Interviews with playwright Wendy MacLeod and actress Molly Ward:
Dramaturg Elizabeth Williamson interviews MacLeod:
Q. What was your starting point for writing this play?
A. When I was living in England a few years ago, I had the chance to see Othello at the Donmar Warehouse, with Ewan McGregor as Iago and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Othello. The mystery that lingered after I saw the play grew out of the scenes between Iago and Emilia. How did they come to be together? Why does this moral woman agree to betray her friend? I was interested in foregrounding a woman character, one that is peripheral in Shakespeare’s Othello, and in exploring race and romantic love in a contemporary context.
Q. There are a number of moments in the play highlighting perceptions of race and racism. What aspects of contemporary society are you investigating, and where did these questions come from?
A. I was interested in exploring the subtler permutations of racism. How do we inadvertently make assumptions based on cultural stereotypes? Are there things white people say to each other that they wouldn’t say if an African-American person was in the room? I was struck by an NPR piece about an advertising agency that was targeting an African-American market, and considering setting an ad at a swimming pool, when someone in the all-white room asked: “Do black people swim?” It’s shocking, it’s painful, yet it’s all too believable that someone would say such a thing. In the play, there is a pivotal moment where a white record executive dangles Lakers tickets in front of a young black man without knowing whether or not this particular guy even likes basketball.
Q. Why set this play in the New York hip-hop music industry?
A. I was inspired by Jonathan Kozol’s books. In Savage Inequalities he writes about the inequities of our public school system, about the disparities between schools in the Bronx and schools five miles away in Westchester.
Disadvantaged kids dream of getting out through a long shot–the basketball scholarship, the record deal–because that’s what they see celebrated on TV and in the magazines. They would stand a better chance of improving their lives if they stayed in school but their schools are not always happy places, and many of these schools aren’t able to adequately prepare their students for college. How can the system be fair when school budgets are tied to property taxes?
As Jonathan Kozol writes, “An awful lot of people come to college with this strange idea that there’s no longer segregation in America’s schools, that our schools are basically equal; neither of these things is true.”
I teach at Kenyon College, and often wonder: how does somebody get here if they’re not from here? Middle-class families assume their children will go to college, send them to schools that prepare them for college, and know how to negotiate the admissions process. They’re willing to trust that their child can major in English literature and still end up with a job. What happens to the equally bright kids who can’t afford to take that kind of risk?
Molly Ward (Julia) makes her PTC debut after establishing a career in New York in a variety of theatres and roles: The Tenant (Woodshed Collective); Kin (Playwrights Horizons); Keep Your Baggage With You (Theater for the New City); Nick Jones’ Nosemaker’s Apprentice (Brick Theater); Crystal Skillman’s Nobody (RPR); End of Lines and The Shape of Metal (59E59 Theaters).
Kirsten Park interviews Molly Ward to discuss her character, “Julia.”
Q. Had you ever worked with Wendy MacLeod before Find and Sign?
Molly: I saw the film version of The House of Yes when I first moved to New York after college, and I loved it. In fact I’ve always thought of it as a seminal ‘90s movie. It stands out because it’s a totally fulfilled world, which is the result of Wendy’s marvelous voice.
Q. Have you worked on plays before where the playwright was present? Does that make it easier or harder?
Molly: Are you kidding me? What on earth is better than putting a new play on its feet? I am a big fan of rehearsing with the playwright in the room, and Wendy’s rehearsal presence is as distinct as her writing voice. She really loves her characters and it makes you want to be the best version of yourself to fill them.
I’ve worked on new plays by Theresa Rebeck, Nick Jones, Crystal Skillman, and Bathsheba Doran, and I find that, within a creative process, having the playwright in the room really lets you cut to the chase. In this case, we get to say, ‘Wendy, what did you mean by this?’ I find that using this shorthand to problem-solve is tremendously satisfying. By contrast, when you work on Shakespeare or Chekhov, for example, you spend a lot of time summoning the spirit of the writer into the rehearsal room for some sort of guidance…so it’s fun when the writer is alive and in attendance.
Q. Originating a character can be a huge responsibility! Have you originated a role before, and if so, how does this compare?
Molly: I find it very liberating. It’s less daunting to bring a character to life than trying to fill the shoes of someone who’s already done it.
Q. Your character Julia is a bright woman. Like many bright women she struggles with relationships. Do you think Julia is on the right track in Find and Sign, or do you think she still has a lot to learn about relationships?
Molly: Actually, my therapist and I are discussing ways I can be more like Julia!
I think she really has her act together. She’s grounded in self-knowledge, and her determination is fueled by intuition.