Introducing Jennifer Monk, Theatremaker

Jennifer Monk is part of the team that has created To Lonely, with love, a play presented by La Mama Theatre as part of its 2016 EXPLORATIONS Season. We had an email chat with her this week as her show opens.

What were your inspirations behind creating this show?
I have been an avid pen pal for many years and have a large store of letters, including several exchanged with people incarcerated both here and overseas. To Lonely, with love explores how the art of letter writing can bring people out of their personal cells. Compared to the immediacy of posting your thoughts and feelings on social media, writing a letter is a deliberate and thoughtful means of communication. It is a little piece of yourself floating in the ether hoping for connection. Isolation comes in many forms — jail, home, an institution, even being a prisoner of one’s own thoughts.

To Lonely, with love looks closely at relationships formed by people in isolation, and how we portray our authentic selves to others, and in particular, to people who are our only source of contact with the outside world. I wanted to create a show that would resonate with everyone, not just theatre goers. I believe most people have or have wanted to receive a letter of connection, acknowledgement or love in the mail. I hope this show inspires those people to continue writing letters and connecting, or even encourages others to start.

I have wanted to create this show for many years, and it is only now that it has become possible, due to the opportunity that the Explorations Season and support from La Mama Theatre has provided. I felt selfish being the only person to know about the stories and the people behind these very human letters. I have been a theatre maker for 13 years and I always strive to direct and create inventive, provocative and entertaining work. I like telling the stories of people who may normally go unheard or unnoticed.

Did you discover anything surprising in the process of creating it?
During the creative development and writing process I worked closely with Perri Cummings and Lisa Dallinger, and I found it inspiring to work with such an intimate and talented team. They continued to push and support me through the process to create a stronger, truthful and more edgy piece of theatre.

During the rehearsal process I had the delight of working with Lisa again, and also Harriet Devlin, our movement director, who really helped us to bring the stories off the page. I have worked with Harriet previously, and I really love her keen eye for bringing a piece to life through movement, and how her physical theatre background informs the work.

Initially, I always said I wanted this piece to be a dance with words, kind of like a letter going on a journey. I didn’t want it to solely be about the people behind the letters or who was receiving them, but also the letters themselves and the journey they have through time. I never expected this initial idea to come to fruition; however, thanks to Harriet, a dedicated cast member, a vibrant costume designer and original audio and music, I believe we are achieving this wish.

Whilst learning the lines, I became surprised at how sad they were. Even though I have read the letters many times, exploring the content of these letters, which now make up the bulk of the script, was tough at times and brought up memories that I had pushed aside. I am also surprised after every rehearsal at how many characters both Lisa and I are actually playing in the show. I never thought we would be playing this many people, but I have had many pen pals, and there are many letters, so why not just play them all. Right?

Is there anyone you write letters to now?
jen-monkI write to lots of people. I use my own photography to create home made cards and send them to friends and family for their birthdays. For a while I would even write letters to my nieces and nephews, and include self-addressed and stamped envelopes so it was easier for them to write back.

My main pen pal at the moment is a woman who is in prison for life in America. She is in her late sixties and has been incarcerated since her early twenties. We have been writing to each other for about four years. Even though that is quite a long time, in ‘snail mail’ it doesn’t actually mean I have hundreds of letters. One letter usually takes about three months to get a response. I do worry sometimes when it takes longer than this to hear back. With letters being the only communication it can be a nerve-wracking wait at times. However, I know my letters bring people hope and love and so it’s worth it.

I get so excited when I get a letter from my pen pal in America. Just the other week my partner said, “have you seen Sam’s [name changed for privacy] letter, it’s on the kitchen table?” I raced to get it and immediately ripped it open and read it. Sam always asks me about my family and partner, which is weird and great at the same time. I feel like I know her family too, as she does mine, from the picture she has painted with her words. She gives really good advice as well, which I always appreciate and often use.

Other than theatre, what’s something else you’re passionate about?
I love photography. I love being able to capture a moment in time. I am usually the one at parties, events, celebrations and family gatherings with a camera taking the photos. I am kind of known for that! I still get photos developed (printed) and put them in a photo album.

You can sometimes find me having a quiet moment (rare as they are) flicking through an album and remembering good, funny and sometimes sad times through my photo albums. I like having camera dates where I take my camera with me to a place and capture strangers, landmarks and the world going by.

There is something romantic about taking a photo, printing it and storing it away to appreciate at a later time.

Do you know what your next creative project is yet?
My next projects will be with Girls Act Good (GAG). It’s an acting collective I founded in 2013 for female creatives to work together in the ‘off season’. Initially, GAG only involved monthly moved script readings, but it has now expanded into performing skills workshops, writing seasons and theatrical productions including A Christmas Tale (2014) and A Lady Shot (2015).

Our next two major projects are the New Stepford inspired by the stories of Frankenstein and Stepford Wives, and a short film that we start shooting in November.