Special ‘5 Questions’: Director Jordana Williams Interviews Playwright Mac Rogers
Viral follows four days in the lives of three people who live together and are bound by a strange fetish: sexually arousal by watching people die.
As the play begins, they finally find a volunteer — the mysterious, suicidal Meredith — willing to record the perfect death video for them.
Here, Viral director Jordana Williams asks playwright Mac Rogers (a colleague for over 15 years) a few more than five questions he’s never been asked.
Kent Meister, Amy Lynn Stewart in Mac Rogers’
Viral, directed by Jordana Williams
Jordana: Let’s start off with the first Clyde Fitch Report question: What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Mac: The ongoing most perceptive question I get is from director colleagues like yourself: “What are you trying to do here?” When something’s not working, that’s the clarifying question.
J: Do you find that you generally know the answer when you’re asked?
M: I always do inside my head, but not always how to explain it out loud! If I’m talking to someone I’ve been working with for a long time, like you, you’re usually able to auto-fill, which is cool.
J: Is it a question you explicitly ask yourself while you’re working?
M: I do more and more. As I get older, I increasingly hold discipline above all other virtues in writing. Constantly for me it’s What are we doing here? Is this giving us something we need for the story? When I enforce more discipline on myself while writing, audiences are less bored later.
J: And I bug you for fewer rewrites! Though you did a recent one over the phone that I loved-when I wanted Meredith to come out in Jarvis’ robe and you immediately knew what he should say when he saw her. It was funny and 100% true to the character’s voice.
M: That’s a thing about Viral-for all the laughs this show gets, it doesn’t really have “jokes,” just moments that strike different audiences as really creepy or really funny, moments when characters are committing utterly to something extreme or disturbing as if it isn’t extreme or disturbing.
J: Let’s move on to the next question: What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
M: I should say that I’m not really well-known enough to have hosted a talkback or anything, so I haven’t been exposed to the really insane stuff as yet.
J: I’ve always thought that anyone who called your earlier writing misogynistic was totally missing the point. And I’m allowed to say that because I have a full complement of lady-parts!
M: Well, I had a bit of a hurdle to get over in my writing about women back in the day. I think a lot of young straight men who aren’t good at talking to women have this tendency to alternately worship and demonize them, neither of which is a useful stance in relating to another human being, so I struggled with that a bit.
J: I just always felt like that struggle was a fairly explicit part of the storytelling.
M: But it’s definitely the case that when you raise an issue in a play, people who feel strongly about it go on alert and it’s very easy for them to take something badly. We’ve seen it with Viral-suicide as a theme hits some people hard.
J: Now the third question: What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
M: I guess the one where people quizzically say, “So why did you decide to write a play about X?” As if I had made a suspect decision in choosing the content.
J: I think that’s sort of an occupational hazard of what we like to do-taking some pretty freaky stuff and making it as relatable and familiar as possible.
M: At least it means it’s something they haven’t seen a million times.
J: Now I’m gonna make up some questions for you!
M: Bring it!
J: Our joke always used to be that you wrote dark stuff that I would try to sneak some cheer into, but I feel like that line is blurring more and more over the years. Are your plays getting cheerier or am I getting darker?
M: Certainly, going back to my first years in New York, I wrote very, very dark plays with very unhappy endings. But more recently, I’ve gotten more interested in acknowledging that while life is difficult and sometimes violent and always unfair, some people do find moments of grace or behave with kindness or accumulate wisdom. Young people live very much in what they perceive to be the present, but when you hit your 30s, you start to think, Huh, there is actually going to be some kind of future ahead of me and perhaps I can, in some small way, define it.
J: Do you think your relationship with Sandy, your fiancee, has played a part in that?
M: That’s definitely part of it. I don’t consciously think about it while writing, but I’ve noticed that I’m not willing to peddle hopelessness anymore.
J: There’s something about the big life things (children, marriage/partnership, etc.)–the daily slog and the small miracles–that makes hopelessness feel a little immature or at least incomplete as an idea. Basically, there IS hope, but you have to do a lot of day-to-day crap in order to sustain it.
M: I still don’t like Pollyannish plot turns, and still believe every good thing comes with a price.
J: And I’ve become a lot more willing to acknowledge that price.
M: Yes, exactly.
J: Can you talk about a moment in one of your plays that wound up being very different in the playing from what you envisioned when writing it, but that was ultimately satisfying for you?
M: There’s a narrator character in Universal Robots who I envisioned as this ice-cold, omnipotent master of ceremonies with a clerical-like bearing, but when I cast Michelle O’Connor in that role, her natural tendencies as an actor-warm, emotional, often maternal-gradually eroded that interpretation.
J: But she also has a lot of dignity, so I can see how it was different without undermining the root of your original intention. [Mac directed the 2007 workshop of Robots.]
M: After watching her in rehearsal, I somehow got over my preconceptions to the point where, when she cried over the closing prayer one night in rehearsal, I said afterwards, “You know what? If you happen to cry on a given performance, that makes perfect sense to me, so keep it if it happens.” That’s the most dramatic alteration from page to performance I’ve ever had.
J: That sort of goes back to the original thing we talked about in terms of asking yourself what you’re really going for. Okay-another question! We scrapped a production we were rehearsing in early September 2001 called Mercurial [about a writer falling in love with a character named Maggie, the woman modeling the Laura Croft-like protagonist of the videogame the writer is devising[ because it no longer felt appropriate after Sept. 11 [there was a subplot about a terrorist attack on New York]. You wound up using elements of Mercurial in both Universal Robots and Viral. Talk to me about that process.
M: We knew there was no way we could open a play like that in October 2001. That may seem strange now, but it’s easy to forget how we all felt in those first weeks and months.
J: People could barely get through their regular days. To make them sit through something like that so soon after would have been unkind.
M: The biggest reason I decided to so thoroughly plunder Mercurial for Robots was a realization I made about myself. Mercurial was composed almost entirely of long direct-address monologues, like the plays by Wallace Shawn that I was reading and loving at the time (and still love). But ultimately I had to admit that with very few exceptions, I find it hard to sit through plays with only long monologues in them, and that it was kind of stunningly arrogant for me to think an audience should sit through something I can’t Robots was conceived for actors taking on multiple roles, built-in pageantry, violence, etc. I thought the ideas in Mercurial-particularly the structure of a confessional story told in a post-apocalyptic theater-could be more successfully conveyed in a more theatrical vehicle.
J: How do you know when a play can still be revised and when it has to be scrapped (with the possibility of recycling some parts)?
M: I guess there’s a narrow window of time when you can still tweak a play before you yourself change too much to be qualified to work on that play anymore. If you try to retroactively screw with something you wrote at a much younger age, there’s a risk you can damage it.
J: I guess it’s a question of whether or not you can still access that same mindset-or still want to.
M: In terms of Viral, the Meredith character could be the self-destructive Maggie from Mercurial, several years down the road. I like to think with Viral, I’m romanticizing that kind of character less. I no longer find self-destruction sexy, though I continue to find it fascinating.
J: And there’s some fun, subtle exploration of what leads a person to feel comfortable being objectified.
M: It’s likely that Meredith has been admired for her beauty and intensity throughout her life, and is simultaneously addicted to and sick to death of that kind of fixation.
J: And there’s a familiarity to it that in a strange way probably makes her feel safe with these people and gets her to agree to their proposition.
M: But I knew it would be a challenge to make her acquiescence seem credible. But I know your work as a director, and I knew you would never let anybody play a moment for deliberate weirdness or creepiness, so the fact that this makes sense to the characters-combined with the way Amy [Lynn Stewart] plays the moment of acceptance-has so far made most audience members buy the act on its own terms.
J: The look on her face-I don’t even know if I can describe it, but it’s just pitch perfect. That’s what’s so humbling about my job. You wrote the play, the actors perform it, and then somewhere in the middle I talk a bunch.
M: I don’t agree. I think everybody throws out ideas, but the director chooses which ones to keep, and that’s a brutally difficult job-all the more brutal in that in theater it’s invisible to most people. Famous directors get their props, but otherwise people often forget all the detailed work they have to do. You tend to make your directing more invisible than most-you never give yourself a The Director Was Here moment-so I was glad to finally see you getting some appreciation in the Viral reviews.
J: That’s very kind of you. We should probably wrap this up…
M: Well, I’ll throw out one question for you: What would you most like to accomplish, artistically, as a director in the next year or so?
J: I think what I’m always hoping for is that another script like Viral will come my way. Something that excites me and asks interesting questions and awakens that weird protective instinct in me where I want to do everything in my power to take good care of it and help it be its best self. And then I just hope that I’ll be equal to that challenge.