The Road to Elsa:
Interview with Carla Gugino
Ted Sod, Education Dramaturg, interviewed actress Carla Gugino about her thoughts on The Road to Mecca and her character, Elsa Barlow.
Ted Sod: Why did you choose to do this play and this role?
Carla Gugino: I made my Broadway debut doing Arthur Miller's After the Fall at Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre. It was a truly extraordinary experience. From that moment on, I knew that acting in the theater would be an intrinsic part of my life and work. I also had another wonderfully creative experience at Roundabout playing Catherine in Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer with Blythe Danner. All of this is to say that Todd Haimes and Roundabout have been a warm and exciting artistic home for me. So when I received a call from Todd about the possibility of doing The Road to Mecca, I was intrigued immediately. I find Athol Fugard's observations about humanity to be very astute while being executed in such an organic manner. He has the power to transport you to a time and place, very quickly and in a seemingly effortless manner. Additionally, the role of Elsa is different than any skin I've been in on stage and that presents truly exciting challenges. And to be able to delve into an electric, character- driven piece alongside Rosemary Harris and Jim Dale makes for the kind of collaboration I am always looking for: artists that you know you can jump off the cliff with in an attempt to reveal the complexities of the human condition.
TS: What kind of preparation or research do you have to do in order to play Elsa?
CG: I have been familiarizing myself with what the climate, in all senses of the word—emotional, political, literal—was in 1974 in South Africa. And working with the dialect as well. I find that accents are always a gateway into much more than the way someone speaks. Rhythms, gestures, a whole outlook can be revealed through finding out how one speaks, and therefore thinks, and where that comes from. Also, for me, so much is revealed in the rehearsal process. It is one of the great gifts of theater (unlike film); the time to process and experience as opposed to going straight for a result. To live in the question for a bit as opposed to looking for the answer. This allows many discoveries you may not otherwise make.
TS: How is this character relevant to you? What do you find most challenging and exciting about this role?
CG: Elsa is a complex woman indeed, but certain things feel clear to me. She is headstrong, fiercely intelligent, has a strong passion for equality, and is willing to fight for it. She is completely lost within herself as a woman in this particular moment in her life. She is having a crisis of conscience when we find her in The Road to Mecca. She is grappling with who she is, who Helen is, and what she's invested in who she wants Helen to be. What she does know is that she wants to fight for freedom: hers, Helen's, and that of the black people of South Africa.
TS: What do you think the play is about?
CG: This play seems to me to be an exploration of personal and spiritual freedom, the challenges that come with that, and the courage required to continue on that path. And how terrifying a person who truly commits to that path can be to those who have been taught there is one way to know God.
TS: Can you talk about the relationship between Elsa and Miss Helen?
CG: Elsa and Miss Helen seem to have unleashed something in each other that hadn't been touched prior to their meeting. Helen is perhaps the mother that Elsa wishes she had, or the person she hopes to become. The free woman who turns her back on the expectations of others and lives her life; whatever that may mean. And to Helen, Elsa is the first person to actually walk into her Mecca and love it; to celebrate it and be in awe of its magic, as opposed to being afraid of it. This is why, when Helen is willing to throw herself under the bus and go to the old age home, Elsa is infuriated. Because, as human beings tend to do, she has attached such meaning to Helen's freedom. And if Helen isn't truly free, how can Elsa be? I think Elsa has also owned the role of protector to Helen, as she believes no on else truly has Helen's best interests in mind.
The Road to Mecca is playing at the American Airlines Theatre December 16, 2011 through March 4, 2012. For more information, click here.
2011-2012 Season, Education @ Roundabout, The Road to Mecca, Upstage