Elizabeth Perry

“It’s impossible not to be a feminist if you care about humanity.”

Interviewed by Suzanne Doty, November 2019

EP:  It’s Elizabeth Perry.

SD:  Hi Elizabeth, why don’t we begin?

EP:  I’m the fourth child of Mary Perry and Howard Shine. I was born in Pawtucket Rhode Island on October 15th, 1933. My parents divorced before I was born or soon after. I was raised by a single mother who married again and divorced again but added a child to our family. She had five children altogether.

We were separated at times. There were terrible family problems growing up as you can imagine in the deep depression. 1933 was the worst year of the depression. My childhood was not particularly easy. The one thing that helped me to grow was the fact that everybody was a loving person. Everybody was an imperfect and beautiful mess in my entire family. It awakened me to a lot of irregularities and all around me.

SD:  How did not get involved in the women’s movement?

EP:  It was accidental really. I’m in the theater and I’ve been in the theater since I was 19 years old and working in theater. I guess it was in 1973. I had a theater workshop in New York at The Promenade Theatre on Broadway. A member of that workshop, Etain O’Malley, a wonderful actress herself, asked me if I would participate in a Sylvia Plath workshop and out of that we developed a play called A Difficult Borning. I don’t even know if it’s on my résumé – it should be.

We were very successful with that play and did it at various places. We debuted it in New York City at Playwright Horizons and we were very complimentarily received by Clive Barnes who was a critic on the Times at that time. It kind of kicked us off. By the way, Jacqui Ceballos was with our manager, Jane, at a little office at 250 West 57th street. 

We created a really beautiful compilation of Sylvia Plath’s works and divided them among four actresses. In that group of four, I played the one who ended up killing herself. I was Lady Lazarus. We explored her years through the poetry including her school years. All of the ladies were beautiful people. In fact, I’ve got a picture of me with them right in front of me – all of the ladies who are beautiful people, including our director Anita Khanzadian. We were just terrific. We debuted in ‘73 and revived it in 1983.  We won an award for it.

We won The Villager Award for Sylvia Plath. We were known as the “Plath” girls. The work itself awakened me to a lot of things that I had been dealing with but not specifically complaining about in my lifetime. Because I went through that terrible 50s where women were confined to an image of the pretty housewife in a ruffled apron. As an actress, because I had begun to work in commercials, I also had several of those shirtwaist dresses to play housewives on TV.

 In 1973 I was 40 and at that point in my life I began to do a lot of things that were unusual for me. I formed a theater group with a partner, Robert Elston. In 1976 we incorporated it and it’s still running today. It’s in New York and is called The American Renaissance Theater Company. Anita Khanzadian and I like to congratulate ourselves for that because we lost Bob. We went through the AIDS epidemic and we lost so many dear friends in our theater group. He was our advisor and he and I technically co-founded the American Renaissance Theatre Company.

We had a theater downtown for a while, it was a beautiful space, but we lost it. And Robert died of AIDS and left it for me and our next in line, Anita Khanzadian to co-artistic direct it. We set it up differently from what it had been at the theater. We set it up in a democratic, unusual way where people can’t fight with one another. We had a very strong corporate board and our artistic workshop had alternate artistic directors. So even when we were not there, there were artistic directors to fulfill the responsibility.

And it’s run in that way for 45 years without a lot of competition and ugliness because everybody has a chance to fulfill the spirit of their creative self. We are proud that it’s running and that is where we had a regeneration of Sylvia Plath in 1983. That won an award and it won wonderful reviews. So that was the kind of beginning of my real awareness to reach out and say something.

SD:  What were the greatest issues that affected you that you were concerned about specifically?

EP:  I had difficulty with career and marriage. I’ve always had, and I still have it in a sense. It’s something that you have to work at to keep yourself from being entangled. You’ve got to divide yourself. You’ve got to learn how to and still be yourself to manage both. I didn’t have to manage motherhood. I was not a mother, but I have spent my whole life being married. So that was where I felt the first urges of a need to say things.  

It’s funny, in the 80s I even did a one woman show called “Out Of The Broom Closet,” because everybody was coming out of the closet and I felt that I was coming out of a broom closet. It was kind of funny and fun. I didn’t do it very long. But then I got involved in the 19th Century and it was because Broadway producers whom I had worked for asked me, knowing that I write and having seen some of my work in production, asked me if I would write a television series on the women’s movement.

I was doing all this wonderful research and they couldn’t sell it. We outlined shows for six episodes hoping PBS would pick it up. At the time, the Women’s Channel had just opened up. I took the series in 1996 and made it into a one woman show for myself. I had done a [lot] of the background work, so I wrote a one woman play on the life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and that took me very deeply into the feminist thinking world. I traveled all over the United States from college to college and cultural center to cultural center doing this one woman play and it was so timely by accident.

I did it 1998 and the following year was the 150th  anniversary of the Seneca Falls meeting that Elizabeth Cady Stanton was largely responsible for. She and Lucretia Mott. It was awakening people to who she was at a time when the women’s movement wanted to celebrate her. I did it at Seneca Falls and also for the opening day, I delivered the Declaration of Sentiments to a crowd of 10,000.

SD:  This makes me want to cry. That’s just a wonderful accomplishment.

EP:  It made me want to cry. First of all, how could an actress have a better audience, just reading somebody else’s words – they are powerful. And there were a lot of powerful ladies there. Hillary Clinton was there at the time and I’m trying to think of all the powerful women I met in the movement that got me thicker into things.

I realized that all my creative work has to do with women. I mean of course that has to do with humanity. But the very strong urges and works of women as survivors. My play, Did You See The Elephant, which was done in 1980, is about a single mother raising small children. The play I’m working on right now is not so heavily concentrated on women, it’s concentrated on people who are unfranchised beyond disenfranchised. It’s forgotten people – and that is sort of where I live. I live for the forgotten. I’m now 86 years old and I retired from doing Sun Flower and that’s why I put it on my website.

It was videotaped in 1996 and I decided to just give it out to the world. My website operator has it so all you do is push a button and then it comes up on YouTube.

SD:  You still consider yourself an activist in the movement through your spoken word correct?

EP:  How can I not be? If my concern is those who need a voice, I cannot not be a feminist. It’s impossible not to be a feminist if you care about humanity. It’s a part of it. I used to say I wasn’t a feminist and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s great-great granddaughter said, “Why aren’t you?”

I didn’t want to label myself as somebody who’s going to sit in the front row at the NOW meetings and say Right-on. I’m not a man hater. I’m not interested in and belittling men or making them feel less. I want if anything for them to feel more. In the earlier days that’s what the impression was. I was not calling myself a feminist. And then Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s great-great granddaughter said – and I met her several times along the way. She is a wonderful woman. Coline Jenkins is her name and she said, “Be proud of it. Just say it.”

SD:  It’s been delightful to talk with you Elizabeth. I’m so impressed with your background and what you’ve been able to accomplish and the fact that you’re still out there fighting the fight for all of us and I just think that’s marvelous.

EP:  Right now, I’m working on a play about the homeless and it’s consuming me. I think it may be the best work that I have yet to do. It’s quite done. I believe it’ll have a life to always be addressing those who need help and empowerment.

SD:  It is an empowerment. It’s what’s needed in this world especially in these political times. The homeless issue and women and homelessness. That’s a real touchy subject and women so often they’re out there because of domestic violence and things like that. And it’s just sad. It’s sad but I applaud you for diving into that issue because it’s sorely needed.

EP:  It’s my preoccupation and it’s lovely to meet you.

SD:  Thank you so much. It was a pleasure to speak with you.

EP:  Always, thank you.