Unguarded: An Interview with Playwright Jessica Dickey

In March 2014, Ford’s Theatre commissioned several playwrights to write scripts that could potentially serve as the Ford’s entry in the groundbreaking D.C.-area Women’s Voices Theater Festival. Involving more than 50 theatres, the festival’s goal is to present new works or new adaptations written by women. Of the plays submitted, Ford’s chose to produce The Guard as part of the festival. The show plays through Oct. 18, 2015. Premiering a new play when the author has been part of the rehearsal process is always an exciting adventure, as it allows for an incredible peek inside the mind of the writer at work. So now, in her own words, playwright Jessica Dickey recounts how a chance encounter with a museum guard was the spark she needed to delve into the worlds of art, Rembrandt and the legacy we leave behind. – Patrick Pearson, Director of Artistic Programming

I was at the National Gallery in London, in the midst of a very emotional encounter with a painting — we’re talking hands-on-heart, teary-eyed personal moment — when I looked beside me and discovered a museum guard. He was a small man with receding strawberry-blond hair; he had an attentive face that belied a particular kindness. I was immediately struck that this was his job—all day, every day, he watched the art, which meant he also watched the people like me who had come to see the art. I wondered what that was like—what he knew about this painting and this space that I did not. So I asked him! Thus began The Guard, my own journey to discover the secret world of the people who protect the great works we hold dear.

Having never formally trained in art history, I knew very little about Rembrandt, until I had the opportunity to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City with a painter friend. We were in front of the painting Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, and the more [my friend] told me about it, the more captivated I became. There are many things to admire in this painting, but I most love its mystery. How little we know of what Rembrandt intended or how he arrived at the composition we see today with its many rich details: the enlarged hand, the gold chain, the expression on the subject’s face. I find the relationship between the two figures very rich, full of tenderness and questions. To me that allows us to sense the great Rembrandt himself, and that’s a very interesting thing—how we can peer through the work of art like a lens to glean something of its creator.

I don’t know if anyone will contemplate my writing many years from now, or what they would deduce about me if they did. I mostly find myself fascinated by the possibility that something from my very brief life could last. What a strange and beautiful idea. When writing The Guard, I was definitely trafficking in what lasts and what disappears—the dialogue between the ephemeral and the eternal. A work of art goes on, survives, speaks to us still, but the precious life that made the work of art will pass, will vanish. Another guard that I interviewed for my research described how there is only one of these great paintings in the world, and that is why they need our protection—there is only one Mona Lisa, there is only one Girl With a Watering Can. I was struck, while we spoke, that there also was only one of every person around us. There was only one of him; there was only one of me.

I think theatre is a wonderful place to contemplate such things. Theatre itself is an art form that plays (pun intended) with the ephemeral and the eternal. We tear down each production at the end of the run, and yet we revisit the great plays of our civilization over and over (the Greeks, Shakespeare, Chekhov). Why? Maybe because there is something in those great plays that beckons us to take care. To preserve.

I hope The Guard invites audiences to engage with these questions in their own life, as well as the cultural institutions that their patronage protects. When it comes to art, we are all guards!

Patrick Pearson is the Director of Artistic Programming at Ford’s Theatre, and also is a freelance director. Patrick has his MFA in Directing from California State University, Fullerton.