Interview with Anna Pieri
by Lukas Woodyard
Anna Pieri is an MFA Actor playing Janet Horne in our first show of the 2017-2018 season, The Last Witch.
L: Now with it being your thesis role, what exactly are you concentrating on with your thesis on The Last Witch?
A: So this is kind of a unique opportunity. It’s a very feminist piece. I’ve taken the liberty of approaching the role not just as can I make this the most realistic portrayal of a woman as possible, but how can I examine the feminist themes? So for me what that has come to be is learning about the performance of female sexuality and how that was often characterized as witchcraft throughout history, not just in Scotland and early modern Europe. As early as their ever been witches or women who have been cast out from society, typically it’s because those women either don’t perform the societal patriarchal sense of female sexuality in the right bounds, or they perform their sexuality from a male interpretation so they act like men. And it goes both ways. A lot men who were persecuted for witchcraft were also persecuted because they were performing a female-sort of sexuality. They would either be attracted to other men or do things that were very feminine and what we would now consider in our society as “gay” or even transgender. They would be persecuted for that.
L: So with that, since this is a nice script that feminizes history, who exactly is Janet Horne to you?
A: To me, Janet Horne is someone who is very much in touch with nature. She understands the influence her energies around her. She is so familiar with everyone around her and how they act that she can interpret their emotions as they float across their faces, and she’s learned how to manipulate those to her advantage. She’s a woman that’s very smart, very determined. She’s not necessarily living a life she imagined. We find out in the script that she lived for a while in Italy, working as a lady’s maid. So there’s hints she tried to be outside of this world and that she moved back to Scotland for her husband who eventually got her pregnant with her daughter Helen that we meet in the play. As an actor, I’m always going to be more empathetic towards my character, but I really do think that Janet is a woman that has a great deal of tools at her disposal and has been thrust into circumstances that she would never imagine for herself and she’s finding a way to use those tools to get her out of those circumstances and in return her neighbors and friends cast her aside as a witch or somebody who is manipulating supernatural elements. I think there’s a part of Janet that maybe tries to explore that a little and see if she does have any power, but I’ll leave it up to the audience to decide whether or not she does.
L: I just really want to talk about the circumstances that she’s in because her history is so very interesting. Her name might not even be Janet Horne.
A: Right because Janet Horne is actually a euphemism, kinda like a Jane Doe. It was just a euphemism for a witch woman. There were hundreds of them, but there is actually a Helen and Janet Guthrie who were the first two witches that were killed in Scotland. Helen was the mother, and Janet was the daughter. So I think Rona did her research.
L: I know reading up on it, Munro did a lot of research. Everything in the play is very accurate until a certain point. Why is this script – the way it’s written – so contemporary to today? Why do you think UGA Theatre say this is a play we need to do?
A: This whole play is so wonderful because the biggest question pose in the script is who has seen the Devil. Not who has good intentions, not who is doing the most good. It’s just purely trying to categorize everyone else in the play as either good or evil just based on whether or not they have partaken this arbitrary thing. In this instance, witchcraft. There is a lot of male dominated behavior that happens to drive the script forward the patriarchy. The women are forced to fight against this patriarchy, and we see Janet, her daughter, and her neighbor Elspeth coming together and just finding the most effective way for them to stand against the men that are trying to them harm is to just be friends with each other and support each other.
L: That’s so interesting because when we look at celebrity magazines, people are more so engaged when females have feuds, like for example Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. And also recently, reading the script reminded me of the same rhetoric used against Hillary Clinton.
A: It absolutely is. Speaking of Hillary Clinton, we saw it in her campaign process. Nobody can refute that she was the most qualified candidate in the entire field of all the nominees before they even got to the party’s nomination. She served as secretary of state, she’d been a senator, she lived in the White House before as first lady. She was absolutely qualified to have this job. But what the campaign got down to is not issues of qualifications and whether or not anybody was particularly suited for maybe our nation’s most important job but it became about her personality, how she treated her husband, her children, whether or not she lied about an email. These things that are in the scheme of things don’t really matter, but that’s the kind of misogyny. It’s so frustrating because if some people don’t have an open mind to feminism, they will never agree to it. They’ll never see the misogyny. But once you do open your eyes that you start seeing it everywhere and realize that literally our entire society, all of modern civilization has been built on this idea of patriarchy and misogyny.
L: That makes me think of this whole theme of our season, “Balance of Power.” How exactly does a script like this fit that theme?
A: There are a couple of easy balances that go back and forth throughout the entire play. There’s Janet, who is being accused as a witch. She’s very free spirited and in touch with the Earth, her daughter, and there’s her adversary Captain David Ross who comes in from far away. His costume is more cold and metallic than her earthy flowy, worn-down fibers. He is in charge of persecuting her. That’s his job. We also see the concept of the supernatural, specifically the Devil, juxtaposed with Niall and his representation of the Church. There’s the balances in the exchange of power throughout the script about who actually does have that power. We also see the Beggs, Douglass and Elspeth, and they go back and forth with their power in their family dynamics. The first time we meet them it’s very clear who actually wears the pants. One of the things that Rona Munro explores a little bit is the female characters all have a better sense of interpersonal manipulation, and I don’t mean manipulation in a negative way. I just mean being aware and empathetic to what others are thinking, feeling, and having a way to use that their advantage. Where as the male characters are not. One of my cast mates Charlie will tell you that the male characters are all kind of stock. It’s kind of nice from a female actress’s perspective because that’s typically the roles we get to play.
L: I’m just so amazed at how Rona Munro is able to feminize history and sort of reclaim and not demonize female characters. It’s so powerful to see that these women have agency, these women have mobility, these women have everything in their control, but when you introduce or are reminded of the patriarchy, everything is taken away.
A: Agency is such a great word, it’s great way to phrase it. They do have agency. It’s like that old saying, “History is written by the winners.” And those winners are male. Even back when writing came a thing, women were not allowed to write or read. Growing up as a girl whose parents were very feminist and very “women can do anything.” I always learned about these women who learned how to read in secret and were just like men. I always remembered thinking that it was so cool that they did that. You kind of pull back and realize that they had to fight so hard and risk their lives just to be afforded the same thing that their brothers could do. And that’s exactly what this play comes down to: these women are having some agency and taking even more agency within their situation. There’s a great deal of family. That’s part of the Scottish culture actually, the herder culture, where they were fearlessly protective of their own that manifested itself a lot in clans, but also just in neighborhoods and communities. When you live on these moors in Scotland that give you nothing and everything to try and kill you. A few sods of peat are life and death. If you’re mean to your neighbors or you refuse to help them, then when you’re in trouble, they’re not going to help you. You have to rely on each other and have to protect your own so when outsiders come into play, they threaten that.