On October 21, 2017, Anna Ziegler and G.T. Upchurch spoke about The Last Match with education dramaturg Ted Sod as part of Roundabout Theatre Company’s lecture series.
An edited transcript follows:
(There are spoilers below)
Ted Sod: We are thrilled to welcome playwright Anna Ziegler and the director Gaye Taylor Upchurch, who in our community is referred to as G.T. When I interviewed you, Anna, for the online playgoers’ guide, you said that some of the reasons you were inspired to write this play were that as a young person you played tennis, and you were moved by Andy Roddick’s farewell speech in 2012. What moved you about his speech?
Anna Ziegler: I’m not sure if I can remember any of the actual language that he used. To be honest, I remember more the sensation I had watching it, which was really kind of a shock. Here was this guy who was about my age at the time and he was making this huge decision. He was 30, which is getting up there in tennis years, and he was not winning slams and realized maybe there was not another one in his future. It wasn’t that he was injured or anything. He just decided that this was going to be it, that there had to be a final moment and he had to choose it. What I am almost certain Andy said was something along the lines of: “I love this game.” And that struck me. I was also about to have my first child and I think there was something in his retiring that felt very resonant for me as I faced this change in my own life. As I faced putting a phase of life behind me.
TS: You refer to becoming a mother as “a kind of retirement” in that same interview. Was it a struggle for you to juggle motherhood and playwriting?
AZ: Yes. But juggling anything with playwriting is hard. Playwriting is just hard. I think that you have to be very dedicated to keep up with it. In some ways, I think my fear was that I would be less productive when I was a parent. I have been pleasantly surprised in that I’ve been more productive since I’ve had my children. But I think it’s complicated because you have a different relationship to your work once you have kids.
TS: How did you decide that the use of direct address would be the best way to get inside the minds and hearts of the characters in The Last Match?
AZ: I love direct address, so a lot of my other plays employ that device, though not all. And this play did not start that way. I had a whole draft of this play that was trying to be more of a traditional comedy about a Russian tennis player who was going through various rounds of the US Open. And there was no direct address in it. He had this crazy girlfriend and I was trying to figure out what the story was. It was really only when I saw that Andy Roddick retirement speech that I found my way into the play. I started over and realized that I wanted it to be a journey through the minds of the characters, not just a view from the outside. That’s something that the theater is suited to do, so why not have fun with that?
TS: G.T., you directed every iteration of this play during its development. It started as a reading at the Old Globe in San Diego and it had a workshop at New York Stage and Film and then it went back for its world premiere at the Old Globe. Can you talk about finding your way into the play in terms of staging?
G.T. Upchurch: Anna’s play on the page weaves in and out of the minds of her characters. Sometimes you’re watching what’s happening in the match and sometimes they’re having a memory of a situation at home or elsewhere. Anna hasn’t written any transitions, so there are no scene breaks. I took a lot of my staging inspiration from how she structured the play on the page. This is a very fluid play and I really wanted the staging to be seamless. Literally going from one line to the next, the play moves quickly from playing tennis in the Arthur Ashe Stadium at the US Open to, for example, a diner, eating french fries with your partner. So, I thought if we’re going to transition quickly, is it possible to play tennis without any rackets or will we just look ridiculous? We used our time at New York Stage and Film to explore sound with the designer, Bray Poor, who is an amazing artist, and he brought in a lot of sound ideas for us. The actors went out on the court and Bray recorded them playing tennis and we brought that sound into the rehearsal room. I found it really effective, because we had this beautiful sound design that was part realistic and part manipulated sound that helped us find our way into the tennis match: We discovered that sound and movement together could satisfy playing tennis sans racquets. I also did a lot of research watching tennis matches and the players sitting on the sidelines. On the court, there aren’t normally proper chairs or tables. But I knew as long as we could make it look like a part of the sidelines of the match, then we could have whatever I needed for the scenes hidden in plain sight on the court. That was my way into staging--finding the essence of each scene to keep the stuff on stage to a minimum.
TS: Did that influence the decision not to see Tim and Mallory’s child?
GT: I have such faith in the imagination of the audience. Just using your imagination, you join us and become complicit in our decision to say we’re going to go on this journey together in this particular way.
AZ: Especially because it’s not a naturalistic play to begin with. It’s a play where the characters are painting the story for us to a certain degree, so I think that allows us some liberties.
TS: I’m curious how you would define that word, naturalism, because you’re right, there are so many poetic moments and then there’s the direct address.
AZ: I would say a naturalistic play feels like you’re peering into the window of a scene that could truly be happening as opposed to something that feels more heightened. We hear the term “kitchen sink drama,” which I think often goes hand in hand with naturalism. It’s often a family story at home and the audience is eavesdropping on what’s happening in their lives. I think many naturalistic plays have more traditional two-act structures, though certainly not all, and fewer and fewer in recent years.
TS: Anna, in the playgoers’ guide interview I keep referencing, I asked what you thought the play is about and you talked about people not being able to accept their mortality and that’s why they keep wanting things. Do you still feel that way?
AZ: That idea is very alive to me in the way G.T. staged the play and in our set design. It feels like the whole landscape is representative of time. The characters are stuck inside of it and they are also trying to break free of it. In some ways, the memories they share are their way of trying to break free of time. Of course, they can’t, they’re stuck in time at the end. Yet there’s also a kind of transcendence. This production is about the duality of accepting life’s limitations and finding those moments in life that let us forget that we have those limitations.
TS: G.T., I read that when you staged the play at the Old Globe it was in the round. Was it a challenge to restage it for a proscenium stage?
G.T.: I didn’t know how it would feel going from staging the play in the round to staging it with a proscenium. At the Old Globe, the audience was surrounding the action. Everyone felt like they were at a stadium because there’s a steep rake in the audience and they were on all sides. But with the proscenium, I can control the picture much more because I’m not thinking about it from all sides. At Roundabout, my challenge was figuring out how to stage the games and have them feel different each time—to vary the staging for a proscenium format.
TS: G.T., in your playgoers’ guide interview, you said as a director collaborating on a new play, you’ll often ask a lot of questions to get inside the mind of the playwright. Can you tell us some of the questions you asked Anna throughout this process?
G.T.: For me, it was challenging to calibrate Tim’s journey. It’s a little subtler than Sergei and Galina’s journey. So, we talked a lot about Tim and Mallory’s scenes. What do they want? What are they getting or not getting? How is that leading them to the next scene? Where do we leave them at the end of each scene? The calibration of Tim and Mallory’s story dramaturgically was where my questions and our conversations most often landed.
AZ: I think we had a long string of late-night dramaturgical texts about Tim and Mallory during this process.
Audience Question #1: G.T., could you discuss your process choreographing the tennis scenes?
G.T.: A lot of the choreography came out of watching videos of tennis players and coming up with a couple of movements that we manipulated for the stage. In San Diego, we worked with a tennis coach who came into rehearsals a few times. In New York, we all went to the US Open together and made notes on the players’ behavior. Mary Carillo, who is a former professional tennis player, actually coached the actors on the courts of the US Open. Wilson is a tennis player and has competed, so he has a lot of skill in terms of fusing the real tennis moves with what had to be augmented for the stage. Together, Alex, Wilson and I came up with the actual tennis strokes. In terms of the choreography, some of that was me making sketches in my notebook or trying some things out physically in my living room. Other times, we tried several different versions of movement sequences in rehearsal.
T.S.: Anna, are you still playing tennis?
AZ: No, I haven’t played in many years. Doing this play has made me want to, so I think I will again soon.
TS: They often say that tennis is one of the loneliest sports and I keep thinking that playwriting is fairly lonely too.
AZ: I used to write poetry and that’s lonelier. At least with playwriting you get into a room with people at some point.
Audience Question #2: I had a feeling that halfway through the play you were going to tell us who was going to win the match. I’m wondering why you made that choice to not tell us?
AZ: I think in part it was because after asking the audience to watch this whole play, how could I have one of them win? We have been following both of their journeys and we love them. But from a more thematic and dramatic point of view, we realize by the end of the play that it’s not about who wins, it’s about the journey of life. They are both on the same journey. I think choosing a winner would confuse what the play is actually about.
G.T.: When we were at New York Stage and Film, everyone went to a bar after a reading and somebody came up to Anna and told her she should say who won because everyone knows Tim won. Then someone else said, “No, Sergei won.” People got into a fight over it. It’s really great for people to have their own interpretation about the ending of the play.
TS: That’s fascinating because I thought you tipped off the audience when Tim says “I’m the one that told the press I was going to retire.” I immediately thought Tim wants to retire, so Sergei must have won.
AZ: But it doesn’t mean Sergei wins this match, or Tim retires after this match. I mean, maybe both of those things happen, but maybe they don’t. Both players will have a last match one day, and that seems to me more of the point.
Audience Question #3: The ending is such a transcendent moment. For the first time, the players were actually opposing each other as they would in a game. They were engaged in this incredible dance together. At what point did you know that this was where the play would end?
AZ: In San Diego, I was really adamant that we end after the final monologue. G.T. kept saying there needs to be something after that, that there should be another moment where the men go back into the match. I think we watched a few previews in San Diego and that idea won me over. It took me a little while because you can get very stuck on the ending of your own play. But I give G.T. full credit for the men playing at the end. I think it’s really beautiful and now I’ve written it into the play, so it will be there forever.
Audience Question #4: Did you have any major challenges writing this play?
AZ: Absolutely. As I said before, I wrote other versions of this play before I found what this story was. I think there were a of couple years where I had various tennis plays that I was writing. I will say when I finally found the way I wanted to tell this story, the writing was joyful for me. I really did enjoy writing that first draft even though it has changed a lot since then.
G.T.: The last change we made to the script was three days ago.
AZ: We cut a big part of the ending, which was tricky for all of us because we had fallen in love with this monologue at the end of the play. But it felt like the play needed to drive more swiftly to its conclusion and so we ended up cutting a fair bit of the ending of the play, about two or three pages.
TS: It’s brave to do that.
AZ: It’s scary.
G.T.: The actors went out and did the change that night which was kind of amazing. They’d been doing it the same way for all the rehearsals and previews and suddenly we changed the whole thing. And they did it. It’s also difficult to let go of pieces of the writing that we loved, but it was actually holding us back from getting this swell that we really wanted. You want to earn those final beats.
Audience Question #5: What would you recommend to someone who wants to write their first play?
AZ: I can only speak from my own experience. When I started my first play, I just had a couple of characters in mind and I then chose a setting for them. I had these two young girls in my head and I wanted to see what would happen if they were laying out reading magazines by a swimming pool. And a play emerged from that. I think it’s about figuring out what sparks you…I would not force it. Wait until you have someone—a character – who’s talking to you.
TS: Anna, I want to talk about where you were educated because you have an impressive amount of education. Anna has a BA from Yale and an MA from the University of East Anglia in the UK. where she studied poetry writing. When she decided to become a dramatist, she went to NYU Tisch School of the Arts for dramatic writing. The reason I bring it up is because our last playwright on this very same stage also graduated from Tisch -- Meghan Kennedy, who wrote Napoli, Brooklyn. Obviously, they’re doing something right.
AZ: I will say that my time at Tisch turned me into a playwright. I didn’t go there assuming I would be a playwright. I thought that maybe I’d work in publishing; that was the way I saw my life going when I was in college. But I found the challenge of playwriting really motivating. Being in school for a couple of years trying to do this thing started to hook me. I’m very hard on myself and didn’t feel like I was writing good plays. I really did just want to write good plays. And that challenge goes on to this day.
TS: Do you believe in that trope, “Write what you know”?
AZ: No, I don’t think you need to write what you know. I think you can, certainly, but not exclusively. That would be boring.
G.T.: Anna’s never won the US Open. Or lost it for that matter.
TS: And there’s always research to be done. G.T., what would you say to a young person about writing their first play?
G.T.: I would say go see plays and talk to writers. Talk to people in your community. If you have some friends, get them together in your living room and read your writing out loud. It can be scary, but really helpful.
AZ: Read a lot of different playwrights and see which voices speak to you.
Audience Question #6: What was the hardest part of dramatizing Mallory’s miscarriage since she seems like such a positive and joyful person?
AZ: It’s interesting because we do think of her as a very vital joyful character and Zoë Winters, who plays her, brings a lot of life and humor to that character. I guess it’s hard because you don’t want to watch a character you love go through something so difficult.
GT: One thing Anna and I talked about is that when you have a character who’s gone through that kind of physical loss, you want to be sympathetic to them but we didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for her. Mallory is not someone who would want people to feel sorry for her. I think getting the writing right surrounding that and our work in the rehearsal room helped to tell the story in a way that is specific to who Mallory is as a character and what that character is put through, rather than having her seem like a victim. We actually started hearing from people who have gone through these kind of losses and that it feels very resonant to them. There’s something very powerful in knowing that we are honoring the experience instead of manipulating it in some way.
Audience Question 7: There’s so much beautiful back and forth between poetic imagery and action in your play. How do you know when you’re going too far into the realm of poetry when you’re writing a play? Do you have to hear it in the rehearsal room?
AZ: As I write, there’s always a voice in my head thinking about this. But you really don’t know until you’re in a room with people when a moment is inactive. So, there’s a little gauge that you are trying to use while writing, but being in a theater with an audience is where you really learn how to balance those modes of the play.
TS: We have three female directors for the first three shows of the season here at Roundabout. Do either of you find working with a woman different?
AZ: I work with a lot of different directors and a lot of them are women. Each person is different. It’s about the individual person.
G.T.: Each play that I work on is different. Each playwright that I work with is very different. Anna and I got to talk about what it’s like to be new mothers, which was nice in terms of this play in particular. But I guess it might be the same if it were a man who had become a new dad. It just depends on the person.
TS: I want to end with what’s happening next for you both. I know Anna, you have another play opening in a few weeks at Manhattan Theatre Club. Will you tell us about that?
AZ: Yes, I have another play starting previews on Halloween. It’s called Actually. It’s a two- person play about two college students going through a sexual misconduct hearing. I’ve sold a television pitch around that play to HBO to try to adapt it into a series. But that’s all very nascent.
G.T.: I’m taking a bit of a break to be with my newborn twins. They’re three months old. I will be doing a couple of readings of plays that I’m hoping to direct in the future but nothing is set in stone at the moment.
The Last Match runs through December 23 at the Laura Pels Theatre. For tickets and information, please visit our website.
2017-2018 Season, The Last Match