Education Dramaturg Ted Sod spoke with playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell about his work on Apologia.
Ted Sod: What inspired you to write Apologia? What do you feel the play is about? Does the play have personal resonance for you and, if so, how?
Alexi Kaye Campbell: I’ve always been drawn to themes of inheritance and how it is that one generation responds to the previous one. In the case of Apologia, I wanted to write about women of the 1960s and ‘70s who had to make difficult choices in order to pursue their political and social convictions. For me, those two decades’ momentous and often revolutionary changes on the fronts of feminism and gay rights are often either overlooked or simply forgotten by today’s radicals. But I feel that many of the liberties we now take for granted would never have taken hold if it wasn’t for the battles fought by that previous generation. So, I suppose my inspiration was in some ways to pay homage to those pioneers. I think more than anything the play is about the high price that has to be paid by people who want to change the world, or dare to improve it. That the advances made socially often come at a heavy personal cost to those who make them. Like most of everything I write I have borrowed and stolen from my own life and my own past but then heavily fictionalized it. My family had its fair share of pain and recriminations, but which family doesn’t?
TS: Will you give us a sense of the kind of research you had to do in order to write this play and how you went about doing it? Can you give us a window into your process as a playwright?
AKC: My main protagonist, Kristin, is an art historian who specializes in the life and work of Giotto. I am always very nervous of doing too much research before I complete a first draft of a play—it can often hinder or weigh down my instincts and inspiration—so I tend to do it in between a first and second draft and then rewrite accordingly. In this case, apart from reading about the period in which Giotto lived and worked, I made an appointment to meet with an art historian from the National Gallery in London who shared that area of expertise with Kristin. I was then able to ask her specific questions and read to her some extracts from the play in order to check that I was on the right track. One of the reasons that Kristin is so drawn to the work of Giotto is that she regards him as a proto-humanist, someone who was working within the context of religious art whilst also bringing to it something new and revolutionary which she calls “the vision, the power, and the responsibility of the artist”—the artist as instigator of social and political change. So, I needed to be confident that Kristin’s interpretation of Giotto was one which was accurate and convincing. My process seems to change from play to play, but I tend to be a big rewriter. For me, playwriting is very like sculpting —you will chisel away at this big piece of stone, and the more you do so the more the play begins to reveal itself. My work has also been shaped by the fact that I was an actor for many years and by everything I learnt working in the theatre from that particular angle, especially when it comes to characters and their objectives. When I am working on a scene, I always ask myself: what do your protagonists want to achieve, how will they try to do so, and what are the obstacles that will get in their way?
TS: Will you talk about the development process for this play? The play was presented first at The Bush Theatre and then last year at Trafalgar Studios in London. Do you expect to be at many rehearsals in NYC? Will you continue to rewrite throughout the upcoming Roundabout rehearsal process? If so, what type of events usually motivate your revisions during rehearsals or previews?
AKC: Apologia was commissioned by Josie Rourke, who was then Artistic Director at The Bush Theatre in London, which is where it was first performed. The play’s protagonist, Kristin, was originally English, but when we wanted to attract an American actor for the London revival, I rewrote the character as an American expat who had been living in Europe. At first, I was worried that this would upset or compromise the play, but after we did a reading of it I preferred it to the original. The reason for this is that an American Kristin adds to the idea of her as an outsider on foreign territory, a loner. Also, when she meets the only other American character in the play, Trudi, it is as if a part of her past and the country she has run away from eventually catches up with her. As it is a play about Kristin’s hour of reckoning, this all seemed apposite. I am planning to be around for the New York rehearsals, and of course I will keep my ear to the ground for any new changes that may need to be made. We are living in a world of very heightened and alarming developments in the political and public spheres, which the play needs to respond to, if needs be. It is after all a play about liberal values, many of which seem to be under interrogation and threat for the first time since their establishment.
TS: Can you tell us what your collaboration with Stockard Channing and Hugh Dancy has been like?
AKC: Stockard is an absolute joy to work with. Apart from being one of the finest actors of her generation, she is also perfect casting for the part of Kristin and took to it like a fish to water. She has access to all the wit and acid that the character needs, whilst also matching her intellectually and having the depth to explore the character’s doubts and wounds. I loved working with her in London but really look forward to rediscovering the play with her a year later, for its New York incarnation. I am also hugely excited about working with Hugh Dancy again. Hugh was in Joe Mantello’s production of my play The Pride in New York a few years ago, and I have huge respect and admiration for his work on stage. He is a wonderful actor, and always generous.
TS: Your play deals with how successful women are often criticized for prioritizing their careers over being a parent, and how many feminist women like Kristin paved the way for future generations of ambitious women. The play also makes some very salient points about the baby boomer generation and their politics. How many of them were bereft by the unfulfilled promise of social revolution during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Why were you interested in writing about these subjects?
AKC: As I answered in a previous question, I have always been drawn to writing about the past and the present and comparing them. My generation (which I share with Kristin’s children in the play) is one which seemed to be far more drawn to a materialistic and often nihilistic view of life, in which many of the ideals fought for by our parents had been forgotten or often ridiculed. But if you live with diminished ideals and a predominantly materialistic worldview, you will inevitably be led to a point of crisis where you ask yourself some fundamental existential questions. And those questions will inevitably point back towards your parents and the type of relationship you had with them. I wanted to write about that very moment of conflict—the moment in which a disillusioned man confronts his mother with questions relating to what it means to be a good parent. That moment of conflict felt to me as if it encapsulated something of where we are now as a society, the eternal dialogue between the personal and the political. The main question the play asks is “how can one be a parent to one particular person and to the world simultaneously?” At a time of environmental crisis, growing inequality, and political and religious fundamentalism, it is a question that I ask myself more than ever before.
TS: Another idea in the play is the tenuous relationship between adult children and their career-driven parents. In this case, Kristin’s two adult sons have unresolved feelings about her “abandoning” them. What intrigued you to write about this subject? One of your characters who is not intimidated by Kristin’s acid tongue is Claire, her son Simon’s girlfriend. How did you find that dynamic in the play, and why was it important to you?
AKC: I am intrigued by the notion of selective memory and of wildly differing interpretations of events within families—of how we all carry our own personal narrative of the past. We can all go on living with these varied versions of our lives together until the moment we begin to air them. That is the moment we will realize that the people we love don’t see things or remember things quite the way we do. And that’s when the drama starts. Because often, our narrative does not exist simply as some fanciful idea, it is an essential part of our survival mechanism. And if that mechanism’s authenticity is called into question, then so is that very survival. That is why I wanted to write about the subject of children having very different interpretations of the past to their parents. What happens when a child questions a parent’s long-held view about the past they both share? Every character in the play challenges Kristin’s narrative of her life, but perhaps it is Claire who best articulates her tragedy. Claire is a survivor, someone who has also had to fight to belong, and to be heard. And what she rightly identifies in Kristin is the fact that Kristin’s need to believe so stubbornly in her own interpretation of the choices she has made is imperative if she is able to survive as a human being.
TS: How have you been collaborating with the director, Daniel Aukin? What made you want to collaborate with him? What do you look for in a director when collaborating on a play you’ve written? Can you give us an example of the type of questions you’ve asked each other while working on this play?
AKC: I met Daniel and instantly liked him and felt we had a good rapport. Apart from being a director who works brilliantly with actors and text—I loved his production of Admissions and had heard nothing but praise for all of his work—I immediately felt he completely got the world of the play. Because of his own personal history—he grew up in London—he has immediate access to the world of Americans abroad and all the specific characteristics of that particular demographic. Also, he understood the English dimensions of the play—its humor, as well as the awkwardness of the English in social situations, the games that are played as they try to negotiate their emotional territories. I have been extremely fortunate in collaborating with some of the best directors working in theatre today. The quality I most admire in a director is their ability to listen to a play and respond to its heart and soul. I believe a good director will be as versatile as a good actor, always excited to reinvent themselves with every new piece of work. Daniel and I have been asking each other many questions about the themes of the play and about how we can bring those themes alive to an audience. About the design, the tone, the style, of the production. Ultimately though, however detailed these discussions may be, part of being a playwright is handing the play over to the director and the other creative people involved and allowing them to make it their own. It is always difficult, but completely essential, to take a step back and allow others to interpret it.
TS: What other projects are you working on? What are you most excited about writing next?
AKC: I am currently working on a new play that is a commission for English Touring Theatre, as well as a film set against Sheridan’s Drury Lane in 18th Century London, which is a riotous romp and great fun to write. And a couple more things in the pipeline.
TS: Where were you born and educated? Did you have any teachers who had a profound impact on you as a writer? What keeps you inspired as an artist? What advice would you give a young person who wants to write for the theatre?
AKC: I was born and brought up in Greece to a Greek father and British mother. I went to a Greek primary school—I grew up in a completely bilingual home—and then went to the British School in Athens. I did have a teacher there called Chris Brown, who had the most profound and long-lasting effect on my life. She introduced me to the theatre, and with her passion and commitment, persuaded me that my life was going to be forever attached to it. I have tried so many times to track her down and express my everlasting gratitude to her but have not been able to find her. But she quite simply determined the course of my life and offered me a strong sense of direction, which is the greatest gift a person can ask for. I read voraciously, I go to the theatre, I try to travel far and wide. I try to keep an open and curious mind. And remain hopeful despite the challenges. To a young person who wants to write I can do no better that quote Stephen Sondheim: “Anything you do, let it come from you, then it will be true.” And part of that means ignoring trends or at least, the tyranny of cool. If your primary objective is to be original, then you will also be inauthentic. And by all means be inventive with form but only if the form serves the content and the substance of what you feel you need to communicate.
2018-2019 Season, Apologia