Collaborators in Conversation: Karen MacDonald and Craig Lucas


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Craig Lucas

    This season at the Huntington, we are telling seven distinct American stories. To tease out the connections between the shows, we've asked artists from different productions to interview each other about their work. Below, Prelude to a Kiss playwright Craig Lucas speaks with actress and fellow Boston University alumna Karen MacDonald.

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Karen MacDonald

    Craig Lucas: I got to watch you in All My Sons in which you were fantastic.
    Karen MacDonald: Thank you. I heard that you came, but I was hoping you might have come back to say “Hello.”
    CL: I’m terrible at that; I always feel goofy and stupid. . . . But you were really moving and wonderful, and very much the heart of the play. I loved what you did, and it was good to see Will Lyman, too.
    KM: Yes, it’s been many years. And I was thinking before I was going to talk to you that, if memory serves me right, I mean I know that we were in Brain together that Maxine directed us in when we were students, but somebody else recently reminded me that we were in the play Hotel Paradiso together?
    CL: Yeah, I worked in the hotel; I was like the bellhop.
    KM: You were the bellhop! And I was like the naughty maid seducing somebody.
    CL: But you always had big parts; I always played little parts, because I wasn’t really very good. But I remember you very, very well in The Little Foxes with Robin. You were amazing in that, so I’m thrilled and delighted that you’ve gone on to play every living part in the entire repertory of every national theatre. There are no parts that you haven’t played.
    KM: There’re a few; I still have a list. One of the things I was thinking, that I never got to ask you, because I haven’t seen you so much over the years: I remember seeing you in musical theatre pieces that came through Boston, going with Martin Anderson to see On The Twentieth Century and Sweeney Todd.  I was just wondering: when did you decide that playwriting is what you were more interested in?
    CL: Well, you know, I was writing all of that time. And I was a writer when I was at B.U. I had a double major in creative writing; I was a poet back then as well as a playwright. I think it took the better part of my twenties for me to figure out that I actually didn’t have a very special talent as a performer. I had a big, bright voice, so that I could do musicals and make a big sound and approximate a pitch, but I really didn’t have that thing that you have.  I didn’t have that sort of ownership, of belonging and knowing deeply that that was what I should be doing. And I always felt self-conscious as an actor and I never had that sense of freedom that I see in your work and other wonderful … you know, Robin Bartlet had it in my class and David Garrison had it in the class underneath me, and our dear friend Pee Wee Herman had it,…
    KM: And Alfre [Woodard].
    CL: And Alfre had it, absolutely. But, I really didn’t have it. The great thing about performing was that I did have this voice and it paid for me to be in New York. And more importantly, it paid for my psychoanalysis; I was really a late bloomer. I was talking about this with Joe Gifford the last time I saw him, that I really didn’t find myself at all until I was in my thirties. And, I’m still a late bloomer. I’m looking at sixty and I’m only recently, in the last five years, starting to live life like a grown-up. I’m happier on the other side of the footlights. I love being in rehearsal, but not as an actor. I love being an observer.
    KM:  I would think that you must have been coming at the writing, in a way, from thinking about it as a performer. Or was your writing totally separate for you? I guess I’m wondering if, having been an actor, were you consciously writing for actors or was it really something for yourself?
    CL: I think it had be part that, and I think that’s been true historically — Shakespeare, Sophocles — that knowing how acting works and having some sense of what the actor needs is hugely helpful. But, I think it would be helpful to psychologists, I think it would be helpful to parents, because acting is the study of human behavior. That’s the business that we should all be in as artists it seems to me. You can understand it also in an existential way as the study of doing, that we’re always trying to do things. What people feel or think is not anywhere near as important as what they do. Somebody who feels sad for a beggar and gives them no money, how is that different from someone who sort of doesn’t even care about the beggar, but just throws them some money because they were taught to do that. We are what we do.  You know how hard it is to do a play by someone who doesn’t understand acting. It can be difficult sometimes, even an O’Neill, because he doesn’t really love the study of the way people talk. I love O’Neill, but it’s very different than Miller say, or certainly Williams, in terms of how they actually understand that people always say what they think is going to get them what they want. People don’t say ideas because they believe them; they say things to get things.
    KM: I’ve always enjoyed the language in your plays because I certainly have seen several of them, and read many of them, and used them in acting classes which I teach. I just love that you present something to the actor on the page because it seems very accessible to me.
    CL: Well that’s nice. Some people have difficultly with the fact that my plays are very much about subtext. They don’t always understand that what’s being said isn’t necessarily…Well, there’s a famous Martha Graham quote: “The audience was shocked to discover that the subject of the dance was not dancing.” So, you know, it’s like in the third act of [Who’s Afraid of] Virginia Woolf?, when they’re talking about genetics, they’re not really talking about genetics.
    KM: No.
    CL: But, that’s the fun thing about theatre is that in being the study of human beings…
    KM: I was just going to say that as an actor, I’m always interested in just the language of the particular playwright that you’re working on at the time. Though I’ve never been in one of your plays, I still find that when I read them — and maybe it has something to do with the fact that, though we don’t know each other terribly well, we certainly were in school together and were in each others’ worlds at some point — I feel like I know you, so when I read your plays I feel some kind of identification. Also, when I first moved to New York, I saw Blue Window. There were so many people — of course Margot Skinner, but also Randy Danson and Larry Joshua and a lot of people who became very dear friends.  Now, I think, “Wow. They were all in that play together.” That was such an amazing group of actors. And, maybe it’s because I was filled with “Oh my god! I’m in New York now! And my friend Margot’s in a show! And Craig Lucas wrote it!”
    CL: Wasn’t Margot funny in that part? Lots of people have played that, but it seems that that character is often repellent when people play it, but Margot was so adorable. It was like her egotism, her solipsism, you completely forgave because she was like a little child. And, oh my god, she could make me laugh. She was so funny in my first play; Margot had a funny, funny way of making something innocent. She told me in that last year that she had been playing Martha in [Who’s Afraid of ] Virginia Woolf?. I would have loved to have seen that.
    KM: I wish had been able to see that, because I had a chance to play Martha a while ago.  She traveled up from New York to see that, and even then she was saying, “Oh god. I have to play that part.” She got to do it, not once, not twice, but three different productions.
    CL: So, what parts are you chomping at the bit to play?
    KM: Often times when people ask me that question it’s like there’s a million things in my head, but to actually say them. Any of the older women in Shakespeare that I haven’t covered yet; Suddenly Last Summer — I would love to play the mother in that, that would be a really fun thing to do, because I haven’t had the chance to do a lot of Tennessee Williams, just a few pieces. I had never done Arthur Miller until I just did All My Sons at the Huntington, so that was also just a real treat.
    CL: I think people come to Miller thinking it’s going to be very clunky and then they find, or at least I found watching you, that the scenes have these funny turns of extreme, surprising weirdness, kind of humanity. That mother is very unpredictable. It’s hard to create someone who knows and doesn’t know.
    KM: Yeah, and David Esbjornson, our director, was saying that the thing that people don’t realize about Miller, and especially this play, is that people can just turn on a dime. One minute they’re feeling this way and the next sentence they’re completely going in another direction.
    CL: I love that; I love that in the theatre. It’s so hard to do, to show the mess of life.
    KM: Yes, yes, the mess of life. I do love Prelude to a Kiss. I did get to see it originally when it was done in the city, and have not seen it since then and am anxious to see it again. Did you do reworking or slight rewriting?
    CL: I did it three years ago in the city with Daniel Sullivan, and the play was seventeen years old at that point.  It had a number of references to things that dated it to 1990. And, Dan wanted to know if I felt there was anything about 1990 that was important in the narrative. I said I didn’t think so, because it’s basically a little fable. It’s a fairy tale, and it wasn’t a picture of a social climate. So, he asked me to update a few things, which I did. They’re minor, but they do in fact move the characters into the new century.
    KM: I don’t know if you had gone back to the play before then, but was it interesting look back at something you had written quite a while before?
    CL: I’m usually pretty hesitant to do it, because I fall in love with something when I’m doing it, and there’s always the sense, “Oh, if I look back, I’ll see all the horrible mistakes I made, and I’ll just feel more insufficient than I already feel and more of a failure.” But, Dan was fun to work with, and he brought a quality in the tale that was quite different from what Norman René had looked for. And the actors were very different. I had a good time for once. I haven’t always had a very good time revisiting things. I’m thrilled that the play is getting done again. But I just find hard to . . . Do you watch your own movies?  Can you do that?
    KM: No, I can’t watch that stuff at all. I can barely look at photographs. It’s strange, because for me it’s a very special moment, especially if it’s a production that means a lot to you. I don’t know; that’s the thing about acting that’s hard is always that constant letting go. I mean, you can have pictures.
    CL: I don’t even look at the pictures; it’s weird because then you suddenly go, “Look at how much time has passed.” Someone, and I’ll never do this again, talked me into watching the old kinescope of Mary Martin in Peter Pan, which was incredibly important to me as a child. I just had magical, intense, specific memories, which was just like dumping urine on them. Here’s this very kind of wobbly forty year old on a rope screaming, “I’ve got a crow.” It’s not a little boy and she’s not a woman, she’s just stumpy and making a lot of noise onstage on a rope. I wept! I just wept and I’ll never do it again. I don’t want to see Pinocchio again; I don’t want see Bambi again. I am moving steadily into the future!
    KM: It’s true. You watch something that was onstage, even now you can go back and various performances with netflix and everything else.  If you really want to look at something, you can probably find a production that was recorded. Whenever I fall into the trap of thinking that might be interesting to look at, it isn’t.  It’s stating the obvious I guess, but the theatre is one of those things that — and I love impressing this on younger people now — you can only be in the theatre and get that kind of experience in the theatre. It doesn’t happen anywhere else. It doesn’t happen to you in a movie; it certainly doesn’t happen to you while you’re texting or eyeballing your friends across the theatre. It only happens when you let yourself go into the moment, and let the story take you where it wants to. But still, it’s a story that’s happening in front of you in that anything can happen: anything can go wrong, everything can be amazing. It’s just a unique experience, and it will never be the same again. The experience you get when you see a show it’s the only time it’s like that; it’s different every time. It seems like now, I feel like some old lady wagging her finger, one of those old middle-aged actresses going “I don’t know about young people . . . ” You know, when you turn into your mother or start feeling like you’re turning into your grandmother, being unreceptive to all the modern technology and “Oh, I don’t like that” and “I don’t want that.” I don’t want to watch a movie in 3-D. I want to see it the old way. I just want to go to a play that tells a great story. That for me is what I find lacking in a lot of modern playwrights. I get the feeling sometimes that there are people writing and thinking, “Oh, maybe someone will think I’m really good, and then I can write movies, or then I can write TV.”
    CL: Well, often they are; it’s just a reality. But, I think you’ve put your finger on the thrilling thing, which is that you have to be there. . . . I’ve had my own shows recorded for “Great Performances” or the Lincoln Center Library and things that were subtle and evanescent, and nuanced, become clumsy, obvious, pushed, fake, and a simulacrum of anything genuine when you change it from one medium, which is live, to another which is recorded. The one thing I think the Tony’s should stop doing is broadcasting any of the shows, so that the only way you could see the show is to actually see the show.
    KM: Speaking of seeing the show, can you say what the experience is for you when you’ve been working on something?  You’ve been writing something, alright you’re in the rehearsal room, but what does it feel like to see something that you have written up on the stage in front of an audience at that first preview or invited dress rehearsal.
    CL: Well, I like the rehearsals, because that, to me, is where the questions are open and everyone is engaging.
    KM: I’m really looking forward to Prelude. I just re-read it before we had our conversation, but I won’t really forget it. I remember very clearly the night that I was there in New York all those years ago when it was first playing. I just loved the story. I’m interested to see what Peter does with it, and it’ll be fun to see it again. It’s a great story; it’s a really interesting, wonderful thing to think about — the questions that the play poses about who we are. How do you get to be who you are? What if that changed in an instant, what would it be like? . . . Being someone else, that challenge that you presented to the actors, is so interesting in the play. We all spend a lot of our time — well, before we grow up — wishing or pretending you could be somebody else. What would happen if you could just instantly change into somebody else?
    CL: I think that is why I go to the theatre and why I work for the theatre. That “as if” becomes possible in a way that when you’re sitting alone with a book, it isn’t. It isn’t quite the same. You know, I was watching Being John Malkovitch, which is a very good movie, the other night. They’re in his head, looking at the sky, and you totally get the idea of it. But, that’s not the same as being in the theatre and watching a young woman be basically inhabited by the attitude of a very old person. That sort of magic leap is very different than what the camera can do. I love that sense: “I have to participate; I have to meet it at least half way.” The movie does all the work for you, but the theatre says, “Come! Once you’re in here, you’re going to play along. There’s actually not a wall here; we’re going to pretend there’s a wall here.” That gets me every time. I love that. What moves me the most is that everyone in the audience is sitting and facing in the same direction, mostly agreeing to be quiet. Every time I see that I go, “Look, we can get along!”
    KM: Are you always working on something new? Do you have times where you have to let yourself go sit in the sun or swim in the sea?
    CL: I’m not very good at resting or relaxing.
    KM: No, I think it’s hard for people in the theatre to do that. It feels like you’re always in constant motion, that you can’t really sit back and say, “Okay, now I can take a break.” If you’re an actor, you’re always looking for the next thing to do.
    CL: “Will I ever work again? Will I ever get another job?” My friend called his mother, and said, “Mom, I’m going to Italy on a vacation for six weeks!” and she said “Oh, better you than me.” That’s sort of me.
    KM: But, you’re in Florida; are you vacationing?
    CL: No, I’m at an artists’ retreat and watching the walls close in. I’m writing an opera for the Met, and I’ve been having a blast with this young composer Nico Muhly. It’s been really thrilling.
    KM: What is the opera that you’re working on?
    CL: It’s based on an internet crime from 2003 where a fourteen year old boy went on the internet and masqueraded as people working for MI-5. He induced another boy to come and attack him and stab him. It was basically a suicide attempt.
    KM: That’s going to be done at the Met?
    CL: Yes, and the English National Opera.
    KM: That’s very exciting. Your life is full of wonderful and interesting things.
    CL: What’s next for you?
    KM: What’s next for me? I’m working on a one-woman show with a director named Melia Benussen.
    CL: Oh, I know Melia!
    KM: You remember her from New York.
    CL: Say “hi” to her.
    KM: She’s at Emerson; she’s the chair of the theatre department. We’re working on this one-woman show called The Blonde, The Brunette, and The Vengeful Redhead. It’s an interesting piece. It was written by an Australian playwright, and he wrote it for an actress friend of his who was of a certain age and fearing that she would never have another job. He wrote this play where she got to play several characters and it’s basically several monologues that all tie together to tell this story. I’m really excited to work with Melia, because we’ve been friends for a long time, but never worked together.
    CL: That’s very cool; please say “hi” for me.

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