Finding Joan, Part Three: A Conversation With Dramaturg Zoe Polach

This summer, Theatre Prometheus is bringing the fire to the Capital Fringe Festival with The Second Coming of Joan of Arc by Carolyn Gage. As we wrap up both our run and this interview series, we wanted to give you a peek at our investigation into the woman herself, Jeanne Romée. Today we’re talking to our dramaturg, Zoe Polach about her involvement with the rehearsal process, her discoveries about the historical Joan, and how to find a balance with a play that reimagines history.  

 

 Dramaturg Zoe Polach

Dramaturg Zoe Polach

Our production asks the question #WhoIsJoan? Before you began your research, what did you know about Joan of Arc? What was her significance to you?

I didn't know very much about Joan or the Hundred Years War. I studied medieval literature and religion in college, but my focus was primarily on the early middle ages and Anglo-Saxon England, so Joan is actually, from my perspective, pretty late. I was very pleased to get to investigate a different part of the medieval world.

We're fortunate to have many surviving first-person accounts of Joan, including transcripts from her trial. What was the real Joan like? In what ways does she resemble the Joan in our production?

Well, first of all, she wasn't schizophrenic, as she's occasionally accused of. Did she hear voices? If you look at all the records, the very specific account of hearing St Michael, St Catherine, and St Margaret doesn't appear until her trial, where they barraged her with questions to try to get her to slip up and say something theologically unacceptable. Before that she seems to have referred to these intuitions in a much more general way, as coming from a voice, an angel, a presence. Anthropologist Tanya Lurhmann has done a lot of work on prayer in evangelical Christianity, and found that it's not at all uncommon for people who pray frequently to have heard or seen things that weren't really there, that they experienced as the voice or presence of God. And in fact, prayer is a skill, and the better they got at prayer, the higher they scored on something called the Tellegen absorption scale -- which is essentially a measure of your ability to get lost in thought -- and the better their score, the more likely they were to have an experience like that. So I think of Joan as someone with a natural genius for that, whether you want to call it prayer, intuition, or something else.

Now, was she a lesbian? Certainly not in the sense we think of today, because people didn't divide sexuality into "orientations" until centuries later. Did she ever have heterosexual sex? We have no reason to disbelieve her testimony that she was a virgin, so probably not. Did she ever experience same-sex attraction, or engage in same-sex physical intimacy of some kind? We can't know for sure, but we also can't rule it out, which I think makes it a very rich ground to explore artistically.

A lot of the cultural context is really fascinating, and I think very illuminating as to how someone as marvelously improbable as Joan could have actually achieved what she did. For example, there was a tradition or sort of folk-prophecy circulating at the time that France would be saved by a virgin, which means that there was already a slot for her to fit into, in people's minds. So when she came along they could say Oh! I always knew we would be saved! Bearing in mind that the Hundred Years War had started in 1337, and at this point it was 1429, and it had all involved quite a lot of plundering and burning and rape and general destruction, and it still wasn't clear who would win, or even who should win. An inspirational, religious, quasi-mythical leader figure is a great asset in a situation like that. The historical Joan had an amazing talent for harnessing that kind of symbolic power, and making people believe she could fill that role, embody that hope. There's some dispute about how much of the strategy of her campaign came from her, but what's indisputable is that she was whip-smart and incredibly charismatic. People wanted to follow her.

 

Also, there were other prophets and miscellaneous holy people around at this time, and Marina Warner has this wonderful chapter in her book on Joan where she looks at all of them and finds that Joan is operating in a completely different register. The other people making prophecies were talking about the End Times and making these sweeping, highly metaphorical pronouncements, using language that was influenced by the Book of Revelation, and apocalyptic millenarian theology, and the whole tradition of Christian mysticism. Now, uneducated, illiterate peasant Joan comes along, and what's her prophecy? "I'm going to take Paris." That's who she was: almost alarmingly determined, self-confident, and pragmatic.


A friend of mine, after I'd been telling her about this, described Joan as having "a personality like a hammer." I love that. It's perfect. And I think it's the sheer force of personality that Lizzie brings to our production that is the best tribute we can give to the historical Joan.

How did you think about the relationship between Carolyn Gage's Joan and the historical one?

Well, when you're working on a project that reinterprets or reimagines history, you're always working with at least two historical contexts, and often, as in our case, three: back then, sure, but also the context of the piece's creation, and also right now. And if you're going to make your own piece of art, you can't keep everything. It's a bit like a quilt: the pieces come from all three contexts, but you're not making three quilts, you're trying to make one. We spent time with the historical Joan, we spent time with other lesbian feminist works like Judy Grahn's beautiful poem "A Woman is Talking to Death," but our goal was always how to use these things in the service of a production that is as alive and as meaningful as possible, to us, right now.

You worked one-on-one with both the actor and director to help develop Joan. Tell us about your involvement in the rehearsal process.

The rehearsal process was a great pleasure and a privilege to participate in, because it was such a small team on this play that we got to work very closely together, which meant I could switch between my dramaturg hat and my poet hat as needed. In the early stages, we spent a lot of time talking about the history to make sure we had enough context to understand the events of her life, but as rehearsals went on, we spent more and more time delving into Joan's own anger and grief. This was the most revelatory part of the process, for me. Joan thinks her anger makes her strong, but it comes from, and is intimately tied to, her vulnerability. Her anger is always surging with other emotions: shame, self-hatred, contempt, grief -- but love and generosity, too. Anger becomes the mode she uses to actually soften the experience of these other feelings, to make them easier for her. Lizzie plays this self-deception with such tenderness at the heart of it, it blows me away.

The Second Coming of Joan of Arc is playing at the Hyman M. Perlo Dance Studio through Saturday, July 25th. Tickets can be purchased here.