>Interview with the extraordinary Joanne Sydney Lessner

>

Joanne Lessner is a singer, actor, and writer. She is the author of the novel Pandora’s Bottle, which will be published by Flint Mine Press in June 2010. Her play, Critical Mass, was named the winner of the 2009 Heiress Productions Playwriting Competition and will receive its New York premiere at the Lion Theatre on Theatre Row in October 2010. She has written the book and lyrics to several musicals with her husband, composer/conductor Joshua Rosenblum, including the cult hit Fermat’s Last Tango, which received its Off-Broadway premiere at the York Theatre Company in November 2000. The original cast recording became a bestseller, and the DVD has been screened at festivals from New Jersey to New Zealand. The Teatro da Trindade in Lisbon, Portugal, presented the European premiere and subsequently gave the world premiere of their next musical, Einstein’s Dreams, based on the celebrated novel by Alan Lightman. Their musical Garbo and Me will receive a workshop in August 2010 at the historic Paramount Theatre in Rutland, Vermont. Other works in progress include Hector and Harriet, a screenplay about French composer Hector Berlioz and his obsession with Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson, and The Temporary Detective, a mystery novel. Joanne is also a regular contributing writer to Opera News.

A remarkably versatile performer, Joanne has appeared on Broadway in Cyrano: The Musical, and in other New York City venues in roles as varied as Marta in Company, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro, and Cis in the cabaret version of William Bolcom’s Casino Paradise, which the New York Times named “one of the year’s ten best events in classical music.” She has performed in concert as a soloist with New York City Opera, New York Festival of Song, The New York Pops at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center’s American Songbook, and the Harrisburg and Albany Symphonies. Joanne has played ten principal Gilbert and Sullivan roles with the award-winning Blue Hill Troupe. These range from recognizable names from the popular canon (Josephine, Yum-Yum, Phyllis) to the more obscure Mercury in Thespis (with a reconstructed score by Thomas Z. Shepard) and Julia Jellicoe in The Grand Duke, for which she was honored as Best Female Performer at the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival in Buxton, England. Regional roles include Trina in Falsettos (Weston Playhouse), Anne in A Little Night Music (Skylight Opera Theatre), and Constanze in Amadeus (Wayside Theatre). Joanne holds a BA in music, summa cum laude, from Yale University.

***************************************

Day- You grew up in NY, how much has that influenced your writing? JSL- I actually grew up in the Hudson Valley, but I’ve lived in New York City for twenty-two years, and I think I strike people as a fairly quintessential New Yorker. I’m a fast person – I think quickly, I talk quickly, I’m easily bored – and my writing reflects my personality and my slightly warped sense of humor. Pandora’s Bottle takes place in both the city and the Hudson Valley, and I doubt I’d have thought to set part of it upstate if I hadn’t been aware of the long history of winemaking there. There are lots of glittery, exciting city scenes involving Broadway, high finance, art, and haute cuisine, so I don’t think the story could really take place anywhere else but New York. I also have a play running Off Broadway called Critical Mass about a city couple: opera critics, whose lives are turned upside down by a tenor seeking revenge for their bad reviews. Probably the work of mine that most reflects my experiences in the city is The Temporary Detective, the first (as yet unpublished) novel in a series about an aspiring actress who encounters and solves a murder at every temp job. My goal is to write a series of satisfying whodunits with a continuing back-story that details the challenges of breaking into New York theater. Most people don’t realize what that life is like day to day.Day- I know you love the theatre and the city, but are you a wine lover as well?JSL- I’ve always loved wine, especially red wine, but like many people, I’m insecure about my lack of expert knowledge. One thing I learned writing Pandora’s Bottle is that what matters most is to enjoy what you’re drinking. Researching the book certainly gave me a deeper understanding and appreciation of wine, but I’m still aghast when my friends hand over the wine list to me.Day- You really covered several of the various faces that we are likely to bump into in NY. The Bensonhurst beauty, the business man, the dancer/actor/waiter, the struggling restauranteur etc…are any of your characters based on friends or people you know? JSL- Except that I’m not a gay male dancer and I was a terrible waitress, there’s a lot of myself in Tripp. I’ve psyched myself out of performing gigs, and I always knew somehow whether I’d been cast before I was told officially. Like Tripp, I fare best when I’m not attached to the results. But I think that’s true of many performers. Valentina was inspired by a beautiful woman I knew in passing with that name who loved to wear pink and red with hearts, but the resemblance ends there. Sy is something of an accidental millionaire, and I’m not sure how many of those really exist. I was trying to imagine the kind of high-flyer who would spend half a million dollars on a single bottle of wine, but who was sensitive enough to find deeper meaning in his loss. I think Annette is representative of any ambitious person who thinks it doesn’t count if you’re not doing it in New York.Day- I know which character I enjoyed reading the most *smiles*, but which character was your favorite to write and why?JSL- Oh, that’s easy: Vito. I love that he’s larger than life and full of contradictions, but somehow very human. He’s just this side of realistic, but I’ll bet he exists somewhere. I knew I was going to have fun with him as soon as I wrote his introduction: “Vito Scarparelli’s house was loud, but nothing in it was louder than Vito Scarparelli.” Day- Yay! Vito was my favorite too! You know, one of the things I loved about Pandora’s Bottle was the different view points leading up to the big event and afterwards. Was it difficult to switch back and forth?JSL- No, not at all. I really wanted to explore the central event and its repercussions from four distinct points of view – to understand how people from different walks of life can be united and changed by common circumstance. In terms of when to switch POV, that was pure instinct. I write as if I’m reading, so I simply followed my sense of who I wanted to hear from next. Day- Do you feel like your experience in performing and playwriting helped you in writing your novel?JSL- Definitely. I think my strengths as a writer are structure and dialogue, both of which are important in fiction, but imperative in theater. As an actor, I’ve developed an ear for the way people talk, and I think of life in scenes. Even my voicemail messages have a beginning, middle and end. Pandora’s Bottle follows a classic Shakespearean five acts, with prologue. Beyond that, I aim for the same freefall feeling in both writing and performing. As an actor, if you understand what your character wants and then try to get it, your actions and behaviors will follow naturally. Similarly, I love to wind up my fictional characters and then see where they take me. If you lay the groundwork well, they’ll surprise you and behave in ways you hadn’t anticipated – within the framework you’ve set up. Day- Had I not already known you were an accomplished play write before reading the book, I think I might have suspected you had experience in the field. Your book ran through my mind like different scenes in a play, any chance we could be reading about the stage adaptation of Pandora’s Bottle?JSL- Funnily enough, Pandora’s Bottle was first going to be a musical! But it didn’t quite sing, so I adapted the idea into novel form. I don’t see it heading back to the stage, but just about everyone who has read it wants to know when it’s going to be a movie. I’ve actually already had a nibble from Hollywood, but I’m too superstitious to say anything more!Day- You seem to embody the image of a New York woman…you have a husband, kids, a successful career on stage and now this new novel…how do you juggle everything?JSL- Well, my house is a mess and I rarely watch television! A writer friend once gave me a great piece of advice: “It’s amazing how much you can accomplish in five minute bursts.” I’ve long since given up the fantasy of setting aside hours to write or practice. It’s definitely a juggling act, and every once in awhile something gets dropped, but I’m pretty organized and a good advance planner. I always knew I wouldn’t be satisfied choosing one of my pursuits to the exclusion of the others, and this way, I get to do all the things I love – albeit in rotation. One advantage is that I can follow my inspiration as it hits and not worry too much about being productive. Plus, I earn most of my money in another business. Freeing your art from your finances can be very liberating.Day- Writing, performing…creating in general is such a labor of love and as any actor or writer can confirm, not always the kindest profession. What keeps you going and is your favorite part about what you do?JSL- I constantly have new ideas, and I also have an insanely supportive family and circle of friends. They are unfailingly honest, but incredibly generous. I’ve also had steady professional encouragement, even when things didn’t quite pan out. You should see my pile of literary rejection letters. I could have blurbed some of them! My favorite thing is making people laugh, both as a writer and a performer. If I can move people too, that’s a real home run.Day- As far as authors go, who are some of your favorites and what is on your “To Be Read” list?JSL- I’m a sucker for anything British, especially mysteries and historical fiction. I love Elizabeth Jane Howard, Reginald Hill, Colin Dexter, Barbara Cleverley, and I think J.K. Rowling is immensely gifted. After reading your Passport to London, I think I’ll be checking out Michele Gorman’s Single in the City. I also adore Milan Kundera, and Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men is an all-time favorite. Right now, I’m reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, but lest you think I ignore American writers, next on my list are Joseph Wallace’s Diamond Ruby and Julie Klam’s You Had Me At Woof.Day- I really think you’ll like Michele Gorman. I was pleased by how much I enjoyed it. So, who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine of all time…in literature and or stage?JSL- Oh, what a mean question to ask an indecisive Libra! But you did say ‘and,’ so I’ll give you one from each, starting with Jo March in Little Women. I’ve always wanted to be that impetuous, self-confident heroine who gets into scrapes but always comes out on top. I also adore Susanna in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, a role I’ve been privileged to perform. She’s sexy and faithful, clever without being crafty, and holds her own in a man’s world.Day- Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. I am thrilled and honored to have you visit Paperback Dolls!

*************************************
Paperback Dolls wish to extend a HUGE thank you to Joanne Sydney Lessner, she is a remarkable writer and person! Please check out the author’s website and be sure to follow her on Twitter and Facebook!
Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s