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Sibyl Kempson
Photograph: Cathryn Lynne LundgrenSibyl Kempson

Sibyl Kempson talks Bigfoot and other ancient knowledge in her new play

The fiercely erudite downtown writer explains her theater making, her feminism and her pursuit of the uncanny

Written by
Helen Shaw

One of the most eagerly awaited plays this fall, Sibyl Kempson's Fondly, Collette Richland is pregnant—heavily pregnant—with the sense that the greater part of mankind's knowledge is hidden. The playwright seems to have been destined for mysterious utterances: Her first name is the term for an ancient Greek prophetess who received her wisdom from divine chthonic sources, deep in the earth.

For all her eldritch understanding, in encounters, Kempson is basically a cross between a playwright and a drum-and-bugle corps. Her voice—full of bright brass notes and heavy emphases—makes you want to get up and march alongside her; in rehearsal, she vibrates with energy, laughs at everyone's jokes and seems as eager to help as a Saint Bernard with the last barrel of rum. She can also be elliptical, though, if someone is asking her to explain a line or cut one. “I'm still learning about what it is,” she says in response to a question from Elevator Repair Service director John Collins.

During our conversation about Fondly, (which marks Kempson’s Off Broadway debut), the writer let drop a number of interesting tidbits that we couldn’t let lie. Here the expansive Kempson…expands.

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Your new company is called 7 Daughters of Eve Thtr and Perf Co—and Fondly draws from a number of explicitly feminist sources like Jane Bowles’s novel Two Serious Ladies. Do these two projects stem from the same impulse?
Yes. It's an extended impulse out of my feminist awakening of the last, say, five years. My eyes really have been opened to the truth of the female predicament and the experience of what female power actually is. It's not really talked about because it has to do with female menstrual periods, and that is "personal" and "private" and something we really shouldn’t just go around talking about. All the same, it's a human phenomenon that affects everything—so many human interactions and transactions—in a subtle but very powerful way, all the time. FCR [Fondly, Collette Richland] is largely about the deification of those phenomena in ancient times and is an attempt to bring them into modern-day relevance on the same par with that ancient significance. Which takes the form of something hidden and buried re-emerging.

Does this mean there’s a social project afoot?
There's a really great Carl Jung quote that goes something like, "Until we take the contents of our subconscious and make a conscious realization of it, it will continue to control our lives, and we will continue to call it fate." That's not exact, but something along those lines. The events of the play outline an attempt to consciously foreground the feminine forces that are already sort of running things more than we'd care to admit, to balance out the current patriarchal configuration of power in Western culture and give us a more holistic picture. And 7 Daughters is based on that same requirement. I say requirement because I think it's really tied to our treatment of the environment and the way we can't—or won't—see our intrinsic connection to it, and as long as we see ourselves as separate from it, we remain locked into a really troubling trajectory.

During our first chat, you mentioned that you’re participating in Bigfoot research. What’s up with that?
Yeah, what is up with the Bigfoot research? It's completely wild, and it's probably gotten way out of control. I love everything about it. If it turns out there are big hairy beings watching us as we walk through the woods and on occasion revealing themselves and their presence to us—great. Or if it turns out we are making it all up—that it's a big mass hallucination that has gone on for hundreds and thousands of years as a collective and trackable pattern of imagined experience? Even better.

How does it tie into your work on Fondly?
My interest [in Bigfoot] comes from deep inside my childhood, from Leonard Nimoy's terrifying television show about the unexplained and all the things I heard going bump in the night as a kid, and it addresses a burning inquiry I have in the way we humans filter our perceptions to define our experience of reality for ourselves. I think that's where the Bigfoot obsession and FCR connect up. There's a lot of that in FCR—looking at the way we construct our own realities, trying to open up the playing field a little bit in terms of what can constitute a narrative, how our narratives define our reality, and the shifting role of our perception in the defining of reality over time in myth and human evolution…. Those are very big themes in FCR, and for me it's a really important part of Bigfoot research.

And what exactly happens in your Bigfoot work?
I've been embraced by this research organization, and I get to interview people who have had encounters with large, hairy presences in Pennsylvania and upstate New York. Sometimes a witness will bring me to the place where her experience happened. The sense of mystery and awe is palpable. Whatever has happened to them, it is always one of the most intense and profound and often deeply disturbing experiences of their lives. Many are reluctant to talk about it, and it's always very emotional. It changes them—it calls into question their definition and understanding of their surroundings and of reality. It opens up many, many possibilities that we are often not at all ready for.

Your work seems to operate by dream logic. Do you use any kind of “directed dreaming” in your process?
I don't know how to do directed dreaming. Is that the same as “lucid” dreaming? I would totally use it if I knew how. I think I am playing around with consciousness and levels of awareness, so that, of course, ties into the dream world. It's our shared unconscious, or subconscious, what we remember in our dreams from our daily life, and what we remember from the times before we were born. The kind of significance that's up for grabs, the kind you can't pin down to any one meaning.

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