My introduction to Lisa Kron was in the Five Lesbian Brothers’ The Secretaries at New York Theater Workshop. It was love at first sight—but with the entire group of five women. They were doing politicized theater that was entertaining and substantive…and they were hilarious. I admit I fantasized about being the Sixth Brother. In graduate school, I decided to edit an anthology of female solo performers, and Lisa Kron, who by then was doing 2.5 Minute Ride, was first on my list. Turned out when I called her, she already had a book deal of her own. As did Deb Margolin, as did Marga Gomez. Out went the book idea, but I continued to follow Lisa’s career.
So, when Well was included in the Public Theater’s New Work Now! series, I was there, eagerly, to check it out.
There she was, Lisa Kron the great solo performer, in her new play…but with a bunch of actors. It was a compelling premise, this bi-level play exploring illness and a mother/daughter relationship in an environment in which in real time, the playwright faces a mutiny by her characters. It is an ambitious, and ultimately successful play, and how she transformed herself from a monologist to a multi-character playwright intrigued me. I missed Well’s premiere at The Public, but I caught it last spring at ACT in SanFrancisco. In the interim, I’d become much more familiar with Leigh Silverman as a director, and I became interested in tracking the play’s evolution since that early workshop.
One recent evening, at the Temple Bar in the East Village, I plied Leigh and Lisa with martinis to divine their secrets of collaboration on a project that began as a play about a fictional deceased woman named Mildred, and ended up as Well on Broadway.
Winter Miller (Rail): Let’s begin at the beginning. When you two began collaborating on Well, did you know each other?
Lisa Kron: I wasn’t writing Well. It started with something that I never do—an overall concept that was called The Contents of Mildred’s Purse. That was a good concept for a short play. It could have been a long play, but I can’t really write in that way. I asked Leigh to direct because Leigh is someone I wouldn’t be embarrassed in front of. It was a total mess. So I started to do what I had always done, which was to put together these anecdotes and start to make a play. It was very comfortable working with Leigh, and again, I felt like I was going to make a mess, and I felt like I could do that in front of Leigh… I didn’t know very much about her as a director.
Rail: How early in the process did you start making a mess with her?
Kron: Well, immediately.
Rail: So you had one anecdote and you said, “Here’s a mess, let’s see what happens?”
Kron: I had a bunch of writing. TCG asked me if I wanted to do a workshop of it, and I said yes, and asked Leigh to do it. Ten days before I was supposed to go [to Long Wharf], I called up John Dias [then dramaturg at the Public Theater] and said “I’m starting to have this feeling that there are going to be other people in this play. I actually feel like I’m in trouble, because I’m just now changing and I don’t know what to do!”
Leigh Silverman: Lisa, John and I worked alone, and then we hired this cast of people, rehearsed for three or four days, and we did it. Many of the scenes that Lisa had told the stories of, we tried to theatricalize. There was a moment where everyone said, “Wow, Lisa, this was really ambitious of you to write this play that has other people, but you’re just this amazing solo performer, and that’s really what you should stick to.”
Kron: They said, “Onstage, we just want to hear you do your thing, we don’t want to watch other actors.”
Silverman: After Long Wharf, John, Lisa and I were sitting in this restaurant, talking about whether it was a solo piece or whether it was a piece with other people, and I remember we were saying to each other, “Whatever it is, it just seems crazy to decide to abort it all after three days of rehearsal with other people, and it may be unfulfilled yet, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to be better down the road.” And so that sort of began—
Kron: The journey.
Silverman: So much of our collaboration over the years of development had to do with figuring out what should be stories that Lisa tells and what are the things that should be theatricalized.
Kron: Most important to me is a collaborator who doesn’t say, “This works, let’s leave it how it is,” but says, “Actually, this could be bigger, actually there’s more to be had from this.” That’s a way of working that Leigh and I share—that feeling of “This could be bigger, funnier, deeper—sometimes faster—but there’s more here.” Because I didn’t learn playwriting in any traditional way, and because I came from this performance world, and because what I did was something that’s inherently not theatrical, I’ve been really interested in: what is dramatic action? That is very mysterious. You can describe it, but what it really is is very mysterious, and then there are degrees of it. That’s also the basis of our collaboration, the total shared understanding of how far you have to go to fully employ what that is.
Rail: When you say, “not inherently theatrical,” what exactly do you mean? Are you talking about casually telling an anecdote?
Kron: Nothing happens when you tell a story. You’re recounting something that happened in the past. That thing happened, so there was action, but it’s not happening now, so it’s not engaging.
Rail: You’re saying, “How do you make the past the present?”
Kron: Theater is a very specific thing, and dramatic action is a very specific thing, and the audience gets to see a person moving through situations, and see things that they don’t see. That’s the experience of a play, right? You’re watching somebody, and they’re thinking that they’re going this way, but the audience sees that this is coming this way.
Rail: But in a solo show, it’s hard to do that, where does all of that come in?
Silverman: Right. In most traditional solo shows, you have someone telling you this story about a near-death experience, when you know how that story turned out because that person’s standing right there. What Lisa does so much in her work is she tells you about the near-death experience, but then actually imposes into the event of storytelling a near-death experience, so that there’s no sense that she’s safe even though she’s telling you the story. For Lisa, it’s so clear for her to know what’s working and what’s not working because she has to perform it, she has to be onstage with it. Very rarely do I say, “This is working,” and she says, “This isn’t working,” or vice versa. That’s the subtext of our collaboration, it’s just, “Okay, what do we do now to fix it?” Because Lisa is performing the work, it puts her inside the material in a way that I feel like a lot of the writers I work with don’t have that experience, and it’s really thrilling.
Rail: Is there sometimes a block—where you can’t express what it is you’re going for, and you’re shut out because it’s her text and she’s the actor?
Silverman: We had this experience really early on at the Public, when Lisa was so busy rewriting in her head all the time, I was desperately trying to appeal to the actor part of her to just play the scene and to make things work in the way that all actors have to make things work even if they’re not perfect or they don’t make the most sense. Lisa’s too uncompromising to take that hat off and just say, “I’m going to make this work as an actor,” because instead she was there saying, “This could be better” and “How could this be better?” So that when she was onstage, in those moments you could see her rewriting in her head. It’s been extraordinary—now that the play is in such a solid, good place—to see the other part of Lisa, which is not only the incredible writing part, but the amazing performance part… Now we get to work much more as actor and director.
Kron: It’s also about trust over time… I had never opened a show in New York, there was a lot of pressure for all of us, and there was also a part of me that felt like I couldn’t just give over and do the acting part of it, because I was skeptical.
Rail: Of Leigh, or of the play?
Kron: I wasn’t skeptical of Leigh, I just didn’t know. So I felt like I needed to stand outside it and make sure what she was doing was what I felt like she needed to do.
Rail: Was that frustrating for you, Leigh, in a way of wanting something from Lisa that you obviously knew was in there?
Silverman: If she was sitting next to me in the theater watching the play we would be having a constant discourse about it, but because she was up onstage having to do it, the relationship just had to evolve in a natural progression. And I think so much of who we choose to work with and why we choose to work with them is instinctual, and I think that she instinctually thought it was the right thing, but there was no proof to say this was going to be the best situation for her.
Kron: I think people need to be directed in their solo work. I can say it best in terms of designers. I always feel like you know your collaborator, when the person comes to you and shows you the costume design, and you say, “I never would have thought of that, and it’s perfect.”
Rail: Have you seen a growth or a difference in Lisa the actor?
Silverman: Oh, tremendous. Lisa is present onstage in a way that she couldn’t be before. And it makes all the difference: she’s open, she’s clear, she makes really great choices. In some ways a lot of the burden is off because we know what we have, and we’re just trying in some ways not to fuck it up and in other ways to improve upon the things that have needed to be improved upon. [At the Public] I was really worried—and I think this was a big part of Lisa’s skepticism—that the show needs to be so carefully calibrated in terms of the more that Well falls apart, the more it comes together. There are a lot of really tricky stylistic elements. There are so many different performance styles within it; there’s an intended play, there’s the other play, these different elements that have to be woven together, and we had a lot of concern about whether [the audience] would get it, would it land, and would it all come together? We didn’t have an ending for the play, really, until the first night of press.
Kron: There’s a way in which Leigh knows the play much more deeply than I do at this point. People are like, “Is the play going to be done without you or Jane?” And I always say, “Jane and I aren’t the problem. It’s the director that’s the issue.” Leigh has an unbelievably sophisticated understanding of the way the play works—she’s communicating to the audience in all these intense ways all the time: in terms of her staging, in terms of the design choices, in terms of subtle things in terms of what she gives the actors to do, and the way the style and the relationship with the audience shifts throughout the play. None of those things are things that I would think of in terms of writing.
Rail: Do you have an inclination or have you already done so, of safeguarding those intentions that you have created together or that Leigh puts forth so that if this play is done in fifty years and you guys aren’t around doing it—
Kron: We can talk about it, because it’s being published. We’re trying to put in enough indications so that it’s possible for someone else to do it. There’s just no way anybody could copy what Leigh has done. It’s so incredible, I can’t even stand how sophisticated it is, and how multi-layered it is… There’s a scene where one of the characters in the hospital starts to—I mean what happens in the scene is that I come back in and she’s gone over to talk to my mother—the actress has—and then she comes back in and she’s in the scene as herself, and I’m totally pissed at her, and so we play the scene but I’m really angry at her, and then she’s all vulnerable because she’s just had this revelatory encounter with this character of my mother. And that was Leigh’s discovery in rehearsal, that was Leigh’s contribution, it wasn’t what I wrote into the play.
Silverman: Right, but the play wouldn’t work without that, you know, that is the way the play progresses, so that now is in the script.
Rail: You talk about a play within a play—there’s a mutiny, and there’s an emotional play that may be at odds with the play that we’re hearing.
Rail: And in exactly the example you cite, how would you convey that to whomever might follow you years down the road: “By the way, pay attention to the fact that there’s a layer here that is—”
Silverman: The whole play functions that way. Lisa walks out, and the first line of the play is, “This play is not about my mother and me,” and in that moment she is communicating both that it is not about her and her mother, and is entirely about her and her mother. I think everything about the play stems from the ability Lisa has to say one thing and communicate an entirely different thing, and to do it in a way that doesn’t feel conflicted, but that feels intentional. It isn’t like, “I’m making this up,” but it’s, “I believe this to be true, and you know that it is false, and I know that you know that it is false.” Everything in the play stems from Lisa’s performance style, so when you talk about this whole other layer, this sort of sub-terrainian level… I think we’ve had the attitude that, over the years as people have read the play, they should be able to get it off the page. What has become really clear is that actually you can’t get it.
Rail: So is that written into your introduction?
Kron: I talk in the introduction about how Well is a combination of those things. Because I feel in terms of just general narrative, at this point in time, you can go to the movies and watch TV for that. What makes people go the theatre? How do you make people sit up and say, “Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh! It’s now! It’s right here and it’s right now! And it’s us!”? And it’s not like, “Okay, blah blah blah I’m eating my popcorn, this is going to happen again tomorrow night or in three hours.” This is, “Uh-oh! Uh-oh! Uh-oh! Uh-oh! Something’s happening!” And it’s how you put those two things together.
Rail: I know it’s the last thing you’re thinking about right now probably, but, do you envision building something together again in the future?
Silverman: Fuck no! Pause. Yep.
Rail: Do you think that given the language you’ve created, this shorthand, do you think you could start with something like The Contents of Mildred’s Purse and take it from there?
Kron: We definitely have a trust and a collaborative language… but I think the thing that bites your ass is you always have to start at the bottom, you know, you always have to make the mess. There’s just no way around that. And that’s true for anybody. And certainly for anybody that’s interested in doing good work over time, you can’t base anything on what you did before. If you want to do work that continues to matter, you have to be willing to do bad work, because you can’t do good work without being willing to do bad work.
Lisa Kron has been writing and performing since moving to New York from Michigan in 1984. Her play, Well, can be seen from now until people stop buying tickets at the Longacre Theater. She is also a founding member of The Five Lesbian Brothers theater company.
Leigh Silverman directed the world premiere of Well at the Public Theatre, a subsequent production at ACT and now the Broadway premiere. She has also directed at New York Theatre Workshop, Second Stage Theatre, Women’s Project, Rattlestick Theater on London’s West End and regionally at The Cleveland Playhouse and the Woolly Mammoth Theatre among others.
Winter Miller's musical Amandine debuted at the Cherry Lane in January 2013. A founding member of the Obie-winning playwriting collective 13P, her plays include In Darfur, The Penetration Play, The Arrival and Paternity.