When Jill Anderson made Bram Stoker's dark transmutation novel Dracula the theme for the 2014 Joslyn Castle Literary Festival she never imagined her own life would be marked by fear-inducing, life-altering transformation.
In February the founder-artistic director of the annual festival, now in its fourth year, suffered the sudden onset of debilitating ailments initially attributed to a stroke. After rounds of invasive testing the stroke idea was laid to rest. Instead, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an inflammatory disease affecting the nerve cells of the brain and spinal chord. As the Omaha singer-actress has shared via Facebook posts, she's dealt with endless doctor visits and frequent bouts of fatigue yet maintained a busy professional schedule. Even during the worst of it, plagued by nausea, double vision and vertigo, she fulfilled many performing obligations. She even made an out-state tour – with the help of friends and family.
"My mom literally went on tour with me, stayed in the hotels, made sure I got fed, It's weird at age 47 to be like the invalid and having your mom as your caretaker," she says.
Her indefatigable spirit's hardly wavered, at least not on social media sites, where her humor shines through. In one post she compared her tour experience to Weekend at Bernie's because she was nearly dragged from place to place like the corpse of that film comedy, only to be propped up at the mic to perform.
The emergence of her disease is still so new that she's far from knowing yet what her long-term prognosis is.
"It hits everybody differently, there's no way to predict how it's going to affect you. One person might end up in a wheelchair and somebody else – no issues, no problems, or very little. So you have to figure out how quickly and aggressively your case is progressing and there's no way to know that other than through observation over a number of years.
"I've heard stories from a handful of people about someone in their family who has MS and is in dire condition. Those have been the days that have been the hardest for me – hearing about the MS stories that are not triumphant and hopeful. You can't have a chronic degenerative disease and not have the thought occur to you – What if I get hit really hard at some point in my life and there's no one around to help me? I've had blue days with those kind of thoughts."
Despite personal challenges, this trouper made sure the literary festival, whose proceeds benefit the Joslyn Castle Trust, was never in doubt. Much like her treatment of past subjects the Bronte sisters, Oscar Wilde and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Shadows at the Castle: Bram Stoker's Dark Vision is a multifaceted event informed by her curiosity and wit. With the Durham Museum, the University of Nebraska at Omaha and other collaborators, the fest explores its theme through cinema, lecture, drama, dance and music.
"Every new project I do is a whole new world of discovery, especially the literary festival because it requires a lot of research," she says. "I love to have an excuse to research my butt off. One of the neatest things about what the festival has become is this sort of melting pot of artists and scholars. Visual art is always involved. Drama is always a centerpiece."
"There's really no group in town doing exactly this," she says. Indeed, the downtown Omaha Lit Fest has a contemporary focus. In theater circles she says "Brigit St. Brigit certainly does a great job with the classics, but they're doing the drama aspect without exploding that out into all these other facets." What distinguishes her event, she says, is its examination of "what inspired these much loved classic stories that still fire people's imaginations." That niche, she adds, has found "a passionate audience and we want to find more people who get it and dig it and are looking for a thought-provoking, intellectually-stimulating, interactive, exploratory approach to this literature."
Then there's the singular setting of the Scottish Baronial castle at 3902 Davenport Street. Built in 1903, the imposing four-story structure is the closest thing to a Count Dracula lair as you'll find in the metro.
"The castle is gorgeous. An incredible, historic venue. It has a built-in ambience. So it's really like a perfect marriage between this great literature from past periods and that evocative building."
Anderson says as she filled out the Stoker festival with programming everything she needed fell into place but one element: authentic Transylvanian folk art from the 19th century.
"It's been the festival of ultimate syncronicity because when I most need something it magically materializes. One thing I wanted for sure was an exhibit of Transylvanian folk art and lore because it informs a lot of things in Dracula. Stoker was a great consumer and enthusiast of folk lore, he was constantly studying it and speaking to people who knew about it and taking it facts and information. I also wanted to get some actual artifacts – a traditional Transylvanian costume from a hundred years ago.
Searches on eBay only turned up things she couldn't afford.
"I was beginning to despair and then a friend and I were walking around in the Brass Armadillo antiques store, where I interacted intermittently with a shop clerk with a strange and unidentifiable accent.
My friend and I found this kitsch cross but I said, 'It will never work for Dracula,' and the clerk said, 'I am related to him.' My friend said, 'Van Helsing?' 'No.' With a real live relation to Dracula or more accurately to the inspiration for the vampire legend, Vlad the Imapler, standing next to her, she did what any red-blooded girl would do.
"I leaped on him," she says. The object of her enthusiasm, George Mihai, is not only a Transylvania native but a Romanian cultural studies expert with a personal collection of period artifacts from his home country, including many from his family.
"What are the chances?" asks Anderson, whose own powers of seduction or persuasion has Mihai loaning artifacts for display and delivering a lecture.
Where does a popular entertainer like Anderson fit into all of this?
"I would never be pretentious enough to say I bring any level of academia to this programming. I like to think I bring the juice to it."
For 2014 she sought "something classic, completely indelible, that everyone knows and is irresistibly popular and sexy to the American public." With fellow creatives she's concocted an eclectic look at Dracula. The schedule:
Movie Night, 7 p.m.
Nosferatu on the Green
F.W. Murnau's silent film classic Nosferatu gets projected outdoors against the castle's north facade. Audience members can throw down blankets on the lawn. Tiki torches and fire pits add to the mood. A UNO scholar comments on Dracula's rich screen and stage history. An American Red Cross blood drive precedes the event with a bloodmobile taking donors from 2 to 7 p.m.. "Isn't that fun?" Anderson says.
•October 23 through November 1
Exhibit, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily
Durham Museum at the Castle: Vampires and Victorians
Victorian ways and Romanian folk art take center stage in this exhibition drawn from the Durham's permanent collection and from the personal collection of Tranyslvania native George Mihai, respectively. Victorian funerary customs and the rise of female emancipation are sub-themes in Dracula. Mihai's family artifacts go back many generations.
•October 23-26 and 29-30
Drama Duet, 7 p.m.
Kirk Koczanowkski delivers a one-man performance of Dracula: The Journal of Jonathan Harker. Anderson, who's directing, says, "This brilliant actor played our Oscar Wilde two years ago and just was dazzling. He's young but sort of timeless and ageless. He's transmutable, He can shape shift into anything you want him to be."
Paired with that show is a staged reading of The Jewel of Seven Stars, a Stoker story about an attempt to reanimate an Egyptian mummy. Omaha theater artist Laura Leininger wrote the adaptation.
The two shows take place in the castle's atmospheric attic full of turrets, nooks and crannies.
Double Lecture, 6 p.m.
The Man Behind the Monster
Life and Afterlife in Romanian Mythology
Stoker expert BJ Buchelt (UNO) speaks about the author's life before the iconic novel. Stoker was bedridden as a child. He managed the Lyceum Theatre in London, where he was also personal assistant to England's preeminent theater personality, Henry Irving. His wide travels in Eastern Europe and his studies of its folk tales prepared him to write Dracula.
Transylvania native and Romanian cultural studies expert George Mihai of Omaha shares what Anderson describes as "absolutely fascinating stories" about Vlad the Impaler, a historical figure whose reign of terror helped inspire vampire mythology, and about that area's deeply rooted and peristent native superstitions.
Vampyre Ball, 7 p.m.
This "big blowout party on Halloween night will feature tarot readers, palm readers, fire spinner dancers, performers enacting vampiress bride scenes live readings by actors and a costume contest. Plus, lots of food, drink, music and revelry.
Music of the Unknown, 7 p.m.
Hal France conducts a chamber ensemble of vocalists Anderson, Sam Swerczek and Terry Hodgesand and cellist David Downing performing period folk, operatic and popular stage music that deals with the supernatural.
Anderson, a much beloved and versatile artist equally adept at performing cabaret, Irish music, Shakespeare, Sondheim, high drama and broad comedy, makes sure music is always a part of the festival. The power of music has taken on new import for her.
"My ability to perform music, to use music to soothe and help other people is an incredible thing for me. I've gone to care facilities and sung from bedside to bedside for people and it does have an immediate affect on people. I've gotten thank you letters from people who've seen me in a cabaret show or some musical production saying they brought their father to the show and they hadn't seen him smile since his wife died. That's the letter you save for a lifetime. Music did that. Live performance did that."
Then there are the unexpected, unscripted moments when music's transformative power takes hold. In a September 9 post she wrote about one such moment at the Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis, where she spend a couple weeks undergoing tests.
"On the lowest level of the big open atrium there is a grand piano. It is open to anyone who feels inclined to tickle the ivories. Most days from 10 to Noon a seasoned old pro of a piano player, a woman who can play pretty much any request, sits at the piano and accompanies anyone who wants to stand up and sing…Yesterday, a barrel-chested surgeon in full scrubs walked up to me with his big baritone booming and, taking me by both hands, sang 'Climb Every Mountain' straight to my face."
"It was totally surprising and wonderful," Anderson says now in reflection. Never too shy to to break into song herself, at various times she did Mayo solos of "Stardust," "Amazing Grace," "Softly" and Tenderly" and "How Great Thou Art," no doubt moving onlookers with her performances. Having the shoe on the other foot was an eye-opener for her.
"Music is and always has been the great healer. I've usually been on the providing side of that equation. It's interesting to be on the receiving end as well."
The solace of music is always available to her. Her health problems surfaced in the middle of planning the literary festival, which complicated things but also allowed her to lose herself and her woes in the work. She says organizing the event is an "all-consuming feat" she values now more than ever.
"It's easy to feel like your identity is becoming the disease and I don't want that to be the case. It's great to have something like the literary festival to pour my creative passion and energy into. It's something that pumps me up and keeps me moving forward."
She's having fun, too, going goth, fangs and all, in promos.
The public knows her best as a performer but she also directs and she's looking forward to helming Dracula: The Journal of Jonathan Harker at the fest.
"This Dracula I'm directing is really going to be outside-the-box. It's a one-man Dracula with a single actor who morphs from one character to another, so that requires tremendous theatrical invention to come up with how do we make that happen, how do we make it clear when you go from one character to another."
Directing is something she expects to do more of.
"I've done more performing than directing but I've been directing for years and now I'm feeling I really want to steer my ship in the direction of directing more," says Anderson, who concedes dealing with stamina and fatigue issues is part of that deliberation going forward.
She owns long associations with the Blue Barn Theatre, the Omaha Community Playhouse and the Nebraska Shakespeare Festival. She and Tim Siragusa had Bad Rep Productions together. She's left Omaha to make a living doing cabaret and regional theater in places like New York City and Los Angeles, but she's always returned home.
She's grateful for the outpouring of care she's received here in the wake of her diagnosis from extended family and friends. She says the "incredible love and loyalty" she's received has meant a lot to her as she's navigated this "scary stuff."
She's grateful to for the generosity others have shown. Fellow performers staged a May benefit that paid her way to the Mayo Clinic.
"This big beautiful event went off without a hitch. There was so much heart in all of it – it was overwhelming. It's almost impossible to describe what it feels like when your friends step in and just support you."
She was also gifted with a long dreamed of trip to her ancestral homeland of Ireland.
These experiences, she says, have given her "new insight" into her many blessings and a new appreciation for life.
"I think people are never brought closer to the essence of who they are than when they're facing scary illness. When you're sick, the bullshit goes away, you see things very clearly for what they are and in a way you're hypersensitized. It brings you face-to-face with a lot of truths.
As an actress, Anderson's called to be in the moment but she says she has just as much trouble achieving that state as most of us do.
"Oh God it's hard to do. I think people's ambition and drive put their head down the line instead of right here, right now."
There's nothing like a devastating health scare to get you to slow down, be still and surrender to the here and now
"All the weird stuff that's happened medically has really snapped me into the moment, to being able to be fully and deeply touched by experience. To have sensual and delicious moments I'm actually enjoying and am involved in. I wasn't able to do that before, not really. My head was always somewhere else. It was very hard to slow down and focus in before."
In an April 5 post she shared, "Here are the things I noticed today: Spring is here. The magnolia tree outside my parents' house is in glorious blushing bloom. Sprinklers were sending glistening droplets into the air. Lilac buds were packed and purple on the bush in my south garden. The air had a balmy feel. My sweet potato tasted incredible…I sang my guts out at a rehearsal for a gig and loved the feeling of making musical sounds."
That ability to be in the moment, she says, "is the best thing that's come out of it (her health crisis)." It's why when people ask how she's doing she can honestly say, "I'm taking it one day at a time."
For prices and tickets, call 402-595-2199 or visit www.joslyncastle.com.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.