Actress-songwriter Jan Lucas

Jan Lucas has carved out a beautiful career acting on stages around the country, primarily in Chicago and Indianapolis. I was lucky to meet her when she was cast in a developmental reading of my grief-related family drama Two Henrys for Actors Theatre of Indiana in 2022. Little did I know then that the richness of her work may have been informed by her own grief at the time — the death of her marriage.

Since then, with a little help from her singer-songwriter-musician friends, Lucas turned her grief into grace and gratitude by creating an EP of folk-kissed songs called “The Hard Way Home: A Story in Five Songs.” The recording is available wherever you buy music; at Apple music, for example.

In the rehearsal room for my reading, I fell in love with the artist that is Lucas; she has gravitas and style in performance. Off-stage, she is at turns patrician, hip, introspective, intellectual, warm and funny. And she was a seriously generous collaborator. I was so taken with her new song collection that I threw some questions at her via e-mail. We talk about her twisty journey, personal and professional.

“The Hard Way Home: A Story in Five Songs” is a deeply personal story of hurt, bewilderment and reaching toward acceptance. The blunt question is, what inspired it?

Jan Lucas: My music project is most definitely autobiographical. In late October 2021, I was blindsided by the news that my husband of 30 years would be leaving me — for another woman, of course. Not a new or unique story for sure. But it was new to me. I wanted to tell my side of the story, as catharsis and also because I knew his version of the story that was emerging was quite different from mine. I had many dear friends, writers and artists and actors and musicians, all saying to me, “write it down, it’s your story, let it be told.”

It’s interesting to talk about it now, almost two years after the event that inspired the songs. I’m not in that same place anymore, emotionally or psychologically, for sure. Time is such a mysterious thing and healing goes at its own pace. At one point, I asked my therapist if I could be on the accelerated track. Of course, she said. “No, it doesn’t work that way; things take the time they take.” Ugh. I knew that…

Album cover art for “The Hard Way Home.”

Your songs have a definite point of view. Was the process of speaking your truth healing for you?

Jan Lucas: I do think that the woman’s side of this particular story is often not heard. Women are expected to rise above the petty unpleasantness lest we be seen as bitchy. We’re supposed to be gracious and we should know it’s unseemly to sound bitter. I definitely didn’t want to become bitter, I didn’t want to be that person. Writing it out helped me navigate the mental and emotional turmoil I was in. You know the saying “the only way out is through”? I’m here to testify to the truth of that. I was in the swamp up to my chin and I had to pull myself through and up and out…

How did you begin building the songs?

Jan Lucas: It started with journaling. I’ve kept a journal for about 40 years now and in many ways, it’s been like talking to an old friend. As I get older, it does beg the question what I will do with these journals. Do I want them to be read after my death? Do I want my descendants to read them? I don’t know the answer to that question right now, but I know I’m not ready to destroy them.

Journaling has been a way to vent, to process, to explain to myself what I think is going on. It was great to have a place to put my feelings. Then the journaling became more specific. And poetic. And deep. At the same time, I was also reading a lot of books about heartbreak, betrayal, abandonment, and learned that the sudden break up of a long-term relationship, whether it is a marriage or not, is a unique phenomenon. It’s emotional and psychological devastation, and it also is physical. It’s becoming more commonly known that trauma actually lives in our bodies, at a cellular level. And I felt that.

How did the breakup live in your body?

Jan Lucas: I lost weight, couldn’t sleep, I was fuzzy-brained and distracted, it was hard to focus. So the writing also functioned as a way to get through an hour, or a day. It provided focus and I could actually feel anxiety leaving my body as I wrote.

You are credited with the lyrics on all the songs on this collection; you share credit on one. Over the years, you and your now ex-husband performed original folk songs together.

Jan Lucas: Writing lyrics was not new to me; I had written lyrics for over a dozen songs for my ex. When we split, I thought that was the end of music for me. But many friends, including my sons, reminded me that I could still write. I could do it with other musicians. What a new concept! As I started to gather a batch of songs, I began to believe in the possibility of my own project…not my own singularly but in collaboration with others. Therein lies the beauty of this project: Collaboration!

Jan Lucas in “Apples in Winter” at Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis.

You’re a dynamite actor with a long history in regional theater, lately with Indiana Repertory Theatre and the Phoenix Theatre Cultural Centre in Indy. You used to sing folk music with your ex. Is this the start of a new performance chapter for you?

Jan Lucas: I’m not trying to be a singer-songwriter. These are not songs that I could perform all by myself or with a guitar. They are piano-driven, and vary wildly in style. But as an artist, I wanted to give shape to my story, and of course, that means putting it out into the world. We artists need an audience, a listening ear, eyes to see our paintings, someone to observe our dance, someone to read the stories. And turning pain into art is one of the most powerful forces that I know of.

Making money off this album wasn’t a goal?

Jan Lucas: I’m not trying to make any money from this project! Not that musicians make any money anymore from the sale of songs, since so few folks make CDs, and you make a few pennies off of 1000 plays on Spotify. But if any money should be made from this, it will be donated to Girls Rock music camps.

In healing yourself, you may be healing listeners.

Jan Lucas: Since the songs have been out into the world, I have had amazing feedback, and so much of it from people who relate to the heartbreak and the desire to move through it. Heartbreak comes from all kinds of situations, happens to all kinds of people, loss and abandonment happen in a wide variety of ways. And expression of it provides catharsis and comfort, as I’ve come to find out.

I had leukemia back in 2005 and went through a couple of years of treatment, culminating in a stem cell transplant, and it was a harrowing journey. I wrote a book called “My Beautiful Leukemia,” and I illustrated it, and I found it to have a similar effect. It went out into the world and had reverberating effects that I am still feeling; people still ask me for a copy of the book, even though it’s pretty dated in terms of the medical treatment. People write to me occasionally and tell me what it means to them. I didn’t write the book to become an author, I wrote it because it had to be written. It was like I couldn’t stop it! And that’s how these songs have felt.

So I’m just an absolute firm believer in the power of art whether it be music, theater, visual art — all the forms of creative expression which tell the stories that need to be told.

Jan Lucas’ farm in rural Indiana.

There are potent nature images mentioned in your songs.

Jan Lucas: I tend to write starting with very specific visual images. Occasionally I’ll write more general lyrics if they feel potent enough. But for example, in the song “The Great Escape,” the image off the ship off the coast of Maine is very real, as well as “The day we walked through the trees, like giants they stand.” [That’s] a direct reference to the Sequoias in Northern California, where we had walked only a few months before.

And you find some anger in your lyrics.

Jan Lucas: “Brand New Morning” literally came to mind one night after a long day of phone calls with my lawyer. The actual divorce was becoming a reality and I was flummoxed by the whole thing. One on hand, I couldn’t believe it was happening. On the other, it was the only way out of a situation that had become untenable. And I was pissed off! And hurt. And offended. And so sad. That’s a lot to hold at the same time…so I put it in a song.

I love that you end up finding some good will and gratitude by the end of the collection, in a song called “Thank You.”

Jan Lucas: Years ago I wrote lyrics to a song called “Sometimes Trouble Is a Gift.” It is a fact that I’ve learned after living so long: the worst things can provide gifts if we are paying attention.

As an actress, your career has been mostly Midwest-based. Did you grow up in the heartland? Was your family artistic?

Jan Lucas: I grew up in Birmingham, Michigan. I’m the youngest of five, not a particularly artistic family but I was exposed to museums and theater and the arts in a very general way. I started drawing a lot when I was in my early teens. I was not very social, but I was lucky enough to have the last three years of high school at a very art-oriented school, Cranbrook/Kingswood. I was too shy to try out for plays and watched enviously from the sidelines. Ironic isn’t it, because my professional life has been acting since my late twenties!

Once I graduated from college and left home for Chicago, I’ve just embraced all forms of the arts. I took a lot of modern dance, I took acting classes and did non-Equity theater, I took drawing and painting, I took guitar lessons. I definitely bounced around and I look back at the now and think how brave I was! Or naive. Or both. I was so excited to be in a creative community and Chicago is just phenomenal in that way. I visit there often, and if I hadn’t become such a country girl, I’d move back.

Jan Lucas with her sons, L-R, Jackson Grimm, Connor Grimm and Lucas Kliejunas.

You traded the Windy City for rural Indiana.

Jan Lucas: That’s the other piece of the picture: I live on 60 acres south of Indianapolis and I wake up every day to a place I’ve come to know intimately. I feel a deep connection with my piece of land and a reverence for it. As I’m writing at this moment, I’m visiting friends in Berlin and I’m quite taken by the city. I love to travel. Then I’ll be grateful to get back to the house that I’ve made my own, to the land I tend and to that community which I deeply love.

Looking at your career as an actress, what plays or acting roles stick with you, or touched you uniquely, and why?

Jan Lucas: Hard to choose, there have been so many amazing characters but here goes:

Agnes of God by John Pielmeier, the role of Dr. Livingston, at Indiana Rep. This play terrified me on so many levels. Every minute of it was intense and I had to summon every ounce of confidence to embody this very flawed and brilliant doctor while attempting to unravel the psychological mysticism of the young nun. The night the playwright came to be in the audience, I remember thinking, “I should go into real estate or something, this is honestly painful” and then that night I gave the best performance of the run and I was flying. It was directed by Anna Shapiro.

Apples in Winter by Jennifer Fawcett, in the role of Miriam. In this play, I prepared and baked an apple pie in real time on stage, all the while telling the story of how my son ended up on death row. The juxtaposition of the tragic tale with the sweet aroma of apple pie wafting through the theater was stunning. I learned so much about the actor-audience relationship. This is the only one-person show I have ever done and it was amazing. It can actually be lonely at times to be all alone on stage, especially during rehearsal, but it also empowers you to go deep in ways you might not when you are sharing space and dialogue with another. The whole experience was profound. Directed by Jolene Mentink Moffatt at Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis.

Jan Lucas and Constance Macy as Helen and Lulu, respectively, in “The House That Jack Built” by James Still at Indiana Repertory Theatre.

The House That Jack Built by James Still, in the role of Helen, at Indiana Rep. This was a convergence of so many wonderful elements: written by a dear friend, directed by a dear friend Janet Allen, and the cast was a group of friends: deep, funny, powerful actors. The energy in the rehearsal room was magic, the story powerful, and the character of Helen was an absolute dream role. She is the matriarch of a very complicated and wonderful family and her exuberance and zest for life aren’t always easy for them to deal with…I loved all the humor and love she brought to the story, sometimes putting her foot deep in her mouth!  The other interesting fact about this production is that it took place in the time of active COVID and was never performed in front of a live audience, only filmed for streaming purposes. This added another dimension to our cast dynamic and served to bring us all extremely close.

Dinner With Friends by Donald Margulies, in the role of Karen, at Indiana Rep. This was such a learning experience for me, such pathos and also so much humor…this play taught me the power of a well-timed pause. In one scene, my character is trying to subtly tell her husband not to invite our friend, whose marriage is falling apart, in for dinner and I learned that a pause and a barely visible shrug could be hilarious. It was directed by my good friend James Still, who along with being a wonderful playwright, is an incredible director.

Jan Lucas in “Mary Jane” presented by Summit Performance.

Mary Jane by Amy Herzog, the role of Tenkai and the role of Ruth. This play offered the opportunity to be two very different characters; the loud rough-edged building superintendent as well as a Buddhist monk. It was a production with a lot of moving parts that all came together to tell an intensely moving story of a young mother with a baby who has a serious illness. It’s a powerful story about women and motherhood and navigating tragedy. Directed by Lauren Briggeman for Summit Performance in Indy.

Let’s name names of your collaborators on “The Hard Way Home.” Share a little about your creative process and your collaborators?

Jan Lucas: The first song I wrote was “The Great Escape.” I wrote a very simple melody which sounded sophomoric and didn’t do justice to the lyrics. So I reached out to Natalie Huizenga, the daughter of one of my best friends. She is a musician, an amazing vocalist as well as sound technician extraordinaire. We talked on the phone and I was shy about it at first, I felt that my own musical acumen was not in the same league as hers and how could I possibly describe what I was looking for. She was so enthused about the words and so keen to give it a go, my insecurities were allayed and off she went. Two days later, she sent what she called a scratch track, meaning it was pretty rough, and wow. It was not rough, it was powerful and lovely and very different from anything I had imagined. When we went into the studio, we did very little to change it.

The other songs followed similar paths. I worked with my son Jackson Grimm to shape a couple of the melodies, also did the same with Allie Jean Burbrink. The trickiest song was “Thank You”; my good friend Beth Lodge-Rigal really wrote that melody and helped me tremendously with the lyrics. It was so fun working with her because we literally sat in my living room and tried out various rhymes, switched up phrasing, I’d say yes I like that or no, that’s not exactly what or how I want to say it. There was no defensiveness or embarrassment about choices, we just worked to serve the song. I was lucky to have Emma Smith sing that one. She is also the daughter of a good friend and the youthful sweetness of her voice juxtaposes beautifully with the anguish of the song.

Kriss Luckett-Ziesemer sings “Everyone Says” with absolute clarity and a straightforward approach, she brings the imagery of the song to life. And Allie Burbrink gives “Something Like That” the punch of a country song. She offered invaluable moral support throughout the whole thing.

Laura Hall was my co-producer as well as pianist for the whole project. She helped me with many details on all the songs and I now call her The Song Doctor…she is a rhyming machine! She came in the studio the first two days as we laid down basic tracks and her very presence gave me support and confidence to craft the production of the songs.

Jan Lucas

The only song that I actually wrote the music to is “Brand New Morning,” the jazzy tune. I sat next to Laura Hall in her studio and sang it to her and she said, “Like this?” And she just played the hell out of it! And I laughed and said “Yeah, like that!” I initially sang that song in the studio. It’s the snarkiest and most pointed of all the songs and putting my own voice on it made it sound mean. I didn’t want any of the songs to be mean; that was not my intent at all. So in came Amanda Biggs, one of the most versatile and accomplished singers on the planet and she gave it the heart and gravitas it needed.

Two dear friends, Allie Van Wassenaer-Summers and her husband Diederik Van Wassenaer, played strings on two of the tracks and their sensitivity and insight added a layer of heart that I couldn’t have imagined. My son Jackson Grimm  played electric and acoustic guitar and my son Connor Grimm played electric bass. My good friend Bill Meyers played upright bass on a track also. The project was mostly recorded at Airtime Studios in Bloomington, Indiana, with Dave Weber at the helm.