On September 30, 2017, Charlotte Parry spoke about Time and The Conways with education dramaturg Ted Sod as part of Roundabout Theatre Company’s lecture series. Following the conversation is a brief talk on J.B. Priestley’s life from Ted Sod.
An edited transcript follows:
(There are spoilers below)
Ted Sod: Charlotte, will you give us a peek into the rehearsal process for J.B. Priestley’s Time and The Conways? Did you do a lot of table work?
Charlotte Parry: We did about a week of table work, which was so valuable because of the family dynamics and arcane political references. We spent a long time talking about the relationships among the siblings. And we were each given a research project on a certain subject relating to the time periods and other subjects in the play that we shared with one another so we could fully inhabit our characters and the era they are living in.
TS: There was a dramaturg working with you on this production, correct?
CP: Yes, we had a brilliant dramaturg named Drew Lichtenberg. On each page of the script, he gave us notes explaining absolutely everything that was going on during the play’s two time periods, 1919 and 1937. In some ways, Priestley is writing about what happened between the wars in England. There’s a lot of history that it’s assumed the audience will know. A British audience would most likely know references to people such as Lloyd George, but an American audience may not. The play refers to history that is not necessarily even taught in England anymore.
TS: You spent most of your time growing up in England and you were educated there for a time. I think you said your father’s British and your mother’s American.
CP: Yes, that’s right.
TS: Are you the only one with British background in the cast?
CP: No, Matthew James Thomas, who plays Robin, is also British.
TS: Do you remember being taught any of the history referred to in the play when you were going to school in Britain?
CP: I remember taking exams at 16 and then at 18 that concentrated on the First and Second World Wars, but, truthfully, I gave up at 13.
TS: It seems because your character, Kay, is a writer that she could be a stand in for Priestley. Do you see that?
CP: Yes, I really do. I think the type of writing Kay says she wants to do is very much like Priestley’s style of writing. I believe they are both sensitive and sincere when they write. Kay and her brother Alan are both voices for Priestley in two different ways. And Madge speaks for his belief in democratic socialism.
TS: When I interviewed you for the playgoers’ guide, you said that you sometimes write diary entries as your character as an exercise if you’re stuck or you’re feeling creative. Did you do that for Kay?
CP: I did do a few actually. I didn’t have a lot of time to write because we were rehearsing so much, but, yes, I did write little bits and pieces this time. I do that exercise when I’m trying to figure out the story and what’s going on for the characters.
TS: All the marvelous acting that you are doing in the final act, none of that is requested in the script. Kay has seen the future and you let us see her comprehend that. Will you tell us how you found those moments in rehearsals?
CP: Our director, Rebecca Taichman, who is fabulous, was really helpful in figuring out what she wants the audience to see. She’s very much been the idea person behind Kay stepping out from the set at the end of the play and the two different worlds we create with Kay’s sister Carol in the background. I did find it tricky to play because suddenly Kay’s very aware of what is happening. The last line she says before that stepping out is jolly, so Rebecca and I had to figure out places in the act when Kay is remembering seeing the future in her premonition. It has grown over performances by watching what everyone else is doing.
TS: That final act made me realize that one of the points Priestley is making is how we lie to ourselves as human beings, how we feed ourselves these dreams to keep going. Do you believe that’s true?
CP: Yes. I think when life is really tough, I definitely feed myself stuff to keep pushing through. Mrs. Conway’s insistence in the play that her children all will be great in some way, is probably why they are such a hot mess 20 years later.
TS: Mrs. Conway is a widow, she has six children and, evidently, Mr. Conway made sure they were well taken care of financially after his death. How important was it for you to understand who your father was to play this part?
CP: It was quite important. Rebecca made sure that, as a company, we have a real sense of him because he is mentioned quite a few times. We decided that the upstage chair was father’s chair and Alan is the only one who sits in it. We each had to write a memory of our father and send it in to our assistant director, Katie Lindsay, and she compiled all the family’s memories of him. Then we found a picture of him so we could have a mental image. All this was done to make him alive in our minds because, in a way, he is alive in the play. He’s so much the reason why the family has fallen apart. The grief of losing him and then the grief of losing Carol were two huge events which were never dealt with by the family because they’re incapable of it. Mrs. Conway can’t even talk about it. If her children acknowledge their father, Mrs. Conway shuts it down because we’re supposed to laugh and be happy.
TS: I did sense that some of the children had a very close relationship to Mr. Conway. I suspect that Alan did. It’s mentioned that he was his father’s favorite. Parents say that they don’t have a favorite child, but I think that’s a big lie. Do you?
CP: I don’t have children, but I think it’s a big lie. I don’t think I’m the favorite.
TS: I want to talk about what it was like to go from the rehearsal room to performance. Had you any sense of how the play was going to play in front of an audience or was it a big mystery?
CP: Rebecca talked about how Alan and Kay would be moving off the set at the end. But moving from the rehearsal room into the theatre was very exciting. When we got into tech, we got to watch how Neil Patel’s set moves and we had the music right from the beginning. We’d been told Rebecca’s ideas with the sets, but we didn’t realize it would be so beautiful.
TS: I would imagine that this is a play that requires deep listening on the part of the audience because that first act is almost ninety minutes. I think that audiences are not accustomed to plays with a ninety first act unless it is a musical. Is that true from your perspective?
CP: The way the play is written is in three acts and the first act takes place in 1919 and the second act is in 1937. The third act takes us back to 1919. It would be a colossal mistake to have an interval after the first act as written, because you barely get going. So, putting the first and second acts together does make a very long first act. Our act one gives the audience so much information. Who are these people? What era is it? What is charades? What is this version of charades? We are all very aware of getting this information to the audience as clearly as possible. We are also keeping the pace up and simultaneously delivering the put-downs from sister to brother to mother, so it’s not just happy fluff the audience is seeing. We are laying the groundwork for all the reasons it goes wrong in 1937. So, yes, it’s a tricky first act to take in, I imagine. We spent a lot of time in rehearsals figuring out how to play the first act.
TS: The quote that Alan speaks seems to give Kay some solace when she is feeling confused. Can you talk to us about that?
CP: The Blake poem?
TS: Yes, was that a poem you were aware of as a student in Great Britain?
CP: I’d heard it before but hadn’t spent much time with it…
TS: Do you have a sense why Priestley chose it?
CP: Yes, it very much is what the play is about. Life is joy and woe, that was Priestley’s view. My sense, from the small amount of research I did on Priestley, is that he was a person with real emotional maturity who understood the complexities of life. But, in the play, that’s what Alan learns about time and life and that’s what he shares with Kay. Alan’s the most settled, at peace person of all the characters when we see them in 1937.
TS: He’s accepted the reality of life.
CP: He accepts it and the rest of us are struggling with it – it’s as if we are all panicking on a sinking ship.
TS: I’m wondering if there’s anything you’d share with us about becoming a family in rehearsals because I love how sweet the siblings are to one another and then, like most families, they know how to hurt each other’s feelings if they want to. How did that dynamic come together?
CP: It is a lovely company and we do really care about each other, but actually Rebecca was very good at helping us with those dynamics because there’s not necessarily many clues in the text. At first, we were playing the tension with the joking. Rebecca very much wanted to tease these moments out. She helped us figure out the dynamics among the siblings. Carol, Alan and Kay are a little team. When Mother puts us down, Madge steps in to help Kay and vice versa. Hazel is the favorite; then we see that change in act two.
TS: It’s rather clear in this production that Robin and Hazel are the favorites of Mrs. Conway.
CP: Yes, she says that quite clearly in the text.
TS: I think Elizabeth McGovern might agree that Mrs. Conway is a child in many ways herself. She has as much fun with the charades as the children do. I kept looking at how much alike Anna Camp, who plays Hazel, and Elizabeth look. It’s as if Mrs. Conway is looking at a mirror image of herself.
CP: They’re both beautiful.
TS: It’s rather remarkable. I’m curious about Kay’s relationship to her siblings. I know she is close to Alan, but what about the sisters? It seems to me Madge would be someone Kay relates to most? But then there’s Carol too…
CP: Yes, we figured out that Carol is the baby, but Kay was the baby for four years until Carol was born. So, they might have shared a bedroom. I think they have a really close bond. I think Madge and Kay, certainly in their younger life, were close. As an adult, Kay’s gone off to London in 1937 and Madge has become so settled in her own world at school that neither of them really know how to relate to one another anymore. My family is very British in that way -- you don’t talk about things. So, if there is physical distance, it becomes an emotional distance and that is what is happening between Madge and Kay.
TS: It seems to me that Madge disdains what Kay has done with her life and she takes the high road by implying she’s working for the good of the people by educating them. It’s also interesting that around the time period of the first act, women got the right to vote, but they had to be 30 years old and own some property.
CP: Yes, a woman had to own property and be 30 years old when they got to vote in 1918. It wasn’t till the 1920s, I think, when women over the age of 21 could vote.
TS: We have not talked about the book that inspired the play: J.W. Dunne’s book, An Experiment in Time. Did that come up in rehearsal?
CP: It did, yes. Gabe Ebert, who plays Alan, was assigned to research that book. He gave us a breakdown of what that book was about. It is the book Alan is talking about in the play. He gave us a breakdown of some of Dunne’s ideas, but we didn’t delve into that much.
TS: An Experiment in Time posits the theory that time is not linear, that the past, the present and the future are happening simultaneously. Dunne said that in his dream life he saw the future, which is wonderful because Kay does say, “I fell asleep. I must have been dreaming.” Priestley gives voice to Dunne’s theory, would you agree?
CP: It’s left a bit vague: did Kay fall asleep and actually dream? Did she not fall asleep and it wasn’t a dream? Was it a premonition with her eyes open? That’s something we never had to make a definite decision on.
TS: Some audiences will see it as the literal future and some people will see it as a dream or Kay seeing the future. Or perhaps it is a possible version of the future. It’s really wonderfully modern.
CP: A friend came the other day and said, “Oh, it’s what Kay’s written in her book!” and I had never thought of that.
TS: We have about 10 minutes left before we have to let Charlotte go. I want you to have the opportunity to ask her questions.
Audience Member #1: Regarding the character of Joan, who marries Robin, can you help me understand where she came from?
CP: Joan is a very good friend of Hazel and so they’ve grown up together, gone to school together. Joan has always been around our family. She’s probably not from the same class, her family may not have as much money as the Conways, so she feels a little uncomfortable, a bit out of her element.
TS: Priestley does give a sense of the heightened awareness of class that goes on in Britain.
CP: In the stage directions, Joan is described as a good friend of Hazel, a silly girl, not quite as wealthy, not quite the same class. I don’t know the exact words, but that’s the gist of how she’s described.
Audience Member #2: Madge’s relationship to her mother is quite clear and the other sisters have a different relationship with their mother. What is Kay’s relationship to her mother?
CP: I feel that in 1919, Kay is super sensitive. I think she feels controlled by her mother and at the same time she desperately wants her mother’s attention and approval. She hasn’t got a father anymore and it’s very important to her to feel validated by her mother. I don’t think there’s necessarily any anger toward her mother, there’s just a desire to be loved and acknowledged. There is a bit of frustration that her mother’s taken over the charades that Kay has written out so carefully and seriously. Kay does get a bit serious about the game of charades.
TS: It seems to me that Kay, Alan and Madge are probably more like their father.
CP: Yes, and Carol is adored by everyone.
TS: Robin and Hazel are their mother’s pets. I think with Carol, we don’t quite know what would have happened to her because of her premature death, but she has a lovely heart and we can see it.
CP: What Ernest says about Carol being too good to last is very true. The one who has really figured it out is taken away from the family.
TS: No one in the family except for possibly Carol or Alan really seem to support Kay writing her novel. It can be very hard to persevere if your family doesn’t support your work as an artist.
CP: At the same time, there’s that forcing of identity coming from the mother. Kay may feel like being a would-be writer is the only identity she has within the family and it may be why she ends up writing for a tabloid magazine about Hollywood stars. She really feels like she’s failed in some ways as does the rest of the family.
TS: We have time for one more question.
Audience Member #3: Why do you think Hazel married Ernest? He was such a nasty man.
TS: Hazel says something about being terrified of him.
CP: When Anna and our director discussed it, there was something about Ernest unlike any man the Conways had ever met. He’s very strong and very determined and there’s a power to him. I think Hazel’s knocked out of her comfort zone and is almost attracted to that. Hazel constantly has men falling in love with her left, right, and center, who are worshiping the ground she walks on and here’s a man who’s so different, so determined and maybe there’s a sexiness or an attractiveness to that. He knows he wants her and he’s going to get her. He doesn’t put her on a pedestal. I think she’s fascinated by this creature. But it’s a complex thing.
TS: I think he bullied her, too. Sometimes you are repulsed by something you’re attracted to. I see people who immediately don’t like each other and then two years later they’re married. I think there’s a sexual charge sometimes that you can’t really understand and you try to suppress. I love when Ernest says to her, “I get what I want because I’m very direct.” I don’t necessarily think that’s a common British trait, to be that direct.
CP: No, it’s more of a northern trait perhaps. He’s certainly from a different world than any one the Conways have ever come across.
TS: It’s a good question, it’s a mystery because she’s so unhappy and doesn’t seem to make an effort to get out of the marriage.
CP: I don’t think she could. Men back then could put women in asylums for being unhappy. Or difficult. Earnest had the power to put Hazel in an asylum.
TS: Plus, once children are involved, it’s very difficult to leave a marriage. Maybe not for Nora in A Doll’s House, but definitely for some others it is very hard to make that choice. We must say good bye to Charlotte now. Please help me thank her for joining us today.
CP: Thank you!
TS: For those of you who are interested, I’m going to end today’s event by telling you a bit about Priestley. I feel that learning about his background will enhance your appreciation of the play you just saw. Priestley was born in 1894 and died in 1984. He grew up in Bradford, which is a suburb of the county Yorkshire. His mother died when he was two years old. His father remarried about four years later. He went to the Belle Vue Grammar School and dropped out when he was 16 to work in a wool mill. He was starting to write at night during that time and some of the articles he wrote were published in local newspapers and in London publications. In 1916, he joined the army to fight in World War I. He was injured and came back to London to convalesce. During that period, he trained to be an army officer. He went back to fight on the front line, was injured again by poison gas and was reassigned to administrative work for the rest of the war. Because Priestley was an officer, he was entitled to a grant which allowed him to go to Trinity College, Cambridge.
He was a successful novelist and a playwright. He was also a social commentator. His first success was in 1929, with a novel entitled The Good Companions. He worked with a collaborator on turning it into a stage play. After he had that experience, he thought he’d write a play by himself because it required an immense amount of economy. He wrote a play entitled Dangerous Corner in 1932 and the next year he went on a tour of England. He wrote a book about it entitled An English Journey. He was absolutely stunned and angered by the income inequality that he saw all over England. That was further exacerbated by his rage at the way veterans were being treated. This is when he became a democratic socialist. He fought for these ideals for the rest of his life. In 1941, he had a radio show on the BBC called Postscripts and he was quite popular. He had 16 million listeners every Sunday night. The only person to have more listeners was Winston Churchill himself. It’s interesting because during his broadcasts he gave hope to people in very dark times. People were finding it hard to make ends meet. People liked to listen to him because he was able to give them some sort of comfort, but with that comfort, he also gave them a healthy dose of socialism. That was considered too leftist and there’s an unproven theory that Churchill was behind his show being cancelled. It was taken off the air. In the 1950s, he got so disenchanted with the political process, that I think he just washed his hands of it. That disenchantment was motivated by England acquiring nuclear arms. He wrote an essay that helped create a movement in England for the disarmament of nuclear weapons.
I gave some lip service to the book, An Experiment in Time, by J.W. Dunne that inspired Priestley to write this play. Dunne’s theory is called “Serialism.” His idea is that all time is happening simultaneously and that some people can see the future in their dreams. Five or six of Priestley’s plays were inspired by this theory. In England, Priestley’s much better known than he is here in the United States. He’s renowned for being one of the last great men of English letters. In America, he is probably best known for his play, An Inspector Calls, which was written in 1945. It is also one of Priestley’s so-called “time plays” and was given a first-class revival by the National Theatre. That production came here in 1994, directed by Stephen Daldry. It won a Tony Award for Best Revival that year and then went on tour. It’s really a remarkable play and it was quite a lovely production.
The play that you saw today is a lost treasure. It was first done on Broadway in 1938 at the Ritz Theatre -- which is now The Walter Kerr Theatre -- Jessica Tandy originally played the part that Charlotte played, Kay. This is the first time that this play has been revived on Broadway in 79 years. I kept saying, “This is so modern,” when I first read it. I think Priestley was influenced by Freudian psychology. And, of course, he was influenced by Dunne’s theory of Serialism. It is fascinating to think about time and question whether we are intrinsically aware of our future and, if so, are we able to access it?
Now, I want to give you all the opportunity to ask any questions about that research I just shared, if you have any.
Audience Member #4: Can you put this play into a little bit more of a historical context? What else was being written at the time?
TS: I can speak about America, but I can’t really speak with very much erudition about Britain. The Group Theatre was extremely influential in the 1930s here. It didn’t last very long, but putting naturalism onstage was part of what The Group accomplished. Clifford Odets and Sidney Kingsley were trying to put real life onstage and I think that’s what Priestley is doing. In a way, that’s really remarkable. He’s showing us a slice of family life, but with this time disruption. What I think is more important is the fact that he is showing us not only the dysfunction and the deterioration of the dreams of this particular family, but that so many in Britain had a similar trajectory. Everybody in Britain was thinking now that World War I is over, we can breathe again -- things will be good again. They didn’t know what was about to happen in Europe with the rise of Hitler. It’s just a remarkable way to show how one family can represent a whole country and its various issues. As far as British playwrights are concerned, I can only think of Noel Coward and T.S. Eliot who were writing at the same time. I believe Shaw wrote Pygmalion in 1938, the year after Priestley wrote this play. And I believe Terence Rattigan had his first success in 1936 with French Without Tears. I hope that helps answer your original question, but please give me your email and I’ll do some research and send what I find to you.
Audience Member #5: At that time in London, séances were very popular with both J.B. Priestley and Arthur Conan Doyle. The reason I know this is that I worked for someone who held these séances. I came across the names of people who were in attendance in London. Priestley was one of them and Arthur Conan Doyle was another. Priestley was literally influenced by life beyond time and space and being able to look into the future.
TS: I thank you for that observation because you just triggered something in my mind. Noël Coward wrote Blithe Spirit around 1941 and that play has a séance in it. The play, You Can’t Take It with You, which was written in the late 1930s, has the character of the upper-class mother who comes to dinner and talks about being into spiritualism. So, this idea of accessing the past and the future must have been in the zeitgeist. I think what Priestley was trying to say to us, on some level, is that we can transcend the negative things that happen to us if we are able to get past thinking it will last forever. I believe he wants us to live in a more mystical way. I know it’s a trope to think this reality we are all part of is only part of a collective dream, but I do believe, like Priestley and the character of Carol, that we need to focus on the bigger issues of love, kindness and generosity. A lot of the issues that we are dealing with right now in this country. Priestley was very smart. Hopefully, we can all figure out how to practice what he preached.
Time and the Conway runs through November 26 at the American Airlines Theatre. For tickets and information, please visit our website.
2017-2018 Season, A Conversation with, Education @ Roundabout, Time and the Conways