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How Female Medieval Saints Inspired a New Dark Comedy

By: Regina Robbins
Date: Jan 24, 2019

Jessica Dickey on her world-premiere play The Convent


The residents of The Convent, Jessica Dickey's new dark comedy at A.R.T./New York Theatres, aren't your typical nuns. In fact, most of them aren't nuns at all, but 21st-century women who have come to a feminist retreat in rural France seeking a fresh start. Some are coping with grief; others are escaping dysfunctional families or suffocating relationships. Inspired by female mystics of the Middle Ages, the convent experience includes ecstatic dancing, some gardening, lots of self-reflection and plenty of wine. Hallucinogens and sexual escapades are on tap, too.

Dickey last explored religious themes in her 2009 solo show The Amish Project, based on a real-life mass shooting at an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania. While that piece was much more serious in tone than The Convent, both plays are earnest examinations of faith and forgiveness.

"The Convent emerged out of a really chaotic emotional time in my life," Dickey says. "Somewhere in the middle of that personal upheaval, there was a voice that was kind of talking to me. I was actually in Europe, and I woke up hearing this character saying, 'Women cannot follow men. They can learn from them, they can partner with them, but they cannot follow them.' I always have a notebook and pen nearby, so I rolled over and immediately started writing that down." Those exact lines are still in the script today.

Mysterious voices notwithstanding, Dickey is no expert on mysticism. Yet she became fascinated by female medieval saints such as Hildegard of Bingen and Clare of Assisi, who were pious but also rebellious. "I found myself turning back to a spiritual feminine force that seemed particularly to emerge in the Middle Ages," Dickey says. Rising Phoenix Repertory had commissioned her to write a new play, and artistic director Daniel Talbott suggested an all-women cast -- a first for Dickey. "Somewhere in that back-and-forth, The Convent emerged," she says. This world premiere is a coproduction between Rising Phoenix and Weathervane Productions, in association with Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.


In addition to metaphysical quests, Dickey's body of work is also full of fanciful trips through time and space. The action in The Rembrandt alternated between a present-day art museum and the studio of the famed 17th-century painter. In Row After Row, Civil War reenactments were juxtaposed with scenes set during the actual 19th-century conflict. "I don't consider myself a particularly gifted researcher, but probably the last thing in the world I would write is a play about a young woman playwright in New York," she says. "I find it such a sad waste to not use the privilege to write something as a chance to also learn something about this world -- the world I'm in, and the world that formed the world I'm in."

The divine women who provided fodder for The Convent are said to have performed miracles and Dickey believes theatre has a similar power. "You get to give your imagination full agency... you get to just draw a door on the wall with a piece of chalk and suddenly you can go through that door," she says. "We could pull out our imaginary cigarettes and complain about how hard it is to be a writer but, the truth is, that is the goal of being a writer -- that drive to go toward something that is, at this present moment, in the dark."

To read about a student's experience at The Convent, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.


TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for The Convent. Go here to browse our current offers.

Regina Robbins is a writer, director, native New Yorker and Jeopardy! champion. She has worked with several NYC-based theatre companies and is currently a Core Company Member with Everyday Inferno Theatre.

Top image: Amy Berryman, Samantha Soule and Wendy vanden Heuvel in The Convent. Photos by Ahron R. Foster.

Regina Robbins is a writer, director, native New Yorker and Jeopardy! champion. She has worked with several NYC-based theatre companies and is currently a Core Company Member with Everyday Inferno Theatre.