Theatre: Keeping It Fresh
An interview with Find and Sign playwright Wendy MacLeod.
n 1997, playwright Wendy Macleod took the Sundance Film Festival by storm when The House of Yes (for which she wrote the screenplay, based on her stage play of the same name) won the Grand Jury Prize. Exactly 15 years later, she’s back in Utah with the world premiere of her new play Find and Sign.
Find and Sign will be the third world premiere produced under Pioneer Theatre Company’s New Plays Initiative in the three seasons since its inception. All three have been by female playwrights. Under Elizabeth Williamson, who heads the initiative, PTC has found itself a champion of female theatre artists. “Macleod is a funny, smart and sometimes brutal writer with an amazing social/political awareness,” says Williamson. “The questions Find and Sign raises about the plight of inner-city youth and their limited options to get out of New York’s poorest neighborhoods are very close to my heart—my mother is a Harlem-raised leftist and brought me up on Jonathan Kozol—and the way Wendy deals with them was one of the main reasons I wanted to do the play.”
Find and Sign chronicles a less-than-smooth romance between an on-the-rise young record executive and an idealistic public school teacher. With New York City’s urban music industry as a backdrop, the play is a nod to Shakespeare’s “Othello.” I recently cyber-chatted with Wendy Macleod about her new play and playwriting in general.
Jerry Rapier: I find your new play to be one of—if not the—most exciting script selection at PTC in the 16 years I’ve lived in Salt Lake City. How did it come to be part of PTC’s New Plays Initiative?
Wendy Macleod: Pioneer’s Associate Artistic Director Elizabeth Williamson read the play and was passionate enough to get people at Pioneer excited about doing it.
What’s the skinny on Find and Sign? Inspiration? Process? Frustrations? How much of a nod is “a nod to Othello”?
When I was living in England a few years ago I had the chance to see Othello at 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.
Give us a little insight into your writing process. When do you know the play’s gonna come? When are you afraid it won’t and how do you get past that?
A play often begins with a scribbled one-sentence idea, then it starts to itch, or to switch images, percolate. There’s the honeymoon phase of writing the first draft where the characters themselves seem to propel the story forward. Then there’s the long, hard slog of confronting this lump of material, this raw potential, and turning it into a play. Find and Sign had four different developmental readings along the way, and at each juncture, I’ve realized, or been made to realize, that there’s more work to do. Most recently, I heard certain scenes in auditions for Pioneer and discovered passages that could be pared back.
Sometimes research comes first and always continues along the way. I’d read Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, a book about the nation’s poorest school districts, and the huge disparity between schools in affluent suburbs and the nearby urban neighborhoods like the Bronx. The play explores how wealthy Manhattan and the entertainment business in particular, is oblivious to, or profits from, the poverty nearby.
How long have you been teaching playwriting at Kenyon College? What’s it like teaching at your alma mater?
I’ve been teaching there for 20 years so it is unquestionably home.
Take us through a day in your classroom.
The playwriting class meets in a sort of private clubhouse in an aerie classroom above the Hill Theater. I’m rigorous about structure, whether the piece is a conventional narrative or not. What is the beginning, middle and end of a given play? How do you begin here and make sure the audience arrives there? I also want them to understand how slow the process is, how many rewrites are involved. It’s not simply a matter of “this is good” or “this is bad;” it’s about getting them excited about their play’s “potential.” I know that student impersonations of me often involve the word “fresh.” My highest praise is when someone has come up with a point of view or a structural device that’s “fresh.” I try to get them to activate their characters and often remind them that women want things too. I don’t want them to write “a mother,” I want that character to be this mother. But my classes are not just me holding forth. Students present their work and they critique each other, in a way that is both challenging and supportive. I sat through too many competitive writing classes when I was younger so I try to remind them that their challenge is realizing their own work, not with besting each other.
Good advice for any playwright.
Jerry Rapier has been Producing Director of Plan-B Theatre Company since 2000. His next directing project is Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine for the University of Utah Theatre Department.