Talking With Meg Miroshnik About The End Of Theatre

At the start of September, Undermain was thrilled to welcome playwright Meg Miroshnik to the basement for a week of rehearsals. While here, she generously agreed to grab a latte and chat about the play, her process, and the END of Theatre. Check out the interview and then come check out the world premiere of The Droll {Or, a Stage-Play about the END of Theatre} opening this weekend on the Undermain stage.















Meg, it’s great to have you back at Undermain after the successful production of The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls last season! What was different for you with this second collaboration?
I only saw the production for Fairytale lives and wasn’t able to be present for rehearsal, but I was really blown away. They did such an amazing job with it, and it’s very satisfying to know that the play was doing that work on its own. It’s exciting being able to be here and be in the rehearsal room this time.

You and Blake really seem to be on the same page during rehearsal.
Oh absolutely. It’s been really exciting to see how Blake is interpreting the play so intuitively. The first time I heard Blake respond to a reading of the scene, he responded by highlighting certain things – providing the actors with the breadcrumbs of the trail for how the story is going to be told in a way that still allows for them to have discoveries and make choices. In hearing that, I felt completely confident that he gets it, and that’s only been reinforced by hearing him work with the actors. Every time I think to say something, he and the actors are there already. When they’re already doing the work, I am able to see something in a new way for the first time. The exciting thing for me is then, when I’m chiming in, it’s a discovery. It’s really gratifying.

What do you look for in companies, like Undermain, and others that produce your work?
The thing that I’m most interested in, is telling stories that can’t be told in any other medium. Or can’t be told this way in any other medium. Looking at Undermain’s history, it seems to me that most of the work produced here is inherently theatrical, and that there’s a great value placed on that. With telling stories in this medium, it’s a matter of playing to theatre’s strengths at all times. And it seems like that’s also a core value of the Undermain.

Could you give us some examples of theatre’s strengths?
The Droll features a troupe, who’s making theatre in less than ideal circumstances, with less than ideal resources. And that feels like the right aesthetic for a production. In theatre, things that could feel like disadvantages become advantages. There is space for imagination. I’m thinking a lot about flying with the new play I’m working on, and we want to see the wires. I feel like the magic of theatre is both seeing the wires and not seeing the wires at the same time. And I think that is cheesy in any other medium, but in theatre, it’s transcendent. And leaning into that is my primary interest in theatre.

You often start a play using Paula Vogel’s “bake-off” exercise where you write a first draft with certain “ingredients” during the course of 48 hours. What were your ingredients for The Droll?
I wrote the first draft at drama school in response to Shakespeare Projects where the directors had to 75 minute cuts of Shakespeare plays with a very dominant overarching vision. I was assigned to The Tempest but I wrote Hamlet.

The director that did Hamlet did this sort of pastiche of Hamlet and Hamlet Machine. There was a lot of playing with time and with some of the text; He gave the “To Be or not To Be” speech in reverse order. There’s still a lot of that in William’s obsession: “I’ve now conn’d the whole of Hamlet. I can speak it back to front and front to back”. Then, Thomas coming back as a non-actor, the sense of stripping away theatre, comes from Hamlet Machine: “My words speak no more to me…”

There were a few specific lines from The Tempest that stayed in The Droll, and some elements, like James’s bottle. (That became very helpful to me, each character having a specific Shakespearean prop.) There was also a lot more about Caliban in the first draft. I was interested in this idea of early colonialist readings of Caliban as a clown – which is very hard a as a contemporary reader to see. Maybe James was performing Caliban as a comic figure! That remained from the bake-off.

When you do a “bake-off”, how long is a first draft?
I actually cheated on the bake-off. Usually you do try to get the structure of the play out in 48 hours. I spent so long discovering the language of the play that I think I only wrote like 25 pages in the first draft – which, by Paula’s standards, is not a great showing for a bake-off.

Is the idea to try and get as much as you can of the complete 90 page draft in those 48 hours?
Some people can do that. I am not one of those writers. My bake-offs are usually about 40 pages if I am very focused. The idea is to get through as much of the first draft as possible, and to get to an ending if you can. It’s like a first stumble-though. (It’s not the show, but you get a sense of the arc of the show. And it is a lot easier to refine once you see the arc of what’s there.) You get that stumble-through of a draft out…. It’s not the thing, and it’s maybe half as long as it should be, but you have this over-arcing form to work with so you don’t get bogged down in writing and re-writing the first scene a hundred times before you ever move on. (Because, it’s great if you have a perfect first scene, but not if you have no idea how the play works, going forward.)

Something I’ve discovered is that I’m an over-writer. I’m over-writing everything for myself as an actor (I’m a bad actor)- so the first 40 pages are maybe the events of the first 15. I’m so interested in world-building in a play. I really believe that each world should be its own thing. So a lot of the early investigation is about asking “what is this world?” I am teaching myself the rules and writing my way into these discoveries. Audiences are really smart, and they learn worlds are a lot faster than I give them credit for in my first couple drafts. Someone watching doesn’t need their hands held as much as someone who’s explaining the world to themselves.

When you write, does the world come first, and then the story come out of the world? Or is it character first?
It is almost never character first, for me. It’s almost always world. With The Droll, the world definitely came first. It’s exciting to start from the world, for me, because that’s what I’m interested in… but it might be a longer process, because I have to write into plot. The plot appears two drafts in.

Were any resources that were particularly valuable to you in creating and understanding the world of this play? Do you have any recommended reading or watching for our audience prior to seeing the show?
There’s this extant Droll image from the Francis Kirkman collection of drolls (available on Google books), an engraving of Falstaff on stage with these other famous characters from different plays. I read a lot about the Elizabethan and Restoration periods – to see the bookends of that time. And I found Winter Fruit by Dale BJ Randall really useful. It’s a general history of Interregnum theatre. Another wonderful resource was this analysis of ledgers called Global Economics: A History of the Theater Business, the Chamberlains’s/King’s Men, and Their Plays. You can see in the ledger when the bear suit comes in to the Shakespearean company’s possession, and what plays and performances came out of that. I was inspired to see that this work that is so canonical, that is the basis of so much of Western theatre came out of practical realities. Of course, we take for granted that our resources shape the kind of work that we do today, but even this classic work was shaped by things as small as “we just got this costume…how do we show it off?” The tangible realities of theatre-making seem so arbitrary in a way that we don’t usually associate with the mastery of Shakespeare. But it was theatre, too.

The Droll, as its subtitle notes, is a play about “the END of Theatre.” As you were contemplating this world where theatre is over or ending, were you reminded of any reasons that theatre has become so vital to you?
I try to start every play from that question, but with this play especially. I grew up in Minneapolis – which was an amazing place to fall in love with theatre as a kid, because there’s such an abundance of it. Thinking specifically about sitting in the house of a children’s theatre company in Minneapolis… The design included a scrim with a page of the book that the play was adapted from. It was opaque at first, but then it would become translucent, and when it went up, the depth of the stage was revealed. That moment had a very specific kind of anticipation, that sense that I was going to see something magical, the purity of falling in love with something that much larger than yourself.

That was definitely the place where the play starts and that’s definitely the place where the character of Nim comes from- that pure hunger and adoration. I think it’s about making a theatrical experience where even adults can experience something magical. That is the place that I try to be in when I start writing, but especially with this play in particular. A lot of what I wanted to explore is the end of theatre: the aging demographics of audiences and the sense a lot of people have that their theaters aren’t speaking to them. It comes from both a very adult and cynical place that asks “what is the point of this?” but also from that completely pure and faithful place of the childhood belief in the power of live performance experienced in real time with a community.

Abigail Birkett and Megan McQuaid
Undermain Emerging Artists

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