Training Theatre Artists to Make a Difference
Teri Gillmor is a third-year MFA playwriting student and the author of Etiology. With its world premier just around the corner, I spoke to Teri about the play’s progress.
KO: How did you come up with the idea for Etiology and decide to make it your thesis play?
TG: I came into this graduate drama program after getting a bachelor’s degree in psychology, which sort of makes a lot of people go, “Huh?” Like how are those two things connected? And I finally started to figure out, halfway into my first year here, that really psychology and theatre are different fields that examine people. Psychology does it through statistics and analysis of data and experiments. And theatre does it through storytelling, role-play, pretend. So that was very enlightening. And then I decided to try to write a play that synthesized the two, once I’d sort of come to an understanding that they do have something fundamentally in common.
So I wanted to write a psychology play. I didn’t really know what that meant, but I started with this idea of a family drama: three sisters who had a difficult past that they needed to work through. And to facilitate this, I introduced this fourth character, who ended up being their half-sister, and they were going to go on this journey of exploring memories. So there are memory sequences in the play that are framed as role-play exercises, beginning with the idea of a sort of drama therapy and then expanding into this magical, supernatural embodiment of memory. And through these experiences the family confronts their demons and finds a way of healing. So in that way, it is a psychology play. It’s also a lot of other things.
KO: Do you have particular role models who inspired you in writing Etiology?
TG: Tennessee Williams is one of my playwrights, and The Glass Menagerie is one of my favorite plays. What’s great about it is it’s a memory play that’s very dramatically interesting. The trick with memory plays, I found while trying to write this, is that they’re very often undramatic. Because drama is about stakes, and about choices that people make in the present and what happens next. It’s about a journey that someone goes on and the challenges they face on that journey. When you’re dealing with memory, it’s already over, so it’s sort of inherently undramatic. I think it’s tricky—and Glass Menagerie does this really well—to examine the past in a way that is really interesting and relevant in the moment, in the present. So that was one of the biggest challenges of Etiology. We’ll see how well it succeeds.
KO: Have you previously had the experience of writing and revising your work with a director and actors in rehearsals?
TG: This is definitely the biggest scale on which I’ve done that. I’ve done 10-minutes, and a one-act last year. So I do have some experience with working a text in rehearsal with actors and changing the play based on what I see in rehearsal, how actors respond to it, what questions they have, what questions the director has. But when you’re dealing with a 45-page one-act, it’s very different from a 120-page full-length. So there’s a lot to keep track of, a lot of questions you have to think about, a lot of things to consider, a lot of different perspectives to consider. So it was a new experience in that way. I do feel that the coursework here and the practicum that we have as part of the MFA degree program helped prepare me for this. But this is definitely the biggest project I’ve had so far.
KO: How different is the script now from the draft you started with when work began on the production?
TG: Well, I’ll answer that in two different ways. First the skeletal outline of the play is quite similar, in that we’re introduced to the family, we’re introduced to this new person, there’s a sequence of four memories, and then there’s a resolution. All of those anchors—or maybe you could think of them as bones, or the capital Roman numerals in an outline—those are all still there. But there have been a lot of additions as well, a lot points that were opened up and fleshed out. A lot of things got bigger. The initial idea had this hint of magic in it…but in practice I found that wasn’t as interesting as [including something] incredibly magical, magical in perhaps even a dangerous way. So it’s changed quite a bit. In terms of actual pages or words, it’s probably less than ten percent from the first draft.
KO: Less than ten percent retained?
KO: What does it feel like to be in rehearsal and hear actors speaking your words?
TG: It’s both terrifying and the thing that I love about playwriting. As the playwright, you’re doing the first step, the blueprint of what the thing will be. I don’t think plays are fully realized until you see them onstage with actors. Doing it with actors in rehearsal, working toward a performance, is absolutely the point. But at the same time, you give your words to other people to read and suddenly it becomes incredibly apparent where you’ve taken shortcuts or where you’ve made mistakes. Things you maybe could get away with if you were writing prose become so clear when there’s an actor. And actors are very smart people who ask questions. And when you don’t have an answer, then maybe you need to rethink that line. So it’s a long process of testing what you’ve written, seeing what works and what doesn’t. And when things don’t work, it’s back to the drawing board. And that’s where that 90 percent of the original first draft has gone.
KO: Practically speaking, what has the working process been like between you and [Director] Shirley [Serotsky]?
TG: We’ve done some e-mailing, but a lot of it, honestly, is the whole group of us. It’s a small play; it’s only four characters. So there’s six of us in rehearsal plus Stephanie [McGill] the stage manager. And the conversations that we have about the script and how it’s going to evolve and change have been really open and really involving everybody. If an actor has a question, she can ask that question of me and Shirley at the same time. If Shirley has a question, she can ask me, and if I don’t know the answer, then the actor who has that line maybe can speak to how she’s been understanding it. So it’s been very collaborative and very informal.
KO: Now that opening night is imminent, how are you feeling? Nervous? Confident?
TG: It goes up and down. I have a terrible habit of doubting everything I write. So I’ll write a scene, bring it into rehearsal, hear it for the first time, and I’ll think to myself, “Oh my God, that’s terrible! I need to cut it all and start over from the beginning.” I think it’s a good thing to have a powerful inner editor. But sometimes mine is too powerful. So what I’ve been training myself to do over the last few years is to sort of check out of that editor every now and then, let the scene sit for a couple days, let the actors work with it. And what I’ve found is that after a few times through I start to see the parts that are good and worth keeping and also to be aware of the parts that are not so good and do need work. So on days where the editor part of my brain is particularly loud, I do get pretty nervous about what the play is going to be. But on other days I feel pretty OK about it.
Etiology will be performed in the Hartke Studio February 13, 14, and 15 at 7:30 p.m. and February 15 and 16 at 2 p.m. Visit CUA Drama’s website for more information.