Wendy MacLeod’s SETC Keynote Address

by Wendy MacLeod

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation

Post image for Wendy MacLeod’s SETC Keynote Address

(The following keynote address was originally presented at the 65th Annual SETC Convention and is reposted here with her permission.)

“Whether we’re writers or actors, what really counts is not dreaming about fame and glory–but stamina” (Nina in THE SEAGULL)

When I was a graduate student at Yale Drama School, another playwright and I did a found text piece in the Cabaret, using a particular passage in the official course of study which said: “while playwriting cannot be taught, it can be learned.”  This was in the era of Robert Wilson, and this phrase repeated had a certain post-modern charm.   Go ahead:  try repeating the phrase to yourself right now. While playwriting cannot be taught it can be learned.  Doesn’t the phrase offer a sort of Gertrude Stein-y delight?

I actually think that playwriting can be taught but let’s table that for now and address the second part of the equation, that playwriting can be learned, that most things can be learned.  It is inevitable that you will learn more about how to do something the more you do that something.

I recently took on the role of Arkadina in a college production of THE SEAGULL, across from another colleague who played Trigorin, and a talented cast full of students.  Although I feel like the Actor in THE FANTASTICKS who travels with a fist full of his reviews, I must tell you that the reviews were very good.  Well actually there was only one review, but it was very good. And here I must quote from the Kenyon College Collegian:

“MacLeod and Viccellio have palpable talent that they have cultivated through years of experience.  One of the shows greatest strengths however, became one of its biggest weaknesses—Viccellio and MacLeod’s performances outshone many of the other actors in the show.”

Now, the directors in the audience are bound to wonder if this apparent inequity wasn’t a directing problem, and that’s a fair question.  The student actors were as talented as we were, and they were almost certainly prettier, even the men.  Some of you might fairly wonder if my colleague and I were hambones and all I can do is assure you that we weren’t.  But what surprised me was the fact that my experience was considered evident even though it had been 25 years since I had last acted.  Somehow the years I’d spent writing plays, directing plays and teaching plays had translated into acting skills.  So I began to ask myself, what is it that I’ve learned between then and now?  Could I come up with a list of pointers that might enable someone to learn these things sooner?

The first thing I’ve learned is that when you’re scared, work harder.  And I was plenty scared when I agreed to do Arkadina.  I was older now.  At the most basic level I wondered if I would I be able to remember my lines.  And I was performing for an audience of my students.  Would I be as good as my colleague, who was a real actor, having done major roles at Steppenwolf and the Goodman?

In order to battle this anxiety I handled that script like rosary beads.  It was the last thing I read at night and the first thing I read in the morning.  I wrote down what I’d discovered in rehearsal the night before and wrote down questions to bring into rehearsal.  Even in performance, I read the first two acts before the show began and I read the last two acts during intermission.

I was a determined investigator.  It’s not enough to say “Arkadina is cheap.”  An actor must ask: why is Arkadina cheap?  Why is she so worried about money that she won’t even buy her son a new overcoat?  Why is she so worried about money that she makes the doctor ante up for her when they play cards?  Why is she so worried about money that she tips a single ruble and expects her three servants to share it?  Because the acting work is getting scarcer (same as it ever was for an actress in her forties). But more importantly, she is trying to hang on to her younger lover and she needs money to do so.   Find the through-line.  As a writer, or an actor, you must find the through-line, you must find the stakes.

What I didn’t do was alleviate my fears by saying “it’s only a college production.”  Because, and here’s pointer number two:  it’s all the same work.  I was doing one of the great roles in one of the great plays and it didn’t matter whether it was on Broadway or in a tiny college town in Ohio.  Use whatever you’ve got on this play, on this production.  Don’t calibrate your time and energy.  If it’s worth doing it’s worth doing well. We’ve all seen the amazing storefront production and the failed Broadway star vehicle.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a 10-minute play for a college festival or working on a play that’s slated to open at Playwrights Horizons.  It’s the same work. 

Number three:  go big or go home.  In the third act, Arkadina has a scene where she must persuade Trigorin to leave with her, rather than stay behind to be near Nina, the girl he’s infatuated with.  I knew that Arkadina had to pull out all the stops in this scene, that she must finally abase herself to keep him.  At a certain point in her wooing she says: “There.  You see?” A small line, even a throwaway.  But I wondered if maybe his body had responded to her at that point… “There, you see?” And she was offering this as evidence of his continued desire for her.  This discovery led to an unexpectedly hot scene where he dragged me to the floor as I clung to him. I pulled him down to the ground beside me, mounted him, and all but had sex with the man down center.

Needless to say, this interpretation required bravery in performance.  To complicate matters, the colleague playing Trigorin was a former student, and my current students were watching two of their professors go at it.  To further complicate matters, my two sons are both drama students at Kenyon, so they were watching two of their professors, one of whom was their mother, one of whom was her former student, rolling around on the floor.  To triple-complicate matters my husband was in the audience.  But I knew that the only time we feel self-conscious for those on stage is when we sense a lack of commitment.  I was determined to commit.  Commit to whatever you’re writing, to whatever dark places it takes you.  Writing isn’t about being nice.  Did Bruce Norris write Clybourne Park in order to be loved?  To reiterate:  Go big or go home.

I also learned, or rather re-learned, that acting is all about listening.  It’s a dance, a tennis match.  Be comforted, actors.  You’re not up there alone.  Which brings us to the fourth thing I’ve learned in the last 25 years:  You are not alone.

It is one thing to read Chekhov, it is another to live inside one of his plays for four months.  During tech week when our conceptual director was frustrated with his final design effect, where the red of the projected moon would drip down and become actual blood on stage, he briefly considered cutting the last two pages of the play.  So I had to switch hats and explain to him the brilliance of that particular ending from a playwright’s point of view.  Rather than entering into the melodrama, Chekhov leaves the characters on stage in their final moments of innocence, before Arkadina finds out her son is dead, before Sorin finds out his nephew’s dead, before Masha finds out the boy she loves is dead.  Like God, the audience knows more than the people on stage.  Look at what Chekhov is teaching us in that moment.  About compassion.  About writing.  And know that, as writers, we are not alone.  We may not be writing plays as good as Chekhov’s but we’re sitting in the same chair, we’re struggling with the same questions.

Which brings me back to the Chekhov line that inspired this introduction.  What really counts is stamina.  I remember being shocked by my first bad review.  I’d seen other writers get bad reviews, but their plays deserved bad reviews whereas my own plays, by contrast, were wildly entertaining.  For a while I lived and died by reviews, soaring when my show was a hit, feeling humiliated when I was found wanting.  And then I made a discovery.   I realized that, whether the reviews were good or bad, I was going to keep writing plays.  I was in this thing for the long haul.  And given that, the critics had no power.

I thought of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s formula for writing:  Sit down.  Stay there.  Perhaps there is a bias against women playwrights, we’ll talk about that.  Perhaps comedies are considered a lesser form, we can talk about that, too.  Perhaps you can’t be a writer who hedges their bets by teaching. But of one thing I’m certain: what really counts is not dreaming about fame or glory but stamina.

If I were skilled in Powerpoint the slide behind me would now be re-capping what I’ve learned about making art in the last 25 years, but let’s do it verbally, shall we?

  • When you’re scared, work harder
  • It’s all the same work
  • Go big or go home
  • You are not alone
  • What really counts is stamina

And lastly, playwrights make sure your play is worthy of being read first thing in the morning and last thing at night.

Wendy MacLeod’s play The House of Yes became an award-winning Miramax film starring Parker Posey.  Her other plays include Sin (The Goodman, Second Stage), Schoolgirl Figure (The Goodman Theatre), The Water Children and Juvenilia (Playwrights Horizons), and Things Being What They Are (Seattle Repertory Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre).  The Ballad of Bonnie Prince Chucky will be done next season at A.C.T.’s Youth Conservatory and her newest play Women in Jeopardy! will premiere at GEVA, directed by Sean Daniels.  A graduate of the Yale School of Drama, she is the James E. Michael Playwright-in-Residence at Kenyon College and Artistic Director of the Kenyon Playwrights Conference.