Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: What inspired you to tell this story, and how would you describe your creative process in bringing it to life?
Jessie Knowles: It’s funny you ask what inspired me to tell this story, because one of the aspects of my condition has been feeling overwhelmingly inspired by even the littlest thing. So, I was always inspired to tell the story of that, if that makes sense. The drive to be an artist and embrace the creative path was something that I felt very early on in life, like from birth! I was born into a very creative family so it’s always just been what we do. When the symptoms of my bipolar began to manifest at age 19 and the schizophrenia manifested at 25, that often took me to a very creative place where I would write shows, songs and stories, I would act, sing and dance. Then I began to get into photography, videography and editing as well. But the journey wasn’t always easy and it did bring some hard life lessons and some life changing struggles. And being a creative person, telling the story of how I overcame those struggles also seemed like it could be something valuable.
When I got to grad school, I was presented with a unique study model that allowed me to create a show that is completely my own. Right away, I was called to tell the story of these unique mental conditions that allow me to stretch the limits of imagination and emotion. As I went through my grad school study over four years, I experienced extreme ups and downs and several severe episodes. My focus during that time was to engage my whole creative self in that experience, for better or worse. I also developed my artistic self by studying various disciplines and philosophies and engaging with the work of other artists.
I was documenting my whole process during that time, all while I experienced the ups and downs, periods of stability, periods of depression. I was even able to document somewhat during those episodes of severe delusion or hallucination. By the end of grad school, I had turned that documentation, as well as scenes and monologues I had written over that four years, into the first draft of Jessie’s Messy Mind. There are six scenes altogether, all exploring the potential of the human mind as it dives deeper and deeper into various states of instability and mania. I string all these scenes together using different aspects of my personality, who are all characters with their own distinct personalities, and seven original songs (originally nine) that I’ve written over the past 10 years.
After I performed the show in Chattanooga in 2016, I cut two songs and 30 minutes of dialogue from the show. One, to make it easier to watch and perform, two hours is a bit much, and two, to make it eligible for festivals, like the Hollywood Fringe Festival. 90 minutes is a pretty standard length for festivals. I may need to look into a third version of the show that runs one hour, but that feels like an impossible feat at this point!
BD: Given that the performance is a one-woman show, how do you balance the workload within the production, and do you feel that the various roles enhance the creative process?
JK: I love performing the show! It is a bit terrifying, which is something I’m not used to with performing. When I do an ensemble show, one that isn’t autobiographical, I don’t usually experience what you would call stage fright, or even nervousness before the show. I would just feel excited. This show is different. Right before it starts, I feel a kind of nervousness that I’ve never felt with anything else. But once the show starts, it’s like putting something into motion that just builds its own momentum. Luckily, the characters I play and the story itself add so much energy on their own, so if I start to feel tired from the performance, the dynamic between the characters and the way they tell the story naturally keeps me alert, present and energized. Because the show is so much a reflection of what things are really like for me, I can depend on that to carry me through to the end. I don’t have to be the one to carry the show. It carries me.
BD: What do you hope audiences will take away from the show?
JK: First of all, I hope they are entertained. Beyond that, I hope they are inspired to think about mental health in a new way. Conditions like schizophrenia are rare, but I see more instances popping up. And bipolar is becoming much more common and can be hard to identify and treat. It can wreak havoc on a person’s life and the lives of their loved ones when it isn’t handled properly. I hope the show can provide people with a new language to talk about these conditions, and really any issue concerning mental health, like anxiety, depression, ADHD, etc. The show looks at all this through a different lens and I hope to help the audience to see through that unique lens into a new way to relate to themselves and their minds, and to the entire subject of mental health. But first and foremost, I hope they are entertained. This is theatre after all!
BD: What makes the Hollywood Fringe Festival an ideal venue for Jessie’s Messy Mind?
JK: I came to the Hollywood Fringe Festival, because my college friend, Greg Crafts, owns studio/stage, which is the venue hosting my show, and he has been producing shows for the Fringe Festival since it began in 2010. When he heard about my show, he told me that it would be perfect for the festival. Being here, I see that everyone involved in the festival is really supportive of new and emerging theater, and they have been so welcoming of me, coming from across the country. I feel like I am in the exact right place to get my show seen by the kinds of people who can really appreciate it and possibly help guide me to the next step, whatever that may be. So far, I have been seizing the opportunities as they come, and that has always landed me in the right place at the right time.
BD: Will you continue producing it on your national tour following this run?
JK: Like I said, I am grabbing the opportunities as they come. Since I came out to Hollywood, I have had friends in Richmond, VA, and Boston, MA, express to me that they would love to have me bring the show their way. So, I will most likely be looking into opportunities in those areas, whether it’s a theatre festival, a school or hospital, or even a convention for healthcare professionals. I also hope to take it to more Fringe festivals. I have a friend in Minneapolis who tells me their Fringe festival is perfect for Jessie’s Messy Mind. I’ve also submitted the show for several HFF awards that offer an extended run in LA or a performance at another festival should I win. But this is definitely not the last stop for Jessie’s Messy Mind.
BD: Are there upcoming projects that you would like to share with our readers?
JK: Right now, my focus is on the Messy Mind idea, which includes more than just the show itself. I am developing a workshop called “Master your Messy Mind,” which incorporates the process I used to write the show. It has participants asking themselves a series of questions about their relationship to their own mind and uses various artistic techniques and mediums to explore the answers. I am also planning to go through peer counseling certification training so I can offer consultation and counseling to individuals and families who see my show and would like more guidance in dealing with and understanding their own diagnosis. I have already privately counseled several families and would definitely like to continue that in a more official capacity. I’ve got thousands of pages of journals, which I am in the process of digitizing and I plan to turn some of that into a book, or several books. And I’ve already started thinking about the next show. I’ve got two ideas in the works. One is “Bless Your Messy Mind,” which would have the characters and personalities discussing my relationship to spiritualty and religion. The other is “Sexy, Messy Mind,” which would explore sex and relationships and all the ups and downs that navigating that with a messy mind can bring. Perhaps you’ll see one of those at next year’s Hollywood Fringe Festival.