Ten Minutes With Sally-Jane Heit
Comedic performer reminisces about turning 80
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Sally-Jane Heit would like you to call her a crone. Really. At 80, she is an accomplished actress—Broadway, Off-Broadway, movies, commercials—who writes material for her own one-woman performances. On September 27, she presents her Second Annual Vaudeville Benefit at the Guthrie Center. The Great Barrington resident—a Brooklyn girl to the core who winters on Sanibel Island, Florida—sees humor in all seriousness. And she makes you laugh with her, at her, at life.
How do you come to terms with getting older? You don’t. I think there are people, including myself, who say it’s fine, I’ve made my peace. Are you crazy? Make your peace? I figure that as long as I’m still hopping around and working, I’m so grateful. The mind is still a busy beehive and the legs are still moving. The hips grow larger. The belly is like, how many kids did you have? Eight? No, just three. With all that change, I think that’s why women are so fabulous, because of all that bodily change that we go through, from the very beginning. Men go through it in terms of, yes, you grow a little hair, you get taller—and then it’s over. Then you either put on weight or you take off weight. Women, nothing but change. Nothing. If you can incorporate the bodily changes with your own imagination, with your own creativity, that’s what keeps women alive so much longer than men.
What keeps you in the Berkshires? I love it. I need to remind myself how infinitely small I am, and when I sit on my porch and look out at the sky and at the water, I go: Oh, piece of nothing. If you’re an actor without an ego, you can’t get out on the stage. You can’t. That ego pushes you out on that stage.
So that’s a bad thing, to be reminded that you’re small? No, because I have no responsibility for what’s out there. I only have in here, for me. So it’s like, I didn’t bring the sun up. Phew! That’s a relief. I’m not putting it down. I need the ego to continue to get myself on the stage and to continue to make a fool of myself—that I do, lovingly. But I need to be reminded that I’m part of something so much bigger than me. That’s where I have to be. I have to be in nature.
By living here, does it remove you from all that you could be doing? Sure, in a certain sense it does, but one of the things that I am so grateful for is the fact that I can write my own material. I want to do a workshop, the crone workshop. Everybody thinks: Crone, witch. No, it’s not. It’s the wise woman, and how do you get to be wise? Even though I don’t consider myself to be wise, I’m wiser than I was yesterday, and I’ve got a lot of yesterdays.
What drew you to doing one-woman shows? I was getting bored doing eight shows a week of crap. If I was doing Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov, that’s one thing. You plumb the depths. If you’re doing modern fare, most of it is like the toilet paper I was doing commercials for. It’s forgotten. It’s fluff. It’s not memorable. So eight shows a week of that? My busy mind again said: Oh, this is boring. I had seen Lily Tomlin, and I thought I had gone to heaven. It was so brilliant. I went backstage, and I kissed her rings. I said I want to do what you do.
You track down the comedy in situations. How does that happen? Well, you are up against something really, really tragic, and you have to feel it. And you do. You cry, and then you relate it back to yourself, and you go: Whoa, son of a gun, it’s still ticking. I’m not dead. It’s always that ultimate thing: I’m not dead. I’m still alive. If you’re breathing, honey, you’re on the edge because the next moment you won’t be breathing.
Why is there that edge to your performance? I don’t even think about that. Where my head goes, is life. It is so, so, so difficult. Painful. Who told you life is fair? Well, it isn’t fair. So it’s got to be funny. When I’m about to cry, or go into tears just about my life, about one thing or another, I go, OK, what’s funny about that? And find it.
What does that do for you? It lifts.
You compare yourself to a clown. How so? A real clown, is both—the mouth is either turned down, in terms of makeup, or turned up. It’s both sides of the same coin, and that same coin is called life. Comedy, tragedy, it’s one.
Is the material you get from your own life experiences? I take my own experiences and stretch it. No matter how much I stretch it, somebody will always come back and say, “It happened to me just like that.” Really? Wow, that’s amazing. Because I thought I was really going out to lunch, really being absurd. It’s like this woman—the very first time I did a show at a college in Pennsylvania, this woman came up to me and said, “You must’ve been in my bedroom.” Oh, my God, you’re in trouble, honey. You’re in such trouble.
About your upcoming vaudeville performance—do you really travel the world to find acts? No, we go around the Berkshires because the world is here, and it’s wonderful.