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Funny Writer Jenny Allen Reflects on Life

The noted essayist and monologist shares her tales in print and onstage


Sleepless friends, I am thinking about you. Judy on Riverside Drive, are you worrying about your rewrites? Bina, are you thinking about your new twin grandchildren? Mimi, are you thinking of whom you haven’t had lunch with lately? You’re 86 years old. That’s 237 in wakeful-woman years. Congratulations for hanging in there. (Excerpt from essay, “I’m Awake”)

In Jenny Allen’s essay collection, Would Everybody Please Stop? Reflections on Life and Other Bad Ideas, vignettes on everything from being a good houseguest to taking an aging parent to the doctor to living a post-divorce life will spark recognition, inspire empathy… and also make you laugh.

Allen refers to the protagonists in the 35 stories as “characters” but admitted, “Many of them are me, only ratcheted up.” And in the case of “I’m Awake,” Allen said, while on tour for her book last year, many women readers “of a certain age” told her they shared her experience that “a stream of consciousness really takes over in the middle of the night,” like it or not.

Allen is a writer and monologist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, New York, Vogue, Esquire, More, Huffington Post and Good Housekeeping, and in an earlier anthology called The Fullness of Time: 32 Women on Life After 50.

I Got Sick Then I Got Better

Allen is perhaps best known for her one-woman show, I Got Sick Then I Got Better, detailing her experience as a survivor of uterine and ovarian cancers. She was diagnosed in 2005 and endured radiation as well as six rounds of chemotherapy.

It’s a moving piece offering moments of reflection and insight, coupled with Allen’s trademark humor. In 2007, after an early performance of the then-fledgling 80-minute show on Martha’s Vineyard where Allen now lives, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright James Lapine, a summer resident, saw the production and approached her, saying “I’d like to work with you on this if you’d like.”

Allen said she was “thrilled.” They collaborated on I Got Sick Then I Got Better  for the next two years, along with director Darren Katz.

“James helped me shape and expand it. He wanted it to be very focused and very intimate,” said Allen, who admitted one section of her original version contained “an extreme level of detail” about endometrial cancer and how its symptoms can mimic uterine cancer.

“I was a reporter for 30 years. I thought it was vital to the show,” she said. “James explained, ‘It’s so good that you know this, but an audience can’t listen to all of this,’” Allen added with a laugh.

In 2009, I Got Sick Then I Got Better premiered at the New York Theatre Workshop. It was slated to run for two or three weeks, but ran for three months; since then, the show has enjoyed ongoing popularity at hospitals, health conferences and small theaters across the country.

“It’s wonderful to do it in a theater, but you can do it on a platform in a banquet hall. It travels well,” said Allen, who still performs the show several times per year.

Having a Conversation With the Audience

When asked if it’s challenging to routinely visit a difficult time in her life onstage, Allen said while “it’s not a carefree thing” to return to, “anytime you tell the truth, you feel powerful.”

“I do it with the feelings I had at the time. I still feel very close to [the story]. It’s firm in my mind and it feels very present,” she said, adding that she “feels bad for ‘this woman’ who had such a hard time.”

One of the topics Allen focuses on is the anger she felt at the time of her diagnosis (which was initially a misdiagnosis) and how the isolation and fear of facing a grave illness terrified her.

“Anger is the cover-up. I was afraid of being afraid; I did have some level of self-awareness that the fear was making me bitter and unhappy,” she said. “But I’m not the same person now.”

Performing in front of an audience feels more like a conversation leading to what Allen calls “a strong, exhilarating connection,” especially since she is aware that, in every audience, there are people who have known someone who has been really sick or have been sick themselves.

“My allegiance is to telling the truth, not to the parts of it that are funny,” she said. “And at the end of every performance, I’m sad that it’s over.”

Now a member of the board of the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, Allen received the “It’s Always Something” award from Gilda’s Club NYC in 2010. She also participated in a campaign on gynecologic cancers sponsored by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention called Inside Knowledge and was featured in print ads and public service announcements.

Jenny Allen Is Telling More Stories

Allen is actively involved with the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse; she’s also the host of Jenny’s Drama Salon there each month, which features readings and conversation. “It’s a very cozy evening, and we give everyone brownies and coffee,” she added with a laugh.

Allen is also working on creating a stage production based on some of the stories in Would Everybody Please Stop?

“I see it as four or five actresses on stage, sitting on high stools with music stands in front of them, sharing monologues from the book,” she said.

The concept had a trial run at a book launch party. Allen invited her friends, actors Brooke Adams and Polly Draper, along with Allen’s daughter, Halley Feiffer, who is an actor and playwright, to join her in presenting a 25-minute version. (Allen has another daughter, Julie, with her former husband, playwright and Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer.)

“It was just for a party, we didn’t agonize over it, but it seemed to work,” said Allen.

Agonizing over small details is something Allen eschews now, preferring instead to focus on leading “a joyous life” and being present for others, even in the middle of the night when they don’t realize it:

Friends, are you all still up? It seems inefficient somehow for us all to be awake separately. Wouldn’t it be great if we could pool all our separate little tributaries of wakeful energy into one mighty Mississippi, and then harness it — like a WPA project, like the Hoover Dam? We could power something.

By Julie Pfitzinger
Julie has worked as a writer and editor for more than 20 years; most recently she was a managing editor for the community lifestyle magazine group at Tiger Oak Media in Minneapolis, where she also served as editor of Saint Paul Magazine. Julie can be reached via email at [email protected]    Follow her on Twitter @juliepfitzinger.

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