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Time and the Conways

Interview with Actress Elizabeth McGovern

Posted on: October 20th, 2017 by Ted Sod

 

Elizabeth McGovern

Elizabeth McGovern

Ted Sod: Will you tell us where you were born and if you had any teachers who had a profound influence on you?

Elizabeth McGovern: I was born outside Chicago in Evanston, but I was raised in Los Angeles. My mother is a teacher -- she was never my teacher -- but I would say that she had a profound influence on me. I had a writing teacher in my junior or senior year of high school, whose name is Christine Adams, who had a very big impact on me. She taught a method of thinking clearly about things, and I’ve always remembered it. I really responded to it.

TS: Was becoming an actress something that you always knew you wanted to do?

EM: Well, I probably did deep down, but I didn’t like to admit it. I thought that coming from an academic family, it was a silly profession to pursue, but in a subconscious way, I really wanted to act. I always did plays in high school; that was definitely the most vivid memory of my high school experience. It brought life into Kodachrome for me. I attended a school in North Hollywood, and it wasn’t until I was aimlessly applying for colleges that an agent came to see one of the plays we did and asked me if I wanted to go on some auditions for summer work and I did. That led to a job, which got me started in my career before I even got the chance to think about it too deeply. I let the decision be made for me in a way. It was a very odd way to get into this profession. I do believe in it as a profession now. I think that there is some good that you can give to the world, and that keeps me going.

TS: Is this the first time you’ll be performing at the Roundabout?  

EM: No, it’s not. The last thing I did in New York was Hamlet at the Roundabout. I played Ophelia, and I think that production was twenty-five years ago.

TS: Why did you choose to do the role of Mrs. Conway? What do you think the play is about?

Elizabeth McGovern. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

EM: For me, the play is about -- and this may sound pretentious -- the shades of light and dark that make up a family.  It is encapsulated by the title, because what you see is this microcosm of family life at two different times in its existence. One time is very happy, and the other is quite the opposite. You experience the dynamics that have gone into creating both those realities. Both of those realities are very true for the family; one is very dark and depressing, in which none of their dreams have come to fruition and they’re all bitter and angry, and the other is a reality in which they are at the cusp of their lives and they’re full of love, gaiety, and joy. J.B. Priestley, the playwright, has woven a tapestry which for me adds up to a complete life experience -- it includes both light and dark, and you can look at it from two different angles. You see the way that this family and their actions affect and bounce off one another and create both unhappiness and happiness.

TS: Would you give us some insight into your process as an actress? What are the challenges of playing Mrs. Conway and what are the challenges of doing a period piece like this?  

EM: That is an interesting question. I have spent a lot of time in this period. I’ve been embodying it for quite some time and living the reality of it. In fact, weirdly, I’m currently doing an independent film which is also set in this period, so I’m destined to always be in a corset and early 20th century dresses. It is almost part of my unconscious now; all of the things that at the beginning of Downton Abbey might have been research for me are now really deeply in my bones. I’m not an expert in a historical sense, but I have lived in it in my imagination. I feel research makes my job more fun and fills in the space between the lines in terms of my own imagination. Research allows me to bring things to life inside my brain, but I don’t know if it is absolutely necessary -- it’s just a lot of fun. I think my process as an actress is to really study what is in the writing and getting all my clues from what that writer teaches me about the character and her relationship to the other characters. I like to let the writing guide my work and then be open to what the director is suggesting in terms of characterization. Also, for me, it is very exciting to respond to other actors and what they are bringing to their roles -- that will influence me, too.

TS: I’m curious about how you view Mrs. Conway even though rehearsals haven’t yet begun.  

EM: At the moment, I am really fascinated by Mrs. Conway because even though she is a mother who obviously adores her children, as a person, she is so unevolved; she is not self-aware. I would describe her as a crap mother; I can’t think of a better way of putting it. She has a lot of love and passion, but so little emotional intelligence. You can see her wreak destruction on her kids without meaning to, and you see the damaging effect that it has on them as they develop and grow. I am very eager to explore that.  She is probably one of these people who would have been well-advised not to become a mother at all, but, of course, that probably wasn’t something that was an option for her. She did what was expected of her and had a pack of children. I don’t mean to imply for one second that she doesn’t love them or that she’s not devoted to them, but she is not really grown up herself is my assessment. I haven’t started rehearsing or exploring this with the director or the other actors yet; but right now, I think she is still a child herself.

Elizabeth McGovern and Company. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

TS: I keep wondering why Mrs. Conway seems to favor her son Robin over her eldest son, Alan?

EM: My instinct – again, this is without exploring it in rehearsal -- is that she has a romantic fixation on Robin; she has substituted Robin in her mind as her husband; it is as irrational as that. Alan is, in her estimation, an uncolorful, unexciting guy. She just doesn’t get him; she doesn’t take the time to see what is there, to appreciate what the audience will about Alan. He is the one who has the wisest things to say. For me, he is the moral voice of the play, but Mrs. Conway cannot see that because she is caught up in Robin’s charm. I don’t think all mothers are maternal; they sometimes put their children in positions that aren’t appropriate for them psychologically.

TS: Priestley’s writing seems very modern to me in that way.

EM: Yes, it is modern in the sense that we now look at character from a psychoanalytic point of view, whereas the playwrights who wrote before Freud didn’t necessarily write about the subconscious.

Act 2. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

TS: How do you see what happens in act two?

EM: I’ve never seen it in performance; but on reading it, I think it is very significant that Priestley ends with that quote that Mrs. Conway’s daughter Kay asks her brother Alan to tell her – knowing it will cheer her up. The quote basically says, “There is lightness and there is dark. There is both. That is the fabric of life.” My feeling is that Priestley is showing us that the Conway family we see in the first act is exactly the same family that we see in the second act, but it is their darker side. It is when everything has gone awry. That isn’t to say that in another decade they’ll have found their way again and things will be better. I don’t think that Priestley is saying that we’re all headed for hell and that life is going to be all bitterness and woe. The reason I say this is because Alan does comfort Kay with those words.

TS: How do you keep yourself inspired as an artist?

EM: I love these questions! I have invested a lot in my marriage and children, and that feeds me. It has given me the energy to stay really excited about the work that I do. I think if I lived for nothing but work, it would soon lose its allure. I’ve had years and years of being away from acting, and that makes me really hungry for it when I come back. I stay inspired by seeing other people’s work; that has always been really important to me. And it’s something that I share with my husband because he is someone who loves seeing things. Also, I love the process of acting. I find it hilarious and fun and, yes, sometimes I despair, but it’s always oxygen for me.

TS: A lot of public school children will be very well prepared for seeing this play, and they’ll be studying theatre as part of our outreach program in the education department. If a young person were to ask you for advice about being an actor -- what would you say to them?

EM: I would say to find the joy in every aspect of it. Find the joy when you do find work and also when you don’t have work, as strange as that sounds. Find the positive in not working; invest in life, invest in the opportunity to develop other parts of your brain, your body, and your soul -- look at not working as an opportunity. If you are committed to doing that, you and your work will grow and grow and grow.  That is not to say that there aren’t going to be frustrating times and times you feel you have fallen short or the business has disappointed you, but learn to forgive and forget. Find the joy.


Time and the Conways runs through November 26 at the American Airlines Theatre. For tickets and information, please visit our website here.


Related Categories:
2017-2018 Season, A Conversation with, Time and the Conways


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Britain in the Interwar Years

Posted on: October 18th, 2017 by Jason Jacobs

 

Cast of Time and The Conways. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Time and the Conways follows a family through a span of years known as “the interwar period.” Between 1919 and 1939, Britain was recovering from World War I, isolating itself from political turmoil across Europe, and watching as its Empire began a slow decline. Domestically, England struggled with a slow economy, while social shifts laid the ground for greater equality. We first meet the Conways in a celebratory mood, but as time moves forward, they reflect their country’s shift into disappointment and depression.

 

IMPORTANT EVENTS IN THE CONWAYS’ TIMES

1918- World War I concludes on November 11, with Germany’s agreement to stop fighting.

1918- The Representation of the People Act gives the vote to married women over 30 and reduces most property qualifications for men.

1919- Treaty of Versailles, led by England, U.S. and France, imposes harsh punishments and severe financial penalties on Germany.

1919- Widespread strikes in England by miners, railroad workers, and police lead to military force used against mobs.

1921- Greatest recession experienced in England, caused by war costs and decline in trade.

1926- General Strike by over 2 million English workers lasts 9 days but ends with no gains for labor.

1927- The Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act makes widespread general strikes illegal.

1928- Representation of the People/Equal Franchise Act lowers the voting age for women to 21 and removes remaining property qualifications for men to vote.

1929- Stock Market Crash destroys not only the U.S. but also England and European countries dependent on American loans.

1931- The Great Slump (England’s term for The Great Depression) hits England’s economy the hardest, although it begins to recover a year later.

1933- Adolf Hitler comes to power in Germany, with a program to reverse the Versailles Treaty.

1936- Abdication of King Edward VIII, who gives the crown to his brother George IV in order to marry his American mistress Wallis Simpson.

1936- Hitler’s Germany re-militarizes the Rhineland. England tries to cooperate with the Germans, hoping to delay armed conflict.

 

HUMAN COSTS OF THE GREAT WAR

World War I was popular with the English, who saw it as one Britain’s greatest victories, but the celebratory mood soon gave way to despair. The death toll surpassed any 4-year period in history; nearly three-quarters of a million British died in the war, wiping out almost an entire generation. Surviving veterans, many working class, returned with physical disabilities and mental distress, leaving a bitter legacy for these men and their families. As the English wondered whether the victory was worth the human sacrifice, politicians came to view military force only as a last resort. This wariness to use force reduced Britain’s role as an international power, contributing to the erosion of the British Empire and causing its slow, reluctant entry into World War II.

 

Steven Boyer in Time and the Conways. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

1920s: A DECADE OF ECONOMIC DECLINE

Britain’s economy stagnated in the interwar years, while the U.S. gradually emerged as the leading industrial power. During the war, England incurred enormous debt, primarily owed to American banks. The war hurt Britain’s lead on foreign trade, as countries once reliant on British goods developed their own industries and now became competition. England experienced a difficult recession in 1920-21, and the next decade brought currency deflation, high unemployment, and stagnant growth. The coal industry was struck especially hard due to lowering supplies, rising costs, increasing competition in Europe, and a growing preference for oil. Although the economy stabilized by the late ‘20s, the American stock market crash of 1929 spurred a worldwide recession. However, England’s lackluster economy made the impact of the Depression less stark than in the U.S.

 

LABOR STRUGGLES

The interwar years were marked by great labor unrest. Unions grew in size and strength during World War I, but labor had limited power. The British viewed the Russian Revolution as a warning of what could happen if order was not upheld. In 1919, widespread strikes by miners, railway workers, and the police led to riots on the streets; some divisions of the army rose in mutiny. Rather than allow a Russian-style revolution, union leaders gave in to the industrialists and government. In 1926, the country experienced a 9-day general strike, starting with 1.2 million coal miners striking against wage reductions and longer work shifts, supported by 1.3 million workers from other industries. Despite large numbers and solidarity, the workers had little support from the government and the upper- and middle-classes. When the strike ended, the miners received none of their demands, and a year later, the government outlawed all general strikes. Despite these failures, the Labour Party, which represents the interests of working people, elected more representatives than ever and actually controlled parliament for two short periods in the ‘20s.

 

A MORE DEMOCRATIC ENGLAND

British society, with its stratified class structure, became modernized during World War I and more democratic in the interwar period. Social barriers were reduced in the battle trenches, where men of different classes fought together. The landed classes suffered a higher proportion of casualties, reducing the upper class within the overall population. After the war, an increasing number of the working class rose to white collar professions. As women and the working class gained the vote and became more organized, there was less deference to the upper classes and overall loosening of rigid class hierarchy throughout English society.

 

FROM SLUMP TO THE NEXT WAR

While the English did not feel the impact of the Depression as severely as Americans and Germans, unemployment rose to 25% in 1933. The northern industries—coal, iron, and steel—had failed to modernize and were hit the hardest. Southern England fared better in these years. Many English saw their quality of life improve, due to increased new housing and conveniences like radios, vacuum cleaners, and washing machines. Looking abroad, the British watched carefully as Hitler gained power in Germany and seized territory throughout Europe. Throughout the ‘30s, politicians followed a policy of appeasement—giving Hitler what he wanted in the hopes of avoiding war, but by 1939, Germany’s invasion of Poland made the next World War inevitable.

 


Time and the Conways begins performances at the American Airlines Theatre on October 10, 2017. For tickets and information, please visit our website.


Related Categories:
2017-2018 Season, Time and the Conways


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Dunne’s Theory of Time

Posted on: September 27th, 2017 by Nick Mecikalski

 

Time and the Conways playwright J. B. Priestley was famous for his fascination with theories of time and consciousness. Conways came to be known as one of Priestley’s six “Time Plays,” which also included Johnson Over Jordan, Dangerous Corner, and the international hit An Inspector Calls. In each “Time Play,” Priestley explored a different philosophy of time, most notable among them John William Dunne’s theory of Serialism, threads of which make an appearance in Time and the Conways itself. Serialism postulates that each person’s consciousness exists in multiple dimensions of time simultaneously and, often during sleep, one can access the future and past, thereby unwittingly predicting events to come.

 

John William Dunne

John William Dunne (1875–1949) was a British aeronautical engineer, philosopher, and soldier. His explorations of Serialism began one night in 1898, when he had a dream that his watch had stopped at half past four in the morning. Dunne awoke from this dream in the middle of the night to find that the time was, in fact, just minutes after 4:30 A.M., and that his watch, which was sitting on a dresser on the opposite side of the room, had quite literally stopped minutes earlier while he was asleep, at exactly half past four. In the months and years following, Dunne experienced further moments of “clairvoyance” in his dreams. One night in 1902, for example, Dunne dreamt that he was trying to save an island of people from a volcanic disaster; later that week, Dunne learned of the eruption of Martinique’s Mount Pele, which buried the city of Saint Pierre. Dunne’s dreams went on to seemingly foretell a factory fire in Paris, a train derailment in Scotland, and even an incident in which he and his brother, while on a fishing trip, had to outrun an erratic horse that had escaped its enclosure.

After years of observing these kinds of occurrences in himself and, anecdotally, in friends, Dunne decided to run tests to determine whether others shared this kind of foresight and whether “clairvoyance” was a property of only some dreams or of all dreams. In efforts to maximize the number of dreams that any given experimenter would remember, Dunne developed a precise method for recording dream activity in the moments immediately after waking. The process worked. With his dreams written down in notebooks, Dunne started matching daytime experiences not only to clairvoyant dreams that he remembered having, but also to dreams that he had forgotten but had made note of in the first seconds of his day. As the other subjects in his experiment encountered many similar “psychic” incidents, Dunne became convinced that precognition during sleep was actually a normal human experience that was often just forgotten or dismissed as wild coincidence. It appeared that most, if not all, dreams provided windows to the future. Dunne then set out to determine what about our relationship to time made this kind of precognition possible.

The theory of time that Dunne developed out of these experiments rests on an understanding of the dimensions of space. Dimension zero, of course, is just a point; it has no length, width, or height. Each subsequent dimension “extends” at a right angle from all lower dimensions. The first dimension is a line with only length; the second dimension extends at a right angle from the first to form a plane. The third dimension, most familiar to us, extends at a right angle from the second to form a space with length, width, and height. The fourth dimension, then, in Dunne’s hypothesis, extends at a right angle from the third. A fourth dimension is not something that we can exactly visualize, but Dunne, alongside many other theorists of the time, proposed that the fourth dimension is, in fact, time. In the same way that a 1-D line is a cross-section of a 2-D square and a 2-D square is a cross-section of a 3-D cube, a cube at any given instant in time, Dunne suggested, is only a cross-section of that cube’s entire existence, from beginning to end, in time. A four-dimensional representation of a person, therefore, would be an entity that would encompass that person’s entire life all at once (see figure 1). A cross-section of that object would be a three-dimensional person at any instant in time, living as we do -- instant to instant, with only a memory of the past and guesses about the future.

Figure 1. Depiction of a theoretical four-dimensional person -- every moment of their lives contained in one entity.

 

But this raises some questions: why does it seem that we move through time in only one direction? What is pushing us through time? And how fast are we moving? As a solution to these questions, Dunne theorized that there must be a fifth dimension, extending at a right angle from the fourth. A cross-section of this dimension would be a fourth-dimensional object -- which, as Dunne already defined, represents the entire existence of that object in time. Just as a three-dimensional person can take a mental picture and observe a two-dimensional slice of their world, so can a four-dimensional person observe a three-dimensional cross-section of their world--i.e., one three-dimensional instant. Therefore, a fifth-dimensional person can observe their fourth-dimensional self (that is, their entire existence in time) as a single snapshot. (See Figure 2 for an analogy.) Dunne went on to suggest that this “series” of time dimensions extends infinitely, and each person’s consciousness exists in this infinite series of dimensions at once -- hence the term “Serialism.”

Figure 2. The third, fourth, and fifth dimensions can be thought of as the different components of a smartphone video, like the one below that tracks across a computer keyboard. A third-dimensional observer is analogous to a still image captured at any instant that the video is paused. The fourth-dimensional observer is like the scroll bar at the bottom of the screen, which contains every moment of the video in one entity. The fifth-dimensional observer is akin to the smartphone user, who can jump between moments on the scroll bar and watch the video forwards or backwards. The fifth-dimensional observer’s point of attention is symbolized by the blue line on the scroll bar, which tells the smartphone user where in the “life” of the video they are watching.

 

Even though, as Dunne postulated, each person has access to all of these dimensions at any time, he determined that a person’s consciousness habitually follows their third-dimensional perspective instant-to-instant through time while the third-dimensional self is awake. When the third-dimensional self is asleep, though, attention wanders, and the person’s consciousness in the fifth dimension (or higher) focuses on different moments in the fourth dimension -- in other words, different moments in the entirety of a person’s lifetime. Dreams, then, according to Dunne, are our consciousnesses observing our lives from higher dimensions and exploring our past and future experiences. With this, Dunne had devised an explanation for his and his subjects’ nighttime “clairvoyance.”

Dunne’s theory was not ultimately embraced by the larger scientific community. In the time since Dunne proposed Serialism, Einstein’s theory of relativity has shown to be a much more accurate descriptor of the nature and behavior of spacetime. But Dunne’s theories surely sparked the imaginations of his contemporaries and served as an important step in the path toward a deeper understanding of our universe.

 


Time and the Conways begins performances at the American Airlines Theatre on September 14, 2017. For tickets and information, please visit our website.


Related Categories:
2017-2018 Season, Time and the Conways


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