Core Writer Allison Gregory is at the Playwrights’ Center this week, workshopping her play about the six infamous Mitford sisters: Darling Boud, Hen, Henderson, Honks, Woomling, Love Naunce. She is collaborating with director Leah Cooper; dramaturg Liz Engelman; and actors Claudia Wilkens*, Angela Timberman*, Carolyn Pool*, Suzanne Warmanen*, Mo Perry*, and Sandra Struthers* (*Member of Actors’ Equity). Learn a bit more about Allison in this interview:
Your new play Darling Boud… is based on extensive archival research. How do you approach a project like this?
With a stack of thick books, historic newspaper articles, a list of YouTube videos and interviews, and tons of guile. I mean really: tackling eighty years of charged correspondence between six infamous blue-blooded sisters? It’s daunting! Luckily, because the Mitfords were who they were — think of them as intellectual Kardashians of their day, with the subsequent personal and political drama and public fascination — I have plenty of material to pull from and to build on for Darling Boud….
It’s a crazy fun world to play with; the challenge has been determining what not to use, what doesn’t move the story in a fruitful direction. It’s like going on Facebook and then getting so caught up in everyone’s life events you forget what you were going to post — there’s so much engrossing information about these sisters this could easily become my Mahabharata if I don’t keep a lid on it. Someone recently suggested that might not be a bad idea, that maybe the sisters cook a meal for the audience during the first act, everyone eats, and we carry on. Hm.
What kind of stories have you been interested in writing recently? Do you know why you are drawn to them?
Social justice and identity seem to be the ‘it’ topics right now, but true to form, I am at odds with popular opinion and currently drawn to historical figures, both fictional and actual. I find a kind of resonance and richness that makes my brain throb in a way that excites my writing. Finding the intimate in the epic personalizes a story for me; that was definitely the case with Not Medea. Ultimately, making present-day associations and connections ends up being part of the obsession.
What is the most unusual place you’ve found inspiration for a play?
The face of El Capitan. I’ve never been on the face of El Capitan and I’m certain I never need to climb it, but while reading a book about rock climbers — because I just couldn’t fathom why anyone would climb any massive natural edifice, much less El Capitan — I got this image of a guy perched mid-climb, unable to ascend or descend. That image stuck with me, and I put him in a play (Cliffhouse) mid-climb, for some reason unable to complete his climb or terminate it. I had to write the play to figure out why.
What does your writing space look like?
I have a large office with high ceilings, tall windows, and gorgeous wood-work in our 100 year-old house in Austin. Thing is, when I’m generating a new play I usually write in bed, or on the couch in the living room, or on the floor in the parlor, or on an airplane. I don’t know why, I just crave a less officious space. I do rewrites in my office. When my daughter leaves for college I’ll probably go upstairs to her bed to write. Maybe I’ll write loftier plays up there.
What is your relationship with rewriting? Are you a 50-drafts writer or a first-draft-is-pretty-close writer?
I always hope for the latter but generally experience the former. Generating new material is a breathless sprint—an exciting, perilous, numbing, exhausting thrill. Happily I love rewriting, because I do an enormous amount of it; it’s a quieter, satisfying thrill. Even with a play like Wild Horses, which came out mostly cooked, I ended up doing quite a bit of editing for the premiere (July 2017, NNPN Rolling World Premiere at Contemporary American Theatre Festival), and will continue to tinker with it for subsequent productions. I just dig shaping the work.
Finish this sentence: If I weren’t a playwright I would be…
I was a contestant on a game show once and when the host (Dick Clark) asked me what I did, I said I was a horse trainer! Of course I’m not a horse trainer: they work way too hard for too little money. They might as well be playwrights.
What artists inspire you and why?
Steven Dietz, because no one in the American theater works more rigorously, inventively, or generously; KJ Sanchez, because she is open and ebullient and nimble; Liz Engelman because as a dramaturg she is tireless and selfless; Caryl Churchill because she can make a play out of anything; whichever playwright I am reading at any given time, because they actually wrote a play, they didn’t just talk about it.
How does being a writer shape your day-to-day life?
I listen to the world more carefully, I see people differently than when I wasn’t a writer. I try to cultivate curiosity and resist judgement. There’s so much absurdity, so much accidental comedy and quiet tragedy in unexpected places. I always felt like an outsider trying to figure out how to get in; as a writer I covet being on the outside — for an observer it’s an ideal perch.