A Conversation With Jonathan Marc Sherman '90
A staged reading of Jonathan Marc Sherman's play "Jesus on the Oil Tank," with Peter Dinklage ('91). Photograph by D. Scribner.
Literary Bennington was lucky enough to speak with playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman ('90) about his time at Bennington. As a student, Sherman staged his work both on campus and at Playwrights Horizons; his play "Women and Wallace" was televised on PBS American Playhouse the year he graduated. It featured Joan Copeland, Debra Monk, and Sex and the City alum and current New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon. Sherman has worked with some of the preeminent voices of New York theater, and his voice is distinctly recognizable.
Words like ‘witty’ and ‘ironic’ get bandied about a lot when talking about Sherman’s plays, and there’s a definitely a dry cynicism to their surfaces. The production in Lester Martin pictured in this post, "Jesus on the Oil Tank," is a farce based on true events: a simulacrum of Christ appears on the side of a soybean oil tank in Ohio, and a media frenzy ensues. (Peter Dinklage played a boy hawking commemorative mugs to tourists. “I saw you on David Letterman last night,” he says to Charlie, the oil tank’s newly-minted spokesman. “You were pretty good. Looked like shit, though. If you're gonna be on TV, you should wear a jacket.”)
But there’s also a sense of tenderness blanketed beneath that cynicism, even in the work Sherman wrote as a student. “Serendipity & Serenity,” the first play he staged at Bennington, is a coming-of-age tale that invites in familiar tropes--a massive uptown apartment, a family dinner shouting-match, a Jewish boy running low on faith--and tears them to shreds. Such savviness is intimidating.
Thankfully, we hit it off immediately, and I could have grilled him for stories for hours if I hadn't been worried about wasting his time.
--Christiane Swenson '20
(The following interview has been condensed & edited for clarity.)
LB: So how did you end up at Bennington?
JMS: I ended up at Bennington because I had heard a lot about the school from various sources. It occupied a special place in my mind. I knew that Bernard Malamud had been a teacher there, but I missed him by about a year or so. He had just retired. I was aware of this special small place in Vermont and I requested a prospectus, an actual paper catalog, to find out what it was.
And I was knocked out by the catalog. I really looked at it. In fact, I remember in particular that there was a picture of a woman listening to, clearly, a lecture, and it seemed like a literature class or a philosophy class or something. Everything about that one photograph in the catalogue made me want to be there. I wanted to be in that sort of class, listening to someone like Bernard Malamud lecture in that setting--so I applied early decision. My father was teaching part time at Columbia at the time. I knew I wanted to live in New York City for probably the rest of my life and I thought it might be a good idea to go somewhere else for college. And I thought, "If I don't get into Bennington, then maybe I'll apply to Columbia, because it's cheaper." Luckily I got in; Bennington was the only place I applied and I didn't visit. The first time I came up was for orientation my freshman year.
LB: Oh, wow.
JMS: And I just sort of threw myself in. I look back at it now and it’s sort of a shock that I just knew. It felt very instinctive-
LB: It was like that for me too.
JMS: It was similar?
LB: I'm from Texas originally so it was just a huge culture shock for me. I had never been anywhere with that many trees. I know that you're from New Jersey, so it was maybe not as drastic a change?
JMS: Suburban New Jersey is definitely not Texas, but it's... We didn't have any Green Mountains around. And so it was definitely a shift and one I really loved. For some reason I had in my head that if I went to school in the city I'd be spending a lot of my time exploring the city rather than focusing on my classes, my fellow students, and my campus and all of that. The geographical isolation at Bennington was really a plus for me. I thought it would help me stay focused, and it did. For my first year I lived in McCullough house.
LB: I lived there my first year!
LB: I love McCullough.
JMS: What room were you in? I was in McCullough 13.
LB: Nice. I was in 8.
JMS: It was the second floor. Facing the mountainside. And then my sophomore through senior year I was in Franklin House number 2. It was a room I loved and my windows basically had a view of End of the World. Waking up every morning to that was really quite special.
I did have the option to move off campus at some point or move out with some friends, and I just found that room and stayed in that room for the next three years because I liked it so much. They had to basically give me a diploma to get me out of there. I had ideas of what my ideal college experience would be and just sort of flew mostly on instinct. And my instincts luckily turned out to be mostly correct. I look back on that younger self and ask, "How did you know?"
LB: You knew you wanted to do plays immediately?
JMS: I had done plays from the sixth grade on. I had a wonderful sixth grade teacher who in a parent teacher conference told my father that I had a flair for the dramatic or something like that. Something about me being really good at mime, which made no sense to me. I was like, I'm not really good at mime! But at any case, he sort of suggested that I'd want to take acting classes or theater games classes for kids. I went to a theater camp for four years, from when I was 13 to 17. So during the summers, I was doing camp plays, and the rest of the year I was doing school plays and community theater and going to performances. I had been bitten by the theater bug years before I got to Bennington.
In fact, after I had gotten accepted to Bennington but before I graduated from high school, I was cast in a play in New York. I wasn't going to be able to do the play and also graduate from high school on time, because of the rehearsal time the play required. I remember being sort of upset by this and my dad suggested, "Well, you know, let's see if it would be okay with Bennington if you got your GED and still did the play." And I had no idea what a GED was, and when I found out what it was I was sort of perturbed that I hadn't been given this option sooner. Because my New Jersey high school was not ideal for me. We called up Bennington and they said, "Tell us about the play, that sounds great!"
That was wonderful. They were deeply encouraging rather than discouraging. And so I indeed was able to do the play. I got my GED and missed no time, so I was there at Bennington as a freshman right on schedule in the fall. From the start I had my sights set on the theater and VAPA. I'd seen pictures of VAPA, but I'd never set foot inside until I got there. It’s like the greatest set of Legos, or an Erector Set, whatever you want to call it. The greatest toy, you know, that you could have as a teenager who was interested in theater, was being given access to those spaces. The fact that they were unlocked and available 24 hours a day really felt, and still feels like, such an incredible gift.
LB: There's a photo of a production of one of your plays in the hallway, right next to D207, and I pass it almost every day.
JMS: Which one?
LB: “Jesus on the Oil Tank.” Was that the first play you staged on campus, or did you do anything else before?
JMS: I did three or four plays of my own, as well as acting in and directing the work of others. With my own plays, we mostly did script-in-hand readings. If I had enough confidence in them, I could gather people together to act in them, and to hear them. But we didn't have the entire time needed to fully rehearse a production. I think the four different plays that I did either productions of, or staged readings of, were, first, a play called “Serendipity & Serenity.” I wrote that play in the summer before I got to Bennington. We did a production of that play on D208, actually.
LB: That's a cool place to stage that play.
JMS: It was an odd, very intimate space for a play like that. I think back to it, and it’s not a two character play or anything. How did I get the cast in?
LB: The cast is a whole family!
JMS: There was something about it that worked in that space. But then I did my play "Women and Wallace," my play "Veins and Thumbtacks," and my play "Jesus on the Oil Tank," all in Lester Martin. I directed staged readings of them, and acted in all three of those as well, which seems a little bonkers to me now, when I think about it.
But "Jesus on the Oil Tank" is the one that is the funniest for me to think about now because it's the hardest to produce. It’s a one-act with a very large cast and it’s all men. And now I'm like (sarcastic), this is a great play to do at Bennington College. What was I thinking?
Sherman (third from the left) in a College production of Medea.
So the idea of doing anything but a reading of the play, I think, would have been crazy. I think I had guys in that reading who weren't even in the drama department. Playwriting was an aspect of the theater that was and is really important to me, and so even though it wasn't really a formal part of my college education, I'm taking all of these theater classes, and I'm taking all of these classes in the Literature department, and not actually taking a playwriting class. But I want to be able to share what I was writing with my fellow students and get feedback on it. Those were very self-driven projects. My beloved late professor and mentor Nicholas Martin, Nicky Martin, who ended up directing four of my plays outside of Bennington--I worked with him first when I acted in a play he directed my freshman year at Bennington. It was the faculty show: "The Marriage of Bette & Boo" by Chris Durang.
He had said to me after reading "Wallace"--because I was writing it for a play festival in New York--he said, "If they don't do it there, I'll direct it up here." He had a good feeling about it. I think the play had gotten past the first round and they did end up producing it in the Young Playwrights Festival, so he was able to direct something else up at Bennington. We did "The Time of Your Life," with a huge cast, in Lester Martin.
I had a lot of faculty encouragement and feedback as well. There was no playwriting class when I was there, but I was not discouraged.
LB: It's good to hear that the culture is the same. Everyone’s very self-driven in theater at Bennington and putting on their own stuff all the time. That's really what I love about it here.
JMS: When I think back that's what I loved so much too. It was almost like you stepped onto campus and it was a dare: Here are these great facilities and your only limits are really your imagination and whether or not you're willing to put in the time and the work. You can really pull off anything. Some of my favorite work I've seen was student work at Bennington. Some of my favorite things I've been involved in work-wise were at Bennington. Most people feel this way when they're there, because it's a special environment and attracts real talent. There are much much larger theater schools, and I rarely if ever run into or hear about an alum from some of those programs, whereas I hear about Bennington alums constantly.
It casts a much larger shadow than any other school of its size. I think that’s in no small part because of the kind of student that finds the place. That was certainly true with fellow students I met when I arrived and many who remain amongst my closest friends. They are extraordinarily dynamic and intellectually curious people, not to mention wildly talented. It was very different from suburban New Jersey, and I imagine it’s very different than Texas. All of these people coming from all over, to where the four winds meet.
LB: It feels like summer camp a little bit.
JMS: You're right. Like in the dining hall I know exactly who I'm going to see and who's going to be sitting where and when you're in a certain mood, you'd rather just stay in your room. Then also there's a day where I'm not particularly hungry, but I'm going up to the dining hall because I know who's going to be sitting where and I know who I'm going to see and I can't wait to see those people. I felt that far more often than the other feeling while I was there. I don't know how the food is now, but it was pretty good back then.
LB: It’s not bad! They’re renovating Commons right now so it’s inaccessible. The cafeteria’s in the Student Center temporarily.
JMS: Oh, that's right.
LB: I don't even know if that was built at the time you were at Bennington.
JMS: It was different. It wasn't as it is now. In that same spot, when I first got there, there was "The Café." Actually it was ranked, Bennington received two number one rankings in a guide to colleges written by Lisa Birnbach, who wrote The Official Preppy Handbook. Bennington got two number ones. One was best food, and the other was the best on-campus bar, which may seem shocking because it no longer exists. I think that's a good thing. The drinking age changed the year I got there. My class was the last class where you could drink legally, if you were 18. There were people in my class who were grandfathered in under the old law, when they changed the drinking age from 18 to 21. I'm an October birthday, so I was not of drinking age.
We had different background colors on our I.D.s--yellow and red, which meant whether or not you could drink legally. So there was a student bar in that space, but I couldn't get in. It only lasted until my sophomore or junior year, I think--by the time the majority of students were under the legal drinking age rather than over it, you couldn't really have a bar. That was really not going to be sustainable. So they had a last-hurrah celebration in The Café and it was turned into a more all-use student center. Then, the lovely student center that is now there was built. Ours was more ramshackle. We had ping pong, I guess, and maybe a couple pool tables upstairs.
LB: We still have that space. They still had beer on tap for a while. I think they do set up a bar for the low-residency MFA students because they’re all drinking age and they have to be there for ten days in the coldest part of winter.
JMS: Right. Oh gosh, yeah. No that’s probably very, very wise. I remember always being very impressed by people who stayed during the winter to finish their thesis or whatever it was. And then you come back and they had that look in their eyes like they had lived through The Shining. Like, what happened here when we were all home? You don't want to know.
LB: Those winter breaks are brutal.
JMS: Is D207 still used regularly as a performance space? Because that was one of my favorite performing spaces.
LB: Yeah! I love D207. I had my very first acting class there with Dina Janis. And I have an improv class there now.
JMS: It’s a special place.
LB: It’s got some weird alchemy to it.
JMS: Of the two or three plays I directed, full productions--I say “full productions,” but one was five minutes long--two of them were in D207. I enjoyed directing all of them, but as they casts got bigger and the responsibilities grew, at least at that moment in my life I was like, I think I prefer writing and acting to directing. We did a production of a Richard Greenberg play called "The Author's Voice" in D207 with live music.
It was a three character play. A very spare set and we used the lighting booth-- at that time we used it to our advantage as sort of a surprise set-piece. It was really fun. That's my fondest directing memory. It's set squarely in detail in my mind.
Peter Dinklage in "The Author's Voice." Photo courtesy of Jonathan Marc Sherman.
It's a wonderful play, actually. Almost like a fairy tale of a play. A modern fairy tale of a play. It's a play about a writer, an editor, and then the actual person who's writing the writer's stuff. Tony Wilson--I should refer to him as Grammy nominee Anthony Wilson--performed our original jazz score off to the side. In the first scene of the play, there's the writer and editor, played exquisitely by Brett Gillen and Annie Hubbard, coming back to the writer's apartment and the editor drops a line, "Do you have some creature that writes all this wonderful stuff for you? Because you can barely talk and the writing is just so gorgeous." Then she leaves and a door opens.
Indeed the writer does have someone else who is doing the actual writing. Peter Dinklage played that character. Before we opened the house to the audience, while we were setting up, Pete would go and get prepared under the lighting booth, which was where he made his first entrance. That was sort of his lair. He would be in there and there and I'd do a final check before opening the house. I'd knock on the door. "We good?" The audience would come in and he would be crouching in there for quite some time before the play started. The reveal was fantastic. A fellow by the name of Sebastian Lane did the lighting--he was a wonderful lighting designer. Our effects were mostly light, so it was backlit through that door, and there were all these great lights stuffed inside that lighting booth.
People had seen so many shows in D207, and they were so used to that booth being there, they just took it for granted— 'Oh that's the lighting booth.' No one knew Pete was in there. It was fantastic. Just think of teenage Pete with much longer hair than he has now, waiting to enter and be brilliant. It's a special space.
I have such good memories of each of those VAPA spaces. At least one if not more theater experiences in each one that changed me, and that challenged me. It's a special building.
LB: Wow. [I’m kind of speechless at this point.]
JMS: I'm rambling on endlessly.
LB: No. Thank you so much.
JMS: It's a total pleasure to take a step back in the time machine.