Fort Worth — Playwright and actor Michael Milligan studied at Juilliard, where he won the John Houseman Prize for excellence in classical drama. He has appeared in several Broadway shows, including August: Osage County, La Bête and Jerusalem, and his regional theater credits include the Guthrie Theatre, Westport Playhouse, the Folger Theatre, and many more. All of that experience fed into his solo play Mercy Killers, which is touring the country and playing at Amphibian Stage Productions for four weeks. We talked to him about the show.
TheaterJones: Let’s start with basics. Where are you from and where do you live?
Michael Milligan: I grew up near Columbus in Westerville, Ohio, in a unique situation. My parents and grandparents owned 36 acres, and we had chickens and horses, like living in the country. The suburbs grew up around us, so I know something about suburban living, too. I’ve lived in New York City since 1997, but I’m moving to Chicago this summer. As an artist, I have come to resist the idea that New York is the epicenter of the art world. In fact, the cost of living is so high it begins to suffocate the arts. My eyes have opened, and I realize this high cost affects the independence of the artist, which is part of my decision to move. I feel much more empowered.
How would you describe your play, Mercy Killers?
It’s a play that gets into the human impact of some of the dysfunctions in our healthcare system. I don’t consider it primarily an issue play, but our country’s healthcare system is a wonderful context to explore deeper questions about the individual and society. It raises the questions about the degree we are responsible for ourselves, and how much we are responsible for the community surrounding us.
What prompted your writing the play?
I have always been infatuated by Greek tragedy, with the internal build-up to a moment of crisis and catharsis and resolution. This play was my attempt to capture what it would be like to write a work with that structure. Aside from all the Freudian trappings, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is a model of this kind of tragedy that confronts questions of responsibility. His city is beset by a plague, and King Oedipus takes it on himself to find the cause of the illness he is seeing all around him. My play is about a man who is a complete individualist. He believes totally in personal responsibility. Then he finds himself in a situation where all his efforts to take care of his wife, who has been diagnosed with cancer, are not enough. He is confronted by the indifference of the system—and forced to look into his own heart. Mercy Killers is also a love story, a testament to the great love that Joe and his wife share against all the obstacles.
Is your specific subject in the play based on personal experience?
I have had a couple of health care situations in my life. I had a relationship with someone who had medical issues, although not as serious as those in the play. From this I draw what it can be like to be the partner of someone with medical problems, including the darker emotions. I guess I had never really seen those things put out there—the pain, the financial crisis, the unmentionable feelings people go through. We don’t hear talk about the caretaker’s feelings because we feel such shame to even have resentment.
What do you require when you show up to do your one-man play?
I wrote it so that it would be as easy to travel with as possible. Amphibian is a beautiful stage, but I’ve performed in all kinds of spaces. In this past week I was in Houston and San Antonio. In Houston, I performed in a lecture hall and a Unitarian Church. I brought in my own little silver clamp-on lights. I’m set up to create a portable theater wherever. That makes me a lot freer to do a serious piece of theater when the show has no tremendous overhead.
How long is the show and how many times have you performed the show?
It’s a little over an hour long, and I’ve done it about 200 times now. It was first performed in August 2012.
How do you do the play over and over?
That’s the question I had when I wrote the piece. I wanted to work on that exact problem. When you’re doing a live play, depending on the cast, director and theater, once rehearsals are complete you are expected to just deliver a performance. Experimenting stops. However, when we study Stanislavski, we always say, “Look, he did something.” He was creating it in the moment. I thought things had become too facile in my career. I worked with Mark Rylance [Tony Award-winning star of TV’s Wolf Hall and former artistic director of the Globe Theatre in London]. As an actor, Rylance invents his performance every night. After working with him and observing him, I wanted to try that myself. But unless you’re famous, you can’t experiment after opening night. In this play, I gave myself permission to change during my performance. I could—and can—spontaneously invent fresh dialogue.
How does that work? When do you know what to change in a show that’s been so successful already?
As I began to inhabit the character, sometimes in the middle of a performance I would feel the words were wrong. Joe the character is very different from me. Joe felt like he was having someone else’s words put in his mouth. When the dialogue leaned toward issue talk or caricature, that’s when that sense of Joe in me rebelled and I had to say something else.
Wow. Intense. What have you learned about the way you respond to peoples’ opinions you disagree with ideologically?
The process of doing the show and engaging in these talkbacks following the performance has shown me, tragically, that we don’t listen deeply. We are triggered by certain words and phrases that make us shut down our listening. But if we can speak from the heart and resist the use of bullet points we pick up from other places, we find that each individual’s point of view is unique. With that kind of interchange, we can have real conversations. Of course, that kind of dialogue is a threat to our political overlords. They want everyone to be in carefully delineated camps so they can raise money off them.
A quick web search indicates Mercy Killers has received much attention from representatives of the health system you attack. How do you view that?
The play certainly addresses the system, but I hope it’s much deeper than only that. I certainly welcome all dialogue and discussion. I have collaborated with organizations across the political spectrum.
What do you think is the appeal of your play to such a broad audience?
I hope my play brings a level of both complexity and understanding to the subject of medical crisis. The missing ingredient from our societal discussion has been, in my opinion, the human being in the system. People shout at each other and at policy experts. But what is lost is the truth that we are talking about human beings. Let’s remember that in our debates. If we do that, I believe there is potential for some consensus.
Last question: I know you run a tight ship. Do you perform in the clothes you travel in?
No. Joe is an auto mechanic. When I put on Joe’s clothes, I become Joe. He’s an amalgamation of various rustic people I grew up around. My mom is a professional storyteller, and I heard many Appalachian folk stories when I went to conferences with her. Joe also has a touch of hillbilly in him.