “Off the Map” and wanted to make a movie out of it.
I wrote a children’s book and I wrote for television for seven years; I’ve had lots of different adventures in a lot of different genres, and now I’ve gone back to plays. This fest is a way for me to regroup and strike out again. I emptied out closets in my study so I’ve got piles and piles of manuscripts all around me. In a lot of ways, it’s like a family reunion; I’m getting reacquainted with lots of old characters. I remember the characters but also the actors who inhabited them and the entire productions. That’s been really wonderful, sort of pouring through my oeuvre.
I asked to direct all of the readings because I really wanted a chance to speak to the characters directly. I’m writing a new play for the festival called “Out of the Blue,” but haven’t quite finished it yet. I’ve spent the last 10 years caring for my parents, and in the play I roam that terrain, but it has a lightness and a humor to it that will make it accessible and enjoyable for people. After the reading, I’ll keep working on it and stage it at Mixed Company. I consider Mixed Company to be my home and Shakespeare & Company my home away from home. I love those actors and the romantic spirit and energy of the place.