18 October 2010

Interview with Ellen McLaughlin, actress/playwright

This is the thirtieth interview of the “Where are we now?” series. Take a moment to peruse the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series.

Interview with Ellen McLaughlin
via email
9 & 10 August 2010

IA: Please tell us about your work on stage, on screen, and as a writer. What are some of your past projects of which you are most proud? What are some exciting projects you have in progress right now?

EmcL: I consider myself a theater artist. I’ve worked on film and television but those have been very minor roles and that work has been incidental to my life’s work, which has been principally as a writer and actor on the stage.

As an actor, I’m most proud of some of the work I’ve done in new plays, originating parts, as with Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, in which I played the Angel, starting in the first workshops and appearing in every American production through the Broadway run and thereby creating the part. I also worked on some the early versions of Tony’s one-woman monologue, Homebody, which is, I think, one of the greatest monologues in the English language.

As a playwright, I’ve written about a dozen plays now, many of which are adaptations of Greek plays. The adaptations vary widely in terms of how closely they cleave to the original work, but all are inspired by what I perceive as the primal formative power of that ancient work. One of the productions I’m most proud of was a version of The Trojan Women I wrote for refugees from the Bosnian War who had fled the former Yugoslavia and were living in NY in the mid 1990s. I received a grant from the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund that allowed me to organize the project with a psychiatric social worker who had experience in Yugoslavia and with the American Friends Service Committee, which helped me to recruit participants in the project, none of them professional actors, all of them traumatized to some extent by the war.

What we were able to achieve in the project was a real confirmation of the community-building and healing capability of the theater. Participants were from all different sides of the conflict and were people who would have gone to great lengths to avoid each other in ordinary circumstances but who managed not only to cooperate with each other to make the piece but to really collaborate, moving past bitter animosities and suspicions to make something cohesive and powerful and to make it together.

IA: Were you trained as a "method actor" in school? If so, do you still think of yourself as a method actor? If not, was there some other “system” of acting by which you were trained?

EmcL: I wasn't trained in the Method, though all acting training in the US really springs from the same Stanislavski pool——a matter of plumbing one's own emotional and psychological life to imagine oneself into a character. The Method is just a more stylized and intense version of what most actors are doing. I'm like most actors, I think, in the sense that I've cobbled together a process that works for me and which I tweak every time according to the needs of the production and the nature of the character.

IA: What topics tend to recur in your own writing?

EmcL: I’ve been drawn to adapting Greek plays for many reasons, one of them being that they give me a powerful means of addressing war. The Greeks were so clear-eyed about war and its horrors--all of the tragedians having been veterans themselves must have something to do with this, combined with the fact that the majority of their audience were veterans—the candor with which they address the subject has never been replicated. The plays are uniquely devoid of romanticism and harrowing in their acknowledgement of the costs on both sides. I also like the Greeks because the myths are so malleable and sturdy and because they belong to everyone. The power of the dramaturgy is remarkable no matter what you do with them, but then they are basis of the form and indeed of Western civilization.

Just after we began the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I wrote a version of The Persians for National Actors’ Theater in NY that was produced immediately in response to the war. The Persians is the oldest play we have in the canon and is an extraordinary document, written with compassion and perceptiveness by a Greek veteran of the Persian invasion of his own country about that battle’s losers—the Persians—from their perspective. It’s still shockingly original and powerful.

Lately it seems that virtually everything I’ve been doing, both as a playwright and as an actor, has touched on the trauma and loss of war. I wrote a play for the graduate acting students at ART based on interviews and research they’d done into the war in Iraq called Ajax in Iraq, a melding of two tellings of the Ajax myth—a version of the Sophocles and a modern one, set in Iraq.

My one woman piece, Penelope, a modern rendering of the Odyssey, is a monologue by a woman whose long estranged ex- husband returns to her, brain damaged by a war injury, uncertain of who he is. As they wait for him to return to his own mind, she reads him the Odyssey and in the experience of that book finds a means of entering into her ex-husband’s trauma.

This winter I was performing at Playmaker’s Rep. in Chapel Hill, NC, in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, a great play addressing the long repercussions of a war upon veterans and their families.

For several years now I’ve been working on writing a music theater piece based on an incident that occurred in France involving a veteran of the First World War so traumatized that he became a total amnesiac and the ensuing drama of the many grief-stricken families who tried to claim him as their own lost son or husband.

This summer, I was working on an adaptation of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, which is in part a piece about a shell shocked veteran of the Great War’s journey through psychosis and his ultimate suicide.

IA: What specific techniques do you use on stage and screen? What writing techniques have you employed in your original plays and versions of classic plays? What theories inform your work?

EmcL: I don’t think of the techniques I use as a playwright or as an actor really have names. There is, of course, craft involved with both acting and playwrighting, but it is hard won after many years of practice and impossible to label since every play demands a somewhat different approach and one changes one’s technique depending on the needs of the work at hand. I don’t believe I work by any theories.

IA: Do you think of yourself as belonging to any particular ‘school’ or ‘movement’?

EmcL: No. But then I suppose that, if my work survives my death, that’s the sort of thing that some future critic would be able to determine rather than me.

IA: What do you know about the current state of the arts? Please talk specifically about individual actors, directors, writers, etc. whom you know (or whose work you know), their topics/techniques/theories, and in general about your sense of North American arts right now.

EmcL: What I know about the current state of the arts has to do with my own work, that of my friends and colleagues, and the work I attend that suits my own taste in theater. I am far from being able to talk globally, but I notice a few things that have changed in my own rather long career in the arts.

When I came into the field back in the early 80’s, there were very few women playwrights working professionally and those that were were seldom produced by major theaters. The major playwrights, both contemporary and past, were all male. Now the vast majority of people writing plays are women, and though we are still shockingly underproduced (17% of the plays produced professionally are by women) and underrepresented, we have a foothold at last. This is encouraging and makes for a more interesting scene—as does the fact that there are many, many more plays written by non-whites. Color-blind casting is no longer remarkable and has also been vital to opening opportunities to actors of color across the country.

As far as the form is concerned, I think there is more tolerance for experimentations with structures and techniques in writing, and that innovative, unconventional work is now in evidence everywhere, not just in NYC and pockets of culture across the country, but generally and in theaters which once only staged the most conventional kitchen-sink realism and melodrama.

IA: If you have a religious point of view: Can you comment on the differences between sacred and secular arts?

EmcL: I am not a religious person, but what I know about the spirit and the glory of human community is what I’ve learned to a large extent in theaters.

IA: How do you think the arts (your own or others’) are responding to present and potential world-movements, such as postmodernism, the looming “post-human” phase, and the possible artistic effects of the Eastward orientation of economics and Christianity?

EmcL: I just had a conversation with Oskar Eustis, head of the Public Theater, about his recent trip to China, which he said was tremendously stimulating. He feels, as do many, that China is going to have a major impact on the arts in the coming years and that as world power shifts East, we will be increasingly influenced by the Eastern culture, not least in theater. He thinks this is all to the good and was genuinely excited about what is happening culturally there, feels that we have much to learn from our neighbors there. I look forward to that education.

I have not heard about this “post-human” movement you write about, which sounds alarming; but I think that theater, because of its adamantly home-made, present tense immediacy, is immune to such things. Theater evolves with the times, adopts whatever new technology is useful to it—sophisticated sound techniques and video are a commonplace in any theater that can afford them—but these technological innovations, however fascinating and labor-saving, are finally beside the point, in my opinion. Since the theater is dependent on the most basic dynamic in human interaction, live performers before live audiences, the form is fundamentally the same as it was thousands of years ago, when the plays I’ve spent so much of my career thinking about were first performed. And, as is evidenced by my own career, technological innovations and even literary movements are relatively superficial in terms of what makes the form meaningful and vital to the lives of its audience.

IA: Where are we going?

EmcL: I am not interested in apocalyptic thinking, not about the species, and not even about the medium. The theater isn’t dying; it’s never been healthier, in fact. When I was growing up in Washington, DC, there was one professional theater, the Arena Stage, and several theater buildings which were basically road houses for touring shows. Now there are dozens of professional theaters in DC and a thriving, multicultural community of professional actors. This happened in only thirty years. Back in the 60’s and 70’s, no one would have believed such a thing possible. Who knew that there was an audience for that much theater?

I’m confident that as long as the race survives we’ll be making theater. And as long as we’re making theater, we will be riffing on these ancient texts, sorting through the myths, making use of them as we need to, shaping the same clay.

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