from The Dramatist, May-June 2003
In conversation with Caridad Svich
Wendy MacLeod's play Schoolgirl Figure, recently optioned by HBO, premiered at The Goodman Theatre in 2000, where her play Sin also premiered, before opening Off-Broadway at Second Stage. She is the author of The Water Children, which premiered at Playwrights Horizons in New York as a co-production with The Women's Project. The House of Yes, now a feature film, won the Bay Area Critics Award for Best New Play of 1990 and became the second-longest-running show at the Magic Theater's history. She wrote a pilot for CBS called Ivory Tower, working with producers Diane Keaton and Brillstein-Gray (The Sopranos). A New Dramatists alumna, she is playwright-in-residence at her alma mater, Kenyon College. Her play Things Being What They Are is slated for production at Seattle Rep in their 2002-2003 season. This interview was conducted online between December 2001 and February 2002.
CARIDAD SVICH: Many plays about the U.S. are about the U.S. seen as the great dysfunctional family that somehow manages to function anyway. A dark comedy like The House of Yes taps into this notion and then some. What was it like for you to imagine this Jackie and Marty, these siblings torn at the seams, and then see them played out on the screen?
WENDY MacLEOD: Like the country, the twins in The House of Yes were traumatized by the Kennedy assassination and the way it dovetailed with the loss of their father. They found solace in each other by reenacting the ritual of the assassination. When the play opened in L.A., one review headline read "MacLeod Deconstructs the American Family," and I thought, "That's funny. I thought I'd constructed one."
My inspiration was the Jacobean play 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, which is why I call it "a suburban Jacobean play." 'Tis Pity ends with the brother holding his beloved sister's still-beating heart. When I saw that final, literally heart-wrenching image, I thought, "This is great." I wanted to capture that sense of the mythic in Marty and Jackie. I want Jackie to be the villain you sympathize with because she's more interesting than the moral characters, of which there are admittedly very few. I want you to find yourself rooting for the incestuous lovers. Marty is the part of us who wants to be good, to live like other people. Jackie wants to liberate him from all that. Jackie just wants what she wants. I began the play disapproving of my characters - their insularity, their privilege, their feelings of superiority - but let's face it, they're the party.
I wasn't on set when they filmed House of Yes. An early cut just arrived in the mail, which had a fabulous temporary soundtrack of Beethoven and Nine Inch Nails. Parker Posey's Jackie was line perfect. It was exactly the way I heard her voice in my head. It was uncanny.
CS: What holds your plays together are their politics. Like Aristophanes, the politics are always underneath and sometimes not so underneath the fabric of the writing. Certainly, The Water Children is a case in point. Do you ever feel bound by this, or do you feel political plays are misunderstood in this country?
WM: I don't really think of myself as a political playwright, although I'd like to. It would make me feel important. Rather, I'm someone who delights in sacred-cow tipping, to use a midwestern analogy. I delight in contradicting the party line. Call it The Theater of Inversion. I like to invert the expected thinking on things. To go to the theater and smugly nod in agreement to everything that's being said onstage ... what could be more boring?
In The Water Children, I explore the possibility that a fetus has a soul. I think many women feel that, but because we're pro-choice, we don't give voice to that feeling. So in some sense, I'm addressing a political issue spiritually. In this country, we try to address the issue of abortion scientifically and it's ludicrous. The fetus has a soul at thirteen weeks but not at three weeks? In Japan, they acknowledge both that the fetus has a soul, or something like a soul, and that abortion is necessary, but perhaps I'm being disingenuous. The play does reach a juncture where the relatively sympathetic pro-life character threatens an injunction and the politics suddenly become tangible.
I think political theater has a reputation for being overly long, predictably left wing, didactic and dangerously worthy. Whereas, the best political theater is riveting, provocative, humane, and sometimes even a romp: two examples being Fires in the Mirror and Angels in America.
CS: Teaching for a living and teaching as a vocation: either way, teaching is what a lot of us end up doing. Are there lessons you have learned from your years working with students that you have applied to your own work?
WM: I've taught many students who have talent and wonderful ideas for plays. What separates the men from the boys, the women from the girls, is how hard they're willing to work to realize their ideas. They tend to lose interest after the first rush of inspiration. Sometimes, I just want to snatch the idea from them. I can see so clearly how to do it! That's why it is a nuisance when people offer you some wonderful idea they have for a play. I have millions of ideas. The hard part is realizing them.
I've spent the past ten years focusing on structure, because that's the thing that can be taught. Recently, I've started to think more about teaching them how to develop a process that both satisfies and bypasses that desire for instant gratification. For example, you give them a ten-minute exercise and they write something great. Instant gratification. Hopefully, they also realize, "Wow, I did something amazing in ten minutes. Imagine what I'd produce if I worked for months on something." Teaching keeps me honest. They're cranking out at least ten pages a week for my class. Shouldn't I be producing at least that much? I don't want to be one of those "do as I say, not as I do" teachers.
I remind them not to decide too early what kind of writer they are. Someone who's writing romantic comedies at age 20 may eventually write Marxist history plays. Who knows? Once at a party, a director I knew at Yale picked up this goofy, retro pink radio and said to me, "This is like a Wendy MacLeod play." In grad school I was considered a lightweight, comic bard of suburbia, and in that moment, I thought, "The hell with that. I want to write something else now."
In my case, teaching is both a living and a vocation. I feel comfortable in a classroom. I come alive. It's my salon, I'm Gertrude Stein, and we read a bunch of interesting stuff and have some interesting conversations. I no longer hold anything back. I share with them everything I've learned so far. I tell them what I'm wrestling with. The best advice I ever read about writing was "use it all, use it now." I think that applies to teaching too.
I'm not entirely democratic though. Although I critique their work, I've learned not to invite students to comment on my early drafts. They don't know yet what a first draft is and the distance it can travel. They slammed me on an early draft of The Water Children. I was so traumatized that I put the play away for a year.
One good thing about teaching is that I go back and reread good plays again and again: Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, John Guare, Irene Fornes. Now I'm reading and teaching some interesting essays about comedy by Sigmund Freud, Eric Bentley, Suzanne Langer. They remind me to set the bar high.
CS: "I am worthy of love." Your play Things Being What They Are circles on this phrase and its meaning and importance to the characters' lives. The dynamics of love fuel more than half of all drama. It is the mystery we seek to unravel again and again. In this play you build the relationship between Jack and Bill in the most delicate way. Did you know, going in, you were going to write a two-hander? How did these characters find you and take hold?
WM: The fascinating thing to me about Things Being What They Are is that it is a play I wrote in 1987 and returned to in 2000. It was originally a one-act comedy about two men: a 20-something guy going through a marital crisis and a 40-ish divorced neighbor. Being a 20-something, my sympathies were squarely with the 20-something, but when I came back to the play, I was closer in age to the neighbor and it was time to write the play from his perspective. In so doing, the play acquired a second act. It also, I think, acquired an emotional depth, because the neighbor that begins as a stock-comic type emerges as a somewhat tragic character. He's like the ghost of Christmas future to the younger man, who's on the brink of a divorce.
The play's title is a fairly obvious Raymond Carver homage. The play explores many kinds of love: romantic love, the love between parents and children, and the burgeoning platonic love between the two men. At the end of the play, the older man is literally confronting his mortality and the younger man comforts him with the idea of a soul. He says: "We are more than our trips to Wal-Mart, our nights in front of the television. We're allowed little glimpses of our souls through love, through children, through this ... communion, you and I sitting here together."
I owe a debt to a small company, Visionary Works, affiliated with the Barrow Group, who recently did a workshop of the original one-act in New York. It gave me the chance to rediscover my own play.
CS: Do you ever question your profession? Do you ever say to yourself, "Why write? Who is this for?" and if so, what do you do at those times?
WM: Rarely. No, I actually never question my profession. I am fiercely loyal to playwriting and the theater, despite the fact that film is clearly the dominant medium. The fact is that I find the work, both the writing and the producing, deeply satisfying. I spent a year working on a television show and that spring I returned to the Goodman to produce Schoolgirl Figure. I experienced a profound sense of coming home.
That question, "Why write?" Is the wolf at the door. Don't let it in.
CS: Acting as making, acting as artifice: The Water Children touches on this since the heroine is an actor, but The House of Yes also is about role-playing, image, and how we make ourselves in another's image. Many traditional U.S. plays are uncomfortable with looking at how we create ourselves publicly and privately. How do you negotiate presenting your ideas to an audience? Do you ever think about the audience when you write?
WM: I have to think about the audience. It would be self-indulgent and hubristic not to. I want to make sure they're following the plot, that they're not bored, but I don't think of them with an eye toward censoring myself, because I have been wrong time and again about what they will or won't find offensive. In fact, the more I transgress, the more popular I am. I thought people would freak out about using the Kennedy assassination onstage in The House of Yes. I thought they would freak out about questioning abortion in The Water Children. I thought they would be outraged by a comedy about eating disorders, Schoolgirl Figure, but people are smart. They get it. They get that I'm questioning something.
In The House of Yes, Jackie and Marty are role-playing in a Genet sort of way. They are reliving something that traumatized them in their childhood and that they've fetishized. We fetishize violence all the time. We can't help ourselves. We were grimly drawn to the World Trade Center footage, trying to feel it, trying to feel the immensity of the tragedy.
In The Water Children, Megan has to wrestle with the moral dilemma of whether to appear in a right-to-life commercial. So, her struggle is very much about the public self versus the private self. She needs money, she needs work, but what are the consequences of using her talent in this way? Can she ethically argue that it's just a role? In any job there are junctures where you have to choose between what you value and what the culture values.
CS: A playwright's life in this country seems limited by a span of years, especially if you're a woman who writes, it seems to me. Theaters, media, audience tend to forget women writers more than men. Struggle is part of the game. Some artists work outside of the "game," as it were, to survive. What do you do?
WM: I don't think a playwright's life span has to be limited. Often, playwrights move into film and television in their 30s, when they have to support children or are longing to buy a house or have a few creature comforts. It's obviously very difficult to have a life in the theater, and the entire culture makes you feel like a loser if you're not wealthy and famous and featured in In Style magazine. So, you have a lot of young playwrights desperate to work and very few older playwrights. I find it sad when playwrights move into film and television and don't come back, but I am grateful that our profession is not as dependent on age, weight, and beauty as acting is. I saw this terrible John Travolta movie on television last night, and there was another ingˇnue playing his much-younger love interest. There was no point in getting attached to her, because she'd soon be rotated out and another ingˇnue rotated in.
Yes, I think women writers probably have a harder time getting produced. Perhaps it's because most agents, artistic directors, and literary managers are men, who are choosing material that speaks to them. It's not malicious, it's not a conspiracy, but that childbirth play is likely to languish on the pile. Yet, my work does get produced, and I'm grateful to the literary managers, directors, and artistic directors, both men and women, who've made that happen: people like Tim Sanford, Julia Miles, Lloyd Richards, Sharon Ott, Ed Herendeen and the late John Lion; theaters like The Goodman, Arena Stage, The Kennedy Center, and Seattle Rep; and of course my agent, the hardest-working man in show business, Peter Franklin. There are also a lot of interesting, smaller companies doing plays by women. My plays are often done in tiny vital spaces that double as galleries or clubs.
Right now I survive because I have a wonderful teaching job that supports my family and my writing. It does, however, require that I live in Gambier, Ohio. It is a charming, little college town, but the phrase "out of the loop" only begins to describe it.
CS: You are working more now in film and television, developing work, etc. Is this exciting for you, a natural extension of your interests or new playing field?
WM: Working in film is exciting. I got my first taste of it with The House of Yes, where suddenly everyone had seen something I'd written. I met David Foster Wallace at a dinner party, and he'd seen my movie. Normally, I'm lucky if a thousand people see something I've written. Basically, to use a Marxist analogy, if I can control the means of production, I'm happy. That is, if I can work on my projects, then I can stay invested. Right now, I'm adapting Schoolgirl Figure for HBO. I'm working with a producer I know and like. My longtime collaborator David Petrarca is slated to direct it.
I have dipped a toe into series television, and though the people there are plenty smart, there is a great premium put on spelling things out, thematically and narratively. I'm not enamored of the technical side of film and television. I get bored on a set in a way that I don't in a rehearsal hall. I like the writing, and I like the finished product. What's in between is like a skipping record.
Yet, I want to do more work in film and television. I was taking a yoga class at a professor's house, and in this otherwise spare room, there was a large television. It reminded me that everybody watches television, even the highly educated and spiritually aware. So, where's the shame in writing for it? There is such a thing as good television. In places like Gambier, Ohio, where there is no professional theater and no art houses, you rely on it. I also find the independent film movement very exciting. I'd like to move in and out of the different media, without giving up my primary identity as a playwright.
CS: I think humor is an incredibly valuable quality. Humor has saved me on many an occasion from going off the deep end. How do you nurture - or do you? - your comic voice?
WM: I think one is born, for better or worse, with a voice. My voice is primarily comic. Even when I think I'm writing something painful and dramatic, it comes out funny. In this, I am, sadly, the opposite of Chekhov, who thought he was writing comedies only to find they were tragedies. Eric Bentley has a beautiful quote: "If comedy begins in the kitchen and the bedroom, it can walk out under the stars."
I was once given an award for "comic irreverence," and I think that pretty much sums it up. I recently heard a story about a fellow professor who went to turn in a form and was told he couldn't because they didn't have a box. This of course struck me as hilarious, Kafkaesque, but so often, people are accidentally hilarious. It's up to me to make them purposefully hilarious.
Do I have to nurture it? No. It's my nature. It's a nature versus nurture thing.
CS: Is there a kind of writing you wish to do? Different form or media or style?
WM: Yes. I just reread Racing Demon by David Hare and I found it so intelligent, so complex, and so ambitious. So, I'm interested in becoming more politically complex and more emotionally textured. You have to try to write for the ages, to swing for the fences as August Wilson has said.
I find that most playwrights now are tripping all over themselves to prove they're not realistic playwrights, that they're image-based, language-driven, that they care about everything but story or character. Well, I just saw Jitney at Seattle Rep. It is a realistic play, and when the audience leapt to their feet to give the play standing ovation, I leapt up too. Usually, I grudgingly stand up for ovations, not wanting to seem like a spoilsport, but there was a scene between a father and son that left me weeping, and later in the play, when the son learns of his father's death, he falls to his knees, crying out like a wounded animal. Being an ironist by temperament, I realized how frightened I was of raw emotion on stage. So, maybe I should try it.