Education dramaturg Ted Sod speaks to Patricia McGregor about directing Ugly Lies the Bone.
Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated? When and how did you realize you wanted to become a theatre director? Did any teachers have a profound influence on you?
Patricia McGregor: I was born in St. Croix, in the Virgin Islands, and we moved a lot -- I lived in Hawaii, Illinois, and Florida. Moving so often helped develop my appetite for new stories, as well as an ear for listening to the poetry of a local area. I was a part of the Caribbean Dance Company. My mom was an art teacher, and she made costumes for Carnival and parades that we would perform in. It took me a while to understand how that experience became so important later on, in terms of the kind of engagement I like with the audience. I went to SMU in Texas for undergrad and Trinity University in Ireland. I began as an acting major but I decided I wanted to be a director. There was a lot of racial tension on the campus, and I wanted to find a way to engage with that in a productive way and not just feel angry or shut down. I wanted to start a dialogue. I read Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa! There wasn’t a role for me in it, so I decided to direct it, and it was really inspiring. The conversation going on between the audience and the stage, which I helped create, was very fulfilling.
I moved to New York when I was 21. Then two important things happened: I went to the O’Neill Theatre Center as a stage management intern because I heard August Wilson was going be there. I also got introduced to the people who led me to my next big job, which was stage management on Medea with Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw. Later, I had a Van Lier fellowship at Second Stage for two years, and that was a pivotal time – I wrestled with if I wanted to give it all up for security in the corporate world. I decided to go to Yale for the directing program. At Yale, Tina Landau, Ron Van Lieu, Peter Francis James, Tina Landau, Liz Diamond, and Chris Bayes were important teachers for me. I feel having access to Ming Cho Lee, Jane Greenwood, and the whole design faculty there helped me develop a language that I have found valuable ever since.
TS: How did you get involved with Ugly Lies the Bone? What about the play made you want to direct it?
PM: I directed Hurt Village at Signature, which Lindsey Ferrentino, the playwright, came to see, and for about a year after that I would get emails from her saying, “I know we don’t know each other, but I loved your production of Hurt Village; I’d love to get together and have coffee—here’s a play.” I read two plays before Ugly Lies the Bone. I was just in love with the language, the characters, the worlds she created; I thought, Oh, my gosh, here is a voice! Then the opportunity to direct the reading of Ugly Lies the Bone at Roundabout Underground came up, and she asked me to do it.
I think there’s something consistent about Lindsey’s use of language and humor -- her mix of the poetic with a tight, explosive realism. Most of the men in my family served in several different wars; so how we are taking care of the people who’ve served in these wars is a very important conversation for me. I love the subject matter in Ugly Lies the Bone, and I also love that Lindsey chose to have a female veteran as her protagonist.
TS: Is there a specific way to work with a playwright on a new piece?
PM: I would say it varies slightly from playwright to playwright. I think it’s very special to be working on a premiere of a piece. My first job is to really listen and to ask as many possible questions as I can. I like to have the playwright read their play aloud to me because then I get a sense of rhythm, character, and nuance that I might miss reading it myself. I’ll read a text just for the story and for how it impacts me viscerally. Then I’ll read it several times for details, for structures, for images that start to hit me. When I meet with a playwright, I’ll have them talk to me about the play, where it came from, what’s important about this production.
Playwright Lindsey Ferrentino and Director Patricia McGregor in rehearsal.
TS: What do you think Ugly Lies the Bone is about?
PM: It’s about the challenges of homecoming and healing wounds from the past. While there is the physical healing going on, there is healing from troubled pasts as well. In order to reconcile with the present, you really have to deal with the past. It’s about a whole lot of other things — a veteran who is trying to process a world she no longer recognizes and that doesn’t understand or recognize her; it’s about how we can use technology for pain relief; how we hide from things that we don’t want to deal with; it’s about lost love.
TS: Can you talk about how you see the relationship between Jess, the protagonist, and her sister, Kacie?
PM: I have a sister, and I think the relationship between two sisters is a tight bond. This is something I believe about family in general: we all find the hole in our family we are meant to fill -- but sometimes that can cause tension. Jess may think that Kacie is too nice or gullible, but actually, Kacie’s sweetness and optimism are coping mechanisms. While Jess may seem strong from the outset, Kacie is actually the one who’s holding the whole family together. Those kinds of dynamics between the sisters are rich to me. One of my favorite moments in the play is when Jess is able to see not only her own pain, but the pain that other people are going through. That’s experienced, first and foremost, through her sister, who is her rock in many ways.
Karron Graves (Kacie) and Mamie Gummer (Jess) in rehearsal.
TS: How do you see the relationship between Jess and Stevie?
PM: I feel they both think their relationship was cut short and they’re asking themselves, what if? He’s moved on in that he is married, but he’s also not living the life that he dreamed he would. I think Jess is a person who is about pushing beyond the limits of what people expect of you. Stevie still dreams of her and he’s wanting more. They both are dealing with past regrets. Part of the journey of the play is them coming to terms with those what-ifs and putting some of those question marks to rest.
Mamie Gummer (Jess) and Chris Stack (Stevie) in rehearsal.
TS: What do you have to research in a play like this?
PM: I didn’t know about SnowWorld before reading this play. I heard about virtual games as coping mechanisms for stress, but I didn’t know about pain management specifically for burn victims. One of the great things is, we’re going to have the opportunity to use the SnowWorld technology and experience it for ourselves. I’m really excited to be able to figure out how to take the audience on that journey. I think the first-hand experience of SnowWorld will help me calibrate that journey for them. I’ve also been working on projects with veterans’ communities, the first being a documentary concert I am directing entitled Holding It Down, The Veteran's Dream Project, where we interview veterans of color about returning home from the Iraq/Afghanistan wars.
TS: How are you collaborating with your design team on this?
PM: The light, video, and scenic conversations all are happening together because we have to figure out what the homecoming is versus SnowWorld. There are many scenes, and we have to shift quickly. Lights and video are some of the ways we can shift easily from one space to another. We don’t want to become a show all about technology -- we want to use the video sparingly, but intelligently. I always like to say, “What does the space offer? How do we take a space that feels like the SnowWorld chamber in some ways and make it also feel like a cluttered, claustrophobic Florida home that can set Jess off?
TS: What were you looking for in casting the actors?
PM: I had to believe that the actress playing Jess could stand in the ranks of service. I’ve been around a lot of female veterans -- and not to say that there’s a singular type -- but there’s this certain strength and restlessness that Mamie Gummer had when she came in. There was a grit that made me believe she could be in a position to command men in wartime. There’s a comedic element to Kelvin, but the audience also has to believe his sincerity and that he really loves Kacie. You have to be able to understand Jess’s perspective, that he might seem like a questionable character. But underneath it all, there is depth and true love. I feel like there is athleticism to Lindsey’s language, there’s no preciousness about it, so I needed actors to hit that rhythm, while also honoring the humor and pain in it. I would say that across the board—everyone in this play is trying to survive. I cast actors who were able to show me the danger of the quicksand that they could fall into—but also knew how to use language, both technically and emotionally.
Ugly Lies the Bone begins previews September 10 at our Black Box Theatre. All tickets to Roundabout Underground are general admission for only $25. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.
Related Categories: 2015-2016 Season
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