Artist Interview: Will Arbery
Tim Sanford: Where did you grow up?
Will Arbery: I grew up mostly in Dallas, Texas. But I was born in Nashua, New Hampshire and I have seven sisters. I’m the second to youngest. They went to tiny Catholic liberal arts colleges like the ones where my parents tend to teach.
TS: So seven plus you makes eight which is the number of children Gina has.
WA: Yeah, correct.
TS: Is that a coincidence?
WA: That is not a coincidence. My mom really did have eight kids in 13 years and she had three miscarriages. So she was pregnant 11 times in 13 years and they really were all C-sections. And then after she had Monica, my younger sister, she survived breast cancer. So we grew up with this powerhouse of a mother who believed so strongly in the faith that led her to have all of us and really sacrificed her health so that we could all live.
TS: Is she still alive?
WA: Yeah. She’s doing well. She likes to say that she shrunk five inches from all the pregnancies, which is true. She’s a lot shorter than she used to be. And I think she’s in more pain all the time than she lets on. But she’s a very, very strong woman and believes in what she believes very, very strongly and has the resume to back it up.
TS: And was she a working mom?
WA: Yeah. She taught that whole time.
TS: What about your dad?
WA: They are both teachers. They are college professors. They tend to teach at undergraduate colleges, in small great books programs, usually Catholic.
TS: Usually at Catholic schools or at all different types of schools?
WA: The places where they’ve stayed the longest have been Catholic schools. They’ve lectured at other places or supplemented income by teaching. My mom taught at a science school in north Texas for a little bit, UNT, which is mostly for scientists and engineers and computer people. And she was teaching there for a while. And my dad had a stint as like a movie critic in Dallas. There was a weird period where they weren’t doing the small college thing, but that was only five years or so. And then, they got offered jobs at this new school in Wyoming.
TS: There’s a lot of discussion about the curriculum at Transfiguration College of Wyoming. It’s specifically a Catholic school in your play, and the discussion of the curriculum makes clear that its theological perspective is presented through what seems like a traditional western civilization context and the Greek model that Justin cites. Is that true of your parents too? Were they mixing religion into the curriculums that they were teaching or was that secondary?
WA: It combined a classical Great Books education with a deep dive in Catholic theology. So they got Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, but then also Augustine, Aquinas. My dad is more of a literature professor and my mom is more of a political philosophy, political science professor. But they’re both adept at discussing theology and philosophy and the way everything informs everything else. The school in Wyoming also has Euclidean mathematics and geology and astronomy and a real outdoor component.
TS: And do these schools teach science traditionally? What is their point of view about things like Darwin?
WA: There’s actually a real contingent of deeply faithful people who are also quite up-to-date on the most cutting-edge physics and scientific discoveries in general because for them, the more you discover about the astonishingly complex patterns at play in all of creation, the more you know you don’t know and the more you’re just in awe of the design of everything. So they definitely are not evolution deniers or anything like that.
TS: I asked you because my father was a Methodist minister and he was a chemistry major in college, and was actually in a masters program when World War II started. He became a conscientious objector. But when I say to people, “My father was a Methodist minister,” you can see the assumptions flashing before their eyes, that I must have grown up with a lot of moral rigidity and judgment. One of the things I love about the play is it belies these really reductive assumptions a lot of people have about religious people. What kind of expectations were on you as a kid in terms of schooling and church, and the things you wanted to do?
WA: I didn’t go to a Catholic college and I didn’t even apply to one. I did that deliberately and I was upfront with my parents about that at the time. I said that I wanted to branch out and explore and go somewhere where I could focus on writing and Kenyon was a natural fit for me. My parents were supportive of me, especially because they are so steeped in literature. My dad had actually been published in the Kenyon Review in the 80s. And so, there was a lot that they could draw on. John Crowe Ransom was someone that they really admired and he had taught there. When I went to Kenyon, I was still a practicing Catholic. I went to mass every week in the little chapel there. And I probably would have kept that up the whole time, but then my junior year, they stopped offering Catholic mass — it was an Episcopalian church, but a Catholic priest would come in from another town and do mass on Saturdays. And he stopped doing that my junior year. And that was actually a precipitating factor in me not going to mass as much anymore. But I had been questioning since I was in high school and it’s been a slow process. I actually feel more steeped in the faith right now than I have maybe ever because of how seriously I’m taking this play and the characters in this play and the world of this play. At times it’s brought me back to a sort of fuzzy feeling that you feel like when you’re in mass, when you’re a kid and, even if you’re a little fidgety and a little bored, it’s so familiar to you. It gets into your bones.
TS: Did you start going to mass again as you were researching this play?
WA: I go to mass with my family when I’m home. I didn’t need to go back to mass to research this play. I think my way into actually writing this play had a lot more to do with the politics. That’s where most of my real research was.
TS: Would you describe the politics as very present in everyone’s conversations when you were young?
WA: Yeah, they were very intertwined.
TS: Did you find yourself in agreement with most of the views they were expressing?
WA: When it came to politics, most of the time I had no idea what they were talking about, and I put up weird walls. I wasn’t really trying to find out what they were talking about either. I just knew that it made them angry and that they were really worked up about stuff. And that made me proclaim that I didn’t care about politics or that I had no opinions. I would shut down. I always knew how pro-life they were. But there was nuance to everything. I remember that they were scared about climate change and that they were taking that really seriously. We had neighbors who were a gay couple and they would come over for dinner all the time. There were things that to this day I’m grateful for. It felt like there was an openness or an integrity that maybe some of my peers at school where I went, their parents were more — these were the Bush years, so it was more like, “We’re Texas people, we’re Republicans, that’s who we are.” And my house felt a lot more complicated.
TS: You mentioned you went to Kenyon for writing, that you already had writing as an interest and passion. When did that interest really develop?
WA: I remember basically thinking of myself as a writer from the age of 10. I wrote a haiku about a lunar eclipse. It’s actually in the bathrooms here, on the walls.
TS: Which you are enormously proud of, I can tell.
WA: (Laughs) Yeah. I just remember I had this assignment to write a haiku and I was like, “I don’t know how to do this and I don’t know what to write about.” And my parents were like, “Well, what if you wrote about the eclipse we saw the other night?” I remember my dad just sitting there and walking me through the idea of a metaphor.
TS: Was that a lunar eclipse?
WA: It was a lunar eclipse.
TS: But in the play it’s a solar eclipse.
WA: Yeah. I’ve always liked eclipses. Somehow he gently guided me to come up with that image of the earth’s shadow tucking in the moon for sleep. And I remember just having a feeling like, “Oh wow. “And then of course the haiku won some award at my school. And so that award made me really feel like a writer because validation is such an addictive drug. So I just kept writing. It just became part of my identity.
TS: What were you writing?
WA: I was writing a lot of poetry and fiction and creative nonfiction. I didn’t go to Kenyon knowing that I would write plays. I was acting at the time and I knew I wanted to act and I wanted to write poetry. I didn’t really discover playwriting until my junior year. And then by my senior year I was like, “I want to be a playwright.”
TS: When you discovered playwriting, you were already acting, so you had a feeling for theater itself. What were you acting in? Like the typical high school production of You Can’t Take It with You?
WA: I was in On the Razzle by Tom Stoppard.
TS: Well that’s very advanced compared to my high school.
WA: We did really interesting plays. I was in this play called Jabberwocky about the young life of James Thurber. I was in this Gogol adaptation of Dead Souls.
WA: Yeah, it was intense stuff.
TS: So, when you went to Kenyon, did you continue that?
WA: Yeah, I acted a lot. I was in an improv troupe. I did so much. I was insatiable. I couldn’t stop. I’ve never been a straight-A student because I do too many things on the side. And I really dive in. It was all about the productions. Anything creative, I was wholeheartedly doing. The reading, I sometimes couldn’t find time for.
TS: So what led you to write a play?
WA: I took playwriting with Wendy MacLeod, who’s been produced here. And I really liked it. She was really encouraging and it just felt like such a convergence.
TS: Of being a writer and liking theater, I guess.
WA: Yeah, totally. But also just having a huge family and sitting around the dinner table and having nine people, all of whom I cared about, all of whose voices were bouncing around in my head all the time, whose perspectives I was juggling. It just felt like the most natural fit to be able to let them speak, rather than impose my own perspective on the reader.
TS: So you went to graduate school for writing?
TS: Did you ever have a play that you wrote performed at Kenyon?
WA: When I was a senior I did; I wrote and directed seven short plays that I did as an evening of theater.
TS: You have to talk about that experience.
WA: Yeah, that was great. It was very empowering.
TS: So the first time you heard your characters saying your words in front of an audience — a lot of writers say that moment was life-changing.
WA: It was, but it was more than just the words. It was the actual making of it, and the working with the actors, and creating this experience for people. That was what I think I really got addicted to. Because the writing is one thing, but the making is another.
TS: Where did you go to grad school?
TS: Did they do your plays there?
WA: No, we didn’t have productions there. But where I ended up putting that theater-making energy was: I made four short films when I was there because we had access to the film equipment. So I made a bunch of short films and that was really fun. But in the meantime, I was writing full-length plays.
TS: Were you sending your plays to theaters in Chicago? How’d you get a foot into professional theater?
WA: The first thing was the Clubbed Thumb Early-Career Writer’s Group, which I was recommended for by Aaron Carter, who was the literary manager at Steppenwolf at the time. I had a nice, friendly relationship with him. He had read my plays, which were quite weird, especially at that time, and was like, “This is too out there for Steppenwolf. But if you’re moving back to New York, I know the company for you.” And he sent an email to Maria [Striar] and then she emailed me, offering me a spot in that group even before I had moved back there. So that was really, really lucky because it made that transition a lot less stressful.
TS: Who were your models as playwrights?
WA: My heroes were Young Jean Lee and Richard Maxwell and Maria Irene Fornes and Caryl Churchill and Adrienne Kennedy. I was all about — and I still feel this way — I want to push the boundaries.
TS: You said you were moving back to New York. When were you here before?
WA: I had done two years here, between Kenyon and Northwestern.
TS: You did? What did you do in those two years?
WA: I don’t even know. Suffered? I did an internship at New Dramatists and I did a lot of weird short play festivals in weird spaces and acted and did devised theater.
TS: Were you taking a hiatus or were you trying it and then said, “I’ve got to switch gears and go to graduate school?”
WA: I was trying it. I was trying to do it, so hard, but again, I was more focused on the making. I didn’t even really know that I should be sending my plays to theaters. For me, theater was something that you made and it was about finding the resources to make it as good as it could be. So the idea of agents or getting this play to this person at this theater was so foreign to me. It was about getting into rooms and making stuff.
TS: It’s very clear to me that that’s why you’re such an innate writer. We take open submissions here and a lot of the plays you look at and you think, “This guy has never had a production.” They’re writing in a completely insular room, divorced from the community that makes plays.
TS: What was the teaching like at Northwestern? Were you developing your voice? Were the exercises pushing you in one direction or another?
WA: It was a good program in the sense that it didn’t have an official or unofficial pedagogy. The playwriting professors were Rebecca Gilman and Thomas Bradshaw and Zayd Dohrn. And they were all so different in their approaches. Rebecca was really big on structure, but Thomas was really big on risk and integrity and authenticity and Zayd was somewhere in the middle and really good about encouraging healthy habits for a writing life, at least that’s what I got out of the three of them. They were all such great mentors to me. So I left feeling very empowered in my own voice.
TS: How did the Clubbed Thumb experience work? Did you meet directors?
WA: Well, the lab was run by Michael Bulger and it’s just sitting around and reading each other’s plays and talking about them.
TS: So you weren’t pairing up with directors?
WA: We had a speed-dating session where we met directors, and that’s actually where I met Danya. And I was like: “Who is this intense person, she’s like me, we speak the same language.” She directed a reading of Claustrophile, an earlier play of mine, at the end of my year there. I’m still figuring out how I relate to directors, but I know that what Danya and I have found is special. It works. For me, a director is just collaborator number one. When it works best, it’s when we’re both just down in the mud together and building this thing and there’s not a lot of ego in terms of hierarchy or “This is your role, this is my role.” We’re just the two people who care the most, the earliest, and get everyone to care the same amount that we do.
TS: Because you wanted that, did that happen for you mainly?
WA: Yeah, totally. It totally happened with Taylor [Reynolds] on Plano and it totally happened with Danya on this. We’re partners. I haven’t yet had the experience of working with an older, established, legendary director. It kind of scares me because I want to be in the mud.
TS: I find oftentimes talking to playwrights that they have a cut-off point in their early plays of when they will let people read them. Was that true for you? Do you feel like the evolution of your plays was continuous, or was there a point at which you say, “Oh, I guess I’m a professional playwright?”
WA: Yeah, there was.
TS: You moved to New York and went to the Clubbed Thumb Lab. From then to Heroes, how many plays did you write, for example?
WA: I think it’s been four and a half, and then I wrote three before grad school and two big ones during grad school.
TS: Can I read all your plays that you wrote in school?
WA: You can read one of them.
TS: You’d let me read one of them?
WA: Yeah. Claustrophile. I love Claustrophile. That was a big moment for me because I felt myself breaking loose. I would still jump at the chance to do that play. Les Waters wants to direct it and I want that to happen, but it has a 10-person cast.
TS: When did you write that?
WA: That’s one of the Northwestern plays. There’s another one called The Mongoose. I think with that play, I was trying to make it producible, so I don’t believe it as much anymore.
TS: When you start to write a play, do you set any rules for yourself or do you pick a conceit? Or is there a general feeling or a theme that you’re forming? Or is it different for every play?
WA: I always follow two rules: Young Jean Lee’s mission to “write the last play in the world she would ever want to make.” And Anne Washburn: “write the play you think no one but you will like.” Those are my guiding lights. Other than that, it’s definitely different for every play. I always set some sort of restriction for myself. Like with Heroes, I knew that I wanted it to be continuous. I wanted to try to do unity of time, place and action.
TS: Was Plano the play right before this?
TS: Because Plano has jumps in time all through it. There’s discontinuous action even within scenes. So it’s a companion concept in a way.
WA: Yeah. They’re sort of inverted worlds.
TS: Was that a rule you made for yourself in Plano, or did the jumping time just kind of happen?
WA: It just kind of happened. I don’t know what rules I made for myself in Plano. That was just a totally different headspace. My organizational concept for that was that each sister will get their section and each male presence in that section will be a menace in some way. And what does that menace look like and how does their section move based on that menace? And then when Maria offered me the chance to expand it for Summerworks, I was like, “Okay, I want a fourth section. Who’s the scariest person who could enter now?” And then rather than having it be another male presence, it became their mother. So there was an organizational principle, but I would always find it through doing it. Whereas with Heroes, I was like, “I’m really going to try to write straight through.”
TS: Why was that important to you, do you think? Was it just something you’d always wanted to do or you had a special admiration for plays that do that? Or did you think it was the right approach for this particular topic?
WA: It felt like the right approach for this topic. I wanted to give people the feeling that I have sitting there amongst those kinds of people, having those conversations and the feeling of not being able to get out of that uninterrupted experience. It just felt important. It also felt like a little bit of a Trojan horse for me if I’m being honest. I wanted this play to seem on the surface like a quote unquote “normal American play.” I wanted it to be appealing to a normal New York subscriber theatergoer. Relevant, topical subject matter, approachable, familiar form. And then from within that form I wanted to just totally fuck with it.
TS: You said you got the idea for the play after the election.
WA: Yeah, I had been thinking about a fire pit conservative play for a while, but I decided to act on it once the election happened, and I decided to act on it. It just became clear to me that the most progressive and provocative thing I could possibly do was to take this world really seriously, and to try to find as much clarity within it as possible.
TS: Provocative because you have in mind a certain profile of who the audience is.
WA: Absolutely. Yeah. Totally.
TS: You said once, “People say, who are these people that voted for Trump?” And you said, “Well, I know five of them.”
WA: Yeah. And then within that, the challenge became finding the points of contention amongst them. I have a friend who said that this play is tricky because it’s simultaneously teaching the audience a new language and then assuming that they’re fluent in that language in order to tell a specific story. And yeah, that was really hard. There was a certain kind of theatergoer that I was ready to provoke, but then there were who I would consider my peers, and people in this community who might feel alienated by some of the language in the play, specifically queer people or people of color. And I didn’t want to do quite the same Trojan horse thing to them. And so then for me, the challenge became about really owning my narrative and writing about whiteness in a way that doesn’t happen very often, and letting that be scary and exposed and excavated, and personal.
TS: What was scary about it?
WA: What was scary was that in order to have a conversation about whiteness and white culture onstage in this context with these people who normally wouldn’t be having a conversation using those terms, I had to dig at my own history and my own family’s work and legacy in a way that was a little harrowing. I had to see things in extremes from both sides simultaneously. And I had to believe both of them simultaneously. I had to have Teresa’s claim be as compelling and rooted in real work and thought as possible. And I had to have Gina’s retort be as smart and personal as possible. And it just was a total mindfuck. It still is.
TS: I’ve been thinking of other prominent plays set at night in continuous time: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, for example. A Long Day’s Journey into Night is another one. There are similar components: drinking, confessions, lost inhibitions, fatigue, catharsis. When you think about it, it’s a tricky assignment. The time of the play is contained but the writing of it spans over a longer period. Did the play come out in order? Or did you find pieces of it and orchestrate the continuousness?
WA: Yeah, there’s certainly a skeleton of it that has been there from the beginning. You can trace it through Kevin. His increasing drunkenness and eventual explosion was always the skeleton of it. There was always the meeting of the mentor between Gina and Teresa, and there was always an explosion there as well. It was never as messy and scary as it is now.
TS: So Kevin was the driver.
WA: He was the character that I found most helpful to follow in my experience of time in the play because I could trace it by his body and his drunkenness, if that makes sense.
TS: The standard answer to, “Why is a character drunk in a play?” is that it’s truth serum, because they become less filtered. And it seems to me you exploit that aspect of drunkenness in how Kevin functions. In finding the characters, you said Kevin was a conflation. Can you talk about that?
WA: As I was beginning to write this play, there was a part of me that was drawing on specific people from my life, but there was another part of me that needed certain archetypes from that world. In my head there were two types of young Catholic, conservative men that felt necessary to the conversation. One was the striving, earnest, confused, future-priest type who always wants a girlfriend and doesn’t know quite how to be, but is so sincere and so striving.
TS: Who doesn’t understand why groveling on the ground is not the best way to get a girlfriend.
WA: Yeah. And then there’s the trickster character who gets a kick out of saying profane things in sacred spaces and is secretly very devout, but socially is like a little devil on your shoulder, and has a substance abuse problem, and talks too much about gross sex things. So initially those two characters were separate, and then I decided to combine them into one tornado of a person.
TS: But there’s a plot function to his needling because the sexual history that comes out between Justin and Teresa is very buried. Justin does not act like a person who has had this profane chapter of his life, but Kevin pokes that stuff out into the open. And of course it’s poking itself out in the open as the story between Emily and Justin develops. What are we to think of that? What is actually explicit and what’s implicit on the subject of their relationship and his desires?
WA: For Justin and Emily? It’s clear that they have a special connection and it’s clear that he helps take care of her.
TS: It wasn’t clear to me immediately how much she wants it. Kevin calls Justin out for wanting Emily. And she’ll say things like, “You’d make such a good father,” but then backs away from it. And I think the production has leaned into this unspoken dynamic. But Justin is definitely a big deflector and that’s part of his character. Who’s he based on? Or is he an archetype?
WA: He’s a bit of an archetype. He’s an amalgamation of some real people that I know, too.
TS: Can you just talk about how he functions?
WA: Justin is a convert. He has an ex-wife, he was in the Marines, he was a sharp shooter, he’s killed people, he has tattoos. When Kevin says, “I might love the world,” Justin says, “I’ve been there. I was there for a while… there’s nothing to love, really.” I get the sense that he has pushed as far as he could go into a more selfish — in his terms, hedonistic — life, and had an epiphany and went the totally opposite direction and committed himself to suffering in the name of Christ and being as disciplined as he could in that calling. We’re catching him at a moment where everything that could possibly pull him away from that vocation has converged on this night.
TS: That being, Teresa’s come back.
WA: Yes. And he might still have feelings for her. And Emily seems to want to name something about their relationship on this night. It’s a lot for him.
TS: Teresa is probably the most provocative character in the play. But her first monologue about the Virgin Mary, at least the first part, is actually quite progressive in that purports a very individualistic understanding of human relationships with God.
WA: I don’t know if it’s progressive, but she has developed a theory about the “scandal of the particular,” and rooted it in every Christian heart, as well as the heart of the nation. She’s very provocative. She’s a bit of an iconoclast. In a way, she is the most recognizable character to the audience in that she lives in Brooklyn and wears trendy clothing, and yet she has the most extreme politics of the group. But I think those politics are rooted in a real immersion in progressive politics. She really listens to the other side. She probably reads The New Yorker and Jacobin and gathers her arguments. She informs herself with their views much more rigorously than most liberals research conservative views. But yes, despite all that work, she’s very entrenched in defending conservatism. She is very quick to decide that Emily’s friend who works for Planned Parenthood is not a good person. Liberals do this all the time. That absolutism certainly exists on both sides.
TS: Would you talk about the opening, what you and Danya call the “Doe-logue?’ How Justin’s hands shake and he keeps trying to clean up the blood. I don’t know if you saw that article in The Catholic Herald. He saw it as a reference to Christ’s sacrifice, which hadn’t occurred to me.
WA: I did see that article. It was a beautiful interpretation. People can interpret this haunting beginning however they like. I think Justin’s actions are certainly ritualistic, and it all gives the play a feeling of blood sacrifice. Then we launch into the action.
TS: Would you talk about the “broken generator” sound? We learn it’s not a generator. Do you want the audience to draw their own conclusions about it? I think of it as the sound of a dark spirit, or maybe the coming “war.”
WA: I think those are perfectly wonderful ways to think of it. I don’t want to tell anyone what to think about the generator. But I will say that I’ve always thought of that sound as being connected to the land, and to the grateful acre. Beyond that, I believe in the inexplicable. And I think the noise is very real, whatever it is.
TS: Would you talk about the source of Theresa’s “Fourth Turning” speech? When did you come across it?
WA: In the days after the election, I read a New York Times article about Steve Bannon’s obsession with The Fourth Turning, a pop history book by William Strauss and Neil Howe published in 1997. The book argues that history goes in “generational cycles” — basically a cycle of destruction and reconstruction — and that we’re currently in the “Crisis” period of the cycle. Learning that Bannon was into this theory was big for me. It made me wonder: if you believe that a war’s coming, if your career depends on it, at what point do you start making sure the war really happens?
TS: I love the moment when Teresa talks about the Four Turnings and she skips right over the fourth archetype: “Artist.” What do you think she’s missing?
WA: I think she’s so focused on the crisis, that she hasn’t thought deeply into what comes after it, and how society will rebuild itself.
TS: What is the “Natural Good” that Gina keeps talking about?
WA: It’s more complicated than I can explain here, and it’s the entire thorny bedrock of the ways that serious Catholic intellectuals like my parents square their faith with the American project. It’s a way of thinking about liberty in a republic with Christian roots. Basically, it’s about structuring a society that answers to its people but also to God, while still honoring the separation of Church and State. It’s a way of honoring the promise of freedom in America, while also trying to hang onto the “natural law” ordained by God. So that means no sex before marriage, no birth control, no gay marriage, no abortion. But of course we live in an unfathomably diverse society, and so many people don’t follow the same God or the same rules. So how does someone who believes in this “natural good” operate within society? And I think that’s where education comes in. And think tanks. And conferences. And voting. And education, education, education.
TS: Kevin’s last moment before he leaves the play he talks to Teresa about a dream he has had on a mountain. It’s a mysterious and beautiful speech. Could you unpack it a bit?
WA: Sure. First, I don’t think of it as a dream. It’s a memory. It’s a memory that comes back to him when he’s knocked out. He’s been carrying around this secret for 11 years. And the secret is about a calling to more mystery, more sacraments, to “something true.” And he refused the call. And I don’t think he even realizes it, but he’s started gracefully using the singular pronoun “they,” which he mocked earlier in the play. I wouldn’t call this moment an epiphany. But I’d call it a confession.
TS: Could you talk about Emily’s illness? She talks about looking in the mirror and getting so upset: “Why do I have a body?”
WA: It’s never explicitly named, but Emily suffers from Chronic Lyme disease, which is a controversial disease. She’s been misdiagnosed countless times, and she’s living at home despite wanting to be out in the world working with pregnant women in crisis centers. Her parents have been very patient and supportive, but we’ve caught them at an intense moment. She’s out of bed for the first time in months, but we get the sense that she and her mother have been through a gauntlet together.
TS: How do you think about Emily’s monologue at the end? In your Playwright’s Perspective, you talk about fugue states. It seems like she is embodying or giving voice to “Tiffany” the woman she was doing Pro-Life counseling. Then she starts to reference moments of other characters in the play. What exactly pushes Emily over the edge into this fugue state?
WA: Well, I think the monologue is literally triggered by Justin calling her “buddy.” Earlier in the play, Emily asks him if he’s her buddy and he says, “Looks that way.” But it becomes clear when he tells her he’s going to the monastery that he is not her buddy. At least not in that way. Something has changed. And I think that feeling of being misled is what’s fueling her anger. But there’s so much more going on. She’s been holding onto a strange secret — the fact that she’s fused some of her pain with Tiffany’s, a black woman in Chicago. I think however you want to interpret that final monologue, and there are so many ways to interpret it, it’s clear that Emily has been haunted by that conversation in Chicago. She can’t shake it. It feels bigger than her own body, and yet for some reason she’s located it inside her body. And I think what comes out of her, disturbing as it is — (is she appropriating this woman’s pain? surely she’s not actually being embodied by Tiffany?) — is a testament to the power of her love and her faith and her suffering. Because then you start to hear things that only could be spoken by Emily, words from the night we just witnessed. Was she just raging underneath everything the whole time? I don’t know. Love is ugly. Faith is painful. Joy hurts. I think sometimes you have to erase people, in your heart, in order to feel the sting of how much you don’t want them erased. Your heart screams at the people you love sometimes. It rages against them. And then you come back to them, and you love them, and you move forward. I think Emily is doing this to everyone she’s ever loved, and everyone she doesn’t know but also loves, and she’s doing this to God, and she’s doing this to herself. At the end of all of it, she says, “I’m just me.” She’s just herself. And how lonely is that? But also, look, she’s standing up.