Jun 22, 2011
I Interview Playwrights Part 363: Ellen McLaughlin
I was born in Boston, MA, then spent a few years in California where my father was at Stanford, but grew up mostly in DC, where my father taught at American University.
Rinde and I (Rinde Eckert is my husband) have been living in Nyack, NY since 1995, it amazes me to realize. It's 18 miles up the Hudson from Manhattan and filled to the brim with theater folks.
Q: Tell me about Ajax in Iraq.
A: The short answer is that the piece was an outgrowth of my residence in 2008 at ART in Cambridge, MA and my collaboration with the 2009 class of graduate actors there.
I wanted to create a work that addressed the American solider's experience in Iraq at the time and ended up pairing the kind of material the class was generating (much of it about what female soldiers were encountering) with an adaptation of Sophocles' AJAX. When Gus approached me about having Flux produce it, I decided I'd update the play and make some rewrites for their production. The Flux production is somewhat revised from the original script and I'm currently working to put together a final version for publication by Playscripts Inc., which has done most of my Greek adaptations.
I enclose here a statement I wrote for a magazine interview back in 2009 that gives the full history of the piece as it was prepared for the ART production:
In the spring of 2006, the Institute at ART approached me to ask if I would write a grant proposal to TCG for the playwright in residence grant and I proposed writing something with and for the students that addressed the war in Iraq, even if it was only indirectly. It just seemed impossible not to address the war as we moved into yet another year of it and there was no end in sight. The residency was a sixteen month residency, three months of which, at a minimum, I would spend in Cambridge. I based the proposal on what I understood of Caryl Churchill's collaborations with the Joint Stock Company. I wanted to collaborate with the graduate acting students not just as actors but as fellow artists. This was partly a function of the material, which I needed their help with. I told them that it seemed to me that the current war is their war rather than my war in the sense that my generation is essentially sending their generation to war. I talked about the Vietnam War as being the war that had formed my political sensibility as this war would form theirs. Since their relationship to the war is so much more immediate than mine, I wanted to know what they had to say about it and what it meant to them and I would work with the material they generated.
I asked them to prepare a series of presentations for me and Scott Zigler, the director of the project. Over the course of several weeks, they were asked to bring in two solo pieces. The first was to be a theatrical treatment of some primary source material, research they’d done themselves, depending on what their interests were. The second was to be based on interviews they’d conducted. The pieces did not need to be about the Iraq war specifically, but they should concern war as a general subject. The research pieces ranged from theatrical presentations on Rumi, Blackwater hearings, and comfort women in the Korean War, to Civil War letters and computer war games the army uses as recruitment tools. The interviews ranged from conversations the students had their grandparents in which stories were sometimes related for the first time, to homeless Vietnam veterans interviewed on the street as well as returning soldiers, often relatives. One particularly moving interview was conducted with a sister-in-law, the wife of a Marine who was then coping with her husband being absent on his fourth tour of duty in Iraq.
During the next round of my residency, we paired the students off and asked them to collaborate with each other to make new pieces based on new research they undertook together. The pieces they brought in as a result of these collaborations ranged widely and used all kinds of theatrical techniques, video, dance and art installation. After seeing this round of presentations, we asked the group to pursue certain issues further and recombined them in larger collaborations. We also gave them the opportunity to follow their own interests and make pieces together in any combinations they found effective. We subsequently saw, among other collaborations, some large dance pieces, surprisingly complete, one of which ended in a Maori war dance, wonderfully executed by the whole company, which I later incorporated into the final play.
During the months I was away from the students, I did my own research and pursued some of my own lines of thinking, including a study of the psychological toll the war has taken on returning Iraq veterans. I hit on the idea of using Sophocles’ Ajax as a structural basis for the piece. It’s a play I’d never studied closely or attempted to adapt, but always thought a chilling analysis of a kind of military trauma.
Ultimately, I went off and wrote the play. It finally took the form of a direct response to the material the students had brought in, addressing their issues but never quoting directly from their work. It is also an adaptation of the Sophocles text, using that ancient play as a means to reflect on and augment the contemporary story.
This was one of the hardest things I've ever done as a playwright, just because there were so many different people's needs to consider and honor and because the material itself was so disturbing and thorny. But it is also, I have to say, one of the most rewarding things I've ever done and I will always be grateful to the original cast at to Scott Zigler for leading me to make something so different from anything I could have made without them.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: In August, I'll be going into rehearsals for an Off Broadway production of my play Septimus and Clarissa, which is an adaptation of Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. it was written in collaboration with Rachel Dickstein and her NY-based company, Ripe Time, and will be performed at Baruch in September.
I've also been working for several years now (with long interruptions) with the composer Peter Foley on a music/theater piece, working title Inconnu, about an incident that took place in France between the wars.
Q: What could a playwriting student expect in your class?
A: They can expect to be asked to write a lot. They average about seven pages a week, often more, and will ultimately write a play at the end of the semester. It's a lot of work, but I do think one has to write to write. There's just no other way to get a sense of the form than to keep taking a whack at it. I also get them to read many, many plays. I bring in a huge box of my own library of plays, over a hundred, every week, and spread them out on the table and they can pick whichever they want to read, but they read at least two a week. Another of my beliefs being that you have to read to write and it's a tricky form--the more you see the vast variety of ways it can be successfully manipulated, the better.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: I was taken to see King Lear at Arena Stage in D.C. when I was quite little, maybe ten or even younger. I had never seen anything so terrifying and beautiful, nor perhaps have I since. I don't think I'll ever get over the blinding of Gloucester--that's one of the worst things that's ever happened to me--and when Robert Proskey, who was playing him, came out for the curtain call ripping the bloody bandage from his eyes as he ran into the light, I nearly fainted with relief. But I also remember the woman who played Cordelia, the straight stalk of her body in the light, the courage of her refusal to pander to her father's insane vanity, "Nothing, my lord", the silence after that, the shock of that statement hanging in the air. I remember identifying that moment as being something I wanted to live inside of and understanding it to be at the essence of the theater: a person standing on the stage, speaking the truth. I later played the part and never took for granted the great good fortune I had in being able to do something I had known all my life I'd wanted to do.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: I'd make it free. It appalls me that the theater, which seems to me to be the most essential and probably the oldest of the performing arts, something we have been doing for each other since we've been performing at all, is now the least accessible, since it is impossible for even the people who want to see it to afford going. Theaters should be open to everyone who wants to come in the doors. Just after 9/11, I was performing down at LaMaMa in a production of The Bacchae with a theater company called Beloved Monsters--a tough and disturbing play for tough and disturbing times. We had not known, of course, when we started rehearsals just how terribly appropriate that play would be for the times we were living through when we finally performed it. It was during those hard days when the rubble was still hot and that acrid smoke was still something you smelled everywhere downtown. People were still so jumpy and tender and in need of company, particularly at night, when they'd often wander into the theater, looking for community and find themselves in the audience, almost by accident. What we found was that by the end of that ancient play, which is about the catastrophic death of a city and an incident that cannot be assimilated, cannot be made sense of but which must be mourned, the audience was weeping as one, weeping for those they never knew who had died just a few blocks south of us. It was phenomenal, such a privilege to do--one of those things I'll always be grateful for, that I had the theater to go to during those nights. It made me feel that I was part of the long heritage of human beings who'd been using the medium to try to make sense of our condition, either by attending theater or making theater down the centuries. This is a medium that should be available to everyone always, a means of comfort and a way of understanding ourselves.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: So many, so many... I was given Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to read when I was about 12 by an amazingly perceptive school librarian. I remember sitting in the window seat of the library and reading this text in the sunlight (I can still remember the font.) I don't think I'd ever seen a play script remotely like it-- I was astonished by the freshness of the dialogue, the way it sounded like very particular people talking, the daring of the ideas, the vividness of it. I started taking it around the library, looking for friends to read it with because it needed, I knew, to be read aloud to be understood. I remember that I couldn't believe it was possible to do that, write with that kind of accuracy, humor and power. Meeting Albee in the last few years when doing Claire in A Delicate Balance (a dream part for me if ever there was one) has been one of the great thrills of my life (if a trifle terrifying.) Caryl Churchill's work has had a tremendous effect on me--seeing Top Girls at the Public when I was just out of college blew my mind, and Mad Forest at New York Theater Workshop was very important to me. There is such an originality to the theatrical imagination at work there, such intelligence and clarity of voice, it continues to inspire me. And of course there are the obvious greats--Chekhov, Williams, and so forth--if you're lucky enough to see great productions. I worked as an apprentice scene painter at Arena Stage when I was in high school in DC and helped paint the rock for Ming Cho Lee's set for Waiting for Godot and as a consequence got to see the invited dress--I'd never even read the play so it was all a revelation to me. I don't remember the director but it was a marvelous, funny and beautiful production--Max Wright playing Vladimir was heart-breaking, one of the great clowns but also (and this is so often the case) one of the great classical actors I've ever seen. I still remember my amazement at the fact of that play, that, as someone said, "nothing happens, twice," yet the whole of human existence is somehow evoked in its tragedy and absurdity. I walked out of the theater that night and thought, this is what I will give my life to.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I suppose I'm drawn to the Greeks because I love taking on the big stuff. I do find I get bored when nothing is risked. I suppose that kind of theater is just a product of people's fear of failure, which is virtually inevitable when you try to do anything worth doing. But why not take on the hardest things? There are worse things than failing--usually having to do with making nice, forgettable baubles that will never matter to anyone--what's the point of that? Why not put it all on the line? All that's at stake is the size of your soul.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Make a mess. Go for broke. Read everything you can, see everything you can, steal from the best, figure out how they did it and do it your way. Hang with people who are inspiring to you, who do things better than you do, hang with people who can teach you stuff. And be ambitious, for god's sake. (See above.)
Q: Plugs, please:
A: Ajax in Iraq, just a few more performances at this point. Septimus and Clarissa in the fall (Ripe Time). Thanks for the soap box.