Fun, funny, and fiercely original, Ann Morrison is a joy on stage and off. Actor, singer, writer, director and most of all storyteller, Ann has been weaving myths and making magic her entire life. From her splashy Broadway debut as the original Mary Flynn in Stephen Sondheim’s storied “Merrily We Roll Along,” to “Peg” in London’s West End, “Forbidden Broadway” on both coasts, and, one of my faves, Polly Pen’s charming “Goblin Market,” Ann knows how to light up a stage and light up a room! Today she writes and performs mostly in Sarasota, Florida, where she is Artistic Director/Co-Founder of the SaraSolo Festival (with Blake Walton), dedicated to solo performances and new small-cast plays, and Director/Co-Founder of the Kaleidoscope theater program, which she designed to help people with disabilities create art.
Along the way, Ann, who is a Celtic Druid in the Bardic tradition with a Joseph Campbell flair, created "The Awen Trilogy," based on Celtic mythology: “Discourse of a Maid,” “The Movement of a Modron,” and “Song of the Cailleach.” She also wrote and performed the award-winning “Linda Lovely Goes to Broadway,” about a woman with Down syndrome, and “Trevor’s Fire,” about the empowerment of a boy with ADHD – both pieces inspired by her enchanted trip to the faery glen on Scotland’s Isle of Skye.
Our conversation was the most wonderful whirl of subjects! Off we went, from theater (including her Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre apprentice program year), to that mystical Scottish faery glen, Druidry, inspiration and creativity, and deathwalking. As Ann sings, “Let’s get metaphysical!"
All photos courtesy of Ann Morrison
RG: Hello, Annie Morrison, how are you?!
AM: I'm recovering from a cold so I'm going to sound like a craggy old lady. But my voice is slowly coming back. So! ‘Let's talk metaphysical, physical, let's get metaphysical, let's get into spiritual, let me see your aura move, aura move, let me see your chakra groove!’ [sung to the tune, ‘Let’s Get Physical’]
RG: You have to record that if you haven't already!
AM: Yeah, it was a song that I sang in one of my cabaret acts way back when, when I was living in LA and I was younger and thinner then and I had short hair and I would walk into the Bodhi Tree [bookstore] and for some reason I'm like a young Shirley MacLaine at the time.
RG: I could see that!
AM: And everybody would go, ‘Uh!’ and I'll never forget they were so disappointed when I wasn't her. But let's see, we're talking about Druidry, right?
RG: We are, and thank you for agreeing to talk. I realize as a journalist I haven't talked to you in forever. But you and I have known each other for I'm going to say umpteen years.
AM: Umpteen is my favorite year!
RG: Ever since you were at the Burt Reynolds apprentice theater program in Jupiter, Florida. Am I right that you were in the first apprentice class?
AM: Yeah, we were the guinea pig program, the very first year. The theater was supposed to open in 1978 and they weren't ready yet, they had to delay a year. Which was fine because what I did is I went over to Sarasota, Florida and auditioned for the Asolo to join their children's tour and got in, so that gave me a year's work and kept me in Florida until it was time to go over to Burt Reynolds in '79. So all the sandbags of that theater I filled personally from the parking lot!
RG: I should say it was a year-long theater apprentice program and at the end you got an Actor's Equity card. It was a wonderful time for me as a theater critic. What was it like for you looking back from where you sit now?
AM: It was a very dysfunctional place! But what in the theater isn't dysfunctional?! I mean, let's talk here for a minute, you know? But I learned a tremendous amount, more than I probably ever learned in college in the sense that Burt was throwing us in front of television stars, movie stars, and stage stars. And that's where I learned very quickly what discipline I liked the most, and that obviously was the theater. Television really turned me off, they seemed like a miserable, unhappy group of human beings especially if that was all they did. The film people were great and loved coming back to do live theater. You had your [Sanford] Meisner group, your Stella Adler group, and all the different groups, the Method, and yada yada yada.
And then there were people like Julie Kavner who I don't think really subscribed to any acting school and yet she and Martin Sheen, who was a Method actor, were so lovely together. They would walk on stage in the evening in the exact same play [‘Two for the Seesaw’]. So it really doesn't matter what route you go to get your juices going, as long as you're in the same play when you walk on the stage. A lot of that you learn from just doing and listening to your director. I really come from the school of make believe. I don't think I really know how to act, I only know how to channel.
RG: So now you can really circle back with Shirley MacLaine!
AM: Exactly! I know! Let me tell you! People ask me to teach an acting class and I go, 'OK, it's going to be wacky! We're going to have a good time!’
RG: You seem the same in so many ways as you did then. I always thought of you as a gifted storyteller with a huge imagination and an incredible, and incredibly appealing, voice.
AM: That's all you really need! You got those things, you're going to be fine! No, thank you, thank you very much, I take that as a high compliment. I think my storytelling came from my family. My father was a Scot, and the Scots have a wonderful sense of storytelling, and my mother was, too. But they also loved telling stories in different ways. My mother was a modern dancer and a visual artist and she taught choreography, she taught dance, she taught visual arts, she taught stage pictures, she directed, she was a poet, she was a playwright. My folks wrote three ballets, one opera, three musicals, and I thought that was normal. My father was a great storyteller. He was a music professor, and in his classroom he was a combination of Danny Kaye and Victor Borge. Students still don't know how they took notes because they were laughing so hard. But I think that's how I was brought up so I just saw it as normal behavior.
I love to tell stories many different ways. One thing is sit and tell a yarn but be able to move it and show a stage picture of it, the physicality of it, and the music of it, and the poetry of it, and the visual aesthetics of it in some way. I think that's really important. I think it's one of the reasons why Blake [Walton] and I love doing the SaraSolo Festival and helping people curate and develop their material. It's lonely – a storyteller is a lonely thing. You may be lucky to be a storyteller in a play, and then you all share the storytelling. But to do the storyteller by yourself where the person you play off of is your audience is extremely rewarding. It's terrifying, but it's extremely rewarding. I would recommend any actor, or any performer, to do something solo. When you go back to doing plays with other people you're a better performer.
RG: When did you start actively doing solo work?
AM: I've always been an admirer of it, partly because of my parents' love of theater. I've just loved solo work, I loved seeing Lily Tomlin's ‘The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,’ and Julie Harris do ‘The Belle of Amherst,’ and all of these amazing people doing these amazing stories. Hal Holbrook's Mark Twain. And then being able to hear other people, be able to tell personal stories in that same theatrical way. I loved going to storytelling communities, but that's a whole other animal. They really don't like when actors cross that line. They're very guarded that way. I sort of fit in if I can make myself less theatrical!
It's hilarious because a storyteller is a storyteller is a storyteller. I wanted to do a one woman show here in Sarasota. To be fair, a cabaret performer, where it's just you and your musicians, is a solo performance. I don't like cabarets where I hear them say, 'This next song was written by Kander and Ebb, blah blah blah blah blah.' You've lost me. I want my patter to be entertaining with a through line so it reads just like in a musical. You know, why do you open your mouth to sing that song? I really appreciate good vocal performance work, but the lead into it informs it. If your patter is what your song's going to be then cut something, either cut the song or cut the patter. I used to love watching people like Bette Midler back in the early days, she was very good about leading you into a song and fooled you. She had you laughing hysterically and very slowly turned it into a song that was sad and interesting. So that's the kind of performer I want to be.
I wanted to write a solo play that would be more like a solo musical because music is such a huge part of it. But more text than just singing. I asked about nine different writers and nine different composers to write something for me and it wasn't really happening. My dear friend, who is a wonderful writer, said, 'Annie, but You are a wonderful writer, why don't you just write it yourself?' So I sat down and wrote ‘Discourse of a Maid,’ which was a 90-minute piece. I had to give the audience a crash course on Druidry in order to understand why I was calling myself the Bard for the evening. You had to do a lot of thinking, and I enjoyed it and I got validation that I do know how to write and I could write very poetically.
Then the next series of things that I wrote were living room theater pieces. This will probably lead into your next conversation but I'll get into it now. My Mom and Dad died in ‘05 and ‘06, and they were spiritually artists, there was no god, goddess, in the sense that the theater was a god. And so art was my god, but my Mom raised me on Joseph Campbell and I love Joseph Campbell, in fact it's how I started ‘Discourse of a Maid,’ it was based on Joseph Campbell. He said we need to create a new mythology. We're all still holding on to old mythologies and it doesn't explain our present cosmology. He said we need to create a new mythology but we're moving too quickly. He suggested that you find an old mythology, preferably one you didn't grow up with – the ones you grew up with you have a tendency to see as fact and then you miss the whole point. Find an old mythology and evolve it to a present cosmology.
And so I thought that's interesting and I was very attracted to nature-based religion or spirituality. At the time I was exploring the Native American tradition. I talked to a Lakota Indian chief and he said, 'You're Scottish, you've got that wonderful Celtic sense of storytelling.' He said, ‘Why are you trying Native American? Look up the Druids, the Druids were like the Indians of Europe.’ And I said my God he's right. I went back and looked at it and I was at home.
RG: When did this happen for you? What period of your life?
AM: This had to have been in the late ‘80s going into the 1990s. And so I wrote ‘Discourse of a Maid.’ Now my folks died in ‘05 and ‘06 and I took their ashes to Scotland, or some of their ashes to Scotland, with the idea of leaving them in a faery glen. Both of my parents, the majority of their heritage was Scottish and they wrote a beautiful art song – they wrote a lot of art songs together – that was called, 'Enchantment.' It was the voice of a faery with a piano and it could be flute, it could be clarinet, it could be something else. It was a beautiful piece and I told my sister I'm going to leave them in a faery glen. And she said how perfect. So I went to the Isle of Skye in Scotland, and that's an evening of stories, remind me to tell you the story about how I found the glen. But, except to say, to make it shorter, I met a Scottish investment banker in a pub where I thought was near where the glen could be.
RG: That sounds like a setup for a joke!
AM: It sounds like a setup for a joke! In a way it's funny and it's like, 'Oh, he's an investment banker, he's going to think I'm stupid,' but I'm genuine. 'Out of curiosity, do you know where the faery glen is around here?' 'Oh, lassie, I know…' And he started telling me how to get there, it wasn't very far and then I would see the cows and the sheep and then he told me about the legend of this and the legend of that and he said of course you'll come around to where the rowan trees are. And I said 'Ah, yes the rowan trees,' and I began to tell him a little bit about the myths because I was studying Druidry. He pulled back and he said, 'Oh, you're of the old faith. Well then, lassie,' and then he began. He was really into telling me. I said, ‘Well how will I know that I'm in the glen?’ He said, 'Oh, lassie, you always knowin' you're in the glen!'
I did exactly what he told me to do and I got to the rowan trees and I knew around the bend it would be breathtaking. I asked permission to come into the glen and I brought my gifts, bread and wine and all kinds of things. I told stories of my parents, I sang the art song for them, I read my Mom's poetry, and then I started telling them about how sad I was and I apologized to the faeries, and said if they have any advice to give me to bring back, just let me know. And that I was concerned about four groups of people I was working with at the time.
One group was all the men with their HIV status, and they used to call me the grail lady 'cause I put them on journey quests. And then I told the faeries about this little boy who was labeled ADHD with fire on the brain and that I was concerned about the emotional healing of the mother and the child. And then I told them about this little Scottish girl that I wanted to see while I was there who had leukemia and doing pretty well but I was known as her faery godmother. And, what was the fourth, oh! My money maker, a story about a woman who has Alzheimer's, she's a Down's syndrome woman, part of my Kaleidoscope [theater] where I work with persons with developmental disabilities. She was going into Alzheimer’s. And then I felt like it was time to go and I thanked the faeries and I put my Mom and Dad's ashes in the faery pool and off I went, completely oblivious to where the sun had been, and I had been in the glen for five and a half hours!
RG: Oh my God.
AM: And I thought I was there for 45 minutes to an hour. So you do lose track of time. Well I could not write anymore, I didn't know I was going to write the second triad of the Druid piece. I had taken notes but that night I started madly writing, couldn't sleep. Notes about those four people I talked about with the faeries. And they were messing with me. And when I got back to the States I wrote four individual stories, one was, ‘Linda Lovely Goes to Broadway.’ I think that's what the faeries were trying to remind me.
It's always about our mission. You know, you can have Down's syndrome, you could have Alzheimer’s, you could be labeled ADHD, you could be labeled HIV, you could be this, you could be that. But the heart of it is, is what is that person's mission? And that's what the stories were about. I read them in living rooms and finally Blake said, 'Annie, Linda Lovely Goes to Broadway is stage worthy, we won't change a bit of dialogue.’ I know it's very narrative. And I won awards with it, I won Best Actress and Blake won with my ‘Trevor's Fire’ about ADHD, and I've done the Scottish piece with four actors in a college, and all four of those are published. And I just thought, Wow. So the first piece was based on Druidry and if it wasn't for the faery glen the other four pieces probably wouldn't have come out on paper.
RG: Tell me about the start for you with Druidry, and what does it mean in terms of your work?
AM: It's an interesting thing because there really aren't any true Druids anymore in the sense of what true Druidry originally was. The Druids were the spiritual leaders of the Celtic tribes, and they crossed Europe. There are all kinds of theories of where the Celts actually came from. They call them Indo Europeans. But they, the Basques and Galatians and Celt Iberians, you know there's Celtic tradition all through Europe. Of course the Welsh and the Irish and the Scots and the Cornish and the people from Isle of Man, and the Bretons, they're all considered to be Celtic nations. But when the tribes disbanded there was really no need for that spiritual tradition and they were very nature based spirituality. So even though some people say they were pagans because they believed in the gods, not really. They really acknowledge that because they were animists, and in the animist tradition, spirit and matter were never separate.
When the pantheon of gods came into fashion, because man was evolving in a different way, then they split matter and spirit and then it became monotheist where you had matter and spirit very disconnected and you had to work your way back to spirituality. Now we have technology, and science is changing in such a way, and now we've gone to becoming connected to quantum physics. I talk to my quantum physics friends and they said, 'You know, you animists actually are the ones who had it right!' Because according to quantum physics, spirit and matter were never separate. I found that fascinating. So when Julius Caesar tried to fight the Celts, he nearly had to try and destroy the Druids because they were so prominent in mediating war and he couldn't have a Druid in the middle of a battlefield mediating war! You didn't live long in those days, you know, as long as we do now.
AM: So the majority of your lifetime was studying, and there were three schools, three colleges of learning in the three rays of Awen, which means inspiration from the gods or source. They acknowledge that everyone is a god, you're all gods, we're all gods. But there was a race who, like the Lord of the Rings elves, went into the western world. Some people later called them gods but I think they were just a race of godlike folk who decided to go into the faery realm and let this age of man work out what it needs to work out. When Christianity came in, that's when the Druids said we're going to go away. We're going to go away, we'll come back to the earth when the earth needs us.
It's the same thing as the Hopi Indians said. So in the 1700s, oh, wait, we'll go back to the three rays of Awen, this is important for why it's connected to theater. The first ray went to a group, the Bards, and they could see into the spiritual world and all of nature and express in poetry and song and they were the storytellers. And they were highly revered. You didn't mess with the Bard. When they came into town you took them in. And if you were satirized by the Bard, that was a disgrace. The Celts were a very ethical society. So you wanted to wake up and help and say 'What shall I do today that the Bard will sing my praises?' Which isn't a bad way to live!
AM: So they were the newscasters of the day, everything was oral. If you wrote something down it was frozen and it couldn't evolve so that's why we don't know an awful lot about the Druids, because it was an oral tradition. Anything that was written down was written down by monks so it was already twisted up by them because monotheism was the focus. The women just disappeared. You knew the names of goddesses but very little do you know of their stories. But if you read between the lines you can find it there. So the Second Ray went to the Ovates, depending on what Celtic nation you were in. And they could see into the spiritual worlds, all of nature, and they express the healing arts, and divination. And then the Third Ray, which is a body of Druids that were the Shamans, because they knew those worlds, they could go back and forth into them. You chose the college you wanted to study and then that was your college and that was your expertise. Around the 16 or 1700s into the 1800s, Druids became popular again among mystic Christians. You know, like William Blake was a Druid.
Now a really interesting place to visit is Glastonbury, England. It's where the Tor is. If you know anything about energies of the planet the Tor is one of the heart chakras of the planet. It's protected by the Druids and the mystic Christians. And they live in harmony there. So you've got the whole Magdalene stuff going on there, and the Chalice Well, which is also shared by the Druids because they knew it older than Christianity. And you know the whole myth of the staff of Joseph of Arimathea is there. The staff that he was carrying was the staff of Christ. The story from those people say that Christ when he was a little boy visited Glastonbury twice in his lifetime, because Joseph took them all over the world. So that's a very interesting community of people. They're the mystic Christians and the Druids and they actually adore each other and take care of each other. It's a very lovely, interesting place. In fact, I'm a sapling of a Druid order in Glastonbury, which means not a full ordained Druid. I'd have to go back and spend some time. But I am a sapling! When you have a gathering of Druids it's called a grove.
RG: Got it!
AM: And when you're not fully in that grove yet you're called a sapling. It's funny, I'm not really a grove Druid because I'm a Joseph Campbell Druid. So therefore I look through that mythology so I can evolve, because I'm also connected to quantum physics. So I'm happy to be a sapling!!
RG: So how does all of this inform your work, and how do you incorporate it? Are there certain things you actually do creatively and spiritually when you're putting on a show or putting something together, or something that you're writing? Does it impact you from the creative side? Does it actually impact you on stage?
AM: Absolutely. Because I'm really a Bard. If I were in one of those schools then I probably would have been the Bardic school. Because in ‘Discourse of a Maid,’ I had to give everybody a crash course in Druidry. In that particular story I would tell an old Celtic myth but I chose to tell it from the point of view of the women. Then I would tell a personal story, how did that myth affect, impact, my own life, and what did I do for my own life that was like that. At the end of the piece, as Bards do, they would weave the past and the present together in order to divine what the possibility of the future could be. And that was that show. So that impacts everything I do, anything I write comes from that perspective. It's like I have to think about the oldness and the present time myth in order to find out where I want to take you next in that story. That's even true in my cabaret work. I think of the impact when creating dialogue that weaves into a song, and how does the song inform the rest of the storytelling, so that you can stand and manipulate the metaphor of a song based on how you set it up.
RG: Give me an example. You have a show right now, ‘My Furniture Set.’ How does it interrelate with that?
AM: Well I thought it would be fun to put together a show for a furniture store that I admire so much and that we did a lot of solo theater in, and fringe theater. But I'm a storyteller! So I can't just sing a bunch of songs about furniture. How boring is that! I mean, it had to have meaning. I started looking at material and at a set of songs, and I went around the furniture and looked at pieces that informed me, you know? 'That's an interesting table, why is that table interesting to me?’ Well I love the nature of the marble grain in it that looks like wood. Or the dynamics of the red in that chair. I was taking my own spiritual journey through the store, but only I know that.
Then I would go back and start looking for material that was either from the Great American Songbook or from musical theater or specialty material or any place I could find something that was interesting, and where I found something lacking I decided to write or asked my accompanist to help me. Now, he doesn't know my process. You know, he just is amazed how it happens. And I said I would like to have a song about a sofa and the playfulness of that, when you're at that age where you're being flirtatious. I've anchored the cabaret act with three different songs, one when you're first in your home and there's nothing there yet. You're building up a relationship and the relationship of that home. And then in the middle of my cabaret act was a relationship that's very sturdy and centered around a vase, it was ‘Our House.’ 'You light the fire, I'll place the flowers in the vase.' I can't sing right now, I have no voice! At the end, a house that's full of furniture but the relationship is empty because someone has passed on. That in a sense was the triple goddess, it's the maiden mother crone. Then you just wove a personal story that would indicate a piece of furniture as though we were in that furniture store, and then I would think of something in my life.
People at first when they thought they were coming to see me sing about furniture thought, 'This is going to be so boring, so weird,' but they said it was the most amazing thing they ever saw because everybody can relate to that. You can look at a chair and have a story about it, you know? I decided to use the chair as my opening number, let it be flirtatious and get everybody in a crazy, sensuous, funny mood. So I use the chair song really as a throwaway, in a way. But I could do another story about a chair, a chair I bought my mother before she died. You know, there's a whole story about that chair. Some things were emotional and some things were funny and some things were... Then I like to weave a nice pattern of it, there's no sequential order, you know? Life just weaves around in a spiral. So in a sense the show, if I were to sit down and go through each piece, it's a very spiritual piece and nobody needs to know that.
RG: Is there a mystical component when you're putting all of this together in writing?
AM: I think so. I mean, it wasn't until I just voiced it to you now that I actually would have voiced that in any other way. Because it's just something I do, it's just a part of who I am now. When I go to the cinema, I like to go with what I call shaman eyes and shaman ears. I like to see things several times because I just want to see as an audience member, but with shaman eyes and shaman ears, even though it might not be something that I would normally like, I found something important in it that I can move on with. Either being a better human being or you know, how do you, how can I alter my behavior that makes it a better place for other people. You know? All those kinds of things. I think it depends on who I go to the theater with, too. If I don't get caught up in other people's whiny this and that I have to go away and separate myself from them to appreciate it in a different way than I probably would share with them. 'Cause they just wouldn't have shared this.
RG: How does this process work if you're prepping for someone else's show?
AM: Before I go on stage I close my eyes for a moment. One of the solo artists this year was talking about working backstage in costumes and stuff but also as an actor and he found a great comfort in the blue light back stage, that you have to cut so that people can see. It's a comforting light. He thought it very spiritual and Blake and I both were, 'Oh yes!' I said I totally know what you're talking about. It's very calming, and just before you go on stage you get to ground for a minute and realize why you're there. You're telling a story, and the hope is that the audience walks away with something, even if it's a silly farce. You know, there's merit in that. If nothing else than the merriment and a joyful heart, and silliness that reminds us to be funny. We need to be funny! We need more knowledge that we're funny! Human beings are funny. We're the funniest things in creation! We're hilarious!
RG: I've often wondered if the animal world is funny amongst themselves, like do they crack themselves up the way humans do?
AM: Oh, they probably do! They're like, 'Now that's funny!'
RG: You mentioned Joseph Campbell. Was he always important in your life? How early did some of the other mystical stuff start? I'm guessing that with your family background it might have started fairly early.
AM: Family background, very much so. If you were to read my mother's poetry you'd definitely see that she was an elf. My mother had faery blood in her. I really believe that. She had a lot of mythology in her poetry, and in her work, in her artwork. She was very empowered by mythology. And so was my father in that way. I don't know if he would describe it as such but yeah, yeah, very much so. So I think I just grew up on it, you know, I'm fascinated by it. Religions, you piss Christians off when you tell them that their faith is mythology. They get very upset by that. But it really happened. And I said, 'Then you're missing the whole point! That's the whole point of spirituality, it's not rooted in fact! There's no truth in facts!’
RG: Were you raised with a religious background?
AM: No, not at all. I remember going to church a few times when I was 5 because my Dad played the organ at churches. It was just a job. And my Mom tried to do the best she could with it, I mean we did this liturgical dance thing in the 60s, you know. She did these liturgical dances and my Dad would read from the Book of Ruth, my sister, brother and I would dance it. But that was mythology, you know? They were fun to be with, they were very very fun. My Mom's parents were Lutherans but she wasn't a Lutheran, and my Dad's parents were Episcopalian but he wasn't Episcopalian. They were artists. And they spoke the language of arts.
RG: Let's go back to Scotland and your parents again. Druidry is a lot about creation and life but there's also a lot about creative death. Is that part of what you're involved with, too?
AM: It's interesting because I refer to myself as a deathwalker, and that was a Native American term given to me. It upsets people when I say that because they have such a trigger on the word death. But the Celts were very healthy in those aspects because you're just changing energy. So keening, the Celtic term keening, which is mournful crying, is very healing. And I became a wonderful keener. I really understood the frequency of grief. You drop down into grief and then you come back up, you go up. I would help people go through grief because it doesn't scare me and I can hang there for a long time and help you through the process of it. The grief of your own dying, walking you through the process of that, so as a deathwalker in my tradition, I will follow whatever your mythology is. If you believe that Jesus is going to meet you on the other side that's fine, I can play there.
But the most important thing is that as your deathwalker, you get to tell me the truth. Because everybody else doesn't want to hang with a dying person. They want to talk about something else. It's too hard for them. But you need to have someone you can tell the truth to. Tell them that you're scared, not to have someone say, 'Oh, you don't need to be afraid.' Open up the space for them to be wherever they are, and acknowledge when they start hallucinating. Well, you can call it that if you want to but you really need to pay attention to what they're telling you because they're seeing something that you can't see, and that's important, it's going to inform everything about where they are right now. I'm not trained as a Hospice person, I'm just a natural deathwalker. I deathwalked both my parents, and we always agreed that everybody was going to be cremated and create whatever ceremony you wanted to. But my sister decided that they had to go to the faery glen. That was for sure. And so we did! And I did! And the faeries accepted it!
RG: Is deathwalking something that you were doing when you were living in Los Angeles and volunteering with HIV and AIDS patients?
AM: I was, but I wasn't aware that that's what I was doing at the time. I didn't define it as that at the time. LA was very important, a group of people who wanted to heal the emotional body in a way that we didn't think was happening. It was very intense, deep deep grief and deep deep anger and deep deep deep in the presence of people who could hold space for you. I think that's where the deathwalking began, I just didn't know that's what it was until I was leaving LA and I had this wonderful conversation with a Lakota chief. He said no, you're a deathwalker, you're a natural deathwalker, and just keep doing it until you don't want to do it anymore. I don't put a shingle out.
RG: Have you ever done a theater piece on deathwalking?
AM: One of my monologues in ‘Discourse of a Maid’ does talk about it in a sense. A guy with HIV. I should really look at that story, it's been awhile. But I would like to do a whole ceremony, a whole piece on deathwalking. The next thing I want to do in my cabaret act is the adventures of Annie Beatle! I need to go back into playful little girl, I haven't been there in awhile. But when I was little I believed that the Beatles were brothers and Beatles was their last name. So John, Paul, Ringo, George Beatle and I had these adventures as Annie Beatle! I was the little sister and we had these adventures together!
RG: You were the missing girl from the group!
AM: I was! I was the little sister who would just go on the adventures together.
RG: Who was your favorite of the four?
AM: Oh, I didn't have a favorite brother. I loved them all!
RG: That's very judicious.
AM: Yeah, I loved my brothers all equally!
RG: Your life now from a creative standpoint, and from the lens of being a Druid, has to look very different to you when you look back on your theater history. You've had Broadway runs, Off-Broadway, London’s West End, you've done all of that. When you look at those years through these eyes now, what do you see? Are there things you would have done differently?
Jim Walton, Ann Morrison, and Lonny Price in "Merrily We Roll Along"
AM: Oh probably, but I don't find any value in that. That's over with. Another lifetime ago, you know? I'm looking in the mirror at a very different Annie and I'm trying to keep pace with the one she is right now. And where she's going to take me next. People ask me about the past and it's so weird doing this, the ‘Merrily’ documentary [‘Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened’] because people remember differently. It was fascinating to reminisce and somebody would go, 'I don't remember that,' and 'Oh, I definitely remember that, oh sure I remember that,' and of course you have to remember that memory is only what's left of how you've remembered it. So the farther that you get from something the farther you are from what really happened. And you only remember the last time you remembered.
I'm more interested in where I'm going next. I was talking to a woman who was an improv actress and I wanted her to do a 40-45 minute solo improv piece. I said, 'You know, improv people show this tendency more than anything, the present really is just on the brink of the next, that's how quick it is. Present is really just that moment of on the brink of the next, on the brink of the next, on the brink of the next. Anything that's just before that is past.’ Artists understand that. They may not have the words for it but there's a moment when you're so lost in time that you're only in the moment of the next, whether it's visual art or creating choreography or starting to write or whatever. It's the next, the next, the next, and that's what you need to focus on. I look back, yeah, I had a life, it was great, but it's ‘What's Annie going to do next?’ that's more interesting to me. It's the Druid way! I'm looking for the future mythology now!
RG: Let’s say you went back to Broadway again – it would look very different for you and how you would approach a show than perhaps how you approached ‘Merrily’ when you were in your 20s.
AM: Oh, totally! Totally so! It would have been a very different experience. I mean, even going back and doing 'LoveMusik' was different than ‘Merrily.’ I had a whole different holistic point of view around it. I remember telling the universe that I didn't want to go back to Broadway and do another Broadway show that wasn't going to go anywhere. And so when I was supposed to do Lotte Lenya and it was taken away because I didn't have the Tony Award I started to cry and my son said, 'Mom! Mom! You're going to go back into the house! You're maybe going through the back door and not the front door but you're in the house. You can make any choice that you want to.’ And he was right. And I realized after, I was having so much fun doing ‘LoveMusik’ and I got to go on for [the lead] anyway because she got sick and I got to be the hero. So I realized that the universe gave me exactly a different experience. I didn't have to worry about the weight of the show on me, and another show that wasn't going to be successful, and I got to be the hero and I had fun and I had a different perspective and a wonderful relationship with Hal Prince. We really solidified our family.
RG: That’s an incredibly nice outcome.
AM: If I was in the same place as I was in ‘Merrily’ I would have been probably devastated. But it wasn't. I wasn't at all. So yeah, very fun, very fun. I tell the universe jokingly, if I had to go back and do a Broadway show, this is what I would like to have – I would like to have a show where I come in in the second act, it's a scene stealer, and that's all I have to do and the show is very successful and it runs awhile! So I'm just waiting for the universe to figure that out!
RG: Maybe you need to write it.
AM: Yeah, maybe I just need to write it!
RG: Let's go back to Druidry for a second. When you are writing and get stuck are there things you can draw on from Druidry to help move you forward?
AM: Ah, in the writing, in developing? I think so. I don't know. I think I just live it now.
RG: There aren't prayers or incantations.
AM: Oh, no!
RG: There's nothing that you tap into.
AM: Nah! Nah! There's never anything that's ever repeated. Because you're in the present, of the energy that's Now, and so I don't repeat anything. It has to be inspired by what's in front of me and then develop it out of that. I mean, if I was going to do a birthday ceremony for you, which I'd love to do, it would have to be based on where you are now and where we think we can launch for your birthday year. I’ll go back and look at old materials, old mythologies and stuff for inspiration, but no, I want to stay present with where you are and connect with your spirituality where you are, because that's how you honor one another. There's an old Druid saying, let's see if I can get to my memory:
'I honor your gods,
I drink from your well,
I bring an unprotected heart to our meeting place,
I hold no cherished outcome,
I will not negotiate by withholding,
I am not subject to disappointment.'
RG: That's really beautiful. So, I had done some reading and found that you had a near death experience.
AM: Oh yeah.
RG: And I'm wondering how that interrelates with how you live your life and staying in the present, and also this sense of aliveness that I've always seen you as having.
AM: Absolutely it did. I was 13 years old and my Mom and Dad, with another couple, had just started a new theater company for the summer time called The Banner Players and they were part of a college that had a summer campus up in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. And later some of the Goodman students would go up there and work. It was great fun. But it was the first year and I was rehearsing ‘The Red Shoes,’ the director was a good friend and he was going to bring me home because we were all going to go out to dinner. It was my Dad's birthday. But I didn't make it home. There were two lanes shut down over this bridge by the expressway and a car wasn't paying attention and pulled out, forgot it was going against traffic, and plowed right into us.
Of course I don't remember any of this. But I didn't have my seatbelt on, which saved my life, because the car was crushed. I would have been crushed to death, that would have been it. But because I hit the windshield and the dashboard I fell down underneath the well and the car crushed on top of me, above me. So they had to pull me out, Jaws of Life kind of thing, and all during that time I left my body. I was going up to the white light but I got that sense that I was not supposed to go. It was fascinating to watch that whole experience and feel just like, 'Really?! You really want me to go back?! That's not going to be fun! This is great!’ I jokingly laugh at the universe, 'You come down here and try this! This hurts! Human's hard!'
I'm not afraid of death anymore. That's another reason I can hang with people dying 'cause it doesn't frighten me. It's just really exciting. I can't wait for my transition. But I will. But when the time comes I'm very excited about it.
RG: Does it also give you a different window into what you think your mission is here, to circle back to talking about your person's mission?
AM: I think it does. There's a word in Druid Celtic tradition, ‘geis’ and a Druid would give a geis on a child before it was born or around the time he was born. And it's like, I would say the words that make sense to me, it's like your contribution to humanity. I had a Druid give one to my son [Huck Walton] and it was 'beauty of the human condition.' I asked how would that represent and he said I can't tell you, that's something Huck has to decide on his own when he's ready. I discovered when I was growing up that mine was, 'Helping people feel good about themselves.' I always could tell if I'm off track, if I'm not doing that. I don't know how to describe it but I just feel that helping people feel good about themselves is very important.
RG: This showed up after the accident?
AM: Yeah, yeah, it really did. I didn't have the words for that until I got older. But when I go back and look at the pieces that link up to all that, that was what it was. I was going to say that was what the Druid would have given me. My son is beauty of the human condition and mine is to help other people feel good about themselves.
RG: What a wonderful thing!
AM: Mm hmm. Do you feel good?!!
RG: I feel great!
AM: OK, good! Alright then!
RG: I could see where you make people feel great – I've been watching you do that for years! Not always up close, sometimes clearly at a distance, but I think you've been doing that. I sort of felt that from the first time I met you.
AM: Aww! Well that's nice to know!
RG: It's a very interesting thing when you're meeting somebody and in this case it was watching the apprentices and everybody interacting with each other, and you can get a pretty clear picture of who's there for themselves, who's there for the group, who really wants to learn something. Everybody's got a different agenda, everybody's at a different place in their life.
RG: And there was always some magical spark about you that it almost felt like the firefly, where people were drawn to you. One is you were an extraordinary performer and that was very obvious even then. But other reasons, too. There was something really lovely about you that you could see people drawn to.
AM: Thank you.
RG: Most people in their 20s are very focused on their own life, their own career, what they have to deal with.
AM: Right, right, as well they should! Especially now. You know my son is married now and I really love my daughter-in-law but they both feel like they can't, they don't want to have children.
RG: Why's that?
AM: And I said, 'Really? No judgment, but out of curiosity,' and he said, 'Well, we just think it's irresponsible.’ Because the world is in such a bad place right now. We'd be happy to take care of other people's children, you know, that's fine, if you're already here, but to bring someone in it just feels irresponsible.
RG: One could argue that anybody could say that at any particular time in history, and people probably have – that it's not a great world and why have children.
AM: Well it's really evident now! That's why the Druids and the Hopis are coming back!
RG: Do you have a Druid community in Sarasota?
AM: No, I think I'm the only Druid in Sarasota.
RG: I can't believe that's true.
AM: I know! There's all these, you know, new Wiccans, but that's not Druidry. That's something completely different. I like Wiccans, they're very funny. But it's not Druidry. And like I said I'm a Joseph Campbell Druid. So I'm really looking at how do I explain my cosmology to an old mythology that feels good. That's all. And it's fun to talk to my quantum physics friends and they just, 'Yep, yep, oh yep, oh yeah, oh yeah, that makes sense now!’ Because spirit and matter, according to quantum physics, aren't separate either, you know? It's all connected.
RG: Everything's all connected.
AM: It really is.
RG: Do you have a creative secret weapon?
AM: A creative secret weapon, a creative secret weapon. Humor!
RG: Oh that's good, I like that.
AM: I did learn that when I was young because I was always an odd duck and people used to, when I was young, in a sense it could be bullying, but they couldn't win because I always found funny. So if they said something nasty about me I just said, 'Here - you're absolutely right. That is weird. It was a weird ass thing, what was that all about?' And then they couldn't make fun of me anymore because I thought it was funny.
RG: Did that happen a lot for you growing up?
AM: I think probably, maybe not so much as I got older, and then I was ‘in’ because I was just weird! I always marched to my own drummer. I loved to play with other kids but I did prefer most of the time just to play by myself, because their imaginations were broken.
RG: Do you have certain pieces of music or books that you've relied on over the years on creativity or imagination?
AM: You know, I don't read anymore. I stopped reading, isn't that funny? I'm dyslexic so it's not a fun thing. Then I started writing and I discovered I can't read when I'm writing. I got out of the habit of reading. People said, 'Oh, you need to read this book, oh, you need to read that book.' And I don't. I'll read a little bit and then I'm thinking about something that I would like to do instead. I have a houseful of books, I love books, I love the energy of books on bookshelves.
I keep them more for reference, like if I want to go back and look at mythology or some poetry or something like that that I can link back to, might help me get through a crunch or something. Music, I love all music. It depends on what I'm into at the time. As the child of a music professor, we listened to music all the time. He taught me how to listen to music. In the past years I don't really sit down and listen to music, unless I really want to listen to something. I have a new friend here in Sarasota so sometimes we'll have a date just listening to music together.
RG: That's fun!
AM: He’ll put on a musical and we'll listen to a whole song and then comment on it and then listen to the next song all the way through. People don't do that anymore. That's one of the reasons I married Blake, because Blake would do that, he and I would listen to music together. I'll listen to music when I'm ready to put a show together. I listen to everything, things that I normally wouldn't listen to. I think another problem, why we don't really listen to music, any of us, is because we have Muzak, and we have it in the background of all television shows.
RG: It's everywhere. Restaurants, too.
AM: Music has become a passive thing. People don't actively listen to music anymore. Now if it was music in an Indian restaurant, that's fun, it adds to the quality. But you know no one sits and listens. That’s why I want a listening room here in Sarasota, a real cabaret listening room where you sit there 'cause you're here to hear the artist play and not talk while they're singing. That's one of my goals this year, we're trying to get one started again. Used to have a great listening room back when I first moved here but it got torn down and a library went in its place and we've never had a proper listening room since.
RG: Is the Sarasota theater community doing well?
AM: Let's see, we have five professional theater companies and then we have local theater.
RG: And you've got your own SaraSolo and Kaleidoscope.
AM: Yeah. You know, a good friend said, 'Why aren't you working all the time at the Asolo?' And I said because I'm a local actress now. And the same with FST. I'm now considered a local actress. He said you've got more credentials than the people they bring in from New York. I said, but I'm now considered a local actress. It's a weird thing. I work a lot up in St. Pete at the freeFall Theater. I didn't work a lot this year, and I didn't hardly work at all last year because I fractured my ankle. But Blake and I went up to the artistic director, he's a great, great guy. We said, 'Blake is coming down and we would like to spend two weeks if we can to help us get a show up that we've written. We just want to look at it and see if it's worth growing into maybe a workshop with you.’ Blake flew down, we met with him, we read the play. It’s called, 'Heard There Was A Party. Came.'
RG: That's a great name.
AM: I know! It's a two character piece, and it all takes place in Beatrice Lillie's mind at the end of her life. I think he wants to try to put it in the season next year.
RG: Wow, that's terrific.
AM: Yeah. He always wants to do a new original piece. He wants to teach his audience. So I told Blake we have to start memorizing the thing because it's a lot of words. Again, my interest in people with Alzheimer's and brain stuff and brain injuries and what have you. Beatrice Lillie, she was a sort of Modern Millie and she was going into Alzheimer's then. She finally gave up show business and had a stroke and years later she went into a catatonic state for 11 years. I was fascinated by that. What's going on in that brain in those last 11 years? I know from being in a coma that you don't go away. You go somewhere, and so where does she go? So the setting is inside of her mind and she's in a nightgown, a wheelchair, that gets pushed away and she comes trying to figure out a routine. Blake plays her memory, desperately trying to keep pace with her because lots of things are going from the outside world but trying to keep the theater world inside alive 'cause that's all that matters. It's an interesting piece.
RG: So circling back to Druidry, I've always been kind of fascinated by it - on my father's side we are Welsh.
AM: Ah! There you go! Well, the Welsh tradition really was about the Bard. When I was working with Sian Phillips in London, she played my aunt, and she's inducted in a Druid order in Wales because she's considered a Bard. She had to wear all white. I have a picture of her somewhere, she gave it to me, of her being initiated in the Bardic tradition in Wales. The Bard part of Druidry is very alive in Wales.
RG: I spent some time in Wales a number of years ago and on Anglesey, the island where I think the Druids ended. I think there were bad battles.
AM: Yeah, well!
RG: You can feel the energy of the land.
AM: Isn't it true. In Scotland the whole area just vibrates. And it's no wonder, this connection with what they call the faeries because you get in certain areas and it vibrates on a different frequency. I was driving on a one-track lane on the left side of the road trying not to kill sheep and sometimes I just had to pull over to the side of the road and cry because the mountains were so unbelievably beautiful. I took a picture of them and they look like, you know, mountains. But, wow.
RG: It's the energy. I didn't get to spend much time in Scotland so I'll have to go back. But I also really want to go to Cornwall.
AM: Me too! And they tell me the Isle of Man is incredible. My daughter-in-law's father was born in the Isle of Man. And her mother is a Druid! How weird is that?! Isn't that bizarre?
RG: I still remember seeing you in Los Angeles and Huck was sooooo little and now he's all grown up.
AM: I know! He's all grown up. He growed up good! He's a good man. I'm really tickled by that. He's a good human being and thinks kindly of people and he does good things in the world. So. You can't get better than that!
This conversation has been edited and condensed.