Fort Worth — It’s becoming more of a marriage than a fling: Circle Theatre’s current run of playwright Michael Hollinger’s Hope & Gravity marks the fourth time the company has produced one of his plays.
Most recent was Ghost-Writer, a Henry James-inspired story about the complex relationship of a famous writer of the early 1900s with his secretary and wife—both before and after his death. Before that came Incorruptible, a comic/redemptive story of medieval monks and the sale of saintly relics (aka body parts) said to help the buyer into heaven; and Opus, which follows the painful breakup of a chamber music quartet. Charles Isherwood’s 2007 New York Times review of the Manhattan production of Opus said the play was “marked by a nuanced intelligence” in its handling of “the sweat, the drudgery and the delicate balance of personalities that lie behind the creation of a seemingly effortless performance.”
Hollinger, a violist and music major who switched to theater during his years at Oberlin College (his music background was a major source for Opus), has won numerous fellowships, four Barrymore Awards, and an LA Drama Critics Circle Award. He is an alum of the New Dramatists program in New York, which has sheltered and shepherded a long roster of the best new playwrights. Hollinger is an associate professor of theatre at Villanova University, where we caught him in the midst of an intensive summer workshop in mask and clowning techniques—something he says might just turn up in a future work.
Michael Hollinger: I just had to extricate myself from my red nose.
We’re in the third and final week of a mask workshop based on Mnouchkine-LeCoq techniques. [Side note: Ariane Mnouchkine is an innovative French stage director; her teacher Jacques LeCoq was a French actor and mime who used masks of ever-decreasing size—the “red nose” is the smallest—to train young actors to concentrate on an athletic, whole-body physicality onstage.] It’s extremely physical work for this old dog—but a new trick! I’m working on a solo performance project, and this clown workshop is research into that. I don’t quite know what it is yet, but that’s part of the game, trying to figure out “what is this thing?”
TheaterJones: And in July, you’re coming down to see Hope & Gravity at Circle Theatre—your fourth play there. It’s a long-term relationship by now.
So it is, and what a delight. Actually, this is the first time I’ll be seeing one of the plays there; my schedule has meant I’ve always had to be at a distance. This will be a real pleasure.
I’ve been told the second and third productions of a new play are quite important. Why is that—if you agree that’s true?
Oh, absolutely. A play is a kind of blueprint that eventually will travel without the playwright, and the playwright only gets so many test drives to figure out what it is in real time. You think about somebody inventing a car: imagine having just one driver take it around the track, and then putting it on the market. Not a good idea.
For me, the first several productions of the play are crucial because they tell me what’s true about the blueprint despite all the different variations that take place from production to production. In one production a particularly strong actor might compensate for a particularly lame line I’ve written; in another, the actor might not compensate, and I’ll realize “Oh, you know what? That wasn’t funny because I was funny, only because the actor saved me!” It gives me an opportunity to find out what works empirically rather than in just one instance.
The changes I make tend to get smaller and smaller with each of the first few productions, as I narrow in on what the play wants to be. I’ve never published a script until it’s had at least four productions, and sometimes as many as ten. At times, I’ve actually postponed publication until I saw one more production of a play. I’m not in any rush; it’s a nice time, when the plays are still molten.
I’m intensely curious to see the play at Circle Theatre; I was able to work closely on the first production of Hope & Gravity because I was near the [Pittsburgh] theater where it premiered. I’ve happily been in close contact with Rose [Pearson, Circle’s artistic director] and the director Harry Parker, and I’ve felt we’ve all been on the same page. And also, this is a play that can be done by either five or nine actors, with or without doubling [of the roles]. This is the first production where it’s being done with nine—so that’s a variation I’m very curious to see about.
In an interview a couple of years ago after Ghost-Writer, you mentioned wanting to do a “big” play next. Hope & Gravity has a fairly large cast, but is it the play you were talking about?
Nine is certainly big, but then there’s the small-cast option too. And I did a nine-actor adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac, which was actually, for that play, a very reduced cast; the original play was written for dozens of actors. What “big” means in the professional theater world has changed, certainly.
I would call Hope & Gravity a chamber work. With Cyrano, I was striving for a kind of spectacle and public scale that is not a part of this new play. Hope & Gravity is about encounters between two to four people at a time, and that’s still a chamber world.
Some playwrights seem to stake out one territory and write play after play in the same setting—Horton Foote writing about small-town South Texas, for instance. Your plays tend to be very different from one another—different settings, times, topics.
I’d say that I’m extremely curious about different places and times. And I find when I’m able to dive into a different geography and time period, they begin to become a character in the play. With Ghost-Writer, which I think was the last play of mine that Circle did, I was diving into what was 1905-1919 in New York City, a very particular time and place; the role of women in the workplace is changing, the role of literature is changing. It’s interesting for me to find the particulars, absorb them, and try to distribute that world into the play.
And then if I write a play like Opus, which Circle also did, that’s a play that basically says “it’s now, and it’s here.” That play is not deeply exploring its period. Perhaps that’s why so much of Shakespeare or opera are set in other periods or places—because there’s something exciting about the metaphor of this other setting in contrast with ours.
Hope & Gravity isn’t concerned much with all that, though. It’s a very contemporary play; I would say its “period” is invisible, really. If, God willing, the play sticks around for a few decades, we might begin to say, “Oh, right, the ‘two thousand and teen’ years; that’s the period where everybody had those cell phones and were texting all the time.” It explores some familiar types, trying to see who these people are, and what their relationships are, not just to one another, but to faith, to the unknown, to their aspirations and failures.
This is the first play you’ve done that’s rather like a collection of short stories—but all connected in some way.
The play really began with my admiration for anthology plays, I think. But I always felt that I wanted those plays to do more work. I liked the individual scenes, but wanted them to add up to the feeling of a full-length play. When you spend two hours with a certain set of characters, you have a very different feeling than when you’ve spent [just a few minutes] with nine or ten separate stories.
I had written a number of 10-minute plays, and started to look for a way to stitch them together so that characters in one could cross paths with characters in the others. But very quickly as I began to write new scenes and new characters, the old short plays began to slough off, and now only one scene [in Hope & Gravity] predates the full-length play. So the joke was on me, really; as a way of recycling these earlier 10-minute plays it was a total failure. [Laughs] But I’m much, much happier with this sense of a larger world that’s somehow magically and inexplicably linked.
How does the seemingly random order of scenes in the play—the story line moves around in time—get at what you’re really trying to say?
In a conventional way, the play and the audience only move forward in time. We and the characters are in the same “What’s going to happen?” mode. We look ahead to possible outcomes: we fear some, we hope for others. But with a play that goes back and forth in time, we can know more than the characters know. We’re aware that these poor people have no idea what’s in store for them in the next scene.
It’s creates a very different kind of feeling in an audience, and I’ve admired its use in other plays: Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa comes to mind, or Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. By the time we get to the end of that play, we know that a particular character will die in the blush of youth—but there she is onstage, in the blush of youth. There’s a kind of sweet pain in knowing her fate. In Hope & Gravity I thought, let’s begin after an elevator accident and return to it later. But as I discovered that [this accident] held a kind of power over the audience, I began to think about how to structure it for both comic and emotional impact.
Are you the kind of playwright who reads reviews the next morning—or waits a while?
I don’t read them immediately any more, though I do eventually. I’ve found that with a new play, it takes me a while to figure out what I think the play is myself. I haven’t read reviews from the Pittsburgh premiere yet, or from this run.
I get more data from watching the play and listening to the audience than I get from any individual review. I’m looking for clarity about what the hypothesis of the play is, and whether or not it can be proven. Either the reviews validate my idea, or—oh, no—they tell me it isn’t valid. And neither of those creates a healthy emotional state for me. I’m too invested, and whether the reviews are good or bad, they’re not useful to me as a craftsman at the moment. So it’s good to wait a few years, until I don’t care so much—and then I can actually learn more from them.
How many plays are you working on—either in actuality or in your head—at a given time?
I’m always working on more than one. The metaphor I use is the chef who has four pans on four different burners, and all of them are cooking at different speeds. And sometime you turn the heat way down on one, and way up on another.
At the moment I’ve got a musical that’s getting close to a finished first draft, and another just starting. I have a new play that will premiere next season in Philadelphia, and this solo piece I’m researching. Beyond that, there are another two or three ideas I’m really itching to start but know I can’t, because I have too many things on the stove. They inform and refresh each other.
So you don’t regret giving up the viola?
No, not a bit. Every now and then when I hear a great string quartet, I feel a little pang. But writing Opus was really a way of making my peace with not being a professional musician. I brought my ex-wife and my new wife together [metaphorically!], and we’re all friends now.
» Michael Hollinger will be at the Saturday, July 12 (8 p.m.) performance of Hope & Gravity.
» Read our review of Hope & Gravity
» Read our review of the 2010 Circle Theatre production of Opus