by Sean Williams
In the Trenches with Mac Rogers
This week I was sitting in my kitchen—the kids drawing in permanent marker on the walls nearby—and I was mumbling lines about global warfare. I’m a sometime actor, in addition to being a producer and writer, and I have to say my lines out loud a thousand times or I can’t memorize them. So here I was, with Mac Rogers’s new play Asymmetric in my head, stumbling over the line “Not unlike giving your former boss a temp job” I finally pulled out the script. It wasn’t “temp job,” it was “temp gig.” Got it. Gig.
Mac writes emotionally gripping thrillers, science fiction, horror, and dark comedies. He crafts incredible, often surreal, plot lines that address big themes on a macro level, while simultaneously designing conversational, natural scenes that support these plots. The contrast is unnerving and seductive. His characters are real people—rich and multifaceted, neither good nor bad—who almost always exist in a world that has very little in common with the real world. They sound like regular people, even when Mac hides beautiful little bombs in the text, or when the world around them is literally falling apart.
As I prepare to act in this minefield of a play, I think back to Jason Howard’s performance in Advance Man. I know Jason never thought for a moment, “this is what an alien bug, hiding in human skin, would do upon entering a kitchen.” He had to think, “Connor gets Abbie a drink because Abbie isn’t feeling well and Connor loves him.” Sure, he had to do it as an alien bug, but when you’re acting in a Mac Rogers play, you have to keep your head down and your mind in the game. One false step—one moment of playing the situation instead of the scene—and you reveal that you’re faking it.
I met Mac in the same way that many of his current fans met him: I saw one of his plays and asked if I could buy him a drink. He said yes. He was a 19-year-old college sophomore and I was a fifth year junior, so there wasn’t much point in deciding who would buy the drinks. We spent time as friends far more often than we worked together, although there was always an undercurrent of theater going on around us. My circle of friends were the musical theater and music guys, his circle included the dramatic and straight theater folks (including a tall, pretty girl named Jordana who had no interest in talking to me during our college years but with whom I now share a marriage, life, and kids). Mac and I quickly became somewhat inseparable.
The summer before I left for New York, we produced As You Like It. Mac directed it, I raised the money, and on a lark we named the new company after a character from our Dungeons and Dragons game—a half-elf pathological liar Bard named Gideon. That was in 1996. We got a bunch of local bands from Chapel Hill to donate members. I think it was brass from Squirrel Nut Zippers, the drummer from Archers of Loaf, and the bass player from Sex Police. We turned As You Like It into a three hour long musical with free beer. To tell the truth, I have no memory of the show ever actually ending, so it might still be going on at the Carrboro Arts Center down in North Carolina. The band might still be vamping, waiting for me to enter.
Mac wrote all during this time. Those of us who were in school with him remember the electricity of being in the basement theater where his plays Cause of Thunder and Fraternity and Intifada translated in our minds into thrumming bolts of energy, sustained by some kind of magical alchemical reaction between awe and jealousy, turning a long night’s conversation into weeks of debate. Was he talking about the Clinton Presidency? Was he talking about the state of modern feminism at our school? Was he…was he talking about me?!?!?!
It’s a maddening response to the hat trick of Mac’s writing. He keeps carving off extra bits, shaping and whittling and sanding, until he’s got something just small enough to fit inside anyone’s head. When a character on stage is speaking, you think it’s you. Then the person she’s arguing with says the opposite, and you think that’s you.
It’s not moral relativism. It’s moral absolutism, except that each character has a different compass and each of them thinks their compass points north. This seeming ambiguity leads people to be suspicious about Mac as a person. Some audience members have confessed to me that they imagine he suffers from horrible nightmares and crippled interactions with the world. Which, from my perspective, is hilarious. Mac sleeps like a baby and is one of the most moral people I know. He once told me, in a very off-handed way, “if anyone on the subway is standing, then I’m standing.” In that way, he hasn’t changed at all in 20 years.
The audience conversation hasn’t changed either since those basement theater days. After Gideon’s run of Frankenstein Upstairs last year, everyone at the bar was talking about personhood and gender, about the right to die, and about what constitutes rape. After the run of the Honeycomb two years ago, we got heated comments making parallels to everything from the modern American Indian relationship with our federal government to the Israel-Palestine conflict. And everyone thought Mac was on their side.
So now, we’re doing a play that deals with the history of asymmetric warfare—that is, war between two sides whose military power, strategies, or tactics are significantly unmatched. It’s a play specifically about President Obama’s culpability in this kind of warfare. There are a lot of fine points to argue and large-scale debates to undertake: about loss of life, collateral damage, about David and Goliath. The debate goes on.
But again, none of that can be played onstage moment to moment. When you’re staring down the first rehearsal as an actor, holding the endless-seeming script that becomes the heaviest thing in your bag because you’re responsible for every line, you have to make decisions that clue you into these things. I run the lines over and over. “Not unlike giving your ex-boss a temp job… er… SHIT… temp gig” thinking about the drone program, thinking about our foreign policy, thinking about terrorism and our response. And then it hits me.
The show isn’t about drones. Of course it isn’t. Not for the guy saying these lines.
The line isn’t “temp job,” it’s “temp gig.” There’s a difference between a job and a gig. A job is work. If you have a job at Lincoln Center, that means you hang the lights or clean out the dressing rooms. If you have a gig at Lincoln Center, that means you’re performing.
I start flipping through the pages, scanning the lines. They’re performing. All of them, all the characters—they might be arguing about morality or foreign policy, but they’re performing for each other because they hate some people and love others and they want what they want and they’re fighting, using the tools they have.
Here it is again—it happens every time. I’m one of the guys that Mac has written parts for (a sure sign of his sweet dedication to, and his utter lack of taste in, his friends) and it’s always the same. The audience might talk later about the history of the promised land, or the encroaching threat of global environmental disaster, but I always just thought my character was trying to get his wife to like him and make life easier for his kids. I can’t worry about the giant, epic, world-changing decisions. I have to just say the lines and be honest.
And that’s the curse and the blessing of working with Mac. When you start rehearsals, you’re looking down the barrel of the shotgun, knowing the thing could go off, knowing you will never live up to the incredibly dense world he’s created. But then at some point, you look just up from the barrel and you understand. He didn’t make the gun, the gun is incidental. He made the person holding it. And all you have to do is talk to that person. He’ll take care of the rest.
Asymmetric by Mac Rogers, directed by Jordana Williams and featuring Rob Maitner, Kate Middleton, Seth Shelden and Sean Williams, runs November 14 – December 6 at 59E59 Theaters. For tickets and more info visit 59e59.org.
SEAN WILLIAMS is the executive producer of Gideon Productions, a sometime actor and writer, and stay-at-home dad to two kids.