Riveting Riffs Logo One Actress Mary Jane Wells and Her Play Heroine
Mary Jane Wells Photo Five

Whether she is talking to you on the phone or you are watching her act in a film or she is narrating a book the first thing you notice about Mary Jane Wells is the command that she garners with her voice. She possesses great vocal technique, Wells is articulate and the tonal quality of her voice is magical. Mary Jane Wells uses her voice in another way however, to draw attention to a very important issue sexual assault in the military. Her one woman play titled Heroine is a true story of a lesbian soldier named Danna Davis (a pseudonym that we will use throughout this interview) who served in the United States army.

Mary Jane Wells talks about first becoming aware of Danna Davis, “A friend of Danna Davis and who knew her when she was in basic training approached me while I was on the set for (the film) A Perfect Ending. She gave me a script that she had written with Danna Davis and then she told me that they had written a part for me. I read it and I was very flattered. I thought, this sounds like a true story and it has a ring of authenticity about it. It was thinly veiled in artistic license.  I spoke to her and that script really didn’t go anywhere or not yet anyway. I gradually got to know the person behind it, the survivor and whose story it really was. We became friends over the course of several years. I also said to her now that nothing has happened with it being a screenplay would you mind if I tried my hand at it as a stage play?

I am not famous in any way and I couldn’t really help in terms of leverage and getting her script made at all, but I do have a lot of theater experience in the U.K. and that is more where I thought I might have some inroads. The possibility of it actually being told in the public arena is a very important healing ritual for her. 

(I felt) it had more possibilities if it was a play. I think that it was 2013 that I wrote a draft and I used her screenplay as a springboard for it. I did what we call in Britian a scratch, which is the first fifteen minutes or a piece of it in front of an audience, so that I could see Danna’s mental health. I knew that going into the public arena might have been something that she had always said she wanted, but that might actually be a different story. I thought that it might trigger her and I was not qualified to hold her through that. I had certain boundaries in place and I said if we do this you have your own therapists and if we do this you set the pace. If we do this we do it in increments, so that we find out where the boundaries are and if we aren’t sure we cannot jeopardize your healing for the sake of the play. Hopefully, it is going to be a part of your healing.

Mary Jane Wells Photo TwoWe did the scratch night. Artistically, it was also good for me to see how to put rape on stage in a way that opens the conversation and in a way that honors the gravity of what happened, but also that it doesn’t traumatize the audience so much that it alienates them. That evening was a great success for all of the outcomes that we had hoped for in terms of if it is possible to do that in the way that I had written it. It didn’t trigger her and it was part of beginning to cloak her in anonymity that would mean it was possible. I am ghosting her story. Her story gets out there in the public domain and she can close the door on it, but there is not such a spotlight on her personhood. She gets to heal without being the person that everybody points to and goes oh that happened to you.”

Not having talked to Mary Jane Wells before we wanted to wade into the next area of our conversation with a lot of sensitivity when we asked her why it so important to bring Danna Davis’ story to the stage. That is no way intended to imply that Danna Davis’ story should not be told, but rather we wanted to know why it was important to Mary Jane Wells.

“That is a question that a lot of people are afraid to ask me in case I am a rape survivor, which I am not. It’s a great question.

To get right to the grit I know that there is something in me about boundaries that needed to be explored and it was nonverbal and it was moving through me in a certain way. Her story really provoked a lot of compassion in me. There is a feeling of social justice in me.

Here’s the other part, when I moved to LA for the first two and one-half years I worked as a massage therapist in a spa and also in a psychiatric ward. I always found it very interesting the relationship between mind and body. It just so happened that all of the people whom I was treating and all of the people who asked for me were sexual trauma survivors. They spoke to me a lot about their healing and their recovery.  As a massage therapist we got a little bit of training, but for most of it I was phoning my superiors to ask what the boundaries were.  (I would say) help me out here, because I need to know and understand more about this.

Doing this project has drawn many friends of mine and their disclosures have come forward in alarming rates.

As for Danna Davis, “It doesn’t affect her at all anymore. It is an integrated part of her history. For fifty percent of the (victims) the aftermath was in some ways even more devastating than the event.

When Danna came forward with her story, I think it was the worst story I had ever heard. It was so traumatic, so violent and so unbelievable and the aftermath as well. I wanted to try and find some path for her to walk on that led to a way out and with her, in my own way, in an appropriate way and in a way that would work artistically, but mostly personally for her, so she could close the door on some things. It was at that stage and it was coming out of her like a force of nature. She needed to talk about it so much that she had the right support in place, so I thought it was a risk that I could appropriately take,” says Wells.

As for preparing the audience for what to expect when they attended the play, Wells says, “You have the piece of work and you have the marketing. The marketing will signal to the audience already, this is going to be a tough subject, so don’t come if you can’t handle it. I wanted them to say this play contains triggers, but it’s an American term and the U.K. marketing people said, we don’t understand what that means.

(We decided) to put into the body of the text what the play was all about and that it packs a punch, that it is gritty and it will be real. (We also said) we will describe it, but not for any kind of gratuitous attempt. It is to show these are the depths to which these people have fallen and this is what this person has survived. It is too contextualize her journey. How to not traumatize them (the audience), that was one of the main things.

The story is told in the detail in which it is needed to be told and with the right setup. They usually say there is an initiating event in a story. There are two for Danna, one is her being kicked out of her home and the other is the rape event. I wanted to make sure that we got into these events pretty quickly, because the story for me is more how she dealt with it and how she moved through the aftermath.

The rape is a terrible story that happens all of the time. I want the audience to understand that as a story point, but I got it out of the way quite quickly, so there is enough setup for the audience to feel comfortable and it is done in the tone and the handling of it. There has to be humor appropriately and there have to be moments where you ratchet the attention up and then you let them breathe it out.”

The other key element to this story is Danna Davis’ sexual orientation and her relationship with another woman in her squad.  

Mary Jane Wells explains, “The romantic part of it is true, well it’s all true, although we have had to change names, dates and places and the purpose of the mission that she goes on, because it is far too revealing and it would get her in trouble.

She definitely could have gotten in enormous trouble and it was a huge risk to take when she had an affair with somebody in her own squad, a woman. Don’t ask, don’t tell was operating at the time she was in the military and it was also a reason for her perpetrator to get away with it (the rape).

(The affair) is something that I think is an important part of her experience, because it also shows the rebelliousness of her too.

One particular event in the play, which I would love to tell you about and it might spoil it for audiences a little bit, but not too much, it was don’t ask, don’t tell and a lot of people forgot there was also don’t pursue. Danna was followed on a date with her girlfriend once. They had to breakup and pretend. I think they pretended for ages, although she said her squad turned a blind eye. She said they knew, but they pretended they didn’t.  In those close quarters when two people are dating in a squad of seven everybody knows! For a long time it was incredibly taboo for a superior to date someone in their own squad. It was a firing offence, so they really kept it under wraps. They had sex when nobody was looking. Mary Jane Wells Photo One

Also, her girlfriend was in the motorpool looking for a brakepad for a Humvee and she watched one of her perpretators who was in her squad go in behind her girlfriend and shut the door with the back of his boot. She was in there like a flash. She said there was a screwdriver near her and she doesn’t remember picking it up, but she threatened him and he went away.

Danna and her girlfriend finally admitted that they needed to be together somehow, so (they agreed) to meet at this designated place, which was a nightclub they used to go to way, way, way out of town. (Her girlfriend) said they are following us. They are going to know. One of them goes by bus and the other drives in the car. Danna goes on the bus and then she gets a train and then another train. They are following her the entire way until she gets to a connecting train station and let’s call it Munich for the sake of covering up. She said she looked at the connecting trains and they were right behind her or close enough for her to go, okay there they are, good. She leaped aboard this train and they leaped aboard after her. Just as the doors were closing she jumped off again. She waved to them goodbye with a middle finger, because that train was going all of the way to Milan with no stops.

There are little episodes like that where her whole love affair was kind of like a middle finger to don’t ask, don’t tell and the sneaky tactics of the military. Even though she is doing something totally wrong she spins it to say that it is really hot, when it is not supposed to be happening (she laughs).  That’s the thread all of the way through it. Of course the truth of that story is they were very young and she elected to be on a mission, that was incredibly dangerous and she should never have been on it. It ended with only two of them alive, her and her perpetrator, whom she carried back on her back. It poses the question who do you have to be to survive that.  You heal and you move on. It is about loss as well and loss of love and how do you find the safety afterwards and how do you love again.”

As for the response from the military community Mary Jane Wells says, “You have to find the right people, but once you do they have been extraordinarily supportive and open about having that conversation. Whenever I have spoken to soldiers and whenever I have spoken to chief deputies and whenever I’ve spoken to air force people, army people, navy people and everyone else that I have come in contact with they have all expressed the same kind of horror at what happens. They have said they can see where it happens and why it happens or yes I know and it happened to somebody I know. They have been totally behind the play.”

When it comes to those who are not part of the military, but have a direct association with the military, things become more clouded, “Interestingly enough the institutions around the military and that interface with them closely have been the ones to put the kibosh on things like for example the U.K. government and the U.N. said they would be so embarrassed to show this play now, that they can’t possibly do it. That is sort of the dimplomatic forum to interface with the military and it would have been the perfect place to talk about it.

I was short listed to perform at the United Nations conference to prevent sexual violence in conflict in 2014. They backed out mainly because of the trial investigating the rape and subsequent suicide of military police office Anne Marie Element began the very same month. Her sisters were successful in suing the UK government and getting some justice for her.

For the Global Summit to Prevent Sexual Violence in Conflict (in the military), in California, that was an educational, well summit is not quite the right word, but it is where we were going to do our keynote speech and all of that and it didn’t get further than the first discussion. They didn’t even read it, because they were so frightened about what triggering meant even thought we had a world expert on PTSD giving a talk on how to prevent that. It is the institutions around it that don’t understand how important the conversation is or how it would be managed, so they balk at it,” says Wells.  

I haven’t quite found the right person in the British armed forces, but that’s coming. I was at the Fringe recently and I was at a venue that was staffed by army personnel. They are now reaching out to the civilian (population). They used to have one engagement person two years ago and now they have twenty-four.

Doing the play on an army base would be my absolute heaven and it would be the best place to do it. I am looking for the right connections still to make it happen and to do it in the right way, just to start the conversation. It is really about starting it in the right way and not changing the subject, so the conversation continues and (that enables us) to work together to create zero occurrence and zero tolerance.”

Mary Jane Wells wants to make clear that although the play Heroine is based on what happened to Danna Davis in the U.S. military the issue of sexual assault in the military exists in other countries around the world.

“The only country that I think doesn’t have a problem with it (sexual violence) is Israel and I wonder if that is because women have been on the front line there for years. I don’t know. It makes me think that it is also not exclusive to the military. Any place in society that allows it to blossom, by turning its cheek the other way is a place where it will proliferate, and that is a frightening thought. At first I wondered if it was part of the culture of humiliation or poor leadership, but it’s not, it’s really much more institutional than that. It has to do with the fact that there is not an independent system of justice,” says Wells.

Although, Mary Jane Wells is straight she has now been involved with several projects that have a LGBT bent to them and we wondered what drew her to them. Also some of them have been working with director, producer and screenwriter Nicole Conn, including Elena Undone and A Perfect Ending and the beautiful music video SHE4ME, which acted as an advocacy voice for the LGBT community, as concerns marriage equality rights.

“Why have there been so many projects? I guess, you have a certain metholodgy as an actor, everybody does. You play certain parts, because of where you are in your life. There are some subconcious cues and certain things going on. You are attracted to certain projects and certain projects come to you. My methology as an actor was that my casting hit this quirky best friend (type). I’m a quirky best friend, so that hit Nicole Conn’s psyche in Elena Undone (the film). It was the right place and the right time. I got three or four jobs just from that audition alone, because of who was in the room. It was a very good day. Because of it going well I think many directors want to work with people whom they can trust or people that they have a nice time with on the set. I might not be the best actor in the world, but I know I am team spirited and I don’t mind the occassional whoopy cushion on the set type of person. I suppose I get marks for good value and that’s really why those LGBT projects have come along. Mary Jane Wells Photo Six

I think if you have a privilege it’s time to give it up most of the time. I have a hetronormative world around me and being a heterosexual person there are certain privileges that come my way, so I want to make sure that they are privileges that everybody can take advantage of somehow.  In the absence of the world becoming incredibly equal I make sure that I align myself with understanding what it means to be a minority voice and also to support diversity and equality across all groups. That’s where my politics are I suppose. Really, I didn’t go about waving the flag for that. It happened by accident and then I found myself being very flattered by being asked back.

In terms of playing somebody who is an American veteran and a lesbian, I am none of those things and it was a great acting challenge. I have been extraordinarily lucky that nobody from the LGBT community has said it should be a gay actor who plays these parts. I am waiting for that day and I will happily give those (opportunities) up if it starts to offend or it feels like there are plenty of other parts.  

If it is (playing a gay person) is done from a patronizing angle then that’s not helping anybody. I am also not in a position where I can choose my projects. I am, because I get to do voice over and I get to create my own projects, but the parts that come to me from other people are probably because they liked me in something else or maybe, because I am fun to work with.  I hope to keep that gold standard going.  I am not in the position of being able to say, I’m sorry I am not going to do that, because I have this HBO title (she says in a mock snooty voice). Maybe one day, but for now I choose projects for fun and it’s not about oh yes (the mock snooty voice has returned) that’s going to fund the second home in Santa Barbara,” she says.  

Mary Jane Wells grew up the daughter of an Irish mother and a British father and when she was eighteen years old she moved to Scotland to study at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow. She graduated with a Master of Drama degree. Mary Jane Wells also has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Glasgow. She remained in Scotland working there for twelve years.

As for the quality of her captivating voice, she says, “In my drama school there was a teacher named Nadine George and she is one of the reasons that I am still an actor, because her technique is very interesting and very individualized. It is all about really tapping the wellspring of authenticity inside of you and channeling that to a performance. Heroine was written with her technique. You can use it as a writer and as a performer and it is sort of a warm and spiritual thing. That makes it sound a bit lofty or cult like. It is the thing that Scottish actors are now trained in at the Conservatoire. She has a doctorate and she has been doing it for a very long time. She is a very much loved and interesting lady.”

Readers would be well advised to check out Nadine George’s impressive credentials and accomplishments here. Ms. George works extensively with theater companies and drama schools outside of Scotland as well, including those in France and Sweden.

Wells continues, “I guess I have worked a lot on my voice, because it is the cornerstone of where my creative tragectory comes from.”  

You may also hear Mary Jane Wells’ voice narrating books or her voiceover work in films such as How To Train Your Dragon 2 or in video games such as being the voice of Melissa in Melissa K. And The Heart of Gold, as well as numerous other projects.

Mary Jane Wells has returned to England for the time being to care for her ninety-two year old father, but she continues to do her voiceover work and with a hint of mischief, a lot of fun evident in her voice, as is often the case, she explains how she accomplishes all of that.

 “I do most of my work from a wardrobe in his house. To the great amusement of anybody who comes over they see me popping into the wardrobe and then I come out and somebody gives me a check. That’s the kind of weirdly perfect life. Many of those books are done from Wardrobe Productions Inc. and I do one probably every six weeks. The best thing about them is they pay for your health insurance. It is by SAG (Screen Actors Guild) so hooray,” she says.

As for the future, she says, “The next piece of work (that I do) will be necessarily ridiculous, it will be light and it will probably involve unicorns. It is going to be very different from this dark subject matter (Heroine). As I said before, the subject matter in this area has gripped me for a long time. I have been clearing rooms at parties for four years about it.

I would like to plug one that I did produce and it is a documentary that will be coming out on TNT sometime this fall. I can’t give you the title, because I am not allowed, but it has Cathy DeBuona at its heart.  That is going to blow people out of their seats in terms of the subject matter about sexual assault. It is difficult to plug, because I’m not supposed to say the title. Watch TNT in the fall (2017) and watch out for Cathy DeBuona.”

Please visit the website for Mary Jane Wells here or you can check out some of her voiceover work here.      Return to Our Front Page

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This interview by Joe Montague  published September 19, 2017 is protected by copyright © and is the property of Riveting Riffs Magazine All Rights Reserved.  All photos are the the property of  Mary Jane Wells unless otherwise noted and all  are protected by copyright © All Rights Reserved. This interview may not be reproduced in print or on the internet or through any other means without the written permission of Riveting Riffs Magazine, All Rights Reserved