Actress Jessica Dickey grew up in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, and as a child, would write “magazines” to while away her days. She wrote all of the articles and even designed the covers. And then in the third grade, she performed in a school play. That set her sights on becoming an actress, but now she has found herself back as she began: as a writer. Actually, she has melded the two interests.
Jogging along on her treadmill and casually watching the television screen, she was stunned to see the news report of the hostage-taking and murder of young girls in an Amish schoolroom in October, 2006. When surrounded by the police, the man killed the young girls and then himself.
Dickey had grown up about an hour and a half from where this took place. “I was always interested in the Amish people and their ways.” The horror of this event prompted her to research their culture. “The thing that was really so strong was the image on television of the Amish walking as a group to the home of the wife of the killer. They wanted to express their forgiveness. I found this astounding. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It just immediately grabbed me, and I was heartbroken.”
The events wouldn’t leave her, and she tried to understand the gift of forgiveness. Violence leads to more violence. Is the reverse also true? She began to write. First, this was to be a multi-character piece, but as it developed she realized that she was the voice of each character. As a natural progression, she had done what a number of actors have done; she had written a showcase performance piece for herself — “The Amish Project.” She has performed her play in a number of venues all over the United States, and the State Theater presents “The Amish Project” Wednesday through Saturday, March 3 through 6, at Crossroads Theater in New Brunswick.
With a change in voice and stance, she becomes seven different people: two Amish girls who were killed, the killer, the killer’s wife, and three townspeople. Her play isn’t a docu-drama but rather a fictional drama inspired by a real event. First performed as part of the 2008 New York Fringe Festival, it surfaced again in 2009 at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater to positive reviews.
While growing up, Dickey’s neighborhood didn’t offer much in the way of theater but she wrote poems and was sufficiently “artistic” to be selected for the Governor’s School for the Arts. Her parents — her mother is a social worker; her dad, a gym teacher — are very supportive of her career goals. At Boston University, she majored in acting, earning her BFA, and also studied at London’s Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. She is the middle child; her siblings have no interest in arts careeers but have always been proud of her accomplishments.
Settling in New York, where she lives with her fiance, also an actor, she has performed in a number of plays and appeared on television, including several episodes of “Law and Order” as well as the CBS drama “Education of Max Bickford,” starring Richard Dreyfuss. Her stage work has ranged from the classics to new dramas. At the Huntington Theater in Boston, she appeared in “The Cherry Orchard.” At the Denver Center Theater, she was one of “The Three Sisters.” More recently, she appeared in New York City in a revival by the Keen Company of “The Four Poster.” She has done play readings of new work at HERE, Origin Theater Company, AndHow!, Manhattan Theater Club, the Williamstown Theater Festival, and also at the New Harmony Project in Illinois. She is a founding member of a New York-based group, the Fire Department, whose goal is to produce work that “can’t be contained in a television or movie screen.” Their website states their interest is in relevant topics that “ignite questions and spark controversy,” hence their name.
Area audiences have seen Dickey at George Street Playhouse in “The Things You Least Expect” by Joan Vail Thorne in the fall of 2006, and again two years later in Arthur Laurents’ “Two Lives.” Laurents has become a very important friend and mentor to her. Their correspondence prompted Laurents to suggest that she really should be a writer, in fact, she should write a play.
A woman with lots of initiative, Dickey has also started a business coaching other actors and helping them prepare audition material and giving practical advice about the business of show business. On her website, she also offers a class called “The Art of the Ten-Minute Meeting” and another about female entrepreneurship. She certainly has the experience and is obviously willing to share.
Encouraged by the success of “The Amish Project,” she is now writing another play inspired by a short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, first published in 1892. Dickey’s play, “Yellow,” is set in 1992 in the Omarska concentration camp run by the Bosnian Serb forces. She focuses on the unlikely relationship between an American woman and a Bosnian man. Her source story has been considered an important work in American feminist literature as it deals with the oppression of a wife, treated for “hysteria” by being locked away in a room with yellow wallpaper.
How ever did those women of that time survive? Notes: On Broadway this season, Sara Ruhl’s “The Vibrator Play” and at McCarter in spring, 2007, Emily Mann’s “Mrs. Packard.” In today’s culture, these women would be given a reality television show.
The Amish Project, State Theater, at Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Wednesday through Friday, March 3 through 5, 8 p.m.; Saturday, March 6, 2 and 8 p.m. Solo show by Jessica Dickey is a fictional exploration of true events focusing on the story of a schoolhouse shooting in an Amish community. $32. 732-246-7469 or www.StateTheatreNJ.org.