“Bette Davis Ain’t For Sissies” is a one-woman play by actress and writer Jessica Sherr. Since its debut in 2008, the 80-minute play has been popular with fans and critics and it is now scheduled to stream LIVE at OnTheStage.com from July 15 to September 24, 2020.
Jessica Sherr is best known for her work on major television series and motion pictures such as “Blue Bloods,” “Claws” and “Annie” yet this play has proven that Jessica is also a skilled stage performer. Excitingly, this particular production will feature Bette Davis’ scarf and gloves, which were a gift from Bette Davis Estate!
“Bette Davis Ain’t For Sissies” focuses on iconic actress Bette Davis at the age of 31 in the year 1939. She finds herself struggling against the male-dominated studio system. Saddened by her failure to win an Oscar, Bette tells the audience of her tumultuous rise to fame, triumphing over misogyny to win roles and compensation on par with her male counterparts, yet still experiences both professional and personal loses.
Since its premiere at the New York International Fringe Festival twelve years ago, “Bette Davis Ain’t For Sissies” has enjoyed sold-out runs at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a month-long run in Chicago, a US tour in 2015, and a run at St. James Theater in London. The show has been staged in twelve US states and in three countries.
Jessica Sherr recently discussed this play and her acting career via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your love for acting and how did you break
into the industry?
Jessica Sherr (JS): It all started when I was three years old with a snowman costume and a sneeze. I was in a tap class and we were to perform “Frosty the Snow Man” in front of an audience. I was dressed in a white leotard and green bow tie. We were about to go on stage and I sneezed; a big, giant sneeze. My mom didn’t have time to get me a tissue so I had to perform covered in sneeze. I was mortified. I started to cry. I shuffled. I buffaloed. I continued to cry, but then through the tears, I saw smiling faces. The little performer in me kicked in. I wiped my nose with the back of my hand and I finished the dance. The crowd roared. At that moment I knew I would have a life as a creative person.
MM: How did you land roles on very famous TV shows and which characters did you play
JS: One of my favorite TV experiences was being cast on the show CLAWS (on TNT). I auditioned for one of the toughest casting directors in the south. When I got the call that I booked the job, I was shocked. Out of all the women, they picked me?! There is something very humbling when you think of all the others who have auditioned and you were the one that they chose. It was filmed in New Orleans with a cast of stellar women. Being surrounded by so many funny women allowed me to be my funny self. I felt elated. I play a snarky nail salon client of the leading character and got to wear the coolest pink shorts.
MM: How did you get interested in the theater and how different is stage work from screen work?
JS: I started in theater, so it’s always been home for me. I find theater work very challenging and, as such, gratifying. Having a live audience is an experience all to its own and there is nothing else like it. An adrenaline rush happens whenever I perform for a live audience and I think as an artist you need to be that vulnerable and put yourself out there in order to grow. I love screen acting for different reasons. With screen acting, you have such a huge reach and your work can be seen all over the world. I was in the movie ANNIE (Columbia Pictures) and when it came out, I had childhood friends email me to say they were watching with their child and how special it was to see someone they knew on the screen. The art of theater and screen acting are very different and I crave both art forms.
MM: What was it about Bette Davis that so appealed to you? You actually look quite a bit like her!
JS: Indeed, people kept telling me I looked like a young Bette Davis and I have Bette Davis eyes! Once I read her autobiography, The Lonely Life, I became fascinated by her and her story of being a fighter. I felt I had to learn more about her life.
MM: Why did you decide to base this show in 1939 when Bette was 31? What was it about that timeframe that was so intriguing?
JS: I found this to be a time in her life to be thick with history and drama. I learned that the Los Angeles Times leaked all the Oscar winners early that year so that they could sell more newspapers. Bette finds out from the newspaper that she is going to lose to “Gone With The Wind.” That must have been devastating. As a playwright I wanted to explore this night.
MM: How much research did you have to do on Bette in order to write this play and, more importantly, get into the right frame of mind to play her?
JS: It’s been a 10 years process. I started researching in 2008 and it took until 2010 to have created a 28-minute vignette. I performed at FringeNYC and then took the show to Edinburgh Fringe 2013-2015. Each time I performed I came back and re-wrote the play. In 2017 I had a 4-week run in Chicago and then was asked to expand the show and return 2018. My research this time was much deeper and more focused on Bette’s personal life. In 2019, I brought on a new director, Drama Desk Award Winning Karen Carpenter and again I dove back in and opened the play up to explore more of Bette’s life. So, it’s been a 10-year-long research project!
MM: What’s your favorite segment of the show and why?
JS: I have a really fun scene with Howard Hughes. I love the scene as it’s so carefree and we see Bette having fun. She’s always thought of as being so stiff, but in this scene with Howard she is light and girlish and full of vigor. I think it paints a picture of a different side of Bette. For me as the actress, it’s a very physical scene and there is a lot of room to play, so I enjoy allowing myself to be free as well.
MM: What were the challenges of getting this piece staged and how did you find a venue back in 2008?
JS: In 2008 I was in an acting class in which we had to create a quick sketch of a famous person. No one ever thought they would be doing a full solo show, but during the course of class we all started to create characters and the director felt it would be good to continue to perform them. I ended up performing thirteen Saturdays at the Roy Arias Studios in New York and thus the journey began.
MM: Have you been surprised by the level of success that the show has enjoyed?
JS: It’s incredible. In 2013, Bette Davis’ assistant called me and we met in Los Angeles. She gave me a pair of Bette’s gloves, handkerchief, and earrings to wear in the show. In that moment, I knew I owed it to Bette to do the best job possible with telling the story of her life. I have now performed over 250 times in 12 states and 3 countries. Performing in theaters from 300 to 1000 seats. I was even given 4-week runs in Chicago twice! In 2021, I hope to raise enough money to do an Off-Broadway run in New York! I never would have predicted this level of success.
MM: What do you hope audiences take away from the performance?
JS: My hope is that the audience leaves inspired by Bette’s trailblazing life and her fight in Hollywood. The show follows a young Bette Davis through the trials and tribulations she faced during her career as a woman in a male-dominated and misogynistic industry. My goal is that audiences see through Bette’s eyes why she was such a fighter and how she had a calling to change the way Hollywood treated its players.
MM: What projects are coming up for you soon and is there anything else that you would like to mention?
JS: Last year, I shot a few episodes of SCRATCH THIS The Series, with Laura Dowling Shea, Jessica Alexandra Green, directed by Jody Lauren Miller. I recently saw the edit and fell in love with the project in a whole new way. With screen work there are many different layers and I enjoy the process. I am also a producer on WICKED IMAGE, written and directed by Caitlin Scherer, a short dark comedy. I play Satine, a.k.a. Satan. It’s a smart play on women as devils. We will hit the indie film circuit in the Fall of 2020. Caitlin and I also wrote a feature film script called BETTE about Bette’s life (Finalist Screen Craft Award and Top 10% Nicholls Fellowship). We are looking for someone to pick it up and finance so I can play Miss Davis on the BIG screen!
For more information visit bettedavisaintforsissies.com.
Tickets are $19.50 each (including all service fees), available at www.BetteDavisAintForSissiesTix.com. Performance times are:
- Thu. August 13 @ 7:30pm EDT / 4:30pm PDT
- Thu. August 27 @ 7:30pm EDT / 4:30pm PDT
- Thu. September 10 @ 7:30pm EDT / 4:30pm PDT
- Thu. September 24 @ 7:30pm EDT / 4:30pm PDT