By Will Yarbrough
Ellen McLaughlin has worked extensively in regional and New York theater, both as an actor and as a playwright. Acting work includes originating the part of the Angel in Angels in America, playing the role in workshops and regional productions through its Broadway run in 1993-1994. She is the recipient of the Writer’s Award from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund as well as other honors, including the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and grants from the NEA. She has taught playwriting at Barnard College since 1995.
WY: What inspires you to write?
EM: Hard to say, but it comes down to two contradictory impulses: I often write in order to understand my own experience and make sense of my own hard truths. But I also write in order to engage with experiences very different from my own and understand them from the inside. I want very much to learn, and writing gives me a way in that more distanced scholarship doesn’t. I need the imaginative act, the leap into the Other in order to expand my own heart and soul.
WY: What themes do you tend to gravitate toward in your writing?
EM: I seem to write about war a lot. Perhaps it has to do with my upbringing in a pacifist family and being educated by Quakers. I grew up in D.C. during the Vietnam War and went to every protest march during my childhood (and there were a lot of them). Many of my plays have had something to do with the cost of war, not only to those actively fighting but to those at home as well. And that interest in taking on the wars of my own time has led me to the Greeks, whose great subject was war, probably because the Athenians who gave us the golden age of classical drama were always at war. Not only were all of their great tragedians veterans, but the audiences were made up of veterans as well. The way that the Greeks write about war is exceedingly nuanced and wise—providing no easy answers, no glib sentimentality or triumphalism. They always grapple with the truth, which is that war is catastrophic, and not just for the losers. Many of the tragedies involve the dark repercussions of the Trojan War for the conquering Greeks, who made torturous journeys home often to encounter chaos and peril on their return.
I’m also interested in what happens when people, usually under extreme stress, encounter aspects of themselves they would never have known existed otherwise. I also want to investigate what moral courage is, how love survives, mutates and surprises us. I’m interested too in friendship, particularly between women.
WY: What risks do you push yourself to take in your writing?
EM: I have to push myself to go deeper sometimes, to put pressure on characters I love and risk letting them fail or make terrible mistakes. I have to let them be unlikeable sometimes. If I don’t, the plays lack vitality; the stakes aren’t high enough, the colors too muted and the rooms too safe. Which doesn’t mean people have to draw blood, just that they have to have everything riding on what happens on stage, they have to have a lot to lose. Otherwise, why should we give them our precious time?
WY: What does theatre have to teach us?
EM: Theater is, at its basis, a matter of structured empathy. The playwright is the first to make that imaginative journey into the unknown, dreaming up fictional beings with recognizable souls. But a play is only a map; it’s not the reality. We have to hand the map of that journey in the form of a script to professionals, actors who will strap on the spelunking equipment, ropes and headlamps, and go down into those caves we have only inferred to find the characters’ souls. Then they come up into the light and embody those characters with the help of directors and designers, who structure the experience and make it ever more real and touchable. But even then the play hasn’t been realized;it’s only when the audience comes in that the play is really birthed into the world. Shakespeare is quite clear about this and speaks directly to the audience by saying things like, “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts,” Without the audience’s indulgence and active engagement, theatre fails.
What I think the theater teaches as no other art form does is just how interdependent we all are, that art relies on everyone in the room. But I believe it is also the most effective means of teaching us the work of civilization, which is the work of empathy. To watch a playdemands that we imagine ourselves into the hearts and minds of strangers, often people who bear little outward resemblance to ourselves. We have to feel compassion in order to experience a play. Which is good training. Because we have to feel compassion for each other if human civilization is to survive.
WY: Does theatre place different demands on its audience than fiction or poetry?
EM: Theater is mostly different from those art forms because it can’t be experienced privately, and it doesn’t last. If you aren’t there on the night, you miss it. Which is heart-breaking—the ephemeral nature of it is the hardest aspect of the form for those of us who have given our lives to it. Yes, if you’re lucky the scripts are published and have a life. But that’s different from the play itself, which is a living creature made up of all those fleeting ineffable parts and dies when the production closes. Theater demands that we all, performers and audience, live through it together in the same place and breathing the same air. It is experienced in a community, usually of strangers, who sit in the dark and share the time together. Which also makes it radically different from film or TV, to which it is always compared. The media, at their best, evoke entirely different sensations and are provocative in great contrast to each other. The literal nature of the world is inescapable in film, it presses at you in immense visions – like a drug – and overwhelms. It’s why, when it’s going well, people tip back in their seats while watching film, in passive awe, while people watching a good play will unconsciously lean forward, engaged and feeling a part of the action, like people at a boxing match or a vital dinner party. They have work to do. Everything on a stage is a metaphor because everything on a set is a choice. You’re not panning over a literal place in all of its real detail, you’re looking at things which stand for things, so the audience needs to activate their imaginations in order to make the play come into being. As I say, it’s a communal endeavor.
WY: How can writers learn from failure?
EM: Well, I’ve had loads of those kinds of learning experiences and god, it’s hard. It’s all so embarrassing and painful, partly because when a play fails so many people suffer; it is by its nature public, such failure, and misery doesn’t love company as much as we are led to believe. The major lesson failure has to teach is how it can be survived. How does the writer recover the courage to write again? There is a vulnerability demanded of any artist that takes trust and sheer nerve. I have to confess that I’ve lost years of my writing life to the beatings my work has taken from time to time. I know I have only myself to blame, but that doesn’t make it any easier to slide naked once more into that shark-infested water. It’s too damn cold and scary in there. But sometimes it’s an idea that snags me and makes me curious to explore it, sometimes it’s an artist I respect wanting to collaborate, mostly it’s just because, well, what am I going to do, sit in the dark and lick my wounds for the rest of my life? I’m a writer. I don’t feel like I have a whole lot of choice in the matter at this point. It sucks when it doesn’t work, but when it does, there is nothing more thrilling, nothing more joyful and fascinating.
WY: Many of your plays are either inspired by or adapted from Greek theatre. What interests you about these stories? How do they speak to our world today?
EM: The Greeks were interested always in talking about the hardest things. The plays take on everything that matters and they provide no easy answers. They are magnificently mysterious and enduring masterpieces of deep questioning and dark compassion. I love their sheer size and ambition. They dare me to go big and put myself completely on the line. Whether a playwright takes on the Greeks directly or not, we are always dealing with them anyway. They came up with the form after all. So we are always walking in that long shadow. I just like to get inside them sometimes and look out from those tall windows. They are beautifully constructed, for one thing, those plays. They simply work. Even the freest adaptations (and I have often taken huge liberties) have a kind of unerring form to them. People come in when they should, they die when they should, the tragedy comes up and smacks you in the face just when it must. You find yourself devastated and you don’t know what hit you. They knew what they were doing, those dead Greek guys. So mostly I keep going back to them because I can always learn from them. But I also love them because I can’t hurt them. They will be performed as long as we perform anything. So whatever I do is just in the long tradition that those playwrights themselves were part of, taking up those ancient stories and telling them again to see what they have to tell us now.
WY: Your play Lysistrata was performed during this year’s literary festival. What aspects of the story initially attracted you when you adapted it back in 2006? What aspects attract you now?
EM: I was asked to write a version of Aristophanes’ classic comedy specifically for the March 3, 2003 reading of Lysistrata, which I also directed at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater. That reading was one among thousands done that day as part of the Lysistrata Project, which was a worldwide protest against the ramp up to the war in Iraq. Readings of Lysistrata were done on every continent and in remarkable variety – from major cities to tiny towns, and often in some odd places–a girls’ school in Singapore, a canning factory in Siberia, the press tent in Afghanistan and even a gold mine in Brazil. There were over forty readings in New York alone that day; ours just happened to take place in a big theater and have some movie stars in it. The Lysistrata Project was the largest protest ever to take place on a single day until this January, when the Women’s Marches broke out all over the world on the day after Trump’s inauguration. I still can’t get over the fact that I was able to participate in both. I will always be grateful.
This version was born of a collective desire to make a short and sweet version of the Aristophanes play that was truly funny, as opposed to so many of the translations, which can be awfully dusty. Comedy is tough. It is generally tied to its era in a way that tragedy is not, and consequently it often doesn’t age well. Even great comedy, like Lysistrata, needs some brightening and sharpening to suit the times it wants to speak to. In fact, since this is an old play now—2003 is a long time ago culturally and even, alas, politically (who could have thought it would ever get grimmer than 2003?)– I have given the people making this production license to update the jokes if they feel like they don’t land properly right now. Comedy needs to speak immediately or it just doesn’t work, and if you don’t get your yucks, you are screwed. The best of intentions don’t mean anything if no one is laughing.